Modding the Future
An Uncertain Present
Gamers currently are residing in a sort of limbo concerning the landscape of gaming in the future. There has been much talk about what the "next gen" consoles might include and the fears of what the future might bring. The loudest of these worries has seemed to be the "always on" functionality (basically meaning you needed to be online in order to use it) that the Xbox One was originally deemed to have (since "Orthgate," as I'll call it, Microsoft has quelled rumours of "always on" functionality and claimed that they are not including this feature). Considering that today Microsoft revealed the next Xbox ("Xbox One," as referenced before), today seems a fitting day to make this blog post.
The fears of an "always on," Orwellian future for gamers seem to be at bay... for now! EA just recently announced that they are doing away with their "online pass" system that they had put in place in the previous generation. If you have encountered this and are familiar with it as a gamer, then you certainly have been frustrated and/or outraged over it. The online pass system EA had was, in cynical terms, a way for them to kill the used game market. Well, maybe kill is a little harsh. It certainly was a way for them to double-dip and to profit off of the resale of used games. If I can put it succinctly, EA's online pass system was a single use, unique code that accompanied each game they sold. This code allowed you to, no shock here, go online. Once you used the code, the game disc could only be attributed to you and your console, profile, IP address, or what have you. This meant that if you let a friend borrow the game, or if you tried to sell the game, the person receiving the used game would not be able to go online with the game because the code had already been used. Of course, however, if you wanted to take your used game online, you could - surprise, surprise - purchase a new online pass from the giants themselves, EA.
This is an egregious action on the part of EA and I am actually shocked and glad to see that they realised the error of their ways and committed to ending this, what can only be described as, "nonsense." In this day and age, playing online is basically assumed (and for some games, such as most all EA sports games, if you can't play online, you may as well not be able to play the game at all), and for EA to try and restrict gamers' abilities to do so out of their own avarice is quite, how do you say, ignominious. Add to the mix DRM concerns as well as unique online profiles, piracy concerns, downloadable games (which certainly are the future), and there is something of a storm a-brewing on the horizon. Gamers cannot be sure whether they will be able to game in the future like they have in the past.
Modifying the Future
Nintendo is a company that has seemed to have stuck to its guns for years and years now. They still seem to want you to fire up your N64 and play Smash Bros. with your friends into the night at a sleepover. While this mentality is nostalgic and has a certain sense of romanticism, it is not very contemporary or feasible. This is the Ghost of Gaming Past. Get a bunch of dudes together on a couch, push and punch each other when you lose, and game until your thumbs bleed. This was great, for the time. But now, most gamers cannot just do that with anyone, let alone their gamer friends. Gamers grow up, they go away, and they get physically separated from their friends and family. This is where the beauty of the internet takes over. Something that Nintendo has yet to accept is that gamers want to game online with their friends, not only for the competitive spirit, but for the convenience, ease, and simple joy of being with their friends again in one form or another. Now, I use Nintendo as an example, but I do not mean to blast them. They are the Ghost of Gaming Past. The Ghost of Gaming Future needs to be very open and honest in order to remain acceptable to gamers.
The trend of the past has seemed to be one of limits or restrictions. This trend is likely to continue on consoles, which is why computer will always win, but we shall get to that shortly. Xbox 360, however great its online capabilities, is a very restrictive console. Beyond the software and the downloads restrictions, the hardware is the most glaring of all the restrictions. The only option you have in "building" or "modifying" an Xbox 360 is the choice of hard drive capacity. Other than that, you cannot change a thing. Given the Xbox One reveal today (with little to no information on the actual system/gaming specs), this trend is likely to continue. And the same can be said for Playstation. You cannot upgrade an Xbox or a Playstation to keep it technologically relevant as the years roll by. That is to say, you cannot swap out parts. You cannot make it more powerful as years go by. It is not a modular design. And this is why personal computers will always have the upper hand.
Computers are, typically, entirely modular. You can open them up and swap parts in and out with ease. You can update and upgrade and move with the times. This is especially significant for gaming, where games are constantly requiring more and more in order to achieve those amazing graphics and huge environments we all hope to see. This means that consoles such as the Xbox and Playstation will always be behind the eight ball when it comes to releasing iterations of their gaming systems. They sell you a console that is, in effect, already outdated. They give you this outdated machine with no hope of it getting any better, either. It is akin to selling someone a car and then never allowing them to open the hood to fix it, to see what is wrong, or to swap out parts. You basically are forced to run it into the ground until it ends up in the junkyard in 5 years and then you are obligated to buy another, that is, if you want to game, I suppose.
The Steam Box, then, might be considered the Ghost of Gaming Future. If you do not know about the Steam Box, Google it. It is a gaming "console" that is being developed by the much revered Valve and it is going to be just like a computer. Modular. The Steam Box might very well revolutionise console gaming.
This brings me to my last thought. Games and game consoles have been, for the most part, entirely restrictive when it comes to modifying them. Some games, however, have taken advantage of this and have thought outside the Xbox (pun fully intended). Minecraft is a huge phenomenon. I believe this is at least in part due to the modular nature of the game. Gamers can mod just about any aspect of the game and create their own game within the game, essentially. From the texture skins to the gameplay, Minecraft allows for gamers to tinker with their creation and to make something entirely unexpected.
Sim City was basically founded on this principle. Will Wright has said that he found that he had more fun creating games than actually playing the game itself. This idea led him to create Sim City, where you essentially are building your own gameplay experience.
Portal 2 allows for community generated content for an endless stream of gameplay. This extends the game's shelf life indefinitely and it keeps gamers intrigued.
Grand Theft Auto has embraced modding and has kept players interested for years, playing all kinds of whacky, tweaked out versions of their game.
The point I am trying to make is that modularity is the future - the freedom to change and to do what you want, even within the confines of the structure.
The attempts at restricting gaming with online passes and "always on" ideas are just not going to work. Taking away freedoms is never going to be as good as giving out more. I think that gamers are bright enough to realise when they are getting tread on, and if the giants want to try to profit off of some harebrained scheme, then I think gamers will react accordingly. The internet is too pervasive. Information is being exchanged faster than ever, and people are becoming aware of unsavoury plots.
The future of gaming then, relies not on the developers who try to control what we can and cannot do, but on the gamers who are given the freedom to decide to do what has never been done.