Muses: The Glory of Innovation

After spending last week reminiscing about the glory of the old days – just how good the games used to be – I got to thinking about the opposite: All the good that has come in this new era – especially in terms of technology and it’s applications.

And let’s be honest, there are a ton of really fantastic ideas that are either just being realized or have just recently begun to be utilized.

Probably the most unpredictable and undeniable change that has been happening to gaming lately has come as a direct result of the increased prevalence of the Internet. Internet connectivity has only really come to our consoles in this generation – the PS2 and XBox had it to an extent, but nothing like we see now. Some of the most amazing game concepts I’ve ever seen have come as a direct result of the Internet… things like the concept of sharing characters in Disgaea 4 or the global boss battles found in Dragon’s Dogma. Ideas like the truly unique and brilliant take on multiplayer found in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. And then, of course, there are things like Riot’s ‘drop in’ spectator mode within League of Legends, allowing people interested to watch any game being played by their friends or even select games from higher ranked players. Even the silly things like the persistent sharing found in facebook games to allow people to interact with people who aren’t online through visiting their creations. All of these are ways that gaming is evolving in ways that people would’ve been hard pressed to imagine 10 years ago. The Internet has had a profound impact in some incredibly positive ways on our gaming environment just in the sense of connectivity and interaction.

But the Internet is much more than just that… and Japan has fully embraced that recently with many JRPGs moving towards a sort of ‘build your own game’ experience with dozens of downloadable scenarios, characters, equipment packs, and other elements allowing you to really pick and choose what elements you want to experience. While those are extreme examples, the vast majority of developers have adopted the DLC model for delivery of additional content. While I do agree there are some ethical concerns with the way some organizations are handling this – the ability to expand upon a game to give people additional experiences within the gameworld is unquestionably a positive.

Aside from the Internet probably the next biggest ‘mover and shaker’ – please forgive the pun… please – within the gaming space currently is the concept of motion controls. And this isn’t just the Wii, Move, and Kinect – motion controls also have much broader elements as well in things like the Gyroscopic controls found in both current generation handhelds and the SIXAXIS control for the PS3. Motion controls are everywhere, and are becoming more prevalent. Between Microsoft’s attempts to bring gesture and voice into the gamespace using the Kinect as an addon to normal games and so many games nowadays featuring Move controls as an optional method to control the game, we’re seeing more and more studios take advantage of this relatively new technology.

And the pioneers who started it are reaping the rewards with the Wii – a console that most people were baffled by at first glance – taking a firm second place in terms of total sales of all time and trumping both of it’s higher tech competitors in sales. But the people really benefiting are the people who are interested in new experiences. People who either weren’t traditionally gamers – fitness buffs and grandmas – or were very niche gamers reliant upon expensive setups in order to play – DDR or karaoke fans. All of these people are now becoming lumped in as ‘gamers’ due to the fact that the Wii, and now the PSMove and the Kinect, are allowing all sorts of crazy new game experiences like Wii Fit and Dance Central. Anything that opens up gaming to new audiences is a plus in my books, and if it offers fun new ways for people to manage their health then more power to them.

And from motion control, the logical next big new technology has been the touch screen. The Nintendo DS has really been the biggest place where this has been used in gaming to the greatest effect, allowing for a whole new breed of educational games – from the obvious Brain Age to the less obvious but still very much applicable Scribblenauts. But touch screens are also starting to be seen on consoles with the Vita becoming usable as a controller for the PS3, the Wii-U gamepad, and Microsoft’s Smartglass allowing for tablet integration. We still haven’t even scratched the surface(oh god another pun I’m so sorry) of what touch screens can mean for gaming, but you can clearly see that they are swiftly becoming more and more prominent.

But it’s not just the obvious that has made leaps and bounds… these wouldn’t be possible without all of the amazing new game engines that have been made. The Unreal Engine 3, which has been around for quite a long time, has allowed for a huge move forward in the quality and rendering of graphics, primarily light effects. SquareEnix’s proprietary engine ‘CrystalTools’ was used to create some of the most beautiful games ever made. The Havok engine, while first released over a decade ago, has seen such dramatic improvements over time allowing for unbelievably complex physics rendering and calculations to be handled within the console or computer, allowing for worlds to come to life in ways both dramatic and subtle. While the over the top effects like realistic explosions and fire are the most obvious… the engine is also allowing for the simple gravity effects on doodads in Starcraft 2 and the realistic background and environmental effects in games like Skyrim and Dark Souls.

No matter how nostalgic we may get, and no matter that I think that we’ve past the golden age… it’s always worth seeing the good of what is there now. I just hope that developers are willing to put the effort in to really take full advantage of all of this fantastic technology – so far I’m not all that convinced, but games like Dragon’s Dogma, Uncharted 3, and Journey have really helped to give me hope.

 

-Sean

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