You wouldn't know it from the miles of coverage generated by the launch of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but console gaming is on its way out. What's going to replace it? We explore the future of gaming.
The current crop of next-generation consoles – the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, closely followed by the new Nintendo Wii U – may be the last of their kind. Buying games on physical discs, even with the considerable capacities afforded by Blu-ray, is on – or nearly on – its last legs, as domestic internet speeds continue to rise.
The way gaming is delivered isn't the only thing that's likely to change, though. Console gaming has been a staple of the modern living room since Atari launched its assault on the home with the 2600 console – complete with fake wood panelling on the front – in 1977. In recent years, though, console gaming has found itself under threat. Mobile devices pack an unbelievable amount of power: just look at games such as EA's Real Racing 3 on the iPad and Android tablets to see what we mean.
It isn't just mobile gaming that threatens the console: modern console games – and the consoles themselves – are expensive, and sorting the wheat from the chaff is difficult. For every blockbuster such as Grand Theft Auto IV, it seems there are a million derivative first-person shooters, generic racers and dull RPGs. What's more, with big?name game developers able to monopolise advertising space and magazine column inches, it's hard for independent developers to have their voices heard.
Luckily things are changing, and consoles, as they shuffle towards the end of their mortal coil, are leaving a vacuum in their wake that's being filled by a new generation of gaming platforms. Some of those platforms are hardware based, such as Amazon's new Fire TV, designed for both games and streaming media, while others are software services, including the games streaming service OnLive. Others are a combination of both and bring together high-end gaming hardware with its big-screen SteamOS – Steam's new hardware platform, for example.
All of these platforms promise to change how computer games are made, sold and consumed. Some of them will make gaming cheaper, and all of them will bring the fight to Sony and Microsoft, who will have to fight or die in the face of their new competition.
In this feature, we'll look at what the future of gaming could hold for developers, gamers and hardware makers alike, as well as seeing how you can abandon your console and move to a better, faster, cheaper gaming platform today without sacrificing the ability to play the games everyone's raving about. See also: PlayStation 4 vs PlayStation 3 comparison review: buy a PS4 or save money and get a PS3?
The future of gaming: OnLive
On the face of it, OnLive seems too good to be true. Download a small piece of software and get hundreds of games, all playable on your home PC, whether you've got a thousand-pound gaming rig or a simple laptop. All the hard processing work is done by OnLive's servers, which stream the resulting video to your computer in up-to 720p HD, depending on the speed of your internet connection. Your control inputs – and you can use any Windows-compatible game controller or your keyboard – are captured by the OnLive software and delivered to the company's servers. The whole process is akin to Netflix.
OnLive doesn't have a lacklustre library, either. For your £7.99 per month subscription you get unlimited access to OnLive's PlayPack, which includes top-tier titles such as BioShock (2007), Batman: Arkham City (2011), Darksiders II (2012) and Just Cause 2 (2010). You'll notice a shortage of triple-A titles including Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty, but there's plenty to keep the attention of most gamers.
The question of how well it works is crucial. You don't need flashy hardware – indeed, OnLive sells its MicroConsole, which cuts out the need for a PC and streams directly to a TV's HDMI port, for just £70. What you do need is a decent internet connection. OnLive says the absolute minimum is 2Mb/s, but recommends 5Mb/s for HD gameplay.
Our experience with the system was overwhelmingly positive, with games looking good and playing smoothly, but a 50Mb/s fibre-optic connection undoubtedly helped. OnLive offers new users a seven-day trial, so you can find out how well it works on your internet connection without spending a penny.
The future of gaming: Ouya
Crowdfunding, of the type seen on Kickstarter and Indiegogo, is a great way for dreamers to fund projects without having to find individual investors. The designers of the £99 Ouya, a small, Android-powered games console, found that out in 2012, when they outlined their idea of an independent, affordable platform to bring indie gaming into the mainstream. Setting an initial target of $950,000 (around £570,000), Ouya's creators were taken aback to receive 100 percent of their funding target within eight hours. The money kept rolling in, with gamers tired of the console status quo contributing a total of $8,596,474 (over £5,000,000).
The allure of the Ouya? It would be the first games console dedicated to independent games. Programmers wouldn't need to send off for expensive development kits as they do with the Xbox and PlayStation, and they wouldn't have to sign over a proportion of their earnings to Ouya either. Being based on Android means porting games over from portable devices is straightforward, and from a consumer point of view, Ouya's appeal – apart from attracting big names such as the Final Fantasy series and Sonic – is all its games have to be initially free to play, meaning you'll never shell out for a game without having the chance to try it out first.
After the fundraising, things started brightly, and Ouya says it offers over 700 games from over 34,000 registered developers, but the console's reception has been frosty. Reviewers pointed out that the hardware – perhaps inevitably given its mere double-digit price in a world of £350 consoles – felt cheap. This was true of the controller, whose buttons were prone to getting caught under the plastic cover. There were other problems too: too few of Ouya's games are exclusive to the platform, and were available on low-powered platforms such as mobile devices. Moreover, whatever your stance on mainstream console gaming, it's hard to ignore that you can now pick up the far more powerful Xbox 360 for just £30 more.
That isn't to say the Ouya is dead and buried, though. Last year, its creators said they planned to release an updated version every year, and in March this year ‘Ouya Everywhere' was announced; a plan which would see Ouya and its raft of indie developers turned into a service that could be embedded on other platforms, so you might start finding the Ouya store on mobile phones, tablets or – perhaps – even consoles. See also: PS4 vs Xbox One review: Next-gen games console comparison.
The future of gaming: Steam boxes
Steam is the closest thing the PC has to a unified gaming platform after Windows itself. Now in its second decade, with over 75 million active users and 3000 games available, encompassing everything from blockbusters such as Football Manager 2014 to highly-rated indie games including Spelunky.
Steam's inclusion here isn't because of its position at the top of the PC gaming tree; that's something that hasn't changed dramatically since Steam became the only way to activate Half-Life 2 in 2004. Instead, Steam is beginning to position itself as both a hardware and software company – that is, you'll buy a game using Steam's website, then play it using Steam's approved hardware, in a similar way to how buying games through Xbox Live or the PlayStation Store.
Steam Machines, also known as Steam Boxes, will be hardware of various shapes and sizes that satisfy Steam's minimum requirements for its free operating system, Steam OS. Steam OS is designed to provide gamers with a full-screen (and thus suitable for TVs) interface that allows them to buy games online and play them on either a PC monitor or a living room TV, free of the various restrictions you'll find if you use a traditional games console. One of the chief benefits to gamers will be power: current games consoles look powerful today, but by the time they're halfway through their lifespan (around five years time if the Xbox 360's lifecycle is anything to go by), they'll have been thoroughly bested by gaming PCs. Built around PC architecture, Steam Machines will be upgradable, although, as with current gaming PCs, they'll also be expensive – expect to pay around £600 or more when they hit the shelves later this year. See also: Steam Box and Steam Controller UK release date and price; When you will be able to buy Steam Machines.
The future of gaming: Browser gaming
Browser gaming has long been a punch line for serious gamers. The likes of Bejeweled, Peggle, and the slew of Facebook favourites such as Farmville mean anyone who fancies a spot of more grown-up gaming has had to look elsewhere. The modern browser is amazingly powerful, though, and Mozilla in particular is making significant strides when it comes to browser gaming. In March this year, for example, it used its booth at the Game Developer Conference in San Francisco to demonstrate something truly impressive.
Mozilla's showcase has since turned into a functional, playable demo, available at tinyurl.com/c3zddxw, and best played in Firefox. The gameplay is deeply derivative, but the thing to note is there's no need to download or authorise a plug-in. The graphics are significantly better than those on other plug-in-based games, with spectral lighting effects and realistic debris physics, pointing at a future for browser gaming that goes way beyond Candy Crush Saga.
Technically impressive demos are one thing, but the importance of native browser gaming goes way beyond flash graphics. For one thing, the browser is perhaps the one piece of software that's truly multiplatform. You can find Mozilla's Firefox and Google Chrome on PC hardware, Apple computers, Android devices as well as iPhones and iPads.
You'll also find it preinstalled on Ubuntu operating systems, meaning a developer that produces a game that runs natively in Firefox won't have to tweak their development if they want it to run across different hardware. Even smart TVs – the current wave of internet-connected HD TV sets, which are already compatible with apps and web browsers – could find themselves becoming viable gaming platforms. Soon, all you might need to play the latest games might be an internet connected device with a web browser: no wonder the console giants are looking over their shoulders.