For better or worse, the third year is often the "prove it" year. It's supposed to be the year in which the system is in place and everyone is settled in. It's the year that everyone stops giving you the benefit of the doubt.
While this is technically only the second full year of the console generation, we're now on our third holiday season, and it's clear that developers have gotten comfortable with the technology at their disposal. In the context of the last generation, this is basically 2007 - the year of Call of Duty 4, Halo 3, and Mass Effect. It's now safe to say that the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are in their prime (the Wii U is very much in its own world, and I'm fine with that).o
Here are a few of the key moments from this year in gaming.
- Bloodborne arrived and immediately established itself as the single best console exclusive up until that point. It gave a lot of people who had been holding out a reason to invest in the current generation. Its sales numbers were ultimately pretty modest, but it brought with it a tremendous amount of cachet among hardcore gamers.
- Japanese publishers large and small started to make the transition. Odin Sphere Leifdrasir was announced for the PlayStation 4, as was Dragon Quest XI. Tales of Zestiria, Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, and Dragon Quest Heroes all launched in North America, and God Eater Resurrection and Yakuza Zero arrived in Japan. The PlayStation 3 continues to be relevant, but it is slowly but surely fading.
- Many sports games made major strides this year. FIFA and Madden added important new modes, and Pro Evolution Soccer and NHL were much-improved from their 2014 versions. Pretty much every sports sim saw big improvements in terms of graphics and presentation.
- Rocket League encapsulated everything this generation is about en route to becoming this year's breakout hit - cheap, fun, highly streamable gameplay that is deeper than it looks.
- The really big franchises started to come on the scene. Halo got more than an updated collection. Fallout 4 appeared. Metal Gear Solid V, which led Microsoft's Xbox One conference at E3 2013, finally arrived. As with Bloodborne and Witcher 3 earlier in the year, these were the games that really pushed more casual gamers over the edge and got them to invest in a console.
With that, you can say that the current-generation consoles have now truly "arrived." The previous generation is now firmly in the rearview mirror, Sony and Microsoft have had time to correct some of their initial blunders, and many of the biggest games have launched. Both consoles have managed to fill out their libraries a nice mix of exclusives, third-party releases, and indies, so there's no shortage of games to play. If you were on the fence about getting a console, then now is as good a time as any.
So why does this console generation feel so oddly unsatisfying? Why am I sitting here asking myself, "Is that all the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have to offer? More open-world games and indies poached from Steam?" If this is the prime of the generation, then what's next? More collections and updates? Bigger and better open-world games? VR?
And this is where you start to realize that a console's prime doesn't matter in the way that it used to. Well, it still matters, but it's different now. You have to put the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One into context.
Where we go from here
One of the biggest changes in gaming over the past five years or so has been the decline of the influence of consoles. Ask someone in their teens and twenties how they consume their gaming, and they'll probably point to a dozen different outlets - their mobile devices, Steam, League of Legends, Youtube... consoles are just one of many possible options now. Compare this landscape to a decade ago, when consoles and dedicated handhelds dominated the medium and PC gaming was mostly for people who liked World of WarCraft or Half-Life.
This has had the effect of diffusing some of the medium's major gameplay innovations. There are many smart console and handheld games out there, but you're just as likely to see real innovation in a random indie game on Steam. Survival games... MOBAs... these are dominant genres that are much more at home on PC. This is not say that PC or mobile is "better" than console so much as to offer some context on how the gaming landscape has changed.
Of course, consoles still have a substantial impact on gaming culture. More people are playing games than ever before, and those with disposable income are buying consoles. Metal Gear Solid 5, Witcher 3, and Fallout 4, which a lot of people associate with traditional console gaming, will dominate end of year awards. An indie game has "made it" when it gets ported over to PlayStation 4, and many games are designed with a controller in mind. In that, consoles are still very relevant.
But still, console gamers have had to modify their expectations somewhat. Triple-A development is more conservative than ever, and many of the biggest developments in gaming are happening elsewhere. Moreover, we're at an odd place with the technology. PS4 and Xbox One games look undeniably better than their previous generation counterparts, but there's been nothing as momentous as the introduction of high-definition graphics, downloadable games, or online play. We're also still a couple years away from 4K being a mainstream standard, which will make a difference in the long-run.
Right now, the biggest opportunity in this console generation lies with VR. As is their habit, Sony is pushing PlayStation VR hard; and if VR makes good on its promise, we could well find ourselves in the midst of a new renaissance of game development. Or... a bunch of hobbyists will continue to tout the benefits of wearing a heavy set of goggles while playing cockpit racers and shooters. We'll have a better feel for VR's mainstream possibilities in the next year or so.
In the meantime, the best thing that can be said for this particular moment in gaming is that it's more diverse than ever. Every conceivable taste is being catered to, from those who prefer indie adventure games to hardcore space sim and strategy enthusiasts. We are in the process of realizing the true potential of crowdfunding models. In general, the gaming ecosystem is much bigger than it used to be, taking the emphasis off consoles while also benefiting them in ways that are not immediately obvious. The PS4's share button is just one example.
So while the current console generation may feel disappointing and overly iterative on the face of it, it's important to understand how much gaming has changed elsewhere. The PlayStation 4 may not feel as impactful as the PlayStation 2, but it doesn't have to be. Gaming will continue to change at a rapid pace, and for as long as they exist, consoles will benefit. But they are no longer the industry's biggest driving force.