Console gaming is a fascinating beast to watch evolve. It’s an industry that juggles affordability with product quality. The style and approach to that juggle constantly shifts with the changing world. The internet has played a massive part in the gaming industry’s reactionary moves of the last decade. The 7th console generation of gaming found itself right on the precipice of all this. The generation that preceded it had minimal connection to the internet and was cast aside as a pointless periphery by many.
Listed below are the biggest changes ever seen in the console industry. Their focal point – the 7th generation of consoles.
1. The Digital Marketplace Emerged In Full For 7th Generation
Along came your Xbox 360’s, PlayStation 3’s and Wii’s and suddenly operating systems were all about connection. Connecting chat parties more easily, connecting advertisers to more eyes and connecting players for multiplayer matches. As a result, a console’s worth was determined by how seamlessly it could do all of this. The more seamless the experience was, the more “instant gratification” could be marketed to the player.
And so began the pursuit of instant consumer gratification which helped DLC become a tangible thing. No longer would devs ask you to make a trip to the store to buy an expansion CD. The expansion was already floating about in the ether of the internet. It was right there in your living room. All of this felt like a delightful renaissance in console gaming but it would become a harbinger of much darker times. It’s true what they say – hindsight can be a real bitch.
The chase for lessening the barrier between player and purchase would eventually get out of hand. What started out as a great concept would later give rise to huge amounts of greed. In the case of the 7th generation, the test chamber for such greed would arrive with Dead Space 3. Under the “guidance” of EA, Visceral games lost sight of what made Dead Space so unique. Instead, the horror franchise got the EA treatment. Suddenly, gamers were asked to open their wallets far more than they were used to. We all know where this has led us…
2. The West Took Over From Japan on Arrival of The 7th Generation Gaming Console
If you go back far enough in the history of gaming, Japan is pretty much the birthplace of console gaming. After all Sega, Nintendo and Sony each hail from Japan. The 7th generation of gaming consoles ushered in an age where gaming truly severed its roots. Specifically, a divide had grown between the East and the West within the games industry.
Years ago, I researched this fascinating divide between the two halves of the world. I looked at cultural differences. Preferences between the two audiences. Differences of ability between different dev teams and how well funded they were. I tried very hard to find my original write-up on this to gain a refresher course. Sadly, this one seems to have been lost to the winds of time.
With total confidence though, I can say there were two major contributors to the East / West divide of the 7th generation.
The development of identity politics in the West
As we all know, identity politics here in the West has reached fever pitch. Before things got to this point, identity politics were far more subtle. A lot can be extracted from our movies and gaming. For instance, certain criteria had to be met to tell certain certain stories. Western gaming began to waver from the tried and true formulae of videogame storytelling. Formulae that were increasingly informed by which of the two sides of the debate shouted loudest.
When the 7th generation came around, Western gaming had an innate feeling of needing to “grow up”. In other words, this manifested in the form of telling mature stories. Games were stepping evermore brazenly into an adult audience. The formula for storytelling shifted in accordance. Stories were darker, started playing with scenes of a sexual nature and loved a good bit of drama. To appeal to audiences of the West, our devs gave us Mass Effect, Gears of War, Uncharted, The Last of Us etc. After that, we doubled down and kept going in this direction. All the while, Chinese / Japanese audiences became less interested.
Their formula for game making and storytelling hadn’t shifted like ours and so, it remained untouched by social politics. The fiery debate around feminism, LGBTQ rights and so on, just hadn’t happened over there. The things we love to virtue signal for in the West are quite simply seen as non-issues in the East. I learned this in past email exchanges with Disney Games veteran, Troy Leavitt, who has covered the issue in depth on YouTube. Taking a look at a lot of anime power fantasies, the story is often rooted in a school with young teenagers that become the heroes.
The protagonists are often scantily clad young schoolgirls too. Blood: The Last Vampire is a great example of how Japanese storytelling works. The tried and true “hero’s journey” blueprint is being used less and less in the West. In some ways, the West is even demonising it, taking the rules for dramatic storytelling in completely the opposite direction. Star Wars is a great example of the change in Western storytelling. Originally, Luke Skywalker had to undergo the hero’s journey to reach the conclusion of his character arc. He had to meet a mysterious figure, go on an adventure, fail miserably, pick himself back up and finally succeed. Japan is sticking with this.
Now Star Wars has led us to Rey. She needs no character journey and has nothing to learn and therefor fails at nothing… ever. She already knows how to fly and fix the Falcon, pulls off mind tricks and can defeat a Sith lord with no training whatsoever. Any sense of stakes for her character is non-existent because after two films, we can see she is totally infallible. For better or worse, Star Wars serves up a great example of how our storytelling formula has changed in the wake of identity politics. The same shifts are occurring increasingly in game design. Specifically, such shifts began with the drama that followed the gritty realism offered by updated Unreal and Unity engines which found a comfortable home at the start of the 7th generation.
The West was ready for PC architecture, the East was not
The 7th generation of consoles made the leap to PC architecture. For better or worse, this led to developers, large and small, capitalising on the impressive new Unity and Unreal engines. What’s more was that this new PC architecture in consoles made the engines more applicable in development. The two engines had made great strides between the 6th and 7th generation of gaming. Most of that evolution was the result of Western based collaboration. The tools these engines offered would play well into presenting the gritty realism the 7th generation was going for.
In other words, Western developers had a bit of time to share knowledge about these engines ready for the arrival of the 7th generation. Conversely, if you weren’t associated with a Sony first party project, things were about to get tough in the East. This is the part of the world that invented gaming. A part of the world that got really good at designing games for classic console architecture without PC hardware. Those fundamentals had become less necessary to the global audience and the West began to lead the way.
The tables had turned and it was now time for the East to play catch up. After this, there was a fresh pressure to learn the Western tricks of the trade with these strange graphics engines they’d not needed in the past. Where Unreal or Unity are involved, Japan is still playing catch up on graphics and gameplay today.
Small dev studios like Omega Force (Dynasty Warriors, Attack on Titan) have to make do with what they have. They don’t use Unreal or Unity and they’re not really going for the hyper realism valued by the West. The result is that their games tend to suffer on this side of the pond, with Western audiences criticising their “below-par” level of graphical output and narrow scope of gameplay. In the case of Dynasty Warriors 9, Japanese magazines gave it an average of 9/10. And Western aggregate score sites like Metacritic display the more middling scores of around 60%. While Attack on Titan suffered over here, it outsold Street Fighter V in its first two weeks!
3. Built In Obsolescence And The Transition to PC Architecture
Just the other day, I found myself jovially making this statement to a friend:
“This has happened two console generations in a row now, man. In the last year of the generation, my faithful ol’ console will begin to sputter out. Last time around it was the red ring of death with my Xbox 360. Now, my PS4 has become fond of randomly ejecting discs!”
I wonder just how many people could relate to this. For someone who enjoys gaming as a consistent presence in their lives, who perhaps don’t pull money out of their ears for fun – these kinds of situations can be quite distressing. On the off chance you’re not one of those people, what do you like to do to unwind? No doubt, it has become a daily ritual. A part of your life rhythm that keeps you sane in this bonkers world of ours. Well, for us gamers, our console is that lifeline. Therefore, if it starts to go kaput, our minds instantly turn to our bank account and the distressing question, “Shall I get another one?”
Back in the day, we never had to face such difficult questions. Plug your old PlayStation or N64 back into the telly and they’ll run just fine without a fuss. Perhaps the resolution of the Ultra Smart Whoppa Crystal 4K TV you’re still paying off will disagree with it. But the machine itself will run like a dream. For the big console makers, the 7th generation would bring about the biggest hardware change in the history of gaming. PC architecture in a console. They knew such a leap would come with challenges and risks to the consumer.
7th generation gaming hardware meant corners had to be cut
The infamous red ring of death on the Xbox 360 was the result of a ticking time bomb – a heat issue. To make the Xbox 360 affordable there had to be compromises to its guts. As a result, a particular part of the soldering on the 360’s motherboard would melt, cool, dry and crack over time due to its inefficient cooling abilities and lead based solder. Although, a cold wet towel would keep it alive for just a little longer.
The point I’m driving toward here is that these architectural flaws exist because of the transition to PC architecture. The simpler times of a Japanese dominated industry are now well and truly behind us. No longer was your console a brick of a few parts that just…functioned. Now, it was a motherboard with all sorts of bits and bobs attached. In the case of the Xbox 360, Microsoft knew it was liable to overheat or cause circular scratches on the disc.
They knew lead-free soldering would remove the degradation issue. Disc-securing brackets would protect spinning discs from getting scratches. But pivoting manufacturing to lead-free solder would delay release and cost a further $11 million. So they didn’t do it. In conclusion, this is the dark side of selling PC units disguised as consoles. Sometimes, that pursuit of gaming power and cost effective savings will give you a red ring of death. Or perhaps a disc tray that won’t shut the hell up. Something tells me the next generation of consoles will have similar manufacturing hurdles to ignore and keep quiet about.
Turns out, my PS4’s new “infinite eject” mode is the result of similar degradation over the years. A particular little screw has come loose… somehow. According to the internet, I need to now perform surgery on my beloved PS4 which I am still building up the courage to do… I’ll probably cock it up.
4. The Open World Race Had Officially Begun
Today, we find ourselves near the end of the eighth console generation. For people like me, that makes us feel damned old. We’ve seen a lot of shifts and changes over the console generations and one that particularly stands out is the evolution of open world games.
Open world games were considered gaming delicacy as little as two generations ago. Specifically, it was enjoyment of a rare technical achievement. Despite this, the general consensus was to allow for a compromise in graphics. Games like Morrowind or GTA: San Andreas had to sacrifice a lot to deliver their massive worlds. Perhaps a reduction in detail here or godawful draw distance there. We were fine with that too. We knew what we were signing up for and we were just happy with a massive game world to explore.
Along came the 7th generation of gaming and suddenly, the formula of sacrifice for game size, began to evaporate.
I remember it like it was yesterday. I had saved desperately for a year to get an Xbox 360. The technical leaps achieved by the Unreal Engine between the two generations fascinated me. Gears of War had this new kind of Unreal sheen. A kind of sheen that would support many titles of the generation (and of today’s) that I had never seen before. It may be considered a dated “plasticine” look today, but it was total eye candy back then. What called out to me the most however, was Oblivion. Similarly, Bethesda had achieved this new graphical sheen on their own with the Creation Engine and Oblivion would become my second open world experience after San Andreas. The bar had been well and truly raised.
While following the game’s progress during development I couldn’t believe the density of physical items to collect. I expected to see an arm reach out, grab the herbs, wrench them from the ground and put them in the “alchemy” pocket. I was too young to understand the technical difficulties of achieving that – I expected too much too soon. But that would later happen in gaming. Dying Light and Crysis would nail such technical hurdles just a few years down the line.
Open world became a competitive genre of its own
Open world games have become a solid genre on their own in the wake of technological leaps. They are no longer a rarity, so much as a highly competitive genre of gaming. So much consumer expectation now comes with how a dev should fill out their world. There will always be that one open world game per generation that takes all the other devs back to school on how to raise the bar. In the case of the last generation, it was Oblivion, which offered incredible foliage density and rich textures all wrapped up in a masterclass of RPG mechanics.
This time around, The Witcher 3 managed it. A game that said depreciation of character models and world physics was no longer par for the course.
In gaming today, open world game design is the most complex of all the genres. That race of inter-dev one-up-manship started with the tech showcase of Oblivion and the few other games of its time that achieved equally lofty heights near the beginning of the 7th generation of gaming.
5. The Indie Scene Was Ready To Explode
The arrival of digital marketplaces meant small teams had new opportunities to get their games out. This had always been the case on PC but the audience pool suddenly got much bigger for indie devs on the arrival of digital marketplaces. They no longer had to contend with physical production of their games. They didn’t have to consider signing a shady contract with a big publisher either.
Two perfect success stories that spring to mind are Bastion and Limbo. Both of which arrived near the tail end of the 7th generation. Small, talented teams with creative ideas of their own could now market delightfully minimalist and original style games. As fatigue for the creative limitations of the AAA market began to set in, these small indie devs would come to the rescue.
The term “small indie devs” should not denote the amateur. Many talented devs peel away from the AAA industry to strike out on their own. In fact, UltraUltra was formed by top brass from IO Interactive. The ex-Hitman devs released a statement to the press at the time, which says a lot about their opinion of working under the “AAA machine”. The following comes as part of a statement from UltraUltra, prior to the release of their stealth action title, Echo.
Leaving behind the enormous machinery of mainstream AAA – and the astronomical cost that comes with it – Ultra Ultra focuses on a product that is much more personal, and not based on market trends and user-research. We believe that this will be felt in the game, and hope for likeminded players to make this a viable strategy.
If not for the standout indie experiences of the 7th generation, such decisions would likely not have taken place. With the AAA scene continuing to catch flak for a lack of creativity and over-use of microtransactions, the hole in the market for “something else” is still being filled by indie games. They have gone from occasional delights to a genuinely competitive space in the industry. As it was for many other things, the 7th generation of gaming was the perfect testing ground.