While the coming year will no doubt resurge the Console Arms Race of gigahertz, gigabytes, and other meaningless giga-numbers, I present a checklist of console features that will actually matter.
The console is small and unassuming, with just the right amount of character. It runs quietly.
It doesn't have an identity crisis over being a videogame console. Yes, it plays music, TV shows, movies, etc, but it doesn't prioritize them over videogames. Designing a better home screen is the most obvious way to solve this problem. Here's one approach:
The home screen presents a simple grid of tiles, which can be pinned, moved and removed.
It also has a row of smartly filtered tiles, based on recently and commonly played media, recommended titles, and even new releases. These tiles can be pinned to have a permanent spot on the home screen grid.
This creates the perfect balance between a familiar home screen, but one that is convenient to change frequently, so it remains relevant and up-to-date.
Typing out gift card codes is a last resort. Cards are NFC enabled, with a reader on every controller. (QR codes is a less elegant, but acceptable, solution)
Speaking of controllers, they can maintain their familiar layout while evolving just a little.
Getting from turning on the TV to actually starting a game is quick and painless.
The console has a low power mode, so turning it on is much faster.
The home screen, as discussed above, makes the game selection process faster.
The logo/splash screens are an SDK feature, like a sophisticated version of iOS's Default.png. This allows the logos to show up while the disc is still spinning up, and while the game loads in the background. In theory, this means the game will start a couple of seconds faster. (I'd say they should be skippable after the first view, but that's just wishful thinking.)
The store is carefully curated, and is driven by quality, not advertising dollars. It highlights the latest and greatest, but also highly rated older titles.
The social media functionality is easy to access, but respects players who prefer to play without distractions.
The console SDK is much easier to use. Sure, consoles are complex technologies, but there are areas that can be simplified.
As Blow mentions in the article above, my biggest pet peeve is the "This game uses autosave" message, which is totally unnecessary in almost every instance.
The "downloading update" screen is a rare sight. The console automatically downloads updates for games you've previously played. Downloads happen in the background, even after you've turned the console off. (Of course, this can be customized to take into consideration bandwidth and storage limitations)
Note the lack of technical specs. Also note that none of this is technically impossible with today's hardware.
Usability and user experience really matter, as smartphones and tablets have already made clear. Consoles need to keep up, while maintaining deeper gaming experiences. Streamlining the experience around the game itself would be a great start.
When I was learning to drive many summers ago (back when summer vacations were still a thing) my Mum would take me out during the day to practice. I'd do the driving, she'd do the being-worried-about-our-mortality and navigation. At some point on every trip, without fail, she would instruct me to take a right turn and upon complying she would yell "No not that right! Your other right!"
Playing Super Hexagon is a bit like that, except it all happens in your head.
It's a deceptively simple concept: navigate a hexagon shaped maze, turning left or right to dodge incoming walls. In practice, Super Hexagon is like running head-first into an oncoming train with the aid of hallucinogens. It's a game that requires quick decisions while your perspective pulsates, tumbles, and generally serves to confuse. At some point you'll question your understanding of clockwise and counterclockwise.
Initially, you won't last more than a few seconds. With a little experience that number will tick up to ten, maybe twenty, seconds. Super Hexagon makes no apologies about it's difficulty, but losing always feels fair. It's easy to convince yourself that you just made a silly, avoidable mistake, so you keep trying. With practice, which involves memorizing recurring segments of the randomized mazes in addition to improvising and reacting to immediate dangers, you'll get better.
If you're really dedicated you might progress past the one minute mark and unlock a new mode. At this point you might feel pretty smug, even like you're good at Super Hexagon. Instead, trying a harder mode will feel like a whole new impenetrable game. It will demand you react faster, perform more precisely, and most importantly, gain a deeper understanding of Super Hexagon.
And therein lies the appeal: the ability to deeply explore a game system, peeling back the hexagon-shaped layers one by one to gain an appreciation and (eventually) mastery over Super Hexagon itself.
Let's talk about three videogames that are using physics in thoughtful and interesting ways.
Windosill is a puzzle game set in a series of rooms filled with strange objects. The puzzles involve interactions between said objects, without resorting to "physics puzzles". Instead, it uses physics to add realism and subtle behaviours (like swaying and springy movement) to make the world feel real. But this is simply a ruse. As you tap and swipe around, the strange objects comes alive and react to your touches. The game subverts your expectations as you discover a surreal world that feels anything but real.
Joe Danger bases its reality on The Universe (according to children). This is reflected not only in the graphics and animation, but in the physics as well. Everything from crashing into obstacles to pulling wheelies has a toy-like sense of reality and feedback. The guys at Hello Games clearly wanted to capture this feeling:
Grant had a box of toys he brought down from his attic. [...] But we kept coming back to one toy, an Evel Knievel stunt cycle. We just sat and actually played with it, building bigger and bigger ramps, launching it out of windows, down corridors.
Who knew physics could play such a central role in adding personality to a videogame?
Noby Noby Boy is based on an impossible toy: an infinitely stretchable slinky named Boy. The physics add a loose set of rules to the playground, but like all the best rules, these ones are meant to be broken. A simple feedback loop is quickly established: play with the world to figure out the rules, then make up goals to push up against or break them. It's one of the finest examples of self-guided fun that could only exist as a videogame.
I'm not much of a photographer. I don't own a fancy DSLR camera, or an unreasonably expensive pile of lens, or a portfolio filled with expertly framed shots.
Yet whenever I'm on vacation, or a hike, or an otherwise scenic trip, I delude myself into thinking that photography is my calling. With my iPhone in hand (convenience replaced a Sony Cybershot) I carefully measure up the scene around me, and attempt to take the perfect shot. Much to the annoyance of the friends and family who accompany me.
Dear Esther elicits the same feeling, without the annoyed traveling companions. The island, with it's saturated colours and barren landscapes, has a subdued beauty to it. There's a perfect scene around every corner, it's just a matter of finding the right perspective. And when I did, I couldn't help but take a couple of screenshots along the way.
You move around the island at a pace suitable for taking in your surroundings. As you explore, fragments of the story are narrated in an ambigious manner. It makes more sense as you go along, but it never quite came together for me. (Although I'm sure a more observant player would disagree.) I mostly just waited for the subtitles to go away so I could take another screenshot.
At some point, this became a distracting enough hobby that I remapped the Screenshot key from F5 to the more convenient F.
The ponderous pace can frustrate at times. I have a certain knack for wandering, and Dear Esther caters to that, but there is ultimately One True Path and a series of dead ends. When faux-photography time was over and I needed to make progress, the trek back was tedious.
The astute reader will note that I've made no mention of any interactions beyond movement. That's because there are none. Dear Esther is better off for it's lack of objectives, things to examine, puzzles, and collectables. However, I can't help but feel that something, anything in the way of meaningful interaction would make the entire experience all the more meaningful.
Yet around half way through the game, I found myself perched up very close to my monitor, in awe of every step into my new surroundings, hanging on every last word of narration. For a game that does "nothing", it certainly has a way of drawing the player in.
So maybe that's what Dear Esther does best? At the exclusion of everything else, it draws the player into another world.
And screenshots, obviously.
Thought exercise: what if a console manufacturer, like Sony, were to buy a cloud gaming service like Gaikai? What would this mean for future consoles? Not the upcoming consoles, I stress, but a Future Console.
The Future Console itself would be a thin client that streams videogames hosted on enormously powerful servers. Remember that feeling of going to an arcade back in the day and seeing what the future would look like? That sort of thing happening all over again is a very real possibility.
The console itself though, would be incredibly cheap. It would launch at $100 and still be profitable. The real power (and cost) are in the servers. Of course, a monthly subscription would be required to use said servers (and by extension, the console), not unlike cable TV.
Videogames both big and small would be streamed instantly on the Future Console. This is dramatically faster than the current model of downloading entire videogames, which can take anywhere between a couple of hours to a couple of days. It also frees the user from having to manage limited hard disk space. Even as bandwidth and storage capacities grow this problem will persist, since game sizes will grow proportionally. Streaming is a solution that doesn't need to scale.
Streaming also doesn't require discs, so videogames would be sold digitally. This changes the economics of a $60 game, half of which is tied up in manufacturing, shipping and retail.
Even the upgrade cycle would change. Just like the software of today, the hardware of tomorrow will be seamlessly upgraded. Instead of replacing the console itself, the servers would be upgraded.
The Future Console is not without it's problems though, namely: bandwidth and ownership.
Streaming an action game at 60 (or even 30) frames-per-second is limited by bandwidth (and bandwidth caps) today, but hopefully, it won't be in five years. Internet infrastructure needs to catch up.
Ownership is more complicated. We're all accustomed to the idea that videogames are tied to a single platform (Windows, Xbox, etc), and the Future Console would be no different. However, without an on-going subscription, your console and purchased videogames are effectively useless. Needless to say, this is a tough pill to swallow.
Despite these troubling aspects, I can't help but feel excited about Future Console. It has the potential to disrupt the market by bringing extremely powerful technology to consoles, while simultaneously lowering the cost of entry on both the console and the videogames. It leads to putting controllers in the hands of more people, which can only be a good thing.
I'm suppose to write stuff here, but I think the title covers everything.