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Forget what you know, next-gen consoles change everything

The evolution of gaming is about to make a quantum leap. Here's what you need to know.

For the better part of a decade the video game landscape remained mostly unchanged, complacent in a sea of sequels, motion controls, and downloadable content.

It's a generation that has lasted longer than any other before it, albeit for generally good reasons. And perhaps most impressive is that though their PC gaming counterparts have long since passed them by, these aging consoles are still able to render great-looking games.

So while the sun begins to set on what will go down as a pivotal generation for video games, we look ahead to see what owning a console will be like for the foreseeable future.

And then there were two
There's no disrespect intended here toward Nintendo, but the next great console wars will be fought by two parties, not three. Sure, Nintendo beat everyone to the punch by releasing its next-generation console an entire year early, but the Wii U just barely catches up to the prowess of what PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 had been doing all along -- at least from a graphical and technical standpoint.

By no means is this a death sentence, though. Nintendo is company that needs to find itself and reposition. However that plan might play out, it most likely will not consist of picking fights with PlayStation 4 or Xbox One.

James Martin/CNET

Graphics won't define next-gen
Eye candy made a big splash at the dawn of gaming's previous generation. That will not be the case this time around -- for the most part. Sure, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have the graphical chops that are sure to impress anyone who hasn't experienced a high-end graphics card for the past two years. But the dramatic jaw-dropping jump from standard definition to high definition that took place eight years ago will not happen again.

Instead, next-generation gaming will be defined through a multitude of variables. Gamers want to experience interactive software in ways they never thought were possible. Perhaps that lies in the heartbeat-sensing Kinect camera or game-screen-sharing features built into PlayStation 4.

However you choose to label it is irrelevant. Games need to evolve beyond regenerative health and compelling cinematics. They need to push the envelope in new directions. The hardware is here, and the talent is ready. These are the elements that will truly define "next-gen."

James Martin/CNET

Consoles aren't just for gamers anymore
As much as you'd like to keep these machines for yourselves, electronics manufacturers really like it when consumers outside of their intended demographic begin to take interest. That's what happens when the Wii finds itself in senior-citizen homes and at the gym.

This really shouldn't come as much of a shock either, though. Consoles have been slowly mutating into the all-encompassing content distribution hubs they are now for years. The biggest push, as made evident by the Xbox One's ambitious live TV integration (and Nintendo TVii's not-so-successful launch), is the attempt to corner the crux of the living room experience. These consoles are being designed to be the very first thing you interact with the second you sit down on your couch.

This changing focus in audience will certainly alienate some core gamers, but the truth of the matter is that consoles are not just for gamers anymore. Want a box just for gaming? Go build one.

James Martin/CNET

New and used games will blur, frustrate, and confuse
Trips to the local game shop will slowly begin to go away, and digital marketplaces will soon reign supreme. We feared the worst about how the ownership of software may become fuzzy and now those fears hold a bit more weight.

While we still don't definitively understand how both Sony and Microsoft plan on proceeding, it's clear that the fundamental concept of buying and selling used games will be changing forever. This also means that the very psychology of consumer behavior will also evolve. Borrowing a game might be a thing of the past. Sharing games seems highly unlikely. Microsoft has gone on record claiming that there will be a way to sell a used game, but don't expect it to resemble anything you're accustomed to.

But before you light the torches and sharpen your trusty pitchforks, think for a second and appreciate how long this novelty has lasted. Think about other industries that have flipped out over that naughty "sharing" word. It was inevitable.

Of course there are still plenty of details that need clarification, but the message is clear. Physical media is on its way out.

Gaming voyeurism is now a thing
Maybe I'm out of touch with this trend, but I don't really understand the joy of watching someone else play a video game. While I know plenty of gamers who feel the exact same way, it's also tough to ignore the budding content empires that have constructed business models around the notion.

Whether or not you asked for it, the next gaming console in your living room will allow you to record and edit a highlight reel of your very own gameplay and share it with the world. All that time you spent wasting away on Facebook, Reddit and Twitter? Well, now you can continue indulging while gaming.

James Martin/CNET

Get used to the cloud
A console hooked up to the Internet is nothing new. But with the architecture of these machines, titles and firmware can be automatically updated without you having to lift a finger.

As for the cloud, game saves are just the tip of the iceberg. Heck, even current consoles can sync game saves. Cloud computing in the next generation of video games will take things to a totally different level. Beyond just access to saves, games will be able to be streamed and played the way you would watch a movie on Netflix. Sony has already said PS4 owners will be able to begin playing a game as it's being downloaded, and Microsoft has acknowledged a similar technology.

Microsoft even hinted at potentially offloading some of the computing power that Xbox One games might require, opening the door to cloud expansion within a game.

Forget about backward compatibility
Regardless of whether it's some sort of strategic spin or crafty wording, backward compatibility, at least at its core, is soon to become a thing of the past. We're not yet privy to how Sony will deal with it (though we're leaning toward a Gaikai-powered streaming option), but Microsoft has definitively stated it won't be an option.

If you want to play last generation's video games, then hold on to that last-generation console. Or, you could always fork over the cash it'll cost you to download these throwback titles when they inevitably make their way to your platform of choice's online store.

This is a feature I'm quick to criticize for there being a lack of, but have grown to ultimately accept. Sure, it prevents you from reselling an old console to put toward a new one, but we forget that the very inclusion of these innards in a future system would likely increase their price anyway.

James Martin/CNET

We're all in this together
One of the advantages of a connected console was made abundantly clear over the last eight years. The Internet has afforded console manufacturers the luxury of treating these machines as works in progress. Sure, this doesn't exist without some frustrations or glitches, but ultimately I think the pros outweigh the cons.

And if there's one thing we've learned with how vocal the gaming community can be, it's that these companies are becoming very receptive to what we want -- and that's a good thing. It's now almost impossible to get away with a policy that the masses reject because they'll simply boycott and bombard it with negativity.

Gamers are the constituents of the industry in this ever-evolving relationship, and we vote with our dollar. Besides, console manufacturers want us on their side anyway. In reality, the next war won't be fought with gamers and their hard-earned cash, but with the other box in the living room that's competing for your attention -- your cable box.