Wednesday, January 7, 2009

can't drive 55

A quick look at my Gamercard confirms that, yes, I have been playing Rare's Banjo-Kazooie recently thanks to the Xbox Live Arcade – what can I say, I find comfort in familiarity. At one point while flying in the air high over a particularly well-realized stage I stopped and asked myself, “when did this become retro?” When I think of “retro” games, I go back to the seventies and eighties, the time of Space Invaders, Donkey Kong and Pac Man. Super Mario Bros. is retro. Super Mario 64 is not, right? I mean, I remember when it came out, and I remember getting it for Christmas. Banjo-Kazooie, Mario 64 and others were and still are big, deep games which ushered in the 3D era and built the foundation for many of the games made today, but it’s pretty safe to say they’re considered retro by most.

This seems sudden, doesn’t it? People aren’t as quick to label a movie or book or album from 1996 “retro.” Special effects may look sillier and the Spice Girls may be featured more prominently, but a decade-old game always seems much older than a decade-old film. Such is the nature of the industry – it moves at an amazing clip, due in part to its relative youth and the intense competition. After more than three decades, though, I think gaming might finally be slowing down. This article looks at the hows and the whys, and might even try to make sense of what it all might mean. Strap yourselves in!

To make my first point, I need to convince you that consoles are becoming more like computers. It’s true – many declare the PC to be dying or dead as a platform, but the truth of the matter is that today’s newer, more sophisticated consoles have stolen many of its features. Graphics chips in the Xbox 360 and PS3 are cousins to the top-end PC graphics cards from a couple of years back. The 360 uses a PowerPC processor, the same architecture that powered Apple’s Macs before they switched to Intel chips in 2006. They’re all connected to the Internet 24/7, if you can provide the connection. They have hard drives, some of them user-replaceable, to store downloads, music, video, and game patches, which have become as sad a reality for console owners as they ever were for PC gamers.

So, consoles are like computers. How does this contribute to the reduced speed of our breakneck industry? Consider the Playstation 2, released in 2000. That console has gone through numerous hardware revisions, and seems to get lighter and cheaper for Sony to make every few months. However, a PS2 bought today can only do the same stuff a PS2 bought eight years ago can do – it can play games and DVDs and can interface with memory cards and controllers, but not much else. Now consider Windows XP, released in 2001. A release version of Windows XP can’t do nearly as much as a version of the operating system with seven years of patches and updates installed – much to Microsoft’s chagrin, XP continues to be a solid alternative to its newer Vista operating system. Thanks to their more PC-like features, newer consoles can be updated and kept relevant in much the same manner. In 2006, an Xbox 360 couldn’t stream Netflix video, but now it can. My PSP couldn’t play PlayStation games or connect to the Playstation Store at launch, but those features have since been added through firmware updates. The Wii couldn’t interface with a USB keyboard when it came out, but now it can – the PS2’s gratuitous USB ports were near-useless for that sort of thing when the console came out, and they remain near-useless to this day. Continuous updates keep consoles on the cutting edge for longer, reducing the need for complete hardware overhauls.

The newfound ease of software updating compensates for the lessened need for hardware advancement. The AAA blockbusters on the 360 and PS3 look pretty damn good, especially on a nice high-definition TV, and we’re starting to dive headlong into the uncanny valley. Nintendo has already forsaken the graphics rat race – doubtless its consoles will adopt HD-capable graphics chips when they become nice and cheap, but certainly not a moment before – and Sony and Microsoft likely know they’ll need to do more than push visual boundaries with their next consoles when they come in order to make the upgrades compelling. Again, reduced need for new hardware leads to fewer hardware overhauls.

These companies definitely see the way things are moving, and they’re digging in their heels. A popular Sony trope of late is the insistence that their consoles have ten-year lifespans – the PS2 because it happened to be the best-selling console of all time and the PSP and PS3 because, well, Sony says they will have ten-year lifespans. Microsoft’s Shane Kim responds with his tongue in his cheek, saying the 360 will be around one day longer than the PS3 – it’s a joke, but with an embedded grain of truth. For reference, the Nintendo 64 replaced the SNES after five years, the Wii replaced the Gamecube after five years, and the 360 replaced the original Xbox after just four. Introducing a brand-new console which is then sold at a loss for over half of its five-year lifespan has never been particularly palatable for the purveyors of game hardware - they’ll be happy to stretch the consoles to their limit to get their R&D dollars back.

Slowdown isn’t all about hardware, though. Every year we’re pleasantly surprised by a handful of unique indie games, but the fact remains that where software is concerned we’ve picked a lot of the low-hanging fruit. Most games released today fall firmly into one or two established genres – games sometimes define genres and sometimes bend genres, but rarely do they defy them. Innovation isn’t at a standstill, but it’s gradually becoming less about creating a never-before-seen experience and more about combining existing mechanics in new and exciting ways.

So what does all of this mean? Does slowing advancement spell out certain doom for games and gaming, a medium long decried for its reliance on gimmicks and flashy visuals?

Not really. Just as recorded music and movies before them, almost all games will eventually fall under some pre-existing umbrella. But still, new artists put out engaging music, and new filmmakers release inspiring movies. That’s the beauty of it – even if all of what you have been doing has been done before, if you do it in a unique way or defy people’s expectations somehow, you can still end up with something compelling. Millions of different works throughout history have appealed to the same basic human emotions, but movies can still make us cheer, books can still make us laugh, music can still make us wistful, paintings can still inspire us. Gaming is slowly coming into its own, now, catching up to other media in terms of immersiveness and variety of expression and emotional depth – that these old patterns, in place since the days of the NES, are beginning to fade should not alarm us, but excite us. Each step forward brings this hobby of ours one step closer to mainstream acceptance, one step closer to true relevance in the World at Large, and I think we can all agree that this is a good thing.