This week’s Wednesday Rant takes a look at the stagnating current generation of game consoles.

The current generation of gaming consoles is historic for many reasons: online gaming on consoles hit the mainstream, non-gaming services abound (Netflix, last.fm, etc), stock wireless controllers, and, perhaps what seperates this generation from all others before it, near-HD or full HD graphics (with the exception of the Wii, although it made up for it by making motion controls a regular part of the conversation…YMMV on that one.)  2005 and 2006 were turbulent times, filled with visions of gaming experiences unlike anything before.  The future had arrived, and it looked crazy fun.  The phrase “next-gen” hung around well into the first year of availability (or the second, depending on where you get your gaming news from), a testament to just how important this new batch of consoles were.

Fast forward to November of 2010.  Current-gen consoles are fast-approaching their maximum output from a complexity perspective, and the visual divide between consoles and PCs continues to grow.  The hardware inside current-gen consoles, once the stuff of legends, can now be bested with even the most budget-minded PC.  The 360 and PS3 chug putting out muddy textures, while PCs are now capable of smoothly driving six screens from a single video card.  Granted, the price difference is huge, but the point here is technology…not money.

When this topic comes up, I often hear people say “well, what’s the point of releasing new systems?  All it will do is make things prettier.”  Not necessarily true.  A more powerful system would allow for more complex calculations behind the scenes, and enable more details to be going on at once.  Look at something like Oblivion, or Fallout 3/New Vegas, or Dragon Age, or Fable II/III, or GTA IV; all of these games have an insane amount going on behind the scenes…and it’s running on, by today’s standards, ancient hardware.  Imagine what could be done with more modern innards.

Between Netflix, the ability to stream audio and video over a network, full 1080P output, and Blu-Ray capabilities, consoles aren’t just for gaming anymore.  The current gen has taken game consoles from being plastic bricks with a singular purpose to all-encompassing entertainment hubs.  But it’s not enough; there needs to be more widespread codec support.  If marketing departments are spending time and effort convincing me their device is a great media hub, I shouldn’t have to rely on third-party software so I can play the video files I want to play.  The PS3 is much better in this area than the 360 is, but there’s still room for improvement.  If they really want to try selling a gaming console as a media device in addition to its gaming capabilities, they need to step up their game.

Going back to visuals for a moment, it’s gotten kind of difficult for me to look at current-gen games.  I feel like they’re at the point 3D games were at when the N64 hit the scene.  Back then, 3D was primitive, clunky, and generally not much to look at.  We were excited because OMGWTF 3D, but not because it looked amazing or realistic.  It was a new era, a great experiment with something we had heard about for years but were finally able to experience in our own living rooms.  Now look at games today…what do you see?  You see a lot of detail, sure…but you still see edgy character design.  You still see horrible aliasing.  You still watch weapons and hair go right through armor and objects.  You still see NPCs run over ground rather than on it.  Since this is the first crop of HD consoles, there’s a learning curve here…but also, as previously mentioned, a technical hole that developers are stuck with until they are given modern tools.  The complexity and power of an engine is no longer limited by imagination…it’s getting to the point of being limited by the hardware.

We are still at least a year or two away from next-gen home consoles, and in that time we’ll see more power squeezed out of what’s currently hooked up in our entertainment centers.  However, the technology divide between PCs and consoles continues to grow.  If it isn’t obvious to you now how much we need a refresh, just wait; it will be.  Soon.