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E3 2012: Looking for next-gen

There was something distinctly old-fashioned about this year's show...the gaming consoles.

James Martin

Help me, please. I'm waiting for the future to arrive.

I feared a lull at this year's E3 before I even got on the plane. Games pushed back, executives claiming no new hardware. "No new hardware" is a mantra I've heard a lot lately, from colleagues as well as from industry insiders. Even from gamers, who certainly don't like the idea of spending up for a new console.

Well...we need next-gen. And it's bound to arrive. But when? Please say soon. I've been patient.

Hardware, in any other area of computing, doesn't just go on "pause" for seven years. (I'm leaving the Wii U out of this argument, because its hardware is already playing catch-up to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3). Phones and tablets are making yearly leaps and bounds. PCs get ever faster, and the onboard graphics more capable. It can feel like a hamster wheel, one which many people simply refuse to get on. Why do we need better graphics? Aren't games looking good enough?

Yes, at E3, they looked just fine. Fine, but rarely jaw-dropping. Rarely mind-blowing. Rarely worth the price of admission, which is usually around $60.

Games are more than graphics. The mobile game revolution has proven that. But we're talking about the Electronic Entertainment Industry, an industry that, like the movie industry, aims to wow and impress. Booming music and endless booth babes, or an endless one-upmanship of head-shot bloodbaths, can't hide the lack of wow that lurked around many booths this year.

James Martin

Still, promises loomed. Sony and Quantic Dream's Beyond: Two Souls, seen behind closed doors, is stunning: not just for its story, but for the type of Hollywood-quality special effects and cinematography that filled every second. David Cage proudly admitted that he used the same facial-capture technology as James Cameron did in Avatar. It showed. Ellen Page looked like Ellen Page. And yet...even though it's unfair to judge in such an early build, I couldn't help wonder to myself: what if the seams I saw from time to time could be ironed out? Could a next-gen boost in graphics help?

LucasArts' Star Wars 1313 has become another star of E3 2012. In that demonstration--another private showing--the visuals of the world under Coruscant and the movement of the motion-captured bounty hunters has the same next-gen wow factor. The visuals this time seemed smoother, more seamless...and it turned out that the game was running on a PC with Nvidia graphics that, while not specified, are certainly more next-gen than what you'd find on a current console. LucasArts wouldn't answer my question as to whether Star Wars 1313 was a game planned for next-gen consoles, or for current-gen. That refusal to answer speaks volumes.

Finally, I think of Bioshock Infinite, the superstar game that pulled out of E3 2012. All signs indicate that it's a current-gen game for existing consoles. Once again, I wonder if it's a game that's pushing the far limits, a game that could spread its wings more easily with new hardware.

I don't want to see a growing gulf between movies and games. If video game makers are using the same tools as James Cameron and other filmmakers, and if LucasArts is using its ILM team to make its games using the same equipment, it suggests that hardware needs to get us to Avatar-level, or something similar: a world that feels numbingly real, just like next-gen games used to feel.

Graphics don't solve everything, of course. Neither do movie special effects. The lack of pop at E3 could be chalked up to a lack of big-studio imagination as much as a looming hardware wall.

I still can't help but feeling, though, that the gaming industry needs to push the new. It'll be there anyhow, in our phones and tablets, in other devices. Hardware progress hasn't gone away. Not yet. Nor should it.

But, yes, I didn't say "looking for hardware" in my headline, I said "looking for next-gen." That means thinking forward, thinking outside the box, thinking beyond guns and desert ops, thinking beyond Angry Birds-alike mobile games and retro Italian plumbers running through charming 2D retro sets. In some indie games you can see the future: Sony's Santa Monica Studios that launched Journey and many more. Mobile developers taking leaps with new ideas on a shoestring. E3 is a big trade show, not a place for the indie and the avant-garde to shine, but it needs to trickle upwards faster. The future needs to show up in big, expensive games, soon, or the industry really will be handing Apple the crown. Or, someone else.