After a killer wave of hardware innovation, it’s now been well over a year since a major video-game console launched—and we’re likely several years from a PlayStation 4, Xbox 720 or Wii 2.0. If last week’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco is any indication, gaming geeks have become squarely focused on building the next killer app. And that truly next-gen software will be no small feat, considering the industry is still coming down from last fall’s introduction of Halo 3—an event a deadpan Microsoft VP Peter Moore called "the biggest day in entertainment history" and "this generation’s Star Wars.”
Which begs the questions: Is it possible to follow up the most-hyped video-game launch ever, without producing the Phantom Menace of the gaming world? Is there a cure for the Halo hangover in the not-too-distant future of nerddom?
“Well, I don’t know if anyone—let alone Microsoft—can do it. What could they do, Halo 4?” says Billy Pidgeon, gaming market research manager for the research firm IDC. “I don’t really see another title generating that level of interest with consumers.”
Still, as console prices continue to drop, they’ll be arriving in more living rooms, which should cause more games to rocket off shelves. That’s why most analysts and developers I've spoken with recently expect 2008 to be a fairly solid year for software, even without a glut of big-budget franchise anchors.
That’s not to say there aren’t any massive games coming soon. Chief amongst them is Spore, the much delayed but just-announced title from Sims creator Will Wright, in which players control a shepherd over a species from the amoebic to the galactic. The so-called god game has been promised for so long (it’s been in development since 2000), and Wright’s track record has been so impressive that expectations have been impossibly high. But early glimpses hint that Spore could prove truly groundbreaking in its scope and depth when it comes out this September.
Even if the game isn’t a huge commercial hit, the general impression I’ve received from industry insiders is that it could be that rare title that’s innovative enough to push the entire industry in a new direction. For example, while the audio and visual elements that fill most games are virtually all created using a preprogrammed library of elements, Spore will rely largely on a programming tactic known as "procedural generation." Like a word processor’s text-to-speech software “reading” your text to create audio on the fly, the Spore engine will produce many of its elements from scratch as players run into new situations. This process is rare in computer programs—and especially in games—but it should allow for open-ended gameplay that pushes the limits of unpredictability. And if the programming works well, there's no reason to believe procedural generation couldn’t produce a flood of new titles.
Still, Spore is no Halo 4, and gamers looking for more rapid-fire gunplay will likely have to wait until November for the successor to Gears of War, another incredibly successful Xbox 360 shooter. “To our team the original game was just a tease, the appetizer to the Gears of War characters and new style of gameplay,” says Epic Games lead designer Cliff Bleszinski.
Still, with landmark franchises on hold for many months (the notable exception is April's release of Grand Theft Auto 4), there is suddenly a rare opportunity for video-game developers to take real risks—the kind not usually afforded in an industry blending couch-potato entertainment with hard-core tech. So much rides on the big titles that, unless you’ve got Will Wright’s reputation, it’s difficult to get inventive titles on shelves. With the new plateau comes the chance for smaller developers to try new things without being completely overshadowed by the big boys. Let’s just hope they take advantage of it.
Peter Suciu has covered video games for more than 15 years for Newsweek, Wired, Electronic Gaming Monthly and several gaming blogs.