This week, I made the trek out to Los Angeles to take part in the Electronic Entertainment Expo or E3 as it is commonly known. This is the conference where game developers, publishers and hardware manufacturers come together to show off the upcoming products and titles that gamers can look forward to over the following year or so. There was a lot to see this year as both Microsoft and Sony had new consoles to show off. So what's the future of gaming?
That depends upon whom you ask. If you were to ask Microsoft, the future of gaming is digital delivery. Say goodbye to physical media and hello to cloud-based gaming. In Microsoft's future, the console is always connected and ready to go. It integrates into your home entertainment system and allows you to navigate television, online content and games seamlessly. You can issue commands through a controller, gestures or voice commands.
This vision of the future has cheesed off plenty of fans -- it means change and change is rarely met with enthusiasm. In this future, gamers may have limited options. Since the games are moving to a streaming or cloud-based format, the previously-owned market may take a hit. Microsoft has said that you'll be able to sell used games to approved retailers. But many of those decisions may be left to individual game publishers. If the publisher doesn't want players to be able to sell off used copies they might be able to block that from happening. We're still waiting on all the details.
The always-on requirement also has gamers concerned about everything from digital rights management (DRM) to privacy concerns. The new Xbox One console has to check in with home base over the Internet once every 24 hours to verify that it's a legitimate console and account. And because Microsoft requires you to have a Kinect sensor connected to the console for it to work, gamers are a bit concerned that they could be spied upon. That's not a trivial matter considering the recent news about the NSA's PRISM program.
Microsoft, for its part, has defended its position. Company spokesman Yusuf Mehdi told Ars Technica that the company expected this reaction. He also said that he remains confident that gamers will come around to the system and appreciate it in time.
Meanwhile, Sony's response was to give gamers more of what they are used to -- games that you can buy, sell, trade or lend without restrictions. The company also put a new emphasis on online play and services. While Sony's PS4 console comes with a camera and microphone sensor that can translate gestures and voice commands into system actions, the company didn't rely as heavily upon these features as Microsoft.
All of that coupled with the PS4's lower price tag -- it's $100 cheaper than the Xbox One -- meant that nearly everyone on the show floor considered Sony to be the big winner of this year's E3 announcements. But what really has me excited about Sony is its dedication to supporting independent game developers.
Both Sony and Microsoft have introduced gamers to titles they might otherwise have never seen. But Sony spent a bit more time talking about odd, quirky or simply innovative games from industry unknowns. For example, there's the game OctoDad, which puts the player in the role of an octopus trying desperately to pose as a human being. It's such an absurd premise that I was immediately charmed before I even gave the game a spin (it was ridiculously fun but I don't know how it holds up as a full-length game).
Beyond the two titans battling it out (was anyone even talking about Nintendo during E3?), I also had a chance to check out some other innovative games at the IndieCade booth. There, I saw games that challenged players' perceptions of what a game could be. Some included manipulating real world objects to create in-game responses. Others forced you to reconsider what the rules of the gaming world were. And then there was the Oculus Rift.
The Oculus Rift is a headset with two screens -- one for each eye. Players don the headset and then they can look around and see a video game from the inside. It's what we were promised back in the early days of virtual reality. Back then, the limitations of what we could do with graphics and hardware meant that people were generally disappointed in the technology. Today, it's a different story.
The Oculus Rift version of the future of gaming puts us into the games themselves. Wearing a headset and headphones, we'll be immersed in games. Even the simplest game becomes an exciting way to explore virtual surroundings. To say that I was impressed by the hardware is an understatement.
Other hardware improvements, such as the cameras in both the Kinect and the PS Eye devices, mean that gamers have more options than ever before when it comes to interacting with games. Will gamers respond to these improvements or will they rely on the established model of controller and console (or a computer's keyboard and mouse)? I think a true revolution in games is around the corner. The only question is if this generation of game hardware will be the one to bring it about.