Baseless Speculation: An educated guess on the next iteration of game consoles

We're well past the five-year mark on the current generation of game consoles, and with details of an imminent Wii successor starting to percolate, now is the time to consider what the next generation of hardware will entail.

Traditionally, competing game console manufacturers have fought clear-cut battles over hardware, software, and add-ons. But with this last generation, things changed: Nintendo rose to the front of the pack by tapping into latent audiences, and Microsoft and Sony have fought hard to win exclusive games and add-on content and to develop competing online infrastructures. The shape of the market has changed dramatically with games on new platforms like Zynga's Facebook-based FarmVille and Rovio's Angry Birds, arguably the single most-successful phone-based game ever made.

There's no question that the next console war will be won by whoever is able to connect to and engage with the most people, but nobody seems to be discussing how that's going to happen. And that's what led to this article.

From my point of view, there are three major paradigm shifts that occurred during this most recent console generation:

  1. Alternative control methods (Wii Remote, Kinect, PlayStation Move, music game controllers, etc.)
  2. High-definition video
  3. Robust and integrated networks for interaction and content distribution

The biggest challenge facing the next generation of consoles isn't how to up the ante on the audiovisual front, although that'll be critical to Microsoft and Sony in particular. In fact, a good barometer for when we'll see a PlayStation 4 is once it's possible to build a system capable of pumping out 1080p graphics at 60 frames per second in 3D, with all the anti-aliasing, shaders and other visual mysticism we're used to, for under $600. But Sony's already touting the PlayStation 3 as a capable 3D gaming machine, and many current first- and third-party games support 3D televisions.

It's also unlikely that the next round of consoles will introduce any groundbreaking new interfaces. Kinect and PlayStation Move are here to stay for the next generation, as is Nintendo's suite of motion controllers. We'll undoubtedly see some improvements, but I expect they'll be evolutionary — think high-definition Kinect video chat, updated Move controllers, and so on. Those improvements will be well-received by consumers, but they're merely evolutionary, not disruptive.

The next consoles need to deliver a major game-changer in how we interact with our entertainment, and I think the only logical conclusion is that it's going to be social.

 

Yeah, I know, I know: Mr. Facebook is about to proselytize up a storm about how social networking will change the world. But hear me out on this.

Games are as inherently social an activity as anything else. People have found common ground and bonded over games for millennia: Chess players enjoy the thrill of both face-to-face competition and long-distance matches by mail, sports fans unite to support their favorite teams, and videogamers have swapped strategies, shared stories of their exploits and competed fervently both in-person and online for decades. Even single-player games are social experiences for the same reason books and movies are: shared narratives inevitably lead to interpretation and discussion.

What we have at this point is the infrastructure and install base to keep gamers connected to their friends and families. There's a Wii in virtually every younger household in the country, including the White House, and families have overwhelmingly taken to the fun, accessible play in broadly appealing games like Wii Sports, Rock Band and Just Dance. Xbox and PlayStation fans have spent years building a virtual persona with an avatar and what I'd call a digital legacy: trophies, achievements, peer-reviewed gaming performance and behavior, virtual goods, and so on. Our gaming identities have become an extension of our real selves.

Everyone's a gamer, and everyone always has been. The problem lies in the label "gamer." We think of gamers as socially maladjusted and lethargic, unwilling or unable to contribute to society in a meaningful way. In reality, gamers are often some of the most intellectually stimulated and curious people alive.

For example, consider the person who plays World of Warcraft for two hours in the evening instead of watching a couple hours of television. Both are leisure activities, but the gamer is ostracized as being weird or disconnected. However, I see the gamer as seeking intellectual stimulation and community, and there's nothing lazy or antisocial about that. Television is uninvolved and one-directional; gaming is interactive, engaging and reciprocal. Vilifying gaming is not unlike discouraging intellectualism.

With tens of millions engaged on a daily basis in games on Facebook, on phone-powered applications and on home consoles, there's no question that more people are engaged in gameplay than ever before. But there are currently only rudimentary, skeletal systems for engaging with friends in games. Aside from friends lists and matchmaking systems, most of the games we play are almost indistinguishable from solitary experiences. We can hear and occasionally see the people we play videogames with, but most of the feedback we get comes from in-game actions through avatars, which are not very expressive.

What's missing is being able to share these experiences genuinely with our friends with as little interruption and arbitration as possible. What's missing is the human element.

Nothing will ever replace the value of sharing a game with a friend sitting next to you, but there's a clear potential in leveraging the infrastructure that already links our consoles to an even greater degree. What if your Kinect or PlayStation Eye enabled picture-in-picture video chat during games? Or if you could assist a friend with a particularly difficult sequence in a game by watching a live feed of their game — or, to take it even further, by directly being able to take control? What would happen if faster processors and more robust broadband networks were used to break down the barriers and wait times and to reduce the latency and obfuscation of present-day online communication?

These are all just possibilities, but they all point to the real question of the next generation: What if our digital gaming experiences were as gratifying and meaningful as our real-world ones?

More and more, people are turning to social networks to express themselves on a daily basis. Facebook has more than 500 million active users, Twitter has a worldwide reach, and sites like Quora, Formspring and Tumblr are growing exponentially. No matter how you look at it, it's clear that people want to represent themselves in a social space. And with digital infrastructure expanding and growing more robust and accessible, the time is right for game consoles to allow people to express themselves — their real selves — and to share real, meaningful experiences with the people they care about.

And what's more social than playing a game together?