2021 needs to define the coming generation – because 2020 certainly didn’t
2020 was a lot of things to a lot of people, but it also had the distinct displeasure of being the year the new consoles were released. Somehow, the Xbox Series X and PS5 were still released, and the only real downside seems to be keeping stock levels high enough so people can pay for them.
In hindsight, that’s about the best anybody could have predicted, and it’s fully down to the geniuses at Sony and Microsoft for making that happen.
But in all the rushing to save the day, there’s one thing that fell by the wayside last year. And that was the definition of what will make the coming generation special. Because right now, we just don’t know.
Games to come
Let’s face it, there are a few new techniques that have made owning the new consoles worth it already. Loading times really are non-existent and those few games that have raytracing seem really impressive as well. Plus, the additional horsepower undoubtedly make games look pretty gorgeous.
But is that it? Of course it’s not. There will be more – we just don’t know what. We haven’t seen enough next-gen games to tell us where we’re going, or what’s going to be the overriding themes of the coming seven years.
My concern is this: when you look at the games coming this year, very few of them are what I’d describe as generation-defining. Not because they won’t be great games, but because they’re literally going to be on PS4 and Xbox One as well.
God of War. Horizon. Halo Infinite. If they’re not confirmed for last-gen devices, they will be soon.
And I don’t expect that to change any time soon. There are too many people in both ecosystems who won’t upgrade to PS5 or Xbox Series X. You can’t just leave them behind. Not to start with anyway.
But you’ve got to give them a reason to start thinking about it.
When DVD manufacturers started to release blu-ray discs, they thought they were onto a winner. Here’s a premium version of a film that you can sell, while keeping your old audience glued on DVDs. It was genius, so long as you don’t count how completely near-sighted it was.
All previous formats had died a death fairly quickly, because the must-have thing had taken its place. VHS didn’t overstay its welcome, and the leap to DVD was pretty much final by 2005. That’s less than 10 years between the release of DVD and the end of VHS.
Blu-ray appeared in 2006 and, here we are, 15 years later, and it’s still not unusual to hear people say they want the “normal version of the film” when offered a blu-ray.
Had blu been cheaper and more accessible when Netflix came along, would physical still be on the way out? Would 4K be for collectors (like me) with more money than sense?
I bring this up, because the lay of the land is scarily similar to this with consoles right now. There’s the normal version on PS4, a slightly better version on PS4 Pro, and then a premium edition on PS5.
There’s also Microsoft, Amazon and Google on the horizon, each with streaming services ready to start taking names.
I’m a big believer in making a game cross-gen if you can, but I’m also a big believer in not making it cross-gen just because you can. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla isn’t doing anything the PS4 and Xbox One can’t handle. Cyberpunk? That definitely is.
What’s to be done?
This year needs to define what will make these consoles tick for the next seven years, because, by the end of that time period, streaming is going to be viable and popular. That’s especially true in parts of Asia.
Microsoft isn’t immune to this. The direction of their games console defines the direction of xCloud. No matter how we’re playing in the Xbox ecosystem, you don’t want the Series X to go completely off the rails.
Sony are less immune to streaming. Their own platform, PlayStation Now, can’t compete.
We can forgive the console manufacturers for just doing everything they can to get these devices out in 2020. But 2021 needs to be the year of marketing. There needs to be widespread efforts to get some semblance of E3 back, even if it’s a digital event. One day where everybody can blow their biggest announcements instead of drily trying to spread them out over the space of nearly a year.
There can be no more promises of soon, no more CGI trailers – there needs to be a showcase of reasons these consoles needed to exist.
Those reasons can’t just be “faster loading and slightly nicer graphics”. I mean, that’d be perfect for me and for other early adopters, but it’s not going to save you from the people who’re happy just to pick up the “normal version” of Grand Theft Auto VI. It’s not going to appeal to the growing number of buyers who suddenly realise their Amazon Prime subscription comes with brand new video games for the cost of a controller.
It’s a scary thought, but it’s a very real scenario.
There wasn’t many gaming events last year that really hit the spot. Most showed a bit of vague potential and even those that were really impressive – I’m thinking the Unreal tech demo – haven’t yet been shown in real-world circumstances.
That’s disappointing, but acceptable in the run-up to launch, while manufacturers are dealing with the effects of a global pandemic. It’s not fine for a second year.
The guy that decided blu-ray and DVD should co-exist killed the physical market. At the click of a button, Netflix let you watch hundreds of blu-ray quality movies for a fifth of the “premium” cost of a disc.
I really hope this generation doesn’t see console manufacturers making exactly the same mistake.