On February 20, 2013, Sony invited the world to take a look at the future of gaming and the worst kept secret in modern entertainment since Solid Snake told all his buddies about the time Otacon wet himself: the PlayStation 4.
With the Share button and social media innovations of the PlayStation 4 being brought to the forefront in the media frenzy following the unveil, innovations from previous console generations come to mind. These were innovations that weren’t strictly graphical improvements or increased memory, but rather those we may now take for granted that ultimately changed gaming for the better.
The early consoles, going back as far as the Magnavox Odyssey, were hugely innovative in the sense that they allowed people to take the experiences they had enjoyed in arcades into their own homes. As the medium of video games grew in popularity, so did consoles begin to see improvements such as more ergonomic controllers, graphical enhancements, and a broader range of games.
In the late 70s and early 80s, video games began to grab the public’s attention and became even more accessible with the NES’ release in 1983, a console that went on to sell over 60 million units to date. While the limitations of a cartridge are obvious, the cartridge itself still represents some remarkably innovative technology, providing better durability than today’s disc-based formats, the ability to save data within the cartridge itself, and non-existent load times.
The cartridge era’s glory years continued through the Master System, Mega Drive, and SNES, up until the early 90s when the Sega CD was first released in Japan to a widespread reaction of “meh.” In 1994, Sony released the PlayStation, which signaled the slow death of the cartridge. The huge amount of memory this format provided allowed developers a great deal more scope when looking to create innovative and deep gameplay experiences.
Of course, the reign of the cartridge was not yet entirely over, with the N64 extending the lifespan of the format slightly in 1996. The ability to have four players sit around the same console playing together without the need for a Multitap-type device sticks out as a major innovation for the Nintendo 64. This opened the door for great franchises such as Super Smash Bros. and Mario Party to get gamers together around a television and create memories together. This change set the precedent for generations to come, with every major console since offering four player local play as standard. However, the less said about the N64′s abomination of a controller, the better.
As the turn of the millennium came, the PlayStation 2 arrived. At this point, video games had earned themselves a place in the center of the public eye and were now widely considered a serious entertainment medium, with gritty titles such as Max Payne and the Grand Theft Auto series lending credibility to the industry. With the inclusion of a DVD player, the PlayStation 2 ensured the console had a permanent place in the living room. This simple addition paved the way for consoles to be considered not only gaming platforms but also entertainment hubs, with applications such as Netflix, Hulu, and NBA Season Pass now featured prominently on current consoles.
The PS2 was followed one year later by the Xbox, Microsoft’s first foray into the video game console market, which also came with some impressive innovations.
While the Dreamcast (viewed by many as ahead of its time) pioneered online console gameplay, the Xbox improved upon it with an impressive stable of games led by the Halo franchise and an easy to use, functional service called Xbox Live. To many modern gamers, the idea of console games and online gameplay go hand-in-hand, with franchises like Call of Duty and Battlefield focused nearly entirely on multiplayer. The addition of multiplayer improved the lifespan of games exponentially, turning a 10-hour campaign into a 100+ hour adventure across several modes.
In addition, arguably the single most double-edged innovation of modern video gaming came with the Xbox: the ability to store game saves on the console’s internal hard drive. No longer would gamers have to consider the additional price tag of a memory card when purchasing a console or if there was enough space available before fired up a title. However, if you intended on visiting a friend and showing off your impressive save file on that JPRG you had been playing for the last 753 hours, forget about it. Memory cards were available, but the fact that storage was built directly into consoles meant that fewer people made the purchase.
We now come to the current generation of video gaming. This generation of video games did not just provide a step forward, but rather a Mario-esque triple jump and flip forward.
Microsoft was the first to release their newest platform, the groundbreaking Xbox 360, a move that proved wise over the next few years. The PlayStation 3 and the Wii followed a year later in 2006. The Nintendo Wii stood out above the rest in the innovation department with its focus on motion controls, but it ultimately failed to grasp the imagination of third party developers and hardcore gamers alike. As a result, sales fizzled late in its lifecycle, causing Nintendo to rush to the next generation a year early with Wii U.
Microsoft and Sony, however, both surged on. Online services continued to massively improve, with the focus of many games shifting from single player to multiplayer. In previous generations, games such as Left 4 Dead 2 would have been strictly a PC gaming experience, but with the increased uptake of online services, console owners also had the opportunity to bask in the warm glow of the Spitter’s goo.
By charging a modest subscription fee, arguably an important innovation in its own right, Microsoft has been able to offer what is widely accepted as the superior online console service. It’s easy-to-negotiate interface allows gamers to navigate such features as the deep Xbox Live marketplace as well as an additional space that, for the first time on consoles, has allowed indie game developers to showcase their work. With a press of the central Xbox home button, players can quickly and easily invite friends to join or form a party to play online, making Xbox Live the most seamless online gaming experience on current consoles.
Perhaps the shrewdest move made by Microsoft was the decision to include a headset and integrated microphone with every purchase of their console. This allowed new gamers to quickly go online with minimal effort. The inclusion of the microphone invited people to socialize while playing, and with over 40 million Gold members, it’s clear that Xbox Live has become the console gamer’s choice for online play.
Both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 also managed to provide a substantial increase in the amounts of storage on their hard drives. This, paired with the aforementioned online improvements, opened the door once again to increasing the lifespan of games. With the purchase of additional content and a platform for developers to release games directly onto consoles, this cut out the middle man and allowed a bigger slice of the cake to go directly to developers and smaller indie outfits.
One of the more recent console innovations comes in the form of the PlayStation Plus service, a subscription-based package allowing benefits such as early access to beta tests, exclusive content, and even a collection of complete retail games including AAA titles such as inFAMOUS 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Sleeping Dogs. The low price and varied selection of quality titles has proven to be a noteworthy success, turning the fortunes of PlayStation Plus on its head, with many experts expecting to see similar concepts arriving soon on rival consoles.
Now, Nintendo was the first of the big players to make a move into the next generation of console gaming with the Wii U. As previously mentioned, Nintendo’s last console upped the innovation stakes, opening gaming up to previously-overlooked demographics with the implementation of simple gameplay mechanics, quirky peripherals, and clever marketing campaigns. Many did not know what to expect with the Wii U, and it has since received a mixed reception.
While previous consoles have attempted to use a secondary screen such as the Sega Dreamcast with its VMU, the Wii U delivers full game console experiences on a 6.2 inch screen within the GamePad controller. This works while the Wii U console remains active doing the majority of the heavy lifting, while the GamePad acts as both a second screen and a controller. The GamePad also utilizes an accelerometer and gyroscope for motion controls, as well as NFC technology that allows the GamePad to read information from specialist cards such as credit cards without any additional input. While this feature has yet to be exploited by developers, the possibilities are intriguing, especially considering the recent success of such titles as the Skylander franchise by Activision and the upcoming Disney Infinity.
From the February 20th reveal, it has been made quite clear that one of Sony’s key mantras for the PS4 is the social element of gaming. The share button directly on the controller will allow gamers access to limitless game footage from walkthroughs to hints and tips. In addition, with Twitter and Facebook now as much a part of daily life as brushing one’s teeth, social media will inevitably have a key role to play in the future of gaming. I foresee celebrities and developers with accounts accessible to the public so you can see what they’ve been up to, including recent screen grabs and gameplay footage, such Justin Bieber’s most recent kill streak in Call of Duty, or the latest Assassin’s Creed trailer. Perhaps players will be able to check out how many achievements Cliffy B has in Sims 3 Pets, or challenge Kevin Durant to a game of NBA 2K14.
Of course, the beauty of our great industry and the creative minds that continue to blaze trails within it is that while we could speculate for days, weeks, months, and years on where the future of video gaming lies, we are probably better off preparing ourselves to expect the unexpected.