Feature • Beyond the Hardware: Next-Gen Gameplay

Now that we know all the technical details of the next generation consoles, it’s time to talk about a more important issue: gameplay.

I died. Again.

It was my own fault – I chose to ignore the obvious signs. Just before I had entered the cavern, there was this red glowing message on the floor in front of me. “Beware of the trap ahead”, it read. I didn’t see one. What I did see however, was a ghost. A milky white, translucent warrior. Walking away from me before, suddenly, his body was jerked violently to the side, crumbling to the ground.

Do console generations still matter?

A lot has been said about the next generation consoles’ relevance, or lack thereof. Why should the games industry even consider this a ‘generation’ whilst we continually witness the launch of different devices on which people play more and more?

Well, first of all, there’s us – the press. We certainly like our labels and won’t pass up an opportunity to act accordingly. It saves so many words to refer to a certain era by just calling it ‘last generation’. Readers will instantly know what you’re talking about.

But obviously the more important answer is to be found within the games industry itself. In general the bigger development teams are put to work on projects for the latest generation consoles. The same is true for investments (or the other way around). With the new consoles on the horizon, a lot of developers are eyeing features that were previously only possible in theory. And we’re not just talking graphics. As stated in the main article, most developers expect great innovations in the field of AI. That will raise the bar across the board, not just on consoles. Even though it’s mainly its visual fidelity, Infinity Blade is an excellent example of how consoles drive development on other devices to new heights. Expect the same kind of overflow this coming generation.

So yes, the next generation consoles still matters – at least for now.

Then the ghost disappeared. The warrior had died and his ghostly reflection had shown me the last seconds of his live. It was yet another warning.

Notwithstanding the danger, I continued. Only to be killed at the exact same spot, by the exact same spikes that did in the warrior a few minutes before. Stupid me.

The game, obviously, was Demon’s Souls. The first true Multi/Single Player-hybrid, or Mingle Player as I like to call it. It brilliantly added a multiplayer layer on top of an already engaging single player experience.

In essence the player was alone in this hostile world, but made fully aware of the thousands of other people playing the game all over the world.

The aforementioned ghost being the most interesting example of how From Software managed to achieve this. Every time you died, the last few seconds of your movements were recorded, uploaded to a server and – if applicable – presented in the form of a ghost to another player entering the same area.

It served as a warning, but the fact that the other player saw just your ghost dying, not what had killed you, left the threat basically intact and heightened the suspense. The same was true for the messages that players left for each other. From Software didn’t let you write an epistle, the choice was limited. It prevented messages from containing real spoilers. An ambiguous warning, that was the best you could do for your fellow ‘souls’.

Demon’s Souls’ Mingle Player stands as one of the greatest examples of translating new technical features into completely new kinds of gameplay. In this case, From Software translated the online capabilities that came with the current console generation into an incredible enhancement of a Single Player experience.

No matter how you look at it, that’s a fair step up from just pitching players against each other, leaving the basic gameplay intact (although Demon’s Souls did feature PvP and co-op, it did so, unsurprisingly, in an unconventional fashion).

Mingle Player is one of the innovations that defines the current generation. Together with Journey, ‘Souls’ showed the rest of the development world there’s more to online gameplay than the infinite variations on ‘versus’ and co-op.

It’s easy to dismiss the importance of hardware when talking about gameplay. But take a minute to think about it, and you realise the exact opposite is true. Every kind of digital gameplay could simply not exist without the hardware running it.

That might be stating the obvious, but considering the cynicism that accompanied the recent hardware announcements, not everyone seems to acknowledge that fact.

It takes time before new technological features spawn new ways of gameplay. The first swat of next generation games will enhance in predictable areas (especially since the PC has been showing the way for the last three years or so). Think more players on the same server, 1080-rendering, higher resolution textures and larger environments.

But what comes next? What kinds of new experiences are we to expect due to new hardware? Admittedly, that’s asking an inventor what his next invention will be. But at least we can try and identify in which areas developers are expecting the biggest leaps forward. So, we asked them.

For starters, some developers declined – or were outright forbidden – to comment on the subject of next generation gameplay, afraid as they were to spill the beans on their, well, next generation games. A quick survey however revealed somewhat of a consensus. Most developers we asked, were convinced that although graphics will see a big bump, it’s AI that will take the crown and improve most significantly.

Some of them pointed specifically to multiplayer enhancements. That may sound a bit odd, considering the core gameplay of most multiplayer games involves close to none AI. However, should every kill be awarded the same score, for instance? Imagine server AI that acts not unlike a panel of (human) judges. One that’s actually capable of distinguishing a cheap kill from super human finger twitchiness or ingenious tactics. One that identifies a camper as such and consequently rewards mobility.

Trade-offs will remain

The more obvious improvements mentioned (‘envisaged’ would be an exaggeration) dealt with NPC behaviour: more realistic movement and pathfinding, procedurally generated dialogue, more individuality and uniqueness, better strategizing (basically: NPCs would cease being mind-blowingly stupid). Although none of this will win awards for originality, a game world inhabited by digital beings offering meaningful interaction, greatly enhances its immersion.

One designer did add a warning, however: “We game designers should be able to step outside of our comfort zone and create a radically different approach to NPC AI. If we fail to do that, we end up improving NPC behaviour only gradually over the next years. All the extra horse power will be claimed – and granted – to the guys running the engine and graphics departments.”

And it may not be just the designers and AI-programmers doing their job that will decide the faith of next generation AI. Trade-offs between graphics and gameplay will not disappear this coming generation (you didn’t think that would be a thing of the past, now did you?). Developers – and if applicable, their publishers – must be willing to sometimes choose AI over graphics.

Let’s illustrate the paradox using an imaginary next-gen game that allows console owners to host large scale battles on their own device (Warhawk springs to mind) and includes the AI-enhanced multiplayer features as mentioned earlier. Such a game would run all network-code and ‘server AI’ client side.

Now, these kinds of games typically sell on looks, but their staying power lies in their online gameplay. Significantly enhancing that multiplayer experience could involve extremely complex, and thereby taxing algorithms. So taxing in fact, that – indeed – a Trade-off between gameplay and graphical fidelity becomes unavoidable. Go for the long tail and sacrifice a few shaders for the sake of a better online experience, or up the esthetics and have better looking trailers, thus improving Day One-sales? (For the sake of completeness: this problem may be solved by offloading the bulk of the AI-calculations to another typically next generation console ‘feature’: the cloud.)

Only time will tell if decision makers will show AI a bit more love than they used to. Niki Kuppens, Senior Game Designer of HALO: Spartan Assault anecdotally points at some generational similarities regarding AI. “During the announcement of the current generation, I asked several developers how they thought these new devices would improve games. Almost everyone answered: better AI. Looking back, the current generation mainly improved on graphics, not AI. More complex models, bigger textures and more detailed animation. That won’t change the coming generation, but I’m convinced AI will play a bigger part.”

Companion Apps

Stepping away from AI, Kuppens adds: “In general, the collection of new technologies offer a tremendous amount of possibilities for cool features and mechanics. Being able to come up with original implementations of those features, will be a great plus for your games and the reputation of your studio.”

Connectivity, that’s what the mobile HALO-designer considers the most interesting improved feature. “Creating a link between the ‘real’ game, the cloud, other players and other devices will become a large and important area in game design. I think it’s particularly interesting to offer players a chance to be involved in your game outside when away from the console. There are tons of mechanics and features to be invented that will complement the base game. That’s an area in design I’ll gladly explore.”

“So-called companion apps offer new options for co-op and competitive play. However, in the beginning the new tech will be used for improving existing elements. The better game designers will understand and apply the new possibilities, the more interesting the results become. I think that in the end, it will be these features that define this coming generation and become the de facto design standards and principles.”

Beside better AI and companion apps, increased graphical fidelity will increase immersion and thereby enhance gameplay, most developers agree, unsurprisingly. But what kind of aesthetical jump should be considered most important for gameplay? According to Jelle van der Beek, Lead Engine & Tools Programmer on HALO: Spartan Assault, it’s not higher resolution or better textures.

He explains: “The current generation struggled with the transition to HD. Most games delivered 720p output, but even those were oftentimes upscaled from a lower rendering resolution. 1080p is still pretty rare. Developers were experimenting with different kinds of anti-aliasing to produce a crisp image, even at lower resolutions. That is one of the reasons a frame rate of 30 fps became common place, whilst 60 fps being the exception. Personally I am convinced 60 fps is more important for the overall experience than adding more complex shaders. Higher frame rates mean better responsiveness and control – and a better sense of speed.”

Sleepy You

The programmer is disappointed in the way CPUs have evolved over the last couple of years. “The general expectation, going from multi-core to many-core, did not come to fruition. The most important development: low-wattage CPUs delivering decent performance. Of course, that has everything to do with the emerging mobile market. But now, we’re stuck with a fairly unspectacular eight cores in the new consoles.”

Despite all the fuss about increased processing power – so necessary for these AI ideas – Van der Beek is hardly the only developer who doesn’t feel too excited about the CPUs.

Jurjen Katsma has arguably been developing next-gen games already. Nixxes, the company he founded, recently delivered PC-renditions of games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Tomb Raider and is currently working on the new Thief. “Although the increase in graphical power is impressive, CPU-wise it’s a whole lot less than we’d hoped for. But still, a lot of stuff that could only be done on PCs, is now possible on consoles. We have experience with that due to our PC-projects. And a lot of features that were only possible in theory, could become reality real soon.”

(Although Nixxes will work with next-gen platforms as well, one of their main tasks is porting console games to PC. A job that now sees a sudden reversal. “Up until recently, our goal was to improve graphics quality. The next few years we’ll be doing the opposite: optimising for less powerful devices and making features optional so the games will run on lower-end PCs.”)

Real change

Having more computing power and memory to play around with, is as exciting for a couple of indie developers as it is for the AAA-devs. For Jeroen D. Stout, developer of IGF-nominated Dinner Date, the new generation means easier game development.

“I think graphical power is being dismissed far too easily as useless. Especially for smaller productions, the onslaught of GPU- and CPU-power is fantastic! We don’t have to optimise every single thing anymore, the hardware is expecting way more taxing games than we will be making anyway. If this new graphical power is put to use in a meaningful way, that would be great. The fact that studios are wasting too much money on cinematics, is hardly the fault of the new hardware.”

The pipe-smoking designer isn’t too optimistic though when talking about new kinds of gameplay. “I do believe the new tech will increase immersion in games, but ‘new gameplay’ comes from a new way of thinking. As an industry, we’ve been doing the same stuff for rather a long time. If new tech means more Assassin’s Creeds and The Last of Us’, it’s meaningless to me. Real change in games is initiated by people with new ideas on interaction. And those ideas rarely need the kind of hardware required to run games based on ‘intensity’.”

Early Adopters

“Specs are pretty meaningless to me”, says Jasper Koning, Co-Founder and Game Designer at Ronimo Games. The indie studio enjoyed quite a bit of success with their 2D MOBA-game Awesomenauts. “However, the start of a new generation opens up a lot of possibilities in terms of genres. There are few games at the beginning of a new generation, so you stand the chance of being the first one in a particular genre. Additionally, early adopters are more willing to try something new, because – again – there’s just not too much choice at the beginning of a generation.”

It’s not that game designers aren’t impressed by the new power, they just basically don’t care. Take Joost Peters, Game Designer at indie studio Codeglue (Rocket Riot, ibb & obb). “As a designer I’m not very interested in additional graphical muscle. However, I do hope the new Kinect will be more robust than its predecessor. Developers might use it this time around to create innovative gameplay. The fact that every single Xbox One comes with Kinect, kind of guarantees it at least will be used.”

More than horsepower, it’s the promise of the cloud that’s tickling designer’s imagination. Peters: “Cloud storage, now, that’s where it becomes interesting. Forza 5 for example, will put race data of players in the cloud and use it to power AI during single player races.”

Peters continues: “Games could potentially learn how a certain player responds and use that against other players. This opens the door for games to be more dynamic and sort of improve themselves as you play them.”

“The boundaries between online and offline are fading. Games like Dark Souls [Demon’s Souls spiritual successor] apply that in a very interesting way on current gen consoles. I can’t wait to see what From Software will bring to the new devices.”

“The big publishers will be playing safe the first year of the next generation. However, it’s great seeing Sony bringing indie talent on board and opening their platforms for these studios. If there’s any new kind of gameplay emerging this generation, it will be coming from the indie scene, rather than the publishers.”

Ridiculously Fishy

Indeed, more indies consider the opening up of the console market as more important than the devices themselves. Vlambeer’s Jan Willem Nijman (creator of Apple Design Award-winning Ridiculous Fishing): “Most important is changing the distribution models, so that we [indie developers] have an easier time getting our games on platforms like Sony’s and Steam and being treated the same way AAA-publishers are.”

And in the end, that might be the biggest revolution indeed. Easy access to consoles, whether they bare the logo of Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo or even Steam, Google or Apple. Especially in the last couple of years the indie scene has matured and is starting to deliver games that go far beyond experiments for the sake of experimenting.

What the biggest innovations in gameplay will be during the next generation, no one can tell. But one thing is sure: it’s gonna be one hell of a ride in the volatile world that is the games industry and, personally, I can’t wait to see what you come up with.

The Current Generation’s Lasting Legacy

Mingle Player

As mentioned in the main article, one new kind of gameplay will certainly stick around for the coming generation: Mingle Player, or Online Enhanced Single Player. As seen in: Demon’s Souls and Journey, but also in Social Games like FarmVille.

Touch Control

Now there’s a piece of hardware that gave birth to an incredible amount of new gameplay. Tapping, slicing, pinching… Although touch and play finds its genesis in mobile devices, it’s one of the few features that actually managed to trickle ‘up’ considering Wii U and The new PlayStation 4 controller.

Cover based shooters

Yeah, we know, it’s not a mechanic that was invented during the current generation. However, it did rise to prominence thanks to games like Gears of War in TPS’es and Killzone 2 in FPS’es. And it’s definitely not going anywhere the coming generation.

Remains to be Seen

Motion Control

Motion Control, which was actually first introduced to the masses during the PlayStation 2 era, should have taken the crown as the single most important lasting addition to gameplay this generation. However, it’s still much more popular amongst console manufacturers than it is amongst players. We’re still waiting for Kinect’s killer app and even Nintendo seems to move away from having players swing there limbs around.


Augmented Reality Games did not manage to surpass the gimmicky status. Considering the install base of smartphones and Kinect, it begs the question if it ever will.

Stereoscopic 3D

It’s kind of impressive, but having to wear glasses and lesser graphical fidelity, prevented stereoscopic 3D from making its breakthrough this generation. Also: not a single game translated 3D into a game mechanic, condemning it to remaining an optional extra.

Looking promising

Forza Motorsport 5 • Turn 10

The fifth iteration of Xbox’s prime racing game will send drivers data to Microsoft’s Cloud, where it’s being processed into a ‘Drivetar’. If this really works, it could revolutionize race games. Players will be able to race each other while not be in front of their console at the same time. Some genuine next generation gameplay, we’d reckon.

Project Spark • Team Dakota & Untitled Media MoleculeProject

‘User Generated Content’ sounds like something from the past, while in fact it is brimming with life. Minecraft has shown that the actual creation of worlds can be a game in itself. Although it’s hardly the first to try the concept, it’s above and beyond the most successful. To no one’s surprise Microsoft and Sony revealed some creation tools themselves. Of the two, Project Spark (pictured at the beginning of this article) seems the most matured. However, it does feel a bit like GameMaker on Steroids. The untitled Media Molecule project seems a bit more adventurous. It uses the Move to create sculptures (and control puppets, apparently). It’s something we haven’t seen before, thus boasting a real next gen feel.

Transistor • Supergiant Games

A clear sign of change: studios like Supergiant Games on stage during a manufacturer’s E3 pressco. The developers of Bastion are creating a beautiful and interesting new title… and it’s coming to PS4. Couldn’t this be done on current gen consoles? Maybe, but considering the love sony is giving this project, Transistor is a next gen game in the truest sense of the word.

Matthijs Dierckx
Matthijs Dierckx
Dierckx is Composer and Marketing Lead on roguelite cult hit Unexplored and two undisclosed projects. He is co-creator of Android puzzle hit Sumico, the numbers game. Dierckx is the former Publisher and Founder of Control Magazine, Control Conference and Control500.com and writes about games on an irregular basis.

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