In an industry that at times seems constantly obsessed with the Next Big Thing, it's no wonder there's always so much hype that swirls around the introduction of a new generation of video game consoles.
Console gamers don't have the same geek luxury as, say, Apple fanatics, who get a couple shiny new devices every year. Typically, it's only once every several years that a major new home video game console launches. That's a long time for anticipation to build up.
For game developers, it can be an exciting time as well as a time of uncertainty. But you can't stop progress, and as the current generation of consoles grow long in the tooth, it's time for a change.
So much has evolved since the Xbox 360 kicked off the current generation back in 2005 -- new business models, new distribution methods and new ways to interact with games and fellow gamers will all have an influence on new consoles.
So what exactly should game developers expect, and what do they want from the next generation of consoles? We already know the basics of Nintendo's offering with the Wii U, but what about Microsoft and Sony? As rumors about a new Xbox and PlayStation continue to swirl, Gamasutra speaks with several top-tier game industry figures from Crytek, DICE, Epic Games and others to answer the question: What do you desire from the next generation of hardware?
Tim Sweeney, founder of Epic Games
Cary, North Carolina's Epic Games has built its business this generation on high-tech visuals, sound, online play, and core-focused game design with Gears of War and Unreal Tournament. The highly-influential company has been known to push the boundaries of new hardware, with its commercial game releases also serving as convincing advertisements for Epic's widely-used Unreal Engine.
"For us, there are two things that are going to be essential to the console market going forward," says Epic founder Tim Sweeney. "One is bringing together all the features and expectations that gamers have built up from all the main platforms out there today. There are great games with Facebook integration that enable you to hook up to social networks and find your friends in there. To be able to do that from next generation games and consoles would be really valuable."
And it's not just social integration that gamers expect, says Sweeney -- mobile platforms have shifted player expectations of how they get their games, and new consoles should allow developers to meet those expectations.
"To be able to easily buy and download games on future consoles as we do in the iOS App Store would be really valuable to us as developers," says Sweeney, "and make it easier to get our games out without an over-reliance on manufacturing a whole bunch of pieces of spinning plastic that we'd ship to consumers."
"So, having all the things you'd expect from the game industry as a whole, and the best that's been done elsewhere, and bringing that to the console platform is really important," adds Sweeney.
"We went from consoles as a little, fixed, TV-connected device to an online-networked gaming device on which you could play with your friends, get updates, watch movies, and we love that," Sweeney says. "I think a huge portion of the business opportunity in the next generation will be extending that concept even further, that this is a mainstream computing device that hooks into all of your social circles as well."
There's another thing that Sweeney and Epic want to see introduced in the next generation of consoles: "Raw performance," Sweeney says. "The thing that separates consoles from FarmVille is the fact that consoles define the high-end gaming experience. When you look for the best graphics in the home gaming industry, today you look at Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and those games are the best out there, bar none. The big opportunity for future consoles is to bring that to an entirely new level by delivering a dramatic increase in raw computing power."
"We measure that in floating point operations per second," he continues. "Now we talk about teraflops, trillions of floating point operations per second. We want as many teraflops as is economically possible to deliver to consumers, because that allows us to create the best quality experience possible, and that will drive people to buy new machines."
Hooking early adopters and hoping they drop a few hundred dollars is one of the most nerve-wracking parts for game companies that are backing new hardware. "That's the big challenge with consoles, is that you reset your install base from millions and millions back to zero, then you have to convince everybody to buy new hardware," says Sweeney, illustrating just how daunting that task is. "To do that, you need to have awesome games that provide a level of graphical fidelity that people have just not seen, or even imagined, previously."
Carl Jones, Crytek director of global business development
Frankfurt, Germany-headquartered Crytek, like Epic, is known for its strong emphasis on high-definition visuals and sound. The 600-person Crysis developer went from a studio that focused on PC titles to the multiplatform company it is today, working on PC, consoles and most recently, mobile platforms. As creator of CryEngine 3 -- which the company licenses to external developers -- Crytek also has a sharp vision of the capabilities of next-gen hardware.
"I'm not going to comment on any next-generation consoles, but let's say you're making a console [and you need our input]," theorizes Carl Jones, who heads up Crytek's engine licensing business.
"We'd obviously be saying, 'Get a really powerful GPU in there, let us be able to do GPGPU effects.' I mean, man, what we're going to see over the next couple of years on PC, with GPGPU, is just going to blow your mind. It really is an exciting, exciting time. [Crytek CEO] Cevat Yerli has come out before and said that this is the next renaissance of graphics programming.
"The guys are going to have the freedom to create bespoke rendering systems for whatever they want," he says. "You can have one rendering system for hair, one for skin, one for the bead of sweat on your brow, you'll be able to come up with complete solutions for each of those, and they'll be super efficient, running on high-end GPUs."
"So, I'd be saying [to console makers] definitely 'give us a lot of GPU to play with, and 10 times as much of everything we've had before, please. [laughs]"
More processing power isn't the only thing that Crytek is concerned with. The company is working with emerging business models such as free-to-play, microtransaction-based titles, most notably its online shooter Warface. But frequent, timely updates and new online business models are difficult within the "walled garden" of today's proprietary game consoles.
"I think that'd be really helpful [if the consoles were more open], because certainly we're seeing a change in models in games toward more freemium content, and a quicker response to your community," says Jones. "You can be very successful with a game by giving a game away for free, and then giving players the content they want. And if they really want it, and are really enjoying it, that's when they'll pay for it. That's appropriate. Why shouldn't we do it like that?
"... Certainly at Crytek, we think this is a very positive future for the industry, but it is certainly made significantly more difficult if to update your content you have to go through a prolonged period of submission [on consoles]," Jones says. "In fact, it's more than likely to kill games off."
But Jones is careful to make clear that he's not suggesting next generation consoles should be as open and Wild West as the PC. "We're always going to need quality control," he admits. "We're going to need a decent submission process, to get the first version of a game out, and make sure it's solid and everyone gets a good experience."
"But during that period, if developers can be generating content that they know they can shoot out really quickly, on demand, well, I think the tail of that game becomes longer, the overall revenue from that game becomes higher, and everybody wins," Jones says.
"So certainly, [allowing more openness] would be a move that would help everybody, but you can't let it happen at the expense of quality. ... It's always a balancing act, and we can certainly get faster [with delivering online content and updates]. I'm sure they're already thinking about ways where this could be possible."
Christian Svensson, SVP at Capcom Entertainment
It's not just the tech-focused game industry professionals who've had the new consoles on the brain. More business-focused people in the industry like Christian Svensson, SVP at San Mateo-based Capcom Entertainment, have their own set of next-gen expectations and wishes.
"The networks in general are going to become increasingly important to the future of our content offerings, and the services we offer around them," predicts Svensson. "I think you'll see continued migration to games as a service, and increasingly less discrete products."
"I'll tell you something I'm hoping for," he adds. "I'm hoping for a much more fluid means of providing updates to consumers, being able to have a much more rapid turnaround in between when content is submitted and when content goes live to consumers, to provide a higher level of service to them. I'm hoping that the networking and the processes in the future are built with that in mind.
"I'd like to see more server-based backends that are more under publisher-developer control, rather than being forced through systems that are bit more pre-defined by the first-party," he says. "That would enable experiences online that are not currently available in today's console marketplace."
Like Epic's Sweeney, Svensson points out that gamers and game developers today have expectations of how they will receive and distribute their games. He hopes that advancements in the mobile games sector will impact how console makers operate.
"In many ways, I hope that first-parties react to what's happening in the PC and smartphone space, in that the barriers between developer and consumer are much lower there," says Svensson. "And console makers need to be aware that that's what they're competing against, and that's increasingly what the customer expectation is, in terms of responsiveness and engagement."
Anne Blondel-Jouin, managing director at Nadeo
Paris, France-based Trackmania developer Nadeo is not a console game developer, which gives the studio a different perspective on the future of game consoles. The studio's games are heavily reliant on user-generated content, such as tracks for its series of online, community-centric racing games. As a developer on the wide-open PC platform, the Ubisoft-owned studio has direct access to its loyal fanbase and is able to push content updates at will.
So what would convince a company like Nadeo to develop for a next generation console? "If we were to go on next-gen [consoles], we think it would be good for us if it was an open platform," says Anne Blondel-Jouin, managing director at Nadeo.
It'd be an extreme and highly unlikely scenario, to have a completely open console, but Blondel-Jouin is right -- the nature of Nadeo's business relies on sheer openness.
"I have no clue about [console makers' exact plans]," explains Blondel-Jouin. "So far we are looking with much interest at what Microsoft is doing with Windows 8 and DirectX 11.
"That's something we're interested in, as we're still PC-oriented. ... If the other [console] platforms were becoming as open as a PC is, then yes, we'd be very much interested, because the more players we can reach, the better. Trackmania and Shootmania and Maniaplanet are based on how many players are coming, how big the 'fiesta' is.
"We would need to get as close as possible to our players," she continues. "Consoles have rules, and they're great rules, and they're rules to make their businesses work. We have nothing against consoles, but so far, we want as much freedom as possible for the players, and the only platform allowing that right now is PC, so we're still PC."
She says when she joined Nadeo, she was struck by how respectful the community was towards Nadeo's games -- that there was hardly any moderation needed from the studio, which has a single community manager.
"I would say to console manufacturers, 'Don't be afraid of your players or your users,'" she advises. "If you're good at what you do, then they'll respect it, and they'll take it to the next step. If you give your keys to the players, you'll be amazed at how far, and how much better they'll make your new console, and you will benefit from it.
"Being too closed is preventing them from [accessing] all that creativity that's everywhere. ... I would love a console that gives me the tools and instruments to do whatever I want, and it would be perfect, and [console makers] would benefit from it."
David Polfeldt, Ubisoft Massive managing director
Sweden's Massive is best known for the PC strategy games Ground Control and World in Conflict. Its direction took an interesting turn since being acquired by Ubisoft, and now the studio is at work on the multiplayer component of the upcoming first-person shooter Far Cry 3 for consoles and PC.
"To help us be a better developer, the consoles would have to be more similar between each other than they are today," says David Polfeldt, managing director at the studio. "Now, the difference is too big between the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. So you really, really need to make two games, actually. That's the way we feel. It's extremely cumbersome, and the result is that they look the same. So that would be a huge leap forward, and we could spend more time making the game fun, or making more sexy features, rather than just adapting the tech.
"The second thing is that the new consoles should be connected all the time, 24 hours, so we know they're there, and we can do things with them." Polfeldt then echoes other game companies: "The third thing is that they would need to open up and make it easier for us to play with our own game when it's on their platform."
For the Massive boss, current processes within first-parties often stand between the game developer and the game itself, and therefore a game's community. It's quite different from the studio's experience as a developer of online PC games. "It's sometimes expensive, there's an awful lot of bureaucracy, even when you want to do quite small things," he says of getting approval on consoles. "We're so used to be able to do changes or fixes or balancing on the fly, that it's something you'd want to have in the next generation of consoles, this same ability to play with your own game."
When running an online game, he says, "It becomes logical to stay close to the community, and have interaction, and have a dialog [with them]. If players make a fair point [about an issue with the game], you can change that. But now if I agree with [player criticisms], I start to think 'Oh yeah, to change that I would have to -- oh shit, it's just too much work.' And I won't change it even if I think [the feedback] is right."
Speaking about the specific barriers in console game development, Polfeldt adds, "It's the TRCs [technical requirements checklist], it's the certification, there's a fee you pay, so if you want to do a title update, you pay for that."
Asked what he would say if he had the opportunity to speak to a console manufacturer directly, he replies, "Maybe a [question] I'd like to discuss is how you expect us to be able to run our business on your platform, with things like microtransactions, item-selling, auction houses, those things. How tight would you want to control those, and how autonomous could I be with my game, and how do I direct business with people playing my game on your platform? That would be a really interesting discussion for me to have."
Karl-Magnus Troedsson, DICE general manager
For the gamers who upgraded their PC hardware so they could play its Frostbite 2-powered Battlefield 3 on the highest "Ultra" settings, perhaps it's no surprise that Karl-Magnus Troedsson, general manager at Battlefield house DICE, would like to see significantly more processing power from the new consoles.
"The developer heart in me says 'give me all the power you've got,' when it comes to CPU and GPU and memory and BUS speeds -- just bring it," he implores. "Because that's what we see as the future of consoles, that they really need to take a big step forward. Not a small step, that's not enough. They need to take a big step forward."
He adds, "I would also suggest that you give me a platform that is easy to develop for with a hardware setup that isn't too unique. The more streamlined it is with the other platforms, the better.
Like Epic founder Sweeney, Troedsson stresses that it's the home consoles that need to be showcasing the highest-end games -- a technological tour de force is what's needed to get new consoles off the ground, and distinguish them from today's offerings.
"I would inspire [console makers] to realize that they're delivering the quality HD platforms. Together with modern PCs, they are the HD platforms, and they should be the premium platform. They need to be at the forefront of what technology can do. The core gamers on these platforms, this is what they expect. You need something that looks and plays well, and sounds really good, and that's pushing the envelope."