The ever-growing demand for insanely realistic graphics is something game developers and publishers cannot ignore. Satisfying that demand while improving game mechanics and scope is also completely unrealistic. Working to satisfy that demand may just be the undoing of the next generation of consoles.
When I first read the specs on the Wii, my initial response was exasperation. I came up through the video game ranks as a Nintendo fanboy. I was a hater of all things Sega back in the late 80s and early 90s just as many gamers argue over Sony and Microsoft today. Even with all that history, the Wii was the final move that made me stop supporting Nintendo. I couldn't accept Nintendo dropping a system inferior to what Sony and Microsoft were advertising. Especially when they had almost completely let me down with the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube. At this point, it should go without saying that the NES and SNES are my favorite consoles of all time.
As I was planning my jump into the current generation, I'd heard the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was going to Xbox 360. That was the decision trigger for me. I came to the 360 party about seven months late. As a huge fan of Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, I felt 360 was the safest bet for finding games I'd truly enjoy. I did, however, have some reservations about the potential lack of support from Japanese developers–especially since RPGs were my favorite genre.
While the 360 did manage to drop a few seriously dope games (Tales of Vesperia, Star Ocean: The Last Hope, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Shadow Complex), I began to notice problematic trends in most of the games I was playing. The push toward more realistic visuals seemed to coincide with an increase in:
Longer load times
Lag between command entry and on-screen execution
Game breaking bugs
Quick Time Events
More game watching and less game playing
Now, rumors about the next generation of consoles abound. With all the talk about horsepower, storage capacity and graphical improvements, I can only seem to focus on the fact that those improvements may exacerbate the issues listed above. Why? Because graphics will probably still be the main priority for developers and publishers when it comes to a large percentage of the games they produce. Think about the load times in the Mass Effect series and The Witcher 2 on 360, or how long it takes to load an online match in Battlefield 3. Think about how linear and short Gears of War was. How many times did Oblivion lock up on you, forcing you to reload a previous save (especially if you played on PS3)? I believe that the abundance of these issues are the direct result of developers making graphics too high a priority.
The Wii didn't follow the trend set by Sony and Microsoft. And while software sales did suffer, Wii still managed to be the top selling, non portable console of this generation. Think about that. When I saw the specs for the Wii, I immediately believed that Nintendo was destined to become the next Sega–A former console maker turned third-party developer and publisher. Somehow, Nintendo managed to put out a less capable device and were able to dominate the market in terms of console sales. Also, consider that the Nintendo DS is the second best selling console of all time. How are these technologically inferior devices able to crush their competitors in this market. My theory:
Focusing on the gaming experience versus the facade
Nintendo's entire marketing campaign for the Wii was about the joy people experience playing games. They then tied this experience into everyday life activities like fitness and captured an entire demographic of people who had never considered playing video games before. People like my 50+ year-old company Vice President. Not once do I remember Nintendo showcasing an overblown CGI trailer for the next awesome blockbuster title (not to mention a trailer that actually had absolutely nothing to do with the game *Looks at Bioware and Epic*).
Nintendo never forgot that we love playing games… And I wholeheartedly believe that's why their console murdered Sony and Microsoft in sales this generation. Unfortunately, I also believe the move away from better tech is why they've struggled to win third-party development. Who wants a crappy-looking version of Madden 47 when they can get the hyper realistic-looking Madden on PS3 or 360 (and wait 3 minutes for the game to load at the title screen).
So what if Microsoft or Sony decided to swaggerjack Nintendo's style? What if – for this next generation – they built a machine less tailored to deliver interactive movies and one that was designed to give us sprawling, wide-open adventures? Consider playing the Mass Effect series without the heinous loading screens and with artificial intelligence teammates that aren't retarded. What if Final Fantasy brought back the world map and actually let us explore the world on foot and via airship? Imagine an Elder Scrolls without broken quests or bugs that cause the game to lock up unexpectedly.
What if we lived in a world where the majority of game trailers actually showed how much fun the game is to play instead of how awesome the graphics are?
Numbers don't lie. Sony and Microsoft have the power to help us avoid the rush to the inevitable shift from gaming to interactive movie-ing. If you can bring us the best of both worlds with visuals and unencumbered gameplay, then great. But I'm not convinced that doing so is consistently economically possible for most developers and publishers. And I will not put up with excessive load times, bugged out games or RPGs that grant limited – if any – exploration in the next era just so Robert Griffin III looks more realistic on my Redskins team in Madden 14.