Ask any game developer what sort of feature that the title in question includes, chances are the first thing they mention is the “next gen” graphics, or physics, etc; Of course, it has not taken long for people to start to ask whether features can be next gen or not. After all, all three platforms have been out for over a year. Speaking of which, what about the Wii? Is it truly a “new gen” console? What is “next gen”? What is “new gen”? These questions and more will be answered after the jump.
First order of business: why are we still using the term “next gen”? I believe that there are a few reasons for this. First, thanks to Sony’s PlayStation 2, there has been an unusual amount of overlap between the two generations. Even though the original PlayStation’s production did continue until 2006, the PlayStation 2 was relatively quick to replace it, largely due to the appeal of backwards compatibility. In this generation however, the PlayStation 2 was not replaced by the PlayStation 3 and has managed to hold its position as a current console.
This is not the only way the line separating these two generations is blurred. Looking at many past generations will show that there has often been a much larger divide between two generations. The Nintendo 64 had 3D gameplay compared to the Super Nintendo’s 2D system. Even though the SNES technically did have 3D,it was extremely rudimentary and is not comparable to the N64’s technology. Then lets look at the Fifth and Sixth generations. The graphical leap between the original PlayStation and the PlayStation 2 was immense. Now, I am not saying that there is not a big difference between last generation consoles and the graphical fidelity of today’s HD consoles, but I do not believe that graphics are the next generation feature that the seventh generation consoles (PS3, 360, and technically Wii though, it can’t do HD) have to offer. It is a feature just not the feature that differentiates them from their predecessors. I will expand on this later.
For the average consumer, this simply means that the PlayStation 2 is an old console, where as the Xbox 360, PS3, and depending on whom you talk to, the Wii are new consoles. Naturally, it makes more sense to associate an old console as being “last gen” and new consoles as “next gen”.
So where does this leave Nintendo? They have said that they are focusing on a “new generation” of game console, instead of the conventional approach of upgrading the hardware. Nintendo took an unprecedented step back in hardware power for a new platform, and as a result, blurred the line even more between what is considered old and what is new. This creates more of a need to distinguish between next generation hardware and past generation quality hardware.
This is why the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 likely be considered next gen consoles until replaced by their own successors.
What is it that makes them next gen? Many people are confused with this. In the end, a console’s power is not what separates it from its predecessor, or at least not entirely. As I pointed out before, each generation has had something that made it something entirely new, whether it is graphical prowess, or an entire new game mechanic. As if the seventh generation wasn’t confusing enough, it has several new elements that makes it unique. I already touched upon how High Definition is not what this generation will be about when all is said and done. Another feature that is being taking advantage of in this generation is online feature. Once again, while what online is being used is very innovative; it is not the distinguishing feature.
The power behind the next gen consoles opens up for far more innovative content than just good graphics. One thing that has been generally overlooked is interaction. For the first time, dynamic interaction with environments and characters can be fully realized. Assassin’s Creed was based on this idea. Grand Theft Auto 4 will also make use of Natural-Motion physics technology. In the end, this is what next gen is about. Graphics are almost at the saturation point. The next step is the slow death of animations and replacing them with technologies such as Natural-Motion, procedurally generated animations, etc. In the end, that is what makes a game truly next gen, and not simply a high-res version of a last generation game. High-definition and online are definitely a part of it. But going from Star Wars: Jedi Academy to Star Wars: Force Unleashed is a proper generation leap in the same way that going from Super Mario Bros. 3 to Super Mario 64 was. Not that this is exclusive to physics. Dynamic interaction is not exclusive to physics or even physical interaction. Fable 2 is the perfect example of the side of dynamic interaction, where a player’s actions have significant, analogue, influence on the game’s world. Another example is Spore, which uses both dynamic worlds and procedural generation at the very core of its gameplay.
The seventh generation of consoles is not just about HD or online features. The real innovation is that developers are using the power of the consoles to make the game obey real world laws and properties, rather than just simulate them on a situational level.