Video games have come a long way in how they look, how they are delivered, where they are played and how they immerse players.
Let’s begin with a quick history lesson.
Initially, games released in 1950s had only simple 2D graphics that didn’t move across the screen and no sound. Those games were a novelty, not meant for consumers and ran on mainframe computers the size of rooms.
Then the 1960s and 1970s saw games developed that featured moving 2D monochrome graphics and basic sounds running on machines ranging from arcade-sized to home consoles no bigger than your modern day consoles. Games of that era are delivered via cartridges, which are clunky and prone to loading issues.
After that, games went from 8-bit colour 2D graphics to 16-bit colour 3D polygon graphics as the processors powering the game consoles and computers became more powerful and can support complex operations between 1980s to 1990s. At the same time, storage capabilities were also improving as games went from using cartridges to CD-ROM. That means games can be bigger, look better and sound better.
However, the handheld consoles didn’t progress as far. They used technology that were at least one generation behind. For example, the Nintendo GameBoy featured an 8-bit Sharp processor running at 4.19MHz with 8KB internal S-RAM whereas consoles like the Super NES featured a 16-bit CPU, a set of graphic processors called Picture Processors then and at least 64KB of main RAM. That mean the early handheld game consoles could only handle moving black/white 2D graphics. But that didn’t matter. The device was popular enough with consumers for at least a decade.
From 2000 to 2010, the gaming industry saw the release of sixth generation consoles and then the seventh generation with games using bigger disc size due to their better game assets, textures, and cinematic video. During this timeframe, the handheld market expanded. And those consoles featured better hardware that allowed games running on Nintendo DS and Playstation Portable to have the same graphics fidelity found in the yesteryear consoles like the original Playstation, Nintendo 64, Sega Saturn, etc., which were considered pretty good considering the small-form factor and the use of batteries.
With the arrival of the 2010s, smartphones and tablets joined the home game consoles, PC and handhelds as another viable gaming platform. Both of the smartphones and tablets soon establish themselves as the more compelling platforms than the handheld consoles because of their flexibility. They allow users to download games from the Internet via their respective App Stores. Not only that, users can also use the same device to watch video, listen to music and communicate with people. This meant that dedicated handheld gaming machines like the Nintendo 3DS and Playstation Vita would have a hard time on the market because they can’t do what the smartphone can.
To add salt to the injury, the rapid hardware improvement of the smartphone and tablet also meant that developers could now put in better looking game assets, implement complex game logic and gameplay and have better sound that were unheard of in a handheld console. Not only that, handheld consoles are like the home consoles where it could take a while before the software library grows big enough to entice consumers to buy, creating a chicken-and-egg problem. Smartphones, and to a lesser extend tablets, can see more triple-A games due to the open nature, proper SDK support, and larger market share. One good example of triple-A game for smartphone and tablet is Fortnite.
And that’s probably why the Playstation Vita didn’t quite achieve the same level of popularity as the original and the 3DS suffered lacklustre sales initially when they were released during that period.
But it didn’t stop Nintendo from releasing Switch in March 2017. Despite featuring hardware that was a couple of generations old when compared to iPhone 7 and the iPad Pro in terms of performance, it was successful because it can be used in handheld-mode and docked mode, making it the first of its kind. That means gamers can play their beloved games on the same console in either mode without much hassle. Not only that, it has a good support from game developers, which translates to better quantity and quality of games.
One thing to note is that while the game graphics on Switch don’t come close to what the Playstation 4 and Xbox One could do due to its hardware, it is good enough since its smaller resolution can free up more GPU resources to render the game world at a higher fidelity. And some examples of triple-A games that took advantage of that are Doom, Wolfenstein 2: The Colossal Order, Gear Club Unlimited.
While the Switch is the gaming console that run best in handheld mode, Apple’s iPhone and iPad can be argued as the best platforms for mobile AR gaming due to the power of their A-series SOC. Their latest A12X Bionic in the iPad Pro is as powerful as the processor found in a gaming console like the Xbox One while consuming a fraction of the power. With that kind of power, game developers can develop not only graphically intensive games like Infinity Blade 3 and Grid Autosport but also games like The Machines, ARZombi, and AR Dragon that could allow players to interact with overlaid 3D game assets displayed on their mobile devices, depending on where they point their devices, without needing extra equipment or add-ons.
Other than AR, VR is the other thing games took advantage of. Sony released the Playstation VR in 2016 that was well received. Multiple game developers are actively developing games for it which allow players to immerse themselves deeper into the game by having them wear a special headset that project the game world into their eyes and putting them at the center of the experience. A similar effort can also be found on the PC with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive but that require more powerful computer hardware that put them out of reach for most gamers.
As you can see, the gaming industry does seem to be heading into different directions based on the different platforms. But one thing is clear. Mobile gaming is here to stay. So is living-room gaming.
Then it begs the question, what’s next?
I believe the tenth generation of video game devices would ultimately converge into something that combine hybrid nature of Nintendo Switch with AR capabilities of the iPhone/iPad. The physical device won’t be much larger than the current Nintendo Switch because of fatigue when using as a handheld. It will also come with some kind of dual camera system that allow for correct depth processing and rendering of overlaid graphics.
In terms of technical specification, these game console would most likely have at least eight cores and 16GB of RAM providing to 1.2x the performance of the ninth generation consoles slanted to be released by Sony and Microsoft in the near future. With that, the default resolution of games running on such devices will be at minimum 1920 x 1080p. 4K gaming would also be a breeze for such devices.
Furthermore, VR will also be an integral part of the tenth generation consoles through the use of VR glasses, which will definitely be smaller as compared to the current generation of headset. And despite the advantages of a touchscreen, physical joysticks and buttons won’t go away since they offer better tactile feedback and control. The experience of playing a racing game using virtual joystick on a touchscreen vs a physical joystick is just completely different. If you have sweaty hands, chances are the game won’t register your actions very well.
On the software front, the devices will come with basic internet browsing and media playback/streaming capabilities. Games will be predominantly delivered via the App Store and disc versions probably would give way to the use of game card like what the Switch uses with storage capacity achieving at least 128GB.