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“Next Gen”: Where have we been? Where are we going?

By AUSTIN CONWAY
Staff Writer

The term “generation” is often used to describe a console’s lifecycle. The days of the original Xbox, PS2 and GameCube were counted as the sixth generation. The Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii are the seventh generation. During this past fall, we witnessed the release of the Wii U, ushering in the eigth generation. Nintendo is expected to be joined by its Microsoft and Sony counterparts sometime later this year.

I have lived to see five of these generations play out, each one having an equally interesting outcome. In my time I have also witnessed the ascension, decline and revival of the PlayStation brand. Microsoft had come out of nowhere with the original Xbox, which sparked mild interest, only to end up taking the world by storm with its successor, the Xbox 360. Nintendo, the oldest of the three, has continued to persevere, creating classic icons (Mario, Donkey Kong, etc.) that have transcended brand and medium, being the first company to truly bring “video games” to the masses. I have seen things change, both for the better and for the worst.

This fall is certainly going to be one for the record books. In the sixth generation, Sony stood alone, releasing the PS2 a full year before its competitors. In the following generation, also hoping to capitalize on a year head start, Microsoft launched the Xbox 360 in November of 2005 before both Nintendo and Sony. For the first time, however, Microsoft and Sony are going to go head-to-head, battling for customer’s attention this holiday season. As someone who was still too young to have any potential purchasing sway in 2005 or 2006, this holiday season holds my attention more than any in the past.

The last eight years have been rather diverse. I began expecting that I would only purchase one of the consoles and in the end purchased all three. In retrospect, the playing field has completely changed over the course of the current generation. This generation has seen a greater importance placed on multi-media features. Services such as Netflix and Hulu are now dominant and necessary characteristics for consoles. The availability and importance of console exclusive experiences have differed over the years as well. Some publishers remain intent on creating and supporting titles that are entirely exclusive to one platform while others focus on exclusive content. In order to protect firsthand sales against the increase of the “used game” market, some publishers have backed the notion of online passes. These passes would restrict content to individuals who didn’t buy the game new, and offer the ability to purchase the content separate, typically directly from the publisher. Downloadable content has also exploded onto the scene, becoming an extremely polarizing concept in its own right.

The practices of the industry have certainly changed. But does that mean the medium has changed as well? The last several years have seen a change in genre for certain installments in long standing series. Experiences have been streamlined to widen the audience and bring in new fans. The existence of some genres has even been dictated by the genres’ market worth, prompting some publishers not even to bother with titles that might not reach their ridiculous expectations.
Overall, I feel that the sixth generation was a better time for video games, though that isn’t necessarily a comment one way or the other on today’s gaming atmosphere. Collectively I feel that during the last generation, videogames were more inherently “videogames.” The formulas were exact and the methods were in place. What this medium has lacked in regard to giving its audience great video games, it has made up for by giving them great experiences. This generation, more so than any other, has chosen to defy long standing ideological structures and rules that typically dictated the crafting and design of such titles. Never before could noncombat sequences have flourished and been celebrated. Decisions based on the fate of characters finally have more gravitas than deciding which weapon would be best in order to get through a particularly difficult section. Smaller, two-three hour experiences have more emotional impact and resonance than most 40 hour epics. These smaller games have also gone on to be nominated and recognized for such accomplishments and characteristics that go beyond their respected industry and medium.

This generation is no better or worse than the one that came before it. It’s simply different. Setting nostalgia aside, no generation has ever really trumped the other. They simply try to build upon what was there before, all the while experimenting and trying to improve. Going forth, I can only imagine what new kinds of experiences the eigth generation brings. Regardless, I couldn’t be more excited to find out.