Let' just say it right now: Video games are going to dominate the freaking future. You'll see it in your own lifetime. We're warning you, though, it's going to get weird. Beginning with ...
2008: Neverending Games, Sony' Model-T Matrix
Spore's Infinite Universe
Anything we say about the future of gaming has to start with Spore, a game from Will Wright (The Sims, Sim City) that no one would have even believed possible if they hadn't actually seen it in action. In Spore, you start out as a single-celled organism ...
... and evolve into a creature of your own design ...
... then form tribes ...
... then cities ...
... then planets ...
... then interplanetary travel ...
... which lets you visit other planets teeming with infinite varieties of alien life. Yes, guys, you can then build warships and wipe them out.
This sounds like a ridiculous crack fantasy to any gamer who's ever dropped $60 on a game and blown through all 12 levels in eight hours. How the hell do you fit an "infinite" number of planets and aliens on a few DVD' worth of data?
The answer is a technique called procedural generation, which just means the game doesn't have to store millions of creatures, it just stores the methods by which they can be built. You, the gamer, make the creatures.
Your malformed abominations, along with all the civilization and technologies that spring from your deranged imagination, are automatically uploaded online where they become part of the Spore universe. Those other planets you get to travel to? They're all created by other gamers.
They're planning on half a million stars with millions of planets orbiting. When we say "infinite," we mean it. We're talking about a game you could literally spend the rest of your natural life exploring without ever reaching the end.
Whether or not this particular game becomes a hit, this method of game creation is the inevitable future. A whole lot of what sucks about games right now--specifically, the huge art budgets that force publishers to cash in with shitty licensed games--will go by the wayside. Game makers won't have to construct a whole digital universe; they can simply provide the blueprint and distribute the creation process to millions of people like you and me.
But, what could wind up having an even bigger impact ...
Sometime in the Spring of '08 Sony will break ground on the kind of virtual world that has been predicted by, well, about 40 percent of the science-fiction stories written in the last 50 years.
It' called PS3 Home and basically anybody with a PS3 console will be able to take a handsomer version of themselves into a cleaner, more-awesome version of the real world and mill around with other gamers doing the same.
I don't think we can summarize the scale of this as well as the insightful experts at PrisonPlanet.com have HERE, with the headline:
SONY BRINGS REAL LIFE MATRIX A STEP CLOSER
SETS PRECEDENT FOR FUTURE ARTIFICIAL UTOPIAS
CONSTRUCTED TO ESCAPE HELLHOLE OF REAL WORLD
Hell, yes. If we were Sony, we'd put that shit right on a billboard. Not that this is a tough sell; every move mankind has taken toward a virtual community has drawn a stampede. From MySpace to World of Warcraft, the promise of being able to start your life over as a cooler, better-looking version of yourself has been irresistible. Look at the picture up there. No one will be fat in PS3 Home.
So far, Sony has done an incredible job of convincing us not to buy a PS3 (It' getting pounded by the Wii and Xbox 360 in sales.) but even if PS3 Home dies on the vine, it will, at worst, serve as the blueprint the next virtual world is built from. It could be the Model-T of what could, generations later, turn into something close to The Matrix. But, we're getting ahead of ourselves.
But know this: It will happen. The virtual utopia has a spot reserved in our future right next to the sex robot: People want it, and it' just a matter of working out the details.
What Will Suck About It
People are dicks.
Check your inbox. How many of your emails are from friends, as opposed to spammers? How many of your female MySpace-friend requests are dummy pages set up for porn?
Spore and PS3 Home are still made up of people and therefore a certain percentage of those wondrous new universes will be composed of dicks. At some point you will travel to a wondrous new Spore world and find the creatures there have evolved to have hides covered in porn URLs.
As for PS3 Home, do you think Sony is pouring tens of millions into development so you and your little friends have a place to hang out? No, they're creating one of the greatest targeted-marketing opportunities in the history of advertising. How long until busty virtual girls are chatting you up, then interrupting flirty conversations to say they'll need 20 bucks to continue?
All that is just around the corner. Now, let' skip ahead a generation ...
2013: Badass Handhelds With Even Badderass Web Connections
A PS3 in Your Pocket
We'll be at the generation of the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox ... 720 or whatever they decide to call it.
Now, the gaming industry' greatest obstacle has always been the fact that humans eventually have to go outside. This is why handheld gaming is such a big deal these days The best-selling game machine isn't the Wii, PS3 or 360. It' the handheld Nintendo DS, by a huge margin.
People need something to do in all those settings where, in the old days, they used to read a paperback (at the beach, waiting at the airport) and kids need something to do on car trips or in detention. Both groups tend to be avid non-readers.
Come 2013, you should have a portable as powerful as a PS3 or 360 (portables run about a generation behind), which is pushing the limit of what the human eye can even perceive on a little 4-inch screen.
Now, saying handheld gaming is the future right after saying online gaming is the future may sound like a contradiction. After all, wireless Internet access is spotty and cell phone Internet makes you feel like it' 1997 all over again. But ...
The Miracle of 4G
This is where 4G comes in.
4G is the upcoming standard that will give you a wireless connection at 100Mbit/s, anywhere. That' more than 30 times faster than the best DSL connection you can get at home, kids.
Above: The Nokia 4G phone concept, currently in the
"Make-an-awesome-Photoshop-of-it" phase of development.
Whatever the virtual-gaming universe looks like at that point, be it World of Warcraft 2 or the second generation of PS3 Home or a sprawling descendant of Spore, you should be free to access it anywhere, at any time, from your handheld.
Also, this nearly-unlimited Web access will probably signal the end of physically buying games off the shelf. Electronic Arts is not going to see the point in selling boxed games for $60, when they can have you download it for a fee, then pay another monthly subscription fee to play it (the scheme that made Blizzard rich off World of Warcraft).
What Will Suck About It
As you may have already guessed, this era of "download anything, anywhere, anytime" also introduces the era of your mom screeching up the stairs after she opens up a $600 monthly gaming bill.
That bill won't just be from little Timmy buying new games or paying subscription fees on existing ones, either. It'll be from buying in-game content. Already you Xbox-360 gamers can spend real-world money to get extra cars in Forza 2.
It will be a money-making bonanza for them. For us, well, some day we'll reach the final boss' castle and meet a dragon who tells us that the only way to prove we have the heroic heart of the Chosen One is to give him 20 bucks.
Of course, being gamers, we'll still spend most of our time wishing for the Next Big Thing. Which brings us to ...