The Golden Age of Gaming?

Shamus Young posted on Friday about how the Golden Age of Gaming was a few years ago, and on the same day there was an article by Sean Sands at The Escapist about how it is actually right now. So Shamus asked what makes right now so great.

Well, I had to respond:

  • Quality, fun titles abound in recent and near future releases.
  • With big publishers there seems to be somewhat of an atmosphere that trying new things is becoming more acceptable and encouraged (of course there will still be sequels and there are exceptions, but the picture is looking just a little brighter than it did before).
  • Independent development is getting new venues (Xbox Marketplace with XNA, WiiWare, PlayStation Network, Apple App Store, the Google Marketplace for Android) with more support and attention than ever before.
  • Critics are becoming more critical and review scores are to some extent gravitating towards a more realistic distribution (at least from some sources, such as Edge). This is a good thing… right now Metacritic Movies and Metacritic Games are apples and oranges.
  • And for many reasons I feel like this generation of game consoles is the best so far. I have a sense that it is highly likely that the next generation of consoles will actually be a step backwards, because some of the things which make this generation so great are largely accidental on the part of the console manufacturers. That is, I don’t think any of them actually completely gets what makes consoles great.

To Microsoft it’s just about finding new places in the business model to charge money, and to Sony (this generation at least) it’s just about the hardware. Nintendo… well, the Wii is great, but they haven’t knocked everything out of the park like the Wii in the past, and there’s no reason to expect whatever comes next to do as well (though there is reason to expect it to be new and different in some way).

The truth is, Microsoft’s console is succeeding because the development tools are better than the rest of the consoles (this is something I don’t think the other console vendors will be able to make up for even in the next generation, or possibly ever), and because they’re doing a great job of recruiting third party developers. Sony is doing fine because of the PS3’s media capabilities (Blu-Ray, upscaling DVDs, streaming media from home computers, etc.) and because they’ve fostered the perception that it’s the one with the best hardware. Nintendo is banking because anyone can play the Wii, because they’ve scrapped the idea of taking a loss on each hardware sale, and because they started out at a sweet-spot price point, with only one SKU.

But what makes consoles great is simplicity. No installs, no worrying about hardware compatibility or drivers. Pop in a disc and it runs. For this generation, that also means it’s simple to find and try new games through demos, trial versions, and digital distribution. It’s simple to buy one machine and know it does what you want; Microsoft and Sony are completely dropping the ball when they offer multiple SKUs and I expect that will only get worse (look at Vista…). There’s the simplicity of developing for one target machine, so that time can be spent on more useful issues. Online friends, voice chat, etc. are all simple to use and to put into games since they’re part of the operating system. No more proprietary memory cards (except with Microsoft) means it’s simpler and cheaper to store data. There are a lot of things this generation has gotten right.

But now consoles are beginning to have installs. There’re rumors that the next generation will be more configurable in terms of hardware. It’s possible there will be good to come of this on the other end, with perhaps a standard console platform (operating system) which any hardware manufacturer can create a console using, and any game made for the platform can be played on any hardware which uses it… but I’m sure it will get worse before it gets better.

So, to sum up, I agree with Sands that right now is a golden age of gaming not only because things are looking good right now compared to the past, but because they look good compared to the near future as well.

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