I don\’t mean to sound pretentious, but I feel this is my best article I\’ve ever written. Not in terms of wordplay; on the contrary, I wrote it in one big blur without any edits. But, in content I feel this is the big picture of gaming. It spans seven generations and tracks a single pattern. I think it’s a pattern that industry analysts should pay attention to and gamers should be aware of. But, remember my aim is not to get into the tiny details. When you read this try and hold on to the big picture as it presents itself.
There is a formula for producing a good game that can be observed throughout the generations. In short: good games take place somewhere along the continuum between the two extremes of boredom and broken gameplay. Or to put it in the positive: the middle point between those two extremes is the perfect balance of innovation and experience.
So, what the heck does that mean? Let’s rewind to the beginning and hopefully by the end of this article you\’ll be able to look back at that definition and understand what I\’m trying to say.
Everyone talks about this year’s stellar lineup of games across all platforms. It wasn\’t a coincidence that all these games arrived at the same time, at the same high production-value. Morrowind and Oblivion couldn\’t have achieved the same epic scope of Skyrim. Wind Waker and Twilight Princess couldn\’t have unleashed the innovation and perfection of Skyward Sword. Uncharted and Uncharted 2 couldn\’t have matched the polish of Uncharted 3. It’s not for naught that it took until the end of the Wii’s lifetime to master the motion controls that Skyward Sword relies upon. A very basic principle that gaming follows is that in the beginning there is innovation and at the end there is perfection. When gaming began it was about a ball bouncing back and forth between two paddles. Pong. It was mighty innovative for its time but you can hardly call it deep in its gameplay. You wouldn\’t say it was polished because there was not much to polish.
Pong sold well because we didn\’t know there was anything more. It did something new and we enjoy trying new things. But, those fledgling games are only a foundation to build upon. Gaming was a young and inexperienced medium of entertainment for many decades. Each stone that was set was a brick that allowed others to build on top of it. As time went on, developers would reach a new plateau and level of experience. They would master the current stage and create games of perfection. But, slowly boredom sets in. Where perfection is reached, innovation is lost. Rarely do the two come together.
In the early 80’s, the video game industry suffered a terrible collapse. It lasted about two years, and many business analysts of the time expressed doubts about the long-term viability of video game consoles. The first generation of video games, with pioneering games like Pong and its many clones, gave way to a more developed second generation, with hits like Pac-Man, Asteroids, and Space Invaders. But, eventually gaming stopped progressing and the perfection led to a stagnating creativity on the part of the developers. Consumers grew disinterested and gaming took a dive.
It took Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo to jump-start the failing industry with a whole slew of new ideas. Super Mario Bros. introduced the platformer. Legend of Zelda introduced the action adventure. And the NES gave us the basis for our modern controller. Once again, it was the concept of innovation that took center stage. Ask most gamers who owned an NES back in the day and I doubt they will tell you that the original Super Mario Bros was the best game in the entire Mario series. If anything, playing it nowadays will show you that while it may be nostalgic, it’s actually quite rusty. A few years later and Nintendo had begun to reach a new level of experience. Super Mario Bros. 3 was platforming perfection on the NES. A Link to the Past enthralled adventurers on the SNES. And Super Metroid was nearly an art form unto itself.
Nintendo’s innovation was replicated by many developers and soon there were hundreds of 2D platforming clones crowding the market. While the games were getting better and better, the boredom began to set in once again. There’s only so much you can perfect a platformer without the experience getting stale. RPGs also climbed from the original 8-bit Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior to the epics of Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger. But, after two generations of Nintendo dominance in the 2D arena, a change was needed. Innovation led to progression. Progression led to perfection. And eventually, perfection led to boredom. That is the pattern.
The Sega Saturn tried its hand at 3D gaming, but it wasn\’t really innovation. Yes, games like NiGHTS into Dreams had fancy new 3D polygons, but the actual gameplay was really just a 2D platformer fooling you into thinking it was 3D with some flashy perspective changes. Then Nintendo came along and pushed the envelope a bit more. They took those polygons and freed Mario into 3D space with the N64. Once they wrote the rule book for 3D gaming, the \”3D Gaming for Dummies\”, all the other developers were able to come along develop it and perfect it. And perfect it they did. While that initial innovation was lost, there was a golden era in between where the original magic wasn\’t lost but developments allowed for many new franchises to flourish. Sony’s PlayStation even surpassed the N64 with its sales and massive library of games.
The Gamecube, PS2, and Xbox era brought stronger technology, more polish, and less innovation.Â Naturally, more powerful graphics processors and technology lead to some innovation, but it mostly brings more polish. If anything, gameplay remained the same but developers went through an awkward period of adjusting to better graphics and more power under the hood. Still, beautiful games such as Shadow of the Colossus and Metroid Prime provided a happy marriage between well-developed gameplay and a wonderful atmosphere provided by the creative allowances of technology.
The most recent generation saw a split take place. Sony and Microsoft decided to stick to the same path, only this time they raised the bar of graphics to near-realism. Nintendo, on the other hand, gambled that gamers were already bored with standard 3D gaming and it was time to follow the two generation rule that the industry had followed twice before: two generations after an initial innovation boredom sets in. Pong –> 2 generations –> Boredom –>Â Super Mario Bros. –> 2 Generations –> Boredom –> Super Mario 64 –> Two Generations –> Boredom –> ? Instead of aiming for perfecting the system further, opt for innovation. And that’s what they did. Their mistake was that while they innovated, they didn\’t take advantage of all the other advances taking place in the industry. They ignored the newer technology entirely. Still, their gamble paid off. The shock waves caused by their new baby- motion controls- created ripples in the industry, spreading the market reach further than it had ever gone before.
While innovation sells, we already know from our history lesson, it is rarely a polished or perfected experience. The beginnings are often clumsy and awkward. Eventually, gamers and developers alike realized that motion controls weren\’t there yet. It was still limited to a waggle. When 1:1 motion controls finally emerged with the Wii Motion+ it would take developers through a whole new harsh beginning. The technology had to be learned, developed, and perfected. Most developers decided to skip the whole shebang until someone would write a rule book for how to use it. Meanwhile, Sony and Microsoft decided motion controls were enough of a household word that they would enter the race. Still, the usage of motion controls hadn\’t been developed enough to reach its full potential. It is still taking its first baby steps.
Finally, Nintendo has figured out the rulebook for motion controls and they offered it to the world: Skyward Sword. But, the generation is just ending. So, how will it help anything? And, what does the future hold in store?
Here is what I think is the natural corollary, based on everything said until now. We\’re just going to follow through with the pattern once more. If Sony and Microsoft don\’t do anything new they will lose the upcoming generation. Yes, this past year has offered us an incredible lineup of games. Those games have reached the pinnacle of perfection in 3D gaming. Developers have fifteen years of experience in 3D gaming. The technological innovations that led to 3D gaming have finally reached a point in experiential knowledge to enable the crafting of these utter masterpieces. But, how many more times are you willing to play the annual release of Call of Duty? How much more epic are the sequels to Skyrim going to be? How many more Uncharted games will make you excited in anticipation? The FPS genre can\’t do the same thing for so many years without someone out there getting fed up or bored. And Nintendo is not excused. How many more times will Zelda’s formula be repeated without a complete overhaul? And how many more times will we race through Mario Kart’s retro stages and shoot blue shells?
People get bored. They crave excitement, newness, freshness. Their brains want to be surprised and awed. This year of gaming had very little innovation. But it was ripe with perfection. And that’s why we are all so delighted by it. But it won\’t last. History proves it time and again; perfection can\’t sustain interest forever. That’s why the Wii had such an upper hand this generation. And that’s how Nintendo intends to keep the upper hand in the future generation. The Wii U sets to make use of the perfection we already know of in 3D gaming with HD graphics. But it intends to \”upend the tea table\” with its new tablet controller. While it may not be as much of an evolution as motion controls, it’s probably more comparable to the DS\’ added screen which distinguished it from the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance. The beginnings for the DS were also rough. No one knew what to do with the new touch screen other than to place the menu and health bar on the second screen. And I\’ll bet the same thing will happen initially for the Wii U. But, the DS was ultimately a huge success. It just took time for developers to learn the ropes and progress.
This is why I couldn\’t stand when industry \”experts\” predicted the doom of the 3DS. Yes, it had a real flop of a launch. Yes, no one was really doing much with the 3D or gyroscope. But, give it time. Industry analysts live so much in the moment that they don\’t look at the bigger picture. (Don\’t even mention Nintendo stockholders.) The 3DS was trying on something new for size. And not every innovation gets out of the gate running as fast as the Wii did. Sometimes it requires a bit of patience. Another bit of progress. Another morsel of development. But, innovation, when genuinely innovative, ultimately succeeds.
This is why I predict the Vita will fizzle out. The initial excitement will die down when people realize, \”Oh. It’s just another Uncharted.\” \”It’s just another FPS.\” \”I\’ve done all this on the big screen already.\” The 3DS started off slow but it will eventually snowball into something really big. Mark my words.
But, back to consoles. Nintendo could probably stand to last another generation relying on their Wiimote alone. Motion controls are just reaching the top of the mountain with Skyward Sword and if Nintendo went into HD territory bearing 1:1 shields and sword, the Wii U would probably be full of beautiful motion controlled games with high production values. I\’d wager even third parties would begin to join now that the mold has been established. But, obviously, Nintendo feels intimidated by Sony and Microsoft jumping on the motion-controlled bandwagon. They want to distinguish themselves with something new. And that’s why they\’re trying to go the innovation route again. But, the future is unpredictable.
If Sony and Microsoft decide to continue heavy endorsement of motion controls in the next generation and Nintendo drops the ball in that particular area, Sony and Microsoft may have the upper hand. Nintendo may have done themselves a disservice with Skyward Sword. Now that developers see what can be achieved with motion controls, they may follow the yellow brick road Nintendo has so kindly paved in front of them. Only they\’ll be doing it for Sony and Microsoft. However, if Nintendo manages to keep two tracks on the table– both motion controls and tablet–then they might stay relevant in the motion controls race for perfection.
Then we have to weigh the Wii U-tablet card that Nintendo holds. If the dual screens on the DS and the touch screen/tablet proliferation of iPods and iPads prove to be a good source of experience for developers, the Wii U may provide just enough innovation with just the right amount of experience to allow developers to create the perfect games from the get-go. This could be a winning formula for Nintendo. Developers already know how to make awesome 3D games with HD graphics. Only, people are starting to get bored. But, the new controller of the Wii U + the option of motion controls + HD graphics and up-to-date technology = success.
This is why I think the Wii U and 3DS will come out ahead in the next generation. Of course, we don\’t even know what Microsoft and Sony’s next consoles look like, so this is all hypothetical and too early to form a rock-solid prediction. But at least we can say with a reasonable amount of certainty that if Sony and Microsoft DON\’T do anything new, and leave it up to better technology alone, they may very well be left in the dust next generation.