People tend to organize the game consoles into generations based on periods when a large number of consoles were released in a short time span. If we abstract things even more, we can reduce that down into a few key technologies that ushered in each new age of games. These major advances in technology created the gaming revolutions of the past and will continue to do so in the future. During and after a revolution, developers use these revolutionary technologies to make the cutting edge games. Based on current video game history, I feel there are five revolutions: 2D Graphics, 3D Graphics, Touchscreen Control, Motion Control, and 3D Visuals.
2D graphics were introduced with the first consoles, starting in 1972 with the Magnavox Oddysey. Popular consoles in this period were the Magnavox Odyssey, Atari 2600, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Sega Genesis, and Super NES. There were some games made that used vector graphics to create a psuedo-3D effect, but the vast majority of games were 2D.
With two dimensions game developers only had height and width in the image. There was no depth, so you pretty much saw everything from just one viewpoint. For example, if you saw a building, you couldn’t really walk around to see the other side unless the programmers specifically programmed another 2D viewpoint for that side. 2D graphics were usually hand drawn on paper, and then a pixel artist would convert it to a low resolution image that could be displayed on the TV. All TVs were just standard definition in those days, so the max resolution in most cases was only 640×480. Many times it was less than that due to limitations in the console hardware.
For quite a few years, 2D graphics went dormant as 3D graphics surged in popularity. They have started coming back, however. Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network, and Steam release many games with 2D graphics on the dedicated console platforms. 2D graphics are also dominate among handheld gaming including the Nintendo DS as well as mobiles, smart phones, and tablets.
The next major advance in gaming was full 3D graphics in 1994 with the Sega Saturn. Popular consoles in this era were the Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64. Some previous game consoles were capable of some basic 3D environments with 2D sprites, but starting in this period game consoles were capable of producing full 3D graphics for everything in the game. There also started to appear some industry standards for how to do 3D graphics. This meant developers for one console could make games for other consoles without having to relearn everything for the new console. This made it easier to port games to other game systems or switch development to another console platform.
With 3D graphics developers were no longer restricted to just a few viewpoints. Most games would let you move the viewpoint around with buttons or through the movement of your character. The camera wasn’t just stuck in one direction. All of the graphics were now made up of polygons with textures rather than the traditional 2D hand drawn sprites. Over the years 3D graphics have gotten better with higher polygons and texture quality.
There was not really anything better after 3D graphics, so developers had to come up with something else for the new game consoles. They turned their attention to implementing new control interfaces. The first was introducing the touchscreen to gaming with the Nintendo DS in 2004. While touchscreen control causes fatigue in long periods, it suits a handheld gaming device well. The Nintendo DS touchscreen only detects one touch at a time, but newer touchscreens have multi-touch capability.
While touchscreen control will never become a primary interface for games you can expect to see it more often as new game systems come out. With home consoles touchscreen could possibly be employed on future controller designs. Also, the iPhone and iPad have become extremely popular devices for touchscreen games lately even though they are not primarily gaming systems. It remains to be seen how far touchscreen control will go, but it is sure to stick around in some form or another just as 2D graphics has.
We are getting to the more recent years now, so you can probably predict what the major advances are from this point forward. Motion control started with the Nintendo Wii in 2006. The Wii had this technology exclusively until September 2010 when Sony released the Playstation Move. Microsoft also released their own motion control system with the Kinect on November 4, 2010.
Instead of using buttons the player uses body motion to control the game. This can be achieved with a special motion sensing controller (Wii, PS3) or with the body alone (Kinect). The first Wii controller was more of a sophisticated pointing device than true motion control mainly sensing height and width of the controller. Over the years Nintendo has released new controllers to improve its depth-sensing capability. The Move controller is much the same as the Wii controller but adds much more precision to sensing capability in all dimensions. The Kinect also senses these things, but does not require a controller.
I don’t know if motion control will ever be the way to play hardcore games; however, it should be around in some form in every future console. I could easily see it being one form of control in hardcore games. At certain points of a game they could call on you to use motion controls when it better fits the action. Motion controls would work very well for mini-games within a game, such as a lockpicking mini-game to unlock doors.
In addition to new motion control devices, 2010 also brought 3D visuals to consumers. This is kind of confusing when it comes to games, because we already have 3D in the form of graphics. This new 3D technology I call 3D visuals, because it has to do with how we view the graphics, not how the console simulates a 3D space. Another common name for it is Stereoscopic 3D, two separate images are projected to the viewer with one image for each eye.
The Playstation 3 is at the leading edge right now with full 3D Blu-ray support and 3D game support. I believe the Xbox 360 and Wii can support 3D, but may not have the performance to do it well. Current 3D games render two images per frame, one for each eye. That means it pretty much requires twice the processing power to do 3D graphics. Only the PS3 has the power to do this and draw high end graphics at the same time. Coming in 2011 is the new Nintendo 3DS, a DS with the ability to display 3D visuals. It will be the first gaming system to have 3D visuals without requiring the player to wear 3D glasses.
Now a lot of gamers say 3D visuals is just a fad like every time before. On the other hand, I think it will be staying around. TVs are getting to close to the maximum clarity our eyes can actually see, but TV manufacturers have to get people to keep buying new TVs. The only way is by adding new features to the TV. We already have so-called “smart TVs”, which are computer-TV hybrids that add the Internet features. 3D visuals is one such feature.
In the original post I made a prediction that 3D visuals were going to be the future. That 3D visuals would be added to all future TV sets, everyone would eventually have a TV capable of 3D visuals, and game developers would take advantage of that. Over the year though, it seems like 3D visuals lost a lot of steam. First, 3D movie ticket sales went way down to the point that many theatres stopped showing them. Second, consumers were not really interested in 3DTV and stuck to their current HDTVs. Third is the Nintendo 3DS, which sold much lower than Nintendo expected. The sales were so slow they had to reduce the price by $80. Fourth, I have heard a lot of complaints about headaches when playing 3D games.
All these combined, I don’t see 3D visuals coming to hardcore games. I think they will work for games designed for short play sessions, like mobile games. I think the 3DS could definitely recover over the years. I still consider 3D visuals to be a revolution though. It will change quite a few of the games we play once the costs go down. Gaming with 3D visuals today is too expensive for most gamers, but some day the costs will be pretty low.
There are a few interesting things to note here. Gaming revolutions do not require a complete end to the use of older technologies. For example, most modern games use 3D Graphics of some sort, but there are still quite a few that still use 2D Graphics or a mixture of the two. In many cases the new technology discovered during a revolution is simply added on to existing technologies, not wholly replacing the older technology.
Another thing to note is that these technologies are usually discovered much earlier than the actual revolution. It’s only when they get onto store shelves and into consumer hands that the revolution can be considered to begin. Touchscreens were invented back in the 1960s but only came to gaming (and widespread use) in 2005.
What do you think? Are 3D visuals and motion control here to stay? If not, what is your prediction for the next great technology in the future? Sound off in the comments below.