When Microsoft’s J Allard told developers the Xbox 360 would ship with half a gig of RAM, they whooped and cheered. It meant more headroom for high polygon counts, detailed textures, and bigger levels. But when publishers looked at the resulting development budgets of $15 or $20 million to pay all those additional programmers and artists, they flipped out.

Three years ago, persuading a publisher to sink $5 million into a non-franchise title was an uphill battle; now that same game could cost five times as much, but units sold and retail prices haven’t risen accordingly. Only a half-dozen or so games per year break into the world of multi-million unit shifters. Just as in Hollywood, a small number of tent poles support all the projects that fail. When EA wanted to make games more like the movies, this is not what they had in mind.

Welcome to the future of gaming.

Three years ago, I flew to Montreal and knocked on the door of an office I’d never seen before. After I was inside, a technician put little sticky, colored dots all over me and took digital photographs of my front, back, sides, hands, and head. Some men typed on keyboards. A few minutes later, there it was: a complete 3D model of me from head to toe, with photographic color textures already applied. There were plenty of glitches, but the result was nonetheless amazing. A full-body, high-resolution scan, geometry and texture, ready for cleanup and use in a game. It wasn’t even one of those whirring, revolving laser things. They just took pictures, connected the sticky dots across the images, and the software interpolated my entire form. For a couple grand, I was my own avatar.

It was the summer of 2002, and we’d all seen the early screenshots from Doom 3. The world got its first big look at normal mapping, a technology where you start with a high-polygon model, generate lighting data, and then apply that lighting data to the in-game low-polygon model. The result is me, right there on the screen: a two-thousand-polygon playable character that looks almost indistinguishable from the two-million-polygon original. It’s the kind of innovation that happens when you only have 64MB of video RAM. The developers I worked for engineered their own normal mapping code, from pipeline to playback, and I was their guinea pig. When I saw myself looking back from the screen in our game engine, photo-realistic and dressed exactly as I’d been that day in Montreal, I thought I was looking into the future.

Two years later, the future arrived. Doom 3, Half-Life 2, Halo 2, and more. Characters were lifelike, environments were vivid, lighting was dramatic. Compared to the games of 2002, it was a quantum leap in technology, a real moment of future frisson.

And the games – well, they were okay.

That’s not an easy sentence to write. But “okay” is about where they ended up. Doom 3? Some nice intensity, a lot of zombies in closets, and one measly design innovation: in the dark you could shoot or you could see, but you couldn’t do both at the same time. (Most gamers hated that.) Half-Life 2? Amazing characters, impressive production, and the most tiresome and annoying physics-based jumping puzzles ever conceived. (Valve never got the memo that jumping puzzle + FPS = misery.) Halo 2? Plenty of two-gun fun, but no ending, and embarrassing cut-scene glitches.

If years of effort by some of the best developers in the business can result in a beautifully normal-mapped shrug, it’s time to rethink this future business. Because now that we’ve seen it, maybe we were better off in 2002 – once upon a time, when we were profitable.

Last year also brought us a game that you probably didn’t play. I don’t blame you. It had a terrible title, little hype, and unremarkable sales. Yet in a year that brought us Doom 3, Half-Life 2, and Halo 2, I had the most straight-up fun with Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy.

No, really.

Psi-Ops had its own Exciting Technology in the form of the Havok physics engine. If you don’t know what Havok is, cast your mind back to the summer of 2002, when videogame characters who died on stairs would project outward from the particular step on which they fell, hovering in midair, because their death animations ended with them flat on the (virtual) ground. Thanks to Havok, those same characters now sprawl on the stairs in a heap because Havok’s physics code can let them actually fall, strike the ground, and lose momentum.

Havok is one of those Next Big Things that actually does get a lot of use. Valve couldn’t shut up about it, trumpeting their physics-based gameplay in Half-Life 2, which actually consisted of operating cargo cranes and falling repeatedly off of wooden palettes into toxic sludge. Max Payne 2 was all about the Havok, insofar as when you ran through a level, constantly sliding along the furniture (like you do in every game), all the chairs, bottles, dishes, and cigarette packs hopped like Mexican jumping beans. Poor Max Payne, Drunken Sailor for Hire, couldn’t get through a single room without knocking the furniture over. If this happened in Splinter Cell, Sam Fisher would be the noisiest spy in the business.

By the time Half-Life 2 finally made it to stores, its Havok thunder had been stolen by a kick-line of physics-ridden games. We’d seen it on display in Far Cry and Max, and even in two consecutive psychic-power games where you could pull a Yoda and make your luggage levitate. One was the so-so Second Sight, and the other was that obscure title from Midway called Psi-Ops.

Psi-Ops is where Havok found its home. Havok gave Psi-Ops the muscle it needed to become the most entertaining game I played in 2004.

That’s qualified praise. Not even I, the best friend Psi-Ops ever had in the media, am willing to say it’s the best game of 2004. Setting aside the cheesy title, there’s a pointless storyline, a confusing game-save UI, and some lackluster level design. If you rented it for a weekend and gave it a couple hours, you’d probably be justified in handing it back to the clerk at Blockbuster without a second thought. But give it a few more hours, unlocking more psychic powers, and Psi-Ops hits its stride. And then you’ll have more fun than you did in Doom 3, Half-Life 2, or Halo 2.

Let me paint you a picture. You jump on a crate – yes, there are crates – and you look down. (It’s a third-person game.) You target the crate you’re standing on and levitate it. Now you’re flying, driving the crate you’re standing on, shooting at people as you do so. With practice, you can levitate a crate directly in front of you as you charge into a room, protecting you from incoming fire. But why stop there? You can set a guy on fire with your mind, then levitate the burning, screaming man and hurl him off a catwalk and into a combustible barrel – yes, there are combustible barrels – where his burning body detonates it, catching three more guys on fire. Then while they’re burning and screaming, you pick them up and throw them off a cliff. Two left? Just possess one and use his body to shoot the other. One left? Sneak up behind him and suck his soul until his brain pops out of his head and gives you a power boost. Closed door? Astral-walk through it and see who’s waiting in ambush, then turn the tables on them with one of their burning, screaming friends flying around the corner.

Satisfying. So satisfying.

Psi-Ops is a smorgasbord of every goofy psychic power you’ve ever heard of, and the levels are just excuses for you to plunder your mental toolbox to come up with cool, creative solutions to tactical problems. They give you the Swiss army knife and turn you loose.

The level with the missile silos? I played that same level for two hours straight. I could have finished it in a quarter of that time, but I stuck around because I was having so much fun. The bad guys kept re-spawning, and I kept coming up with new and exciting combinations of pyro-kinesis, telekinesis, brains-popping-out- of-their-skull-kinesis, and a dandy assortment of firearms. I really couldn’t get enough of this gameplay, and every situation was worth waiting for a re-spawn just to do it again, differently. There’s even stealth, for Pete’s sake.

Typically, a developer starts with a laundry list of features and a fat stack of content ideas. As they go, they get hung up on the content (“we gotta have twenty levels”) and start cutting features. Psi-Ops is the opposite: they put in every single feature they possibly could, and then let the levels shuffle halfheartedly into existence. But it doesn’t matter, because the feature set provides so much gameplay and exploration that the levels are just sandboxes.

Titles like Psi-Ops should be the real future of gaming. The developers’ great innovation had little to do with technology; Havok was already standard operating procedure by the time they got their mitts on it. What made Psi-Ops the most entertaining game of 2004 was its design, the real sense of play that comes when someone gives you a sandbox and a sack of toys and says, “Have fun!” When I played Psi-Ops, I did.

That day in Montreal, I saw myself converted from flesh to bits in a matter of minutes, the kind of Tron moment we’ll all have someday, so that when our brains pop out of our skulls we can just download them again. But the hours I spent playing Psi-Ops made it clear where game developers should really put their dreams. The game’s the thing, and no normal-mapping, HDR-lighting, virtual-reality foofarah is ever going to change that.

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