I Hath Seen The Future Of Video Games!

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly writes a regular column about all things video game for TechCrunch. He is a games industry consultant, freelance game designer and the creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

The post-E3 feeling is often difficult to parse. On the one hand new title and platform revelations engender an enormous buzz around all things video game, a buzz that’s hard to ignore. Old or new, innocent or jaded, something always comes out of E3 that catches your eye, some reason to fall in love all over again. And you’ll see that reflected in social media feeds, so there’s a sense of a giant love-in.

But then there’s the depressing feeling, where the intransigence of E3’s vision of videogameland gets to you. E3 is a lens, a specific spin on what games are. E3 is shooters, boys toys, gore and guts. E3 is big-budget, front-loaded and Hollywood-esque. E3 tells a story of the future of games. based around the big, the splashy and the loud. The future is “graphics”, “emotion” and “experience”. The future is a bloody heart falling into the gap of an exposed chest cavity. The future is sitting on your couch with your video game console and having your socks blown off.

Most of what comes out of the conference is the continuity of pre-existing marketing stories, platforms and franchises.  Different faces appear on stage over the years making the same old promises, conveying the same old ideas. From the lurid green stage of Microsoft’s Xbox visions to Sony’s pontifications on how it’s bringing movies and games together, EA’s latest touting of the realism of its sports games or even Ubisoft’s rebel-rebel swearing on stage. There’s a pattern to it.

As it has always been, as it was always meant to be. E3 is where the faithful gaming media gather to hear familiar sermons and from there go out and spread the good word: that the future of games is approaching an eschaton (a heavenly final form) based on the console paradigm. So in a sense E3 tries to present a vision, but what it actually presents is division.

A House Divided

Having had the privilege of consulting across many sectors of the industry, I am always amazed at how little cross-pollination happens between them. Indie people know little about the casual space, for example, and casuals are only tangentially aware of how so-called “core” gaming works. None of the above know much about the casino gaming scene (and vice versa), nor the social scene. All of the above know less than they’d admit about the virtual world/MMO market, the e-sports scene or the world of gamification.

I don’t even know if we can really say that there is one games industry, but rather several games industries. Each operates according to its own logic, and members of each tend to assume that theirs is the heart of the industry around which all others orbit. Many indies consider E3 essentially irrelevant as to them “the games industry” is a world of diverse gaming imminently forming part of a larger culture, and big shooter games are a carnival sideshow to that movement. Meanwhile many core game types consider indie gaming to be a nice-to-have diversions for a break from “real” (i.e. their preferred kind of) games.

Games are unique among all media in being so divided, and much of that is because of their symbiotic relationship to host platforms. Most other media tend to just be what they are, in a manner of speaking, and the platform is simply the host. Watch a movie on your phone, on your Fire TV or on your laptop and it’s much the same thing. However because games are all about the interaction, the manner of how you interact changes everything.

New platforms bring about new ways of interacting, new verbs and actions (in game designer argot) and environments. And beyond the raw gameplay, the relationship of the platform to its users molds their preferred aesthetics and the underlying economics. As a tablet is used in a different way to a console, so the games that work on a tablet are different to those that work on a console. So the division of platforms and platform types leads in turn to the division of the industry.

Division has many interesting side effects. One is a sense that a created space gets explored relatively quickly and runs out of steam, leading to a constant appetite for the next division. Another is the comparative lack of a forming of a literature of games (an interature?) beyond a very small group of diehards. Games expire as their platforms do, bar the valiant effort of some archivists and emulator developers to preserve them, so their history is unfamiliar to many. Anyone can still access Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and read it as they like, but not Tim Schafer’s classic Full Throttle.

The primary effect of division, however, is the way that it works against diversity. For example in the gaming media E3 is all about the five big press conferences. Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft host a sequence of staged infomercials and the core gaming world tunes into watch and comment. These events are make-or-break for the hype cycle because they frame the wider narrative that journalists will talk about for the next year. But this also means that games and products which don’t work on those stages become invisible.

So it becomes more important to have a set of games that will give good presser, leading to a narrowing of product choices to a handful. Diversity, such as showing some chosen indie games, becomes more of a plot point in the narrative than an end goal.

Just in case you think I’m only talking about console, it’s a similar story on other platforms. The App Store exercises a dominant control over the software on iPad, which means that making big bones on that platform has much to do with impressing Apple. Facebook exercises no editorial control, but the rules of how that platform is set up have a similar lensing effect. Division of platforms and concentration on sub-audiences pushes innovation down certain lines, and that’s why there’s no cross-pollination.

For all the unlimited-future aspirations of events like E3 the reality is that each division’s future is but a pale shadow of what might be. No one platform can do everything. But maybe that can change.

One More Eschaton

Part of what props up our existing divisions is that some games only work in certain settings. Big games (a Call of Duty perhaps) need capable screens to show rich graphics as well as input methods like joypads, mice and keyboards to deliver precision. Lighter games (a Dots, say) are the opposite. They work best on the go and so they need to be easily accessed, quick to start up and put away. So to play each game you need the right platform, and to do that you need to buy multiple devices.

But these constraints are becoming softer. Tablets have grown light enough that they are often used for gaming on the go – and when people play with them they do so in a more concentrated fashion than their phones. Technology for graphics in mobile also continues to advance at a fierce pace, with retina screens and technologies like Metal leading the push. Small-scale interface systems are also getting better. The PS Vita’s twin sticks and buttons are a little fiddly, but you can see how they might grow really nice in the next generation. With the right touch screen size, say enough to sit comfortably in the hands while occupying enough of a field of view to become immersive (10 inch diagonal), that might be the bridge.

See, the thing is that the Wii U is a good idea in a bad wrapper. What it promises is a kind of ultimate platform, a game system that can handle all of the verbs that currently exist in multiple paradigms and bring them under one roof. It does this by trying to combine the ideas of the pad controller with a tablet, wrapping one around the other. The problem is that the actual device that represented this idea was too bulky, too poor in battery, equipped with too crappy a screen on the controller and too constrained by needing a console to work. It only went half way toward where we needed it to go. So does the iPad. So does the PS Vita. So, even, do projects like Razer Edge. Where?

Towards a unifying platform: A thin but powerful tablet-sized handheld with pad controllers along each side. Powerful enough to render rich graphics and be immersive. Sleek enough to fit neatly in a bag. Interface-capable enough to handle all of the known verbs. Communications-capable with fast cellular, WiFi and Bluetooth technologies. Able to interact with media streamers or similar devices to broadcast to TV. Looking nice, and with a battery that lasts. A platform, in other words, that can handle every kind of game.

Is that really so inconceivable? I don’t think so, but getting there needs a company that likes to make proactive platform-sized bets. Given that what I’ve described above is essentially an embiggened PS Vita, you might think that I mean Sony. But actually I’m pondering whether this is the kind of bet that needs Nintendo.

Yet Another Revolution

As I’ve written before, Nintendo gets to be the Apple of the video game industry because nobody expects the company to outspend to win. Rather everyone expects Nintendo to strike out into blue oceans. Sometimes what we see from the company doesn’t hit the mark, but sometimes it blows the mark away. The N64 and Wii, for example, were transformative. On the other hand the GameCube and Wii U proved tough sells.

Nonetheless Nintendo perseveres, and in so doing it serves as an important source of inspiration for the rest of the industry. The industry didn’t really have analog sticks until Nintendo did, and then everyone did. The industry didn’t really care about motion control until Nintendo did it, and then everyone did. Not all of these innovations take but enough do to make them worth trying. And even though Nintendo might not be the primary beneficiary of an innovation, it certainly thrives off them enough to keep going.

The push to break out of our divisions is more likely to come from Nintendo than anyone else. However it comes down to whether the company is really thinking that way. The component technologies are all in place and Nintendo is able to make the great gaming content that such a move would need, leading to a next generation of … I’m not even sure what we’d call them. Ultra-handhelds? Gamedecks? Who knows. Things.

I know this all seems implausible to some of you, but then so did the laptop once. So did the idea that the mobile phone would be a major computing platform prior to the smartphone. So, even, did the games console in the days after Atari but before the NES. Big bold changes can happen when the stars align – and just such an alignment is coming. I hath seen the future I tell thee, and the future is a device class that brings union over disunion and gathers all our gaming industries together.