What does "next-gen" mean to you? Star Trek aside, the term has become synonymous with the newest video game consoles, though some would argue that the next generation of gaming lies elsewhere.
It's hard to ignore it, these days. Reading our Eric Limer's impressions after a recent hands-on with the latest iteration at CES, it sure sounds like he enjoyed his time with it. We don't throw around bold statements saying something is "going to change the world" very often. Really.
There's no denying that what Oculus Rift has shown off is impressive, but I have to admit, I have my reservations about virtual reality headsets in general. Don't misread me, if I had to choose between the red or the blue pill... well, let's just say I believe Cypher had the right idea. I'm just thinking about the types of games I personally like to play, such as Counter-Strike, League of Legends, FIFA and Call of Duty. These are games that are better played on fairly low latency monitors, or those with Nvidia's new G-Sync tech built in.
I'm not saying that G-sync is a next-gen concept, but what would VR bring to these games, that I love and cherish so much? I don't need to turn my head in FIFA or League to see the periphery, and I'm fairly conditioned to the crosshair being in the centre of the screen for shooters. For those without the ability to touch type, how are you going to see the keyboard for your myriad World of Warcraft macro keys? I mean, really.
If I were to take a stab, the games we see on the Rift will be vastly different to most of the games we're used to playing on a screen. They'll be built to play to the strengths of VR tech, immersing you in the game like never before. They'll be an audio-visual sensory experience to obliterate your mind of the mundanity of real life. I can't wait to play them. But will it replace 2D screens altogether? I'm not convinced.
So are there any other concepts that could be considered next-gen? Well, when Respawn Entertainment announced it would be breaking taboo by combining single player story with multiplayer gameplay in Titanfall, not everyone was impressed. There are many reasons for this, with most of them being relatively innocuous in the context of how successful the game will be. However, one of the more interesting points was that an AI opponent will never provide the same challenge as an actual person.
AI gameplay has generally seen quite a dim reaction from players, at least compared to human opponents. For example, once you work out the programmed activity pattern it's all too easy to predict what an AI opponent is going to do. There are signs that improvements are on the horizon, however. An experiment in 2012 suggested that the AI "bots" (heavily modified from those found in the original game) in Unreal Tournament 2004 were perceived by a panel to be more human than the human players. Unfortunately, I think this says more about human players than it does the programming. I've never seen a bot ignore the game and take revenge after a player insulted his skills over voice chat through the use of many varied and creative swears. Of that, we can only dream...
Regardless, human-like (or better-than-human, as the case may be) AI is perhaps the most next-gen concept I can imagine. Not just in terms of non-player characters on the screen, but games that adapt to the way you play and throw up challenges as a direct response rather than as a result of a programmed script. Take Angelina for example, a program that creates video games on a par with human developers and might be the first step to making this a reality.
If Angelina is able to create games that not only stand up to those that are human-made, but also exceed them in quality, then is it possible that we're not too far away from a future where the two are indistinguishable? Several games set for release this year are going to feature procedurally-generated content that will ensure no two environments are the same, theoretically giving the player infinite replay value. I'm interested to see how successful they are in achieving this as it could mean the end of playing the same content repeatedly, simply to gain achievements or just to keep enjoying a game's great gameplay.
What does next-gen mean to me? Next-gen means change for the better, and not out of a perceived need to change. It has to mean more than the never-ending pursuit of better graphics and larger memory caches. Not for any other reason than it's simply unsustainable to keep up a level of noticeable progress. The truth is it's unlikely that there is a one-size-fits-all future of gaming, and that can only be a good thing. Hopefully this way, everybody wins.