No Consoles for Old Men

Two podcasts ago we touched on the upcoming WiiU details (E3 is just around the corner) as well as the inevitable successors for the X-Box 360 and PS3.  We’ll be talking more about them as there’s more to discuss, but specifically we touched on whether the next generation of consoles will bring any significant leaps in graphical performance or if we’ve finally hit the point of diminishing returns.

I’ve got my own opinions on console graphics, but since they always take the spotlight in a generational refresh I figured I’d talk about the other improvements I’m hoping to see in the next generation of consoles.

Now it just might be my frame of mind in general, but the list I came up with makes me feel a little old.  Oh well, here it is anyway …

#1 Be Smaller and Quieter

I’ll admit it - this is squarely aimed at the X-Box 360 and, to a lesser extent, the PS3.  While the PS3 is a giant lump of metal and plastic that threatens to buckle your entertainment center, it’s at least marginally quieter than your standard household vacuum cleaner.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure it’s called a “360” because it’s powered by a 360bhp BMW V6.

And while I have no complaints about the Wii’s diminutive stature, it clearly came as a massive trade-off between power and size - a trade-off that proved to be a massive commercial success.

So with all this talk of diminishing returns and not knowing where to go with graphical performance, why not take the Wii’s route all around?  To be honest, we might be okay with only marginal graphical improvements if they’re coming out of a smaller, quieter box.

#2 Shorter Load Times

Even great games have loading screens.

We’ve been begging for this one since the Sega CD and with good reason - optical media of every stripe are slow. But now that we have hard drives, partial installs, and downloadable games things are starting to get better.

I’ll grant that I have no real reason to be optimistic on this one.  Technology has been improving steadily over the last 20 years (holy shit the Sega CD is almost old enough to buy alcohol) and the response is almost universally to load more stuff as inefficiently as possible.

So how about this, game makers - if the next generation of hardware doesn’t inspire you to decrease your load times, at least give us a freaking status bar so we have some idea how long we’ll be waiting.

#3 Better Online Accounts

This one is fairly clearly aimed at Nintendo as a place where they can learn from the competition.  It’s utterly absurd how they manage their online services and your online identity.  It would be ridiculous to attempt to describe how they could fix it because, frankly, it would be quicker to start over from scratch.

However, there is one (and really only one) advantage to Nintendo’s scheme of tying game purchases to consoles and friend lists to individual game saves - it makes it very easy to share a console between an entire family.

So, while I’d love to see Nintendo catch up with Sony and Microsoft by having persistent usernames and passwords, it would also be extremely helpful to have a way to bind those multiple accounts into a family - not only allowing those accounts to share purchases but also allowing parent accounts to exercise some control over the child accounts.

#4 Better Online Shopping

Nothing says "reputable business" like proprietary money.

Perhaps I’m a little demanding here - after all I’m still completely amazed that we live in an era when you can press a button to buy a game and then be playing it a few minutes (or hours) later without ever having to seek out a video game store.  But there are still huge improvements to be made.

First, online games should have release dates.  Poor Mark Bradshaw can’t spend the next 5 years saying “well I thought this game was coming out this week but who the fuck knows?”

Then, give shoppers useful information.  Every downloadable game should have a selection of screenshots and trailers ready for immediate viewing/streaming, as well as an impartial review or description.  Perhaps the online stores could sign partnerships with editorial sites like IGN or GameSpot that, while maybe not the representative of the best video game réportage, are a far sight better than attempting to buy games based on a 500-word publisher summary.

I would take a moment here to point out how awesome webOS’ Pivot was but since the platform it was on burned away, so did all the funding for Pivot that made it so great.

Finally, store credit card information and allow users to make purchases directly on their cards in real-world currency.  I feel compelled to point out that none of the consoles allow you to buy things with money.  Even the PlayStation Network, which gets closest to exchanging money for stuff, involves using currency to buy credits for an online wallet and then buying games with the funds you placed in the online wallet.

#5 More Flexible Pausing, Saving, and Resuming

Pause for the love of God - it's a potty emergency!

Most games get pausing right - if you get interrupted by the real world and need to put the controller down to defend your home from invading ninjas (and hey, who doesn’t?) it really isn’t a big deal to hit pause and go kick some ass.  Or take out the trash.  Whichever.

But there are still places you can’t pause in most games - super-long cinematics, and loading screens.  I understand why these could be frustrating from a developer’s point of view, but the 3DS has kind-of stumbled onto a solution here.  The OS can throw any app into sleep mode whenever it wants and resume it later.  That, in some form, should exist on all consoles.

But say it’s something where pause doesn’t work - like if your spouse wants to watch a show on the TV, or you have to give up the console so your kid can watch Thomas the Tank Engine on Netflix before bedtime.  Do you hog the TV until you find a save point?  Or do you lose your progress since the last one?  If games go the “save anywhere, anytime” route you really don’t have to worry about it that much.

#6 Compelling Reasons to be Online

Say you’re into games, but not competitive online multiplayer.  And also imagine that you’re not on the Netflix bandwagon yet.  Why on earth would you bother hooking your consoles up to the internet, much less pay $50 a year for XBL gold?

The three gaming systems’ online services really don’t have much in the way of online content - which isn’t to say they haven’t tried.  Remember PlayStation Home?  No?  Well trust me, it was a thing and it was online.

Nintendo took a swing at the basics - weather and news - and missed.  The information from these channels didn’t update through the always-on internet connection, only when you actually ran the apps, making them 99% useless.  And while the Nintendo Channel is a little better with its instant-streaming trailers and exclusive content, it’s still a weird separate thing that you have to remember to check.  And how are they not using this as a delivery vehicle for realtime E3 and Nintendo Direct content?

Believe it or not, the case I’m making here is for consoles’ online services to be more intrusive.  If you’re gonna have informational apps have them load data automatically overnight and display it whenever I turn on the console (don’t make me load a separate app). 

Keep me logged in at all times and simply mark me as “away” so that I can still receive messages from friends.  When I start a game that supports multi-player automatically show me which friends own that game and which are online.  Let me set up an online “playdate” using my account and then let other people in my house know that I’d planned to use the system when they go to use it.  Let me save replays and photos in racing games and share them with friends online.

If my online presence is going to be an Avatar or Mii, let me customize it any way I want without buying extra clothes.  If it's going to be a photo, let me pick any photo (not from a set of pre-defined icons like PSN).

And last, tie my account in with your website so I can communicate with friends there (chat, message, and set up a playdate) or purchase games and have them download to my console automatically via the always-on internet connection (and don’t make installing a separate thing, Sony, just download and install at once).