When trying to come up with a subject for this piece, I found myself contemplating a subject that has become more and more prominent as the Wii U, PS4 and Xbox One continue to gather steam. That subject is the concept of ‘next-gen’ and how these new consoles seem less ‘next-gen’ than ever before. Now, if you’re anything like me, you are severely underwhelmed by the ‘evolution’ (or lack thereof) represented by the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One — the latest ‘current-gen’ consoles that have graced the marketplace and plonked themselves alongside the Wii U in a desperate bid to make you part with your hard-earned cash.
Never before have had I ever found myself so apathetic toward the release of shiny new games consoles. Where was the innovation? The bold, daring design that characterised the games industry of the ‘80s and ‘90s? Remember the jump from 2D to 3D? Man, now that was a genuine leap into next-gen! Judged from a purely technical standpoint, these new consoles are indeed ‘next-gen’ — that is, they are the latest in the manufactured line of their forebears. They are new. They are more powerful. They do snazzy things.
Except — it seems — pushing videogaming forward.
I mean, look at Sony and Microsoft’s offerings. To put it crudely, they are the same — last-gen games dressed in slightly fancier clothing. On PS4, ‘big’ games such as Killzone: Shadow Fall, inFAMOUS: Second Son and The Order: 1886 have elicited a groan-worthy response from yours truly. Sure, they look fun, but they are unambitious. Similarly, Xbox One’s key offerings, such as Dead Rising 3, Killer Instinct and Forza, are somehow even worse than their predecessors. 13 GB patches, incomplete features and micros-transactions are not what I had in mind when I say I wanted video games to do something different. Let’s not forget those ever-lovable third-parties, what with their shooty shooty bang bang games and QTE-riddled stab-a-thons, and played with a controller that has its aesthetic roots based on the NES.
Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking: I’m a cynical so-and-so, and I should go and eat some happy pills.
But wait a minute! I’m not done. Because, you see, the answer to my woes actually lies within these very same consoles! Yes!
It’s the smaller, sleeper-hit games that can show what this medium is truly capable of. Remember when the PS4 was shown for the first time and Media Molecule presented that tech-demo where 3D objects could be crafted with the PS Move? That was awesome! What about Project Spark on Xbox One, where players will be able to craft entire games with the help of Smart Glass? Radical! There are also all those fine, fine indie games that offer a bold variety: The Witness for PS4 looks utterly sublime, because it challenges the notion that a video game narrative leads the player by the hand. In a way, it reminds me of like-minded games, such as Dear Esther and Gone Home. How about Octodad or No Man’s Sky? Or the billion other indie games that genuinely offer something new? Even then, I reckon most of these games could have existed during the last generation.
We now have the recently revealed Project Morpheus and Oculus Rift providing an exciting glimpse into the potential future of this fledgling interactive medium, so it’s clear that genuine, forward-thinking design does actually exist within the industry. However, this is not the main point of this piece. I mean, of course innovation exists! It always has. What is truly holding the industry back is one of conveyance, of an attitude that harbours the notion that a ‘video game’ must fit a certain template, lest it face a barrage of criticism. I mean, how many times have you witnessed a game that is ‘out there’ — a unique, experimental piece of software that received a kicking from the media?
There’s a lazy funk that seems to have gripped developers and publishers. It seems to me that the same old ‘blockbuster’ games — big, Hollywood-esque, triple-A games with bloated budgets and stagnant gameplay — still take precedence over the truly innovative titles, remaining at the forefront of the ‘perception’ of the game market. By this, I mean that ‘video gaming’ is represented by the Call of Dutys, the Assassin’s Creeds, the Battlefields — games that do nothing to dispel the notion that they are not and never will be anything but action-filled toys that are meant to be tossed aside once the 100% walk-throughs are posted on YouTube. It’s a throwaway attitude that is at the forefront of what markets the PS4 and Xbox One and one that will only end in a 1983-style implosion.
I’m not saying that ‘traditional’ games are bad. There is always a place for them. I mean, it’d be absurd of me to ask that every game must be a genre-defining masterpiece, but what gets me is that these consoles are the physical embodiment of an apathy that has gripped gaming: that gamers want them to do what they’re expected to do — no more, no less. There’s a sense of faint-heartedness that echoes from the halls of Sony and Microsoft, one that is seemingly absent from a certain other company.
Now, we look to Nintendo, the main crux of this piece. Whilst the Wii U is a genuinely new experience, Iwata’s crew has so far failed to capitalise upon the GamePad itself and has admitted as such. I love the Wii U as much as the next fellow, but even I can see that games such as New Super Mario Bros. U, Super Mario 3D World, Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze and The Wind Waker HD aren’t exactly harbingers of the second-screen revolution. Even awesome-looking titles such as Bayonetta 2 and Super Smash Bros. don’t look as though they will utilise the GamePad in any meaningful way. In fact, it seems that the indies have embraced the potential of the GamePad even more than Nintendo itself, with fantastic pioneering ideas wrapped in modest budgets and pure, distilled passion.
I would argue, somewhat controversially, that games such as Nintendo Land, Game & Wario and Spin the Bottle: Bumpie’s Party are what ‘next-gen’ is truly about: genuinely new and unique experiences that challenge age-old preconceptions. These games escape the confines of the television and are played by incorporating real-life via the conduits of friends and family. Though they have been labelled as merely ‘mini-game compilations,’ I believe such a christening does these games a massive disservice. To me, they are symbolic of Wii U’s supreme potential in breaking the shackles of the screen — the infernal prison that has ensnared the virtual worlds within — ever since Ralph Baer constructed that humble Magnavox Odyssey. If you take a cursory glance at the Wii U bit of Iwata Asks, you’d see that this was very much the core philosophy behind Nintendo’s latest console.
Creating the Wii U was compared to creating a home console and a handheld at the same time. According to Nintendo hardware designer Genyo Takeda, a constant philosophy regarding hardware construction is the desire for maximum performance coupled with low power consumption. The Wii U console itself was compared to a stagehand, as the focus of the product was on the Wii U GamePad. Revealing a sense of how his company operates when constructing hardware, Satoru Iwata states, “No matter how great the numbers are that you can boast, can you only draw that out under certain conditions, or can you actually draw out its performance consistently when you use it? Insisting on the latter way of thinking has always been at the root of hardware and system development at Nintendo.”
The Wii U was born from the idea that video game consoles were always reliant on the television and that they could only function by acting as a leech to the central entertainment hub of most homes. Nintendo’s divisive box represents an emancipation from such conditions; a major goal for Nintendo was getting families together through the Wii U’s GamePad and its varied features.The R&D staff likened the GamePad to a full-fledged handheld; because of the video latency in modern televisions, there are some instances when the image streaming technology of the Wii U shows on the GamePad faster than what is on the main screen. Jokingly, the developers and designers view this as a victory in the battle against TV.
Having the GamePad in the player’s hands providing additional images in conjunction with the TV provides a new experience for users. Having two pictures births the capability of creating new gameplay opportunities. In Iwata’s opinion: “At the present stage, I sense two sides to the Wii U GamePad. One is that this is the first home game console that allows one person to play video games while someone else watches television. The other is how the television becomes even more attractive when you use the television and Wii U GamePad as a set.”
I believe that video games can do great things — and are capable of so much more. This interactive medium can extend beyond the narrow view of the ‘Achievement Unlocked!’ mentality that currently seems to pervade the hardcore gaming community. Nintendo knows this; after all, its history has been built upon the desire to march to the beat of its own drums. The Blue Ocean Strategy has been a business mantra that has been practised by Nintendo since the early half of the 21st century. A business theory 15 years in the making and first espoused by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, it highlighted the opportunity for industries to expand beyond their traditional clientele, clientele that belongs in Red Oceans. These oceans are red from the blood of competition and the blue seas represent a wild frontier where markets are created through disruption rather than being smothered.
In 2003, it was the late great Hiroshi Yamauchi who declared a paradigm shift in how Nintendo viewed its customers and its products. Believing that larger, more complex games were becoming something of a dead-end enterprise both financially and creatively, Yamauchi laid the groundwork for his successor, Satoru Iwata. Iwata became aware of the declination of the gaming market in Japan and the idea of disruption by newly appointed President of Nintendo of America, Reggie Fils-Aime. This disruption came in the form of Wii and DS, two games consoles that provided new experiences at the expense of raw power. According to industry analyst Sean Malstrom, Nintendo could have suffered “total irrelevancy,” had they not adopted a disruptive policy. Using the example of the usurpation of the railroad system by planes and automobiles, he asserts that Nintendo took to the “expanded market,” their hypothetical railroad business being no longer sufficient. The video game business is not a solitary thing; it is part of the entertainment business, much like how the railroads were a part of the transportation business and not just the railroad business.
The core market that Nintendo had spent so many years fixated on can only go so far — so the answer was to go outside the box and to embrace the fact that gaming had the potential to be so much more. In Malstrom’s view, Nintendo’s main competitors, Sony and Microsoft, were “poisoned by ‘bad money.’” What he means is that Nintendo’s disruption has caused a shift in priority; though Sony and Microsoft dedicated their consoles to raw power, Nintendo looked ahead, realizing that the future was not in how many polygons a console could push, but rather how a player could interact with what was happening on the screen. This simple change of thought could lead to avenues ripe for exploration. After all, changing the way a game interacts can lead to an evolution of gaming itself and that could further enable new forms of storytelling and textual interaction.
In the span of one generation, Nintendo became the industry leader, simply because they dared to show a little ingenuity with a stagnating market. As a result, their competitors were left scrambling for a response. There have been feelings of betrayal among the core audience because of Nintendo’s expansive move. It has been seen that Nintendo’s foray into the ‘blue ocean’ is a clear indicator of a company caring only for profit and not their customers. However, Sean Malstrom disagrees with this sentiment — in his view, business does not automatically mean profit. He sees Nintendo as creating new customers, not just merely chasing monetary gain.
The core market, as stated before, has nowhere left to go. Eventually, it will be consumed by the expanded industry and Nintendo has chosen not to be left behind. Malstrom says that Nintendo “had a choice: it could either be the disruptor or be the disrupted. Nintendo chose to be the disruptor.” Allegedly, game critics have failed to evolve along with Nintendo and are “trapped in a tunnel vision that games must be ‘this way’ or else.” Malstrom highlights this mode of thought as indicative of Nintendo’s disruptive behaviour in addition to the advent of non-traditional games, such as web-based applications. Despite this newfound success, he urged that Nintendo should not grow complacent and that “… the biggest threat to Nintendo is the Wii itself. Success creates a false sense of security, and it promotes the idea that if the company does the same thing a little better, it will continue such success. The opposite, paranoia, is necessary for Nintendo to continue to be successful. So instead of Iwata swimming through money being happy, he’s probably very scared, or at least trying to be.”
This proclamation is a sombre reality once we look at how Nintendo has struggled with the Wii U. Once championing the return to hardcore gaming at E3 2011, Nintendo has seen itself backpedal in order to adjust its audience priorities. In a way, it’s quite the hit to the gut, especially after the loud sulking about how the Wii ‘abandoned’ core gamers. Nintendo found itself once again realising that the hardcore’market, whilst definitely important, is a fickle thing that can force developers to narrow their ambitions in a deep fear of trying anything genuinely new. Basically, Nintendo knows that it is simply too dangerous to plop all its Yoshi eggs in one basket — it forever needs to expand.
Iwata needs to be the ‘disruptor’ and innovate ever more, regardless of the naysayers. Again, we see this viewpoint in action with the Big N’s foray into the ‘Quality of Life’ market. Whilst forumites are furiously tapping their keyboards in an outrage at Iwata’s ‘abandonment’ (again …), people with a bit more sense can see the bigger picture – that it is because of gaming that the QOL project is underway. Even though the link is quite tenuous, believe me when I say that the QOL is the right step forward in advancing the games industry. It is expanding the idea of what a video game can be. Nintendo is doing this because it is gaming. It is the company’s lifeblood. And that, my friends, is what ‘next-gen’ is all about.
… Or should that be ‘new-gen’?