5 Things that Defined this Generation of Consoles

This generation of consoles has been going on for longer than usual.  It started nearly 7 years ago with the Xbox 360 launching in 2006, and has been charging forward since.  Although the Wii U was released in 2012, Microsoft and Sony have not yet revealed their hand about the future of their systems.  But that all may change on February 20, as it looks like Sony is gearing up for the announcement of the PS4.  As the realization creeps in that this generation is going to end sooner rather than later, I wanted to look back and analyze 5 themes that were established during this cycle of consoles.

1. Motion Controls

The Wii kickstarted the motion control phenomenon with a bang by attracting the non-gaming audience to a simpler control scheme that anyone can understand.  Grandmas all over the world wiggled and waggled their Wii-motes for bowling and tennis.  The Wii was consistently sold out at retailers a good 2 years after its release, and the Wii became the best selling console of this generation.  Microsoft and Sony both silently stood back and watched jealously as the Wii raked in cash hand over fist.  Eventually, they jumped onto the motion control band wagon and released the Kinect and PlayStation Move.

While Sony has all but abandoned the Move, Microsoft has fervently promoted the Kinect, and it has been financially successful for them as a result.

Every console maker has made it a mission to appeal to a wider audience with their motion controls, and with that attempt came consumer backlash.  People have lamented this push for a larger market, saying that the “hardcore gamers” were being abandoned.  Whatever side of the fence you’re on though, it’s unquestionable that motion controls became a major focal point of this generation.  And with rumblings that the next Xbox may be built in with Kinect, it looks like motion controls are here to stay.

2. Modern Military First Person Shooters

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare might be the most important game of this generation for a multitude of reasons.  It finally broke the shackles of the World War II setting that chained down so many first person shooters at the time.  It offered a tightly paced, action packed single player that kept the adrenaline pumping.  And finally, it had a revolutionary multiplayer that successfully meshed RPG mechanics with ultra smooth shooting that set a new standard for first person shooters.  Oh yeah, and it made a boat load of money.

How much more brown can we bear to see?

Activision saw this potential and continued to crank out sequel and after sequel to fully milk the cash cow that was Call of Duty.  But Activision wasn’t the only one guilty of this — other companies have tried to harness the success of the modern military shooter.  Games like Medal of Honor, Battlefield, and Homefront have all contributed to the modern military shooter becoming one of the most prevalent genres this generation.

3. The Rise of the Independent Developer

This is probably the feel good story of the generation.  With online stores like Xbox Live Marketplace, PlayStation Network, and Steam making digital distribution more widespread and viable, smaller teams had an avenue to sufficiently promote and sell their games.   Certain problems, such as the costs to produce discs or that ignorant business suit who didn’t know anything about games, could be circumvented.  They were able to make the game they wanted and have it be widely available to the public.

Anyone with even a mild interest in video games owes to him/herself to watch Indie Game: The Movie.

Indie games started off relatively simple in the beginning of the generation.  Games like Geometry Wars and flOw were straightforward but addicting games that you can pick up and play for short bursts.  But as developers began to realize the promise of this scene, indie games became more deep and involved.  Braid, Bastion, and Journey proved that downloadable games had the ability to forge profound, meaningful stories while Castle Crashers and Minecraft illustrated the monetary potential of these sorts of games.  And the culmination of the indie gaming scene may have been The Walking Dead, a downloadable title which was considered by many to be 2012’s game of the year.

This game wasn’t even available on tangible discs. How things have changed.

4. The Fall of the B-Tier Developer

As games got exponentially more expensive to make, it became evident that if your game wasn’t going to be a multi-million dollar success, then it might have been more profitable to create a smaller game to offset the costs.  As a result, there have been a countless number of studios closing because they simply weren’t able to match the success of something like a Call of Duty, even if a huge budget was behind the project.  Bizarre Creations (Project Gotham Racing), Junction Point Studios (Epic Mickey), Factor 5 (Lair), and Zipper Interactive (SOCOM) were all companies that shut down during this generation, just to name a few.  These were all games in genres where high profile, triple-A titles cannibalized everything else in the market.  But the most prime example of this happened just recently: THQ.

It seems like every other week we hear about a studio shutting its doors. It’s disheartening.

Although THQ was cultivating retail, disc-based games that offered a wealth of meaty content, they weren’t the smashing financial hits a company like EA or Ubisoft would consistently have.  They also weren’t small enough to fully embrace the indie scene.  Consequently, they ended up in this dead zone, stuck between two ideas and unable to fully grasp a particular side.  Compound that with the utter floundering of uDraw and it’s no shock (but still depressing) that THQ had gone bankrupt.  The story of THQ is the poster child of how this generation has been unkind to the B-tier developer.

5. Downloadable Content

In my opinion, downloadable content has been the most polarizing theme that came about during this cycle of consoles.  At face value, the core concept of DLC is intelligent.  The idea that your favorite game can continue to spin away in your console long after you’ve beaten it because a developer is continuing to create new content for it is an amazing one.  But as the generation has continued, publishers often squandered this potential and went over the edge in their attempt to implement DLC.

Although DLC was supposed to be for a way for a developer to extend on a game’s life, it often became exploitative by making crucial story bits only accessible by DLC.  Games like Mass Effect 3 and Assassin’s Creed II immediately come to mind, where you would be missing integral sections of the main storyline if you did not have the corresponding DLC.  In Mass Effect 3, the Leviathan pack expounded upon the Reapers’ history in an illuminating fashion that made the controversial ending make complete sense.  To nickel and dime folks who wanted to know the true background of the series’ main antagonist seemed fishy to me.  And in Assassin’s Creed II, the developer just simply skips over 2 sequences of the campaign, leaving you to wonder what the holy hell happened during that period.  But Asura’s Wrath might be the most egregious of them all, as it locks away the “true ending” as DLC.  The last chapter of the game is merely a preview of the content the DLC contains, and the game’s actual ending is extra content you have to pay for.  Ugh.

Publishers are still trying to push the boundaries on what they can get away with. It’s important not to acquiesce.

But after saying all that, there are just as many examples, if not more, of DLC being utilized brilliantly.  Offshoot side-stories like Bioshock 2’s Minerva’s Den or outlandish what-if scenarios like Red Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare prove that excellent DLC does not have to be part of the main storyline.  Grand Theft Auto IV’s DLC managed to spotlight wholly separate characters that were minor figures in Niko’s storyline.  Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Bethesda, who’ve released a cornucopia of extra content for Fallout 3 and Skyrim that fleshes out their universes to gargantuan proportions.  While DLC can sometimes be used as another approach for greedy business executives to try to extract every last penny from a consumer, it also can be a means for a developer to intelligently expand upon a fiction to make it more substantial and meaningful.

There are so many more instances in which DLC has vastly improved the experience of the game, but I just wanted to highlight some of my favorites.

This generation of consoles has been filled with laughter, tears, and downright insanity.  But I’m just glad that it’s nearing the end, and I cannot be more excited to discover all the new ways on how next set of consoles is going simultaneously impress and disappoint us.