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Question of the Week Responses: Technical Innovations in Next Generation Consoles

After taking a break for GDC coverage, the Question of the Week returns, with the replies to: "What hardware or software technical innovations are going to be particularly important to game creators for the next generation of console hardware?"

After taking a break for coverage of Game Developers Conference 2005, the Question of the Week returns with the replies to the question: "What hardware or software technical innovations are going to be particularly important to game creators for the next generation of console hardware?" As expected, the responses were quite varied, ranging from input devices, through the return of "virtual reality", to simply: "It doesn't matter".

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It Doesn't Matter!

A couple of the answers we received pointed out that a great game is a great game, regardless of technical innovation.


This is actually a trick question. As a creator, your main focus is just that: to create. This "Arena" has seen the coming and going of various technologies and techniques. Some withstood the test of time, while others faded into history. If the creator focuses more on hardware and software, rather than focusing on making the game better, then it won't matter how great the technology is; they will never be satisfied with the results. Technology is ONLY A MEANS TO AN END. Nothing more. As to answer the question, that decision of innovation is based two-fold: one, the designer of the software/hardware and the creator/gladiator in need of that resource. There is no universal innovation that will appeal to all designers, and there never will be.
-Michael Rivers

It's the same in every studio, in every game, in every hardware cycle. "If we had more memory...", "If we had a few more CPU cycles...", "If we could just push a few more polys...". Enough with the "If we had". The fact is: the original Nintendo, the original Atari, and the original Commodore 64 games were, and still are, lots of fun.

Given a previous generation's AAA titles, our faster CPUs could create more lifelike AI; more memory could hold more vibrant textures and more fluid animations; and faster GPUs can render more lifelike characters. But all of this "technical innovation" does not improve the single largest selling point - the game play. Our next great "technical innovation" is the realization that every AAA game from the previous generation is technologically inferior - but still more fun than - any current generation "B" game.
-Kanon Wood, Cranky Pants Games


Greater Realism

On the other hand, a lot of the responses we received (one of which is particularly opinionated!) speculated that the next generation will push realism to new highs.


Improved physics and AI will probably be the big deal in the next generation. With the release of high power graphics engines like Doom 3 and Unreal 3 we should be hitting a plateau on the graphics race. With the advent of multi-core processors and even physics co-processors, as announced recently, we should be able to go leaps and bounds beyond what we have done up until now. Hopefully in the next generation, we will all focus on gameplay more, instead of just technical innovations as many have been though.
-Derick Eisenhardt, Electronics Boutique

Simple: Art and code pipelines.

Everyone's all excited about next-gen, but the reality is that next-gen games will sell next to zero in comparison with current-gen games in North America and Europe for the 2005 Christmas season. There will be one Halo equivalent that will sell a bajillion copies on Xenon, but it will likely come from a Microsoft-sponsored developer.

The GTA franchise proved that gameplay is king, not good graphics. The art is poor, but the gameplay is phenomenal. Microsoft, EA and Activision all have loud voices when it comes to next-gen and how good the games will be, but they're all basing their winning strategies on re-hashing existing franchises with zero new IP.Most developers/publishers are smart enough to recognize that they're not going to get a big bang for their development buck for the first iteration of next-gen, and they'll focus on the PS2 and Xbox as their primary targets. They're all in the same boat of making one series of textures/rendering improvements for next-gen, then scaling them down to work on current-gen hardware at the same time.

Some publishers are going as far as to split their development between current and next-gen development teams, but the end result is that they're stretching themselves thin. Once July rolls around and they smarten up to the fact that current-gen is running late, all those next-gen developers are going to be poured into helping finish the current-gen titles in order to meet the Christmas demand. As a result, the next-gen launch titles are going to have maybe one or two cool features, but will be generally weak in graphical and gameplay abilities.

The smart developers/publishers are going to put a minimal investment into next-gen for 2005, and learn from the mistakes of publishers like Midway, Ubisoft and Eidos who are throwing lots of money at X2. The real players are giving lip service to Microsoft for the time being, and making launch titles with minimal staff, knowing that it's throwaway work until 2006. By the time the PS3 is out in 2006, Electronic Arts and Activision will have learned from the other companies, and will also have their next-gen art and code pipelines split from today's current-gen developments.

We won't see the real nice graphics take over until Christmas 2006 for next gen, trust me. No one knows what to do yet except allow engineers to flail about as they spew great technical terms that mean squat.
-Anonymous

The added horsepower in the consoles to come will spur a new leap in graphics benchmarks. As increased graphics abilities (through code and art assets) is a tangible goal, one which is relatively easy to schedule and manage; it is an instant gratification area of games development and something you can present to press and investors so that it will receive attention unproportionally relevant in relation to the importance of the advancement of computer games.
It will not be before the second wave of "next-gen" games that we will see the true innovation that the added processing power and hardware capabilities will give us.
-Soeren Lund, Deadline Games

In my opinion, it's always a matter of efficiency and quality. Graphics are a big part of the game, as well as interactivity. The industry has been trying to come up with several ways to innovate our interaction with games. Always trying to find ways to put you "IN" the game. With the way technology is headed I wouldn't be surprised to find a whole other web of access to an independent community dedicated solely to gaming. A good example of this is the audio industry, with services such as Sirius. It would allow gamers to experience a new wave of technology. Take the N-Gage as another example of this. I believe the next generation will definitely be defined by portability, communication, and last but not least kick-ass graphics.

-Anonymous

Intelligent narrative will be important. The will develop software that can create non-linear plot lines that gives players a real sense of immersion within the game and influence over the story.

-Hugh McAtamney, DIT

What I'd like to see for next-gen games is less effort put on rendering and visual effects, but instead a greater focus on character modeling, body deformation, animation, facial expression, clothes, etc. The levels we're making nowadays do already look very good, but what's the point in making the environment look ultra-realistic if the people living in it look like cyborg-zombie-puppets? Believable characters are the next big key to great, immersive, believable game experiences. It should also give the player a better emotional response through better anthropomorphism. I also would like to see even more improvement in sounds and physics, with the same vision of creating more evenly credible virtual worlds, instead on focusing on graphics and rendering.

-Marc-Antoine Lussier, Ubisoft Montréal

Physics.
-David Wu, Pseudo Interactive


It Comes Down to Data


With games becoming bigger in size, a lot of our respondents expressed their concern on how all that data would be transferred:


Above all else is the ability to move data around really quickly. This means either high bandwidth or at least a huge host of bandwidth-saving features. If next-gen gaming is driving towards HD gaming, then the content demands are going to be enormous. While code footprints will overall be fairly small, the fact is that textures, models, animations, hierarchies are all going to massively increase.Similarly, we also need that much more memory and storage capacity for the same reasons. Bandwidth and capacity are not substitutes for one another, though; Both are a must. Whether that will actually happen is something I'm very pessimistic about.
-Parashar Krishnamachari

Copy protection and load times. Companies can't ignore the very real affect on the bottom line when their games are pirated. Although apparently futile, this is probably a major area where developers are focusing.Also, as games are increasing in size, load times have also been going up. I would think that this has to be one of the bigger considerations for developers as well.

-Jason Pilgrim, Joy Media

Depending on who you talk to, you can hear some terrifying predictions about the costs and team sizes which could potentially be involved in building next-gen titles. There is no way the industry can support teams twice as big, or ten times as big, or whatever, than they are now.
I think the innovations will come in the form of tools which can make developing and distributing games more easily. The industry seems to now be waking up to the importance of middleware, and I would hope to see new middleware products of a higher quality than are available now.

As developers, it's the content we're concerned with, and we won't be able to make any more compromises in the methods we use for creating and delivering that.
The other thing which could potentially be the start of a breakthrough in the way we make games is any technology which can tip the developer/publisher scales in favor of the developer again. Steam has shown that online distribution may yet become a viable way to sell games independently, in great enough numbers to make such a thing worthwhile. Both the PSP and NDS are rumored to support some form of downloadable content that can be run from memory.

Although this approach is fraught with technical and legal difficulties, if developers can find a way to make it work for them they could bypass the need for such a heavy marketing investment from publishers. By reducing that dependency and lowering the budget needed to launch a game, I would hope game creators could feel comfortable taking more risks and being more innovative in the games they choose to create. That can only lead to a healthier industry.

-Anonymous

Getting data off media fast enough, and dealing with memory limitations. As processing power allows more data to be used, feeding the monster will become top priority.

-Anonymous

This is a bit of a poor question, since it really depends on the type of game and the ability of the developers to make good use of the hardware.
For many developers, just having vastly more processing power will be the most useful thing because they seem to have difficulty getting their games to run quickly enough on current hardware. For others, having more flexible and advanced graphical capabilities will be more important, because they desperately want to make their games look even more real than they do now.

Still others will find that the increased storage available (both on media and in memory) will make a huge difference to the size of their worlds and the depth of detail which can be included in those worlds. And for those who are there at the cold metal face, coding for the specific machines rather than writing generic code which will run on anything, the most important innovations will be things like the multi-processor nature, or the vastly increased vectorization capabilities.

However I suspect that the overall single most important factor will be the limitations - there will always be one thing which limits us more than we want it to, which will most likely be speed of access to data, both from media (even BluRay doesn't allow you to access data that much faster than DVD, and it still suffers from the same horrendous seek times) and from memory (which on some systems is apparently no faster than it was on the previous generation, for access to data which is completely off cache).
-Robert Dibley



New Ways to Play

A lot of respondents think the future will bring new ways through new technology to play the next generation of console games.


The Nintendo DS is hopefully a sign of things to come. The platform allows designers to customize an interface to suit their design and not the other way around.The one thing we always strive for but never really achieve in games is a sense of immersion. I'm not surprised because as complex as games and genres have been the experience always gets simplified with a very generic control system. The same controller we use on Madden 2006 is the same thing we use to play racing games. Two different games, two different experiences, yet they are played using the same controller.

With all this talk of Nintendo's "Revolution" the thing I'll be looking forward to the most is the controller design. Temperature/pressure sensitive hand-grips for example, could be used to reflect the player's mood onto the character on-screen, heightening the sense of immersion. For game design (and gameplay) to evolve, hardware manufacturers must also evolve the tools that the player will use to interact with their games.

Carlo Delallana, Ubisoft

Next-gen console innovations? What the hell are you talking about? Sony and Microsoft are doing nothing "innovative" with their consoles, they're just jumping on the technology train and pumping up the power. Nintendo, however, appears to be leading a totally different direction. As can be evidenced already with the DS, Nintendo is trying to return the industry to creativity instead of power.

According to some wild rumors, the Revolution will incorporate gyroscopic technology and will not use the A or B buttons or the D-pad, both of which most gamers likely consider required for a game. Because of this, it has been speculated that the controls will involve sensors that detect body movement of some sort. This can bring a whole new breed of first-person games, with people actually acting as if they're holding a gun or a light saber, or actually putting their hands on the wheel of a car. Likely, this means more realistic physics in games, especially in sports games. Imagine a football game where the player's natural skill in throwing a football actually makes a difference!

-Alex Marsh

In my opinion, the next generation console hardware will only be the start for a new way in controlling games. This generation of hardware was mainly about online gaming, but this is not as important for gamers as publishers thought.The real innovation of this generation was the EyeToy from Sony and I think all next-gen consoles will come out with a built-in camera and microphone.
-Christian Keichel

Voice Recognition:advances in this technology are going to revolutionize how we interface with a computer. Even if speech doesn't completely replace the manual controls of mouse/keyboard/controller/etc. it will at the very least allow simultaneous control over multiple actions for the user/player.

However, there is a substantial chance of Voice Recognition failing miserably in the market due to poor initial designs. As Donald Norman notes in "The Design of Everyday Things", "...if the product is truly revolutionary, it is unlikely that anyone will quite know how to design it right the first time; it will take several tries. But if a product is introduced into the marketplace and fails, well, that is it... everyone believes it to be a failure". I'm crossing my fingers that somebody gets it right the first time...

-Jacob Gahn

I would love to see biometrics incorporated into next generation games: the ability to play a survival horror title with a controller that can measure your pulse and perspiration rate. Also, having a dynamic difficulty setting which increases as pulse and perspiration increase or having the opposite occur for those who might get too easily frustrated with a game.
-David Turkiewicz

I hate to answer a question with a question but... how are the games going to change in terms of playability? Are next generations just a graphical change? Just a wrapper? More icing? Are graphics enough to justify another $300-400 investment? I'm worried about the developers whom can't afford to create $20 million dollar project (don't forget marketing, which would probably be about half of product development). Not to mention the fact that we are still fighting for the same amount of money, if not less. Here is another scare trend, as games begin to get more expensive to make, the price keeps going down. Not exactly a winning ratio. Every game is becoming a bigger and bigger gamble.

-Rhett Torgoley, Midway Games

I believe you will find new hardware that allows for unprecedented styles of gameplay will be the key to the next generations of console hardware. The majority of games that come out these days are just slightly improved remakes of games that were innovative five years ago. (How many times do we need to buy a new football game?) But new hardware will revitalize all the tried-and-true formulas, and be the easiest way to breathe new life into inevitable remakes.

Imagine playing your football game with a device that tracks your real world motion - so you can lean into the tackle, or picture a DS touch screen device that lets you draw the circles and arrows for your play from scratch, instead of choosing predefined plays.These small innovations in hardware will be the easiest way to encourage the kinds of unprecedented gameplay that the industry needs to justify the upgrade.

-Warren Blyth, Naturalpoint

A return to the previously failed VR goggles. With current technology they would actually work.

-Anonymous

The work in Sharp research labs on flat screen (no 3D glasses) 3D screens. Also, more realistic ambient sound (wind in your ears, birds, etc.) and more immersive surround sound integrated into game play and vital to survival.
-Anonymous

And on a lighter note for those who remember:


Without a doubt, the single most important hardware innovation has got to be Nintendo's Virtual Boy. It's all in red!
-Demitrius Pennebaker


Software Tools, Platforms, and Middleware


With the increased budgets, scale, and manpower anticipated to be necessary in the next generation of development a lot of our respondents felt that innovation would have to come in software solutions to streamline the ever more complex processes.


As with any profession, as a job gets more specialized, so do the tools for the job. I would say that the most promising innovation should come from the tools sector, particularly tools that use a CVS-like Design Management system, for asset management en masse. This, combined with other tools/plug-ins, will definitely make software creation more efficient, reliable, and easier to maintain as a whole.

Just as the software development would benefit with module-like tools that fit together with ease, so too would console hardware benefit from the same. I can imagine all console sharing the same peripherals and hardware protocols. In short it would be nice to have a standard. I believe it will be more and more important for game creators and such to work together towards a unified standard that would benefit all parties involved. Unity is perhaps the most important innovation of the future.

-Joseph Carr, Transplace

Given the volume of data assets that will need to be created for next-gen games, advanced content-creation tools will be crucial. In particular, I think increased automation in content generation will be required to reduce the amount of manual work involved in creating complex environments, without compromising the final artistic quality.

-Andrew Medlin, Ratbag Pty Ltd

First class development tools (compilers, debuggers, performance analyzers) are invaluable to game developers. It is especially so if the complexity of the platform's hardware increases, as will be the case for the next generation!

-Anonymous

Multiple-choice NPC interactivity using not just believable, but character-specific text to voice software and a reworking of AIML and its possibilities in games. An economic miniaturization of DLP projection technologies (Bringing the TV with you) or maybe touch-screen TV interactivity. In general, I'd like more tablet/stylus capabilities for mainstream 3D packages.
-Nick Edwards

Vertex, Pixel Shader 3.0 and new game-controlling innovations (EyeToy, touch-screen, microphone, etc.)
-Napan Jungpatanaprecha, Look-Kit Soft

Normal mapping technology and Z-brush for use in making higher poly characters.
-Kyle Vannoy, Hypnotix Inc.

XNA
-Anonymous

Software innovations: The new Unreal engine. Hardware innovations: Nintendo's next-gen development kit.

-Anonymous

I could see innovations, or at least more competition in the content and asset management space. Everyone's anticipating (and showing) huge growth in team sizes for next generation games, and if your asset pipeline is a bottleneck, it better be on your agenda to address, or get ready for some fun.

Real-time collaborative content creation? Why not? Why create inconsistencies by having separate designers building separate maps, or hitting version control issues with map designers or artists, when you could put two of them in the same map at the same time, either building the scene together, building connected scenes, or bringing in a graphic or sound artist on demand to build and/or suggest elements. Not to mention, having a second designer on it, you can catch problems or any bad ideas before they become problems.

And given the infrastructure, you could easily throw a QA guy to break it, or a content reviewer (designer/QA) that's purposely out of the loop just to identify potential problems that may have been missed. Sure, it may be flawed if the gameplay and engine are in flux, but in theory it could make map content crunches more productive.
Yeah, that's my madness for this week.
-Mike Kasprzak


The "HD Era"
One respondent in particular agreed with J Allard's GDC keynote echoing his views on high-definition:


Rather than any single innovation, I think that the continuing exponential increase in processing power and available memory will have the biggest influence on games in the future.

However, I think the next "big innovation" will be the support HDTV. The quality of the graphics in the upcoming round of consoles will go beyond the limits of standard TVs and games played on a super-sized high-resolution flat panel TV will look spectacular.
-John Bolton, Page 44 Studios


Conclusion


And so ends this week's question of the week, hopefully filled with interesting concepts regarding what the upcoming next-generation consoles are going to bring. Tune in next week for new answers to a new question, and we'll leave you with this respondent's less-than-subtle salesmanship:


The future will be online gaming real-worldism, or that's what I am calling it. Of course, there will be animation and programming innovations. However, the big innovation will come from the game my company Howling Moon Designs is working on. It is a whole new MMORPG that will integrate real world economic systems that will allow people to virtually live a life online where they can have a job in a game and earn real money inside that game environment. As well inside this game players will experience an alternate universe of love, hate, power, greed, and conquest. To learn more about it email Lee Ing at [email protected]
-Lee Ing, Howling Moon Designs


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[Article illustration by Arjan Westerdiep @ drububu.com, after Rembrandt.]

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