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Where games will be in 2020

My entry for the 'Imagine the Games of 2020' competition. The focus (or perhaps lack thereof) of my submission is to discuss the innovations in the industry and console games of the future. *footnote links don't work, but they are at the bottom

Nick Jacoby Console Gaming in the Year 2020

 

A Gamasutra Competition Entry

1. What will consoles feature in the year 2020 and what effects will this have on the industry?

 

It is clear that the home videogame consoles of tomorrow will at the very least combine the most successful aspects of current systems. This means that the industry can expect standard features of a console in 2020 to include expanded motion based controls, tremendous polygon counts and intuitive User Interface. While consumers will still not accept anything too outlandish, their experiences with the Wii and gaming peripherals like the Novint Falcon will open them up to far more innovative control methods than the standard d-pad and face buttons design.

In eleven years, I foresee virtual reality technology and pragmatic business options coming ever closer to harmony. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to assume that the standard home console will include a Head Mounted Display and Haptic Feedback Gloves as its major innovations.1 Through some means of technological design,2 these two input devices will register the gamer’s head and hand movements with enough accuracy that they can be used to operate within a virtual world.

The Head Mounted Display will feature screens for each eye that cut off the user’s peripheral vision as they replace it with a full 3-dimensional display. The visor will prevent light from entering the headset during use, just as the surround sound headphones will feature noise-canceling technology. The headset will fully immerse the player into the virtual world of the game in a way that no console has done before. Naturally, the implications of a standard HMD will be numerous, especially since it will standardize people’s auditory and visual experiences. Confining the experience entirely to one person could also go against the social aspect of gaming in situations when there is only one HMD in a room of multiple people, so a means to connect the device to a TV and speakers would probably be included.

The Haptic Feedback Gloves would accompany the HMD in creating an unprecedented immersion in the world of interactive media. Just as the HMD would completely occupy the two human senses of sight and sound, the HFG would allow players to “feel” the fabricated 3D environments as they move their hands around, making them seem far more realistic. While modern HFG are bulky and Terminatoresque,3 I think that in the future the palms of the gloves will be lined with a simple material that will apply pressure on the palm and fingers through tension. In addition, the gloves will not rely on the headset to function, and could be used in a social setting with other glove wearers to manipulate a display on a single TV screen.

So what does this all mean for the games of 2020? Obviously players will become much more invested in the game worlds as they experience them convincingly on three different levels through touch, sight, and sound. One repercussion of such heightened graphics and immersion is that players will likely reject game models and human animations that don’t seem real.4 This will put pressure on developers to spend more time on subtle details and might influence design decisions away from sprawling sandbox games. Certainly flat NPC animations like those in Fallout 3 will fall out of practice as the choreographed, motion-captured acting featured in the upcoming Heavy Rain becomes the norm.5

The utility of the Head Mounted Display and Haptic Gloves as controllers will simultaneously increase the level of interactivity possible in game worlds while decreasing the need for peripheral devices. Expensive but innovative endeavors like the cockpit control in Steel Battalion6 will simply be simulated in virtual space. Consumers will think twice about buying a steering wheel or guitar peripheral when they can already “feel” such devices with the tactile feedback of the Haptic Gloves.

Perhaps the most important consequence of such increased immersion is that the line between “game” and “interactive media” will become blurred. As it becomes clear that certain experiences can only be had on “silly video game consoles,” audiences will realize that there is something magical to discover through the medium. For the sake of the industry and the Arts, increased attention and respect for interactive experiences can only be a good thing.

 

Outside of the living room, videogame formats will alter as well. The success of the Nintendo DS and iPhone apps will influence savvy businesses both large and small to invest in mobile gaming. Obviously there will be technical differences between a powerful home console and a handheld device that will limit the scope (and development costs!) of these mobile games, but their key advantage will be the ease in which consumers can incorporate mobile games into their daily lives.  

I envision the end of specific portable gaming consoles like the DS or PSP, as cell phones will be designed to have computing power on par with any handheld their size. This will reduce the number of devices gamers carry around and make mobile gaming a more universal activity. Everyone carries a cell phone, and designing games that can be played with people on other cell phones increases the user base to literally anyone not marooned in the third world (and even that is up for debate)7.

Imagine how much easier it would have been to trade Pokémon back in grade school if we could have just text messaged them over during math class? How about sitting at lunch with your friends and coordinating a raid in World of Mobilecraft? These will be simple experiences to produce on small phones in eleven years, but I doubt that these “hardcore” experiences will even be the most lucrative. Video game designers should look to services like Facebook for inspiration on how they can convince their customers to play their game constantly. The real gems of the future mobile games market will be the ones that can make their games ubiquitous in cell phone users’ daily lives.8

 

2. Describe a typical game of 2020.

 

As stated, future home console games will be more immersive and have more potential to draw in new audiences, and thus will require smarter development efforts. Non-interactive rooms, static characters and stale dialog will be rejected; extra attention will be paid to small environmental details, fluid animation, and vastly superior scripts than we see today. The medium itself will graduate and the best titles will have quality control on par with Hollywood.

A typical gaming experience in 2020 could be titled Street Precinct. In this game you take on the role of former detective Jack Smith, a private investigator whose office is located right on the border between the rich and slummy parts of town. Business has been slow during the summer, and Jack hasn’t gotten a riveting case in a while. The plot picks up when a lady comes in asking him to investigate the death of her son, as she doesn’t believe that the police are looking in the right places and she has heard that Jack has connections in the community. From there, the plot probably goes in similar directions as “L.A. Confidential” or “Gone, Baby, Gone.”

The overarching plot follows conventional storytelling standards, but the real progressive material lies in the interaction between missions and a pervasive social commentary throughout the game. The plot has already allowed for rising mission complexity; the player is eased into the game structure with simple situations the private investigator might find himself in during the summer but eventually he or she must use all of Jack’s wits to overcome challenges later in the game. These missions will each serve a dual purpose: first they will provide avenues of play, and second they will form a moral narrative concerning the world that Jack lives in.

This is hard to explain without an example, so here’s the first level: Jack is hired by a distraught woman to tail her husband and determine whether her suspicions of his infidelity are true. The player must follow the husband late on a Saturday night without making it obvious. Jack follows the husband into a strip club, where after chatting up the bartender he discovers that the husband routinely comes there with his buddies and scores a little on the side. At this point the player can decide to take his pictures and leave or confront the husband then and there. Either way Jack ends up in a brawl, as even if he tries to leave, one of the husband’s friends comes out of the bathroom and sees him taking pictures. As the first mission ends with a bloody nose and a few less teeth, the player has learned how to control Jack, talk with NPCs, and fight a few bad guys. When the player presents the news to the wife, she goes limp with grief and frustration and Jack has the opportunity to console her. Either way, the short story shows the consequences of infidelity on the spouse who stays home and how devastating it can be for a human being to go through.

Essentially, all the missions will be designed around this dual role. Missions will provide further compelling gameplay through investigations of crime scenes that the player must piece together, social interactions that will have the player guessing at what Jack should say in order to get what he wants, and of course exciting gunfights that are lost if a single bullet hits you where it counts.9 The stories presented will also vary; they might focus on the drug trade in inner city slums or on the effects that gangs have on poor neighborhoods, or even the racial bias in the court system.10 In all cases, the source material will be grounded in real situations and problems that confront people today.

The game environments won’t be as sprawling as Grand Theft Auto because they will focus on depth and believability. The beginning half of Indigo Prophecy was not convincing because of its breadth of content, but because each individual level was carefully crafted with interactivity and NPCs with various human motives and pasts. This subtle design can convince the player that the world is more real and fully realized than it really is, but the same effect cannot be achieved the other way around. A typical environment in Street Precinct could be the room that Jack has set up office in. It is full of drawers and doodads that are important to him and his every day life, which will show how realistic he is despite the fact that you cannot access the rest of his building. Another environment might be the local pub, where he interacts with NPCs and gets information from them through friendship, bribery, or even intimidation.

Communicating with NPCs will take a similarly realistic and convincing approach but through a large script and flowing dialog trees. Essentially, the system will be presented much like a real conversation would go for a character internally, with modern and postmodern aspects of subjectivism featured heavily: As the NPC is speaking, Jack thinks about all the different things he could start to say and the player sees his different options. These options change as the conversation goes on, and it is up to the player to choose an option before it goes away or the NPC gets confused or offended by Jack’s silence. The player chooses an option by selecting it with their Haptic Glove or speaking the first few lines,11 which prompts Jack to speak that statement.

The rest of the controls should be as intuitive as possible. To pick something up, you reach and pick it up. To shoot your gun, you draw it and pull the trigger. Even walking or running can be simulated via gestures. Obviously there will be complex situations such as running and diving during a firefight or choosing what a clue means during an investigation. The former situation could be handled by the player shooting with his or her dominant hand while pointing with the other hand where Jack should go and at what speed, depending on the position of the pointer finger. The latter situation could be handled similarly to the NPC dialogs, with options popping up in Jack’s head for the player to take advantage of. If it hasn’t been made clear before, moving the Head Mounted Display around causes Jack’s head to look around the environment, offering a fully immersive first person experience.

 

Street Precinct is not a fully realized design document, but it shows the potential that games have in 2020. Console games will have the capability of being both fun and didactic or at least enriching experiences, and it will be up to developers to bring out the potential of the medium. By the year 2020 there will be no question: games can be relevant art too.

Not only will this new breed of console game design be fun and educational, it will be much more visible and accepted throughout society. People won’t just describe themselves based on their favorite movies and books, but their gaming career as well. This is a direct result of games becoming more polished and unique in terms of what they offer to the public, as well as the proliferation of gaming among younger generations who will be adults in a decade. The social habit of playing on the cell phone will go hand in hand with the success of the console maturation. Gaming as a whole will be more important to more people in the year 2020.

 

1 Head Mounted Displays and Haptic Feedback Gloves are common Virtual Reality terms. For more information, refer to this site: http://www.dcs.ed.ac.uk/teaching/cs4/www/graphics/Web/intro_graphics/vr.htm

2 Modern Research & Development is already headed in this direction. See Wii MotionPlus and Optical Motion Tracking systems such as FreeTrack for examples.

3 http://www.dcs.ed.ac.uk/teaching/cs4/www/graphics/Web/intro_graphics/cgrasp.jpg

4 Psychologists have determined that androids that look like humans scare people because they have certain qualities that betray their inorganic origins. I imagine that videogame characters that are just short of perfect could really creep you out if they had certain disturbing quirks to them… see http://www.cracked.com/article_16462_7-creepiest-real-life-robots.html

5 Compare these two videos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRHyuGO_5Xk and http://www.gametrailers.com/player/10758.html

6 Steel Battalion’s controller features around 40 buttons, including twin joysticks, a gear shift, and pedals that all were used to pilot a walking battle mech. http://www.the-nextlevel.com/features/developers/production-studio-4/steel-battalion-controller.jpg

Needless to say, the game was (is) flipping sweet.

7 This article points out the rising cell phone use in third world countries today: http://www.dialaphone.co.uk/blog/?p=1485

8 Understatement of the year.

9 The last gunfight in “L.A. Confidential” provides inspiration for such scenes. In that battle, the enemies die in one hit and the protagonists are heavily wounded by the shots they take in turn. The showdown is also an incredibly dramatic and exciting action sequence. Why do video games need to resort to hit points when the real world is so much more interesting?

10 See the disparity between cheap crack cocaine possession sentences and rich powder cocaine sentences. http://www.usnews.com/articles/news/national/2007/10/01/crack-vs-powder-cocaine-a-gulf-in-penalties.html

11 Note: Video game consoles of 2020 will come with high-quality microphones and awesome voice recognition technology.


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