The future of online gaming | Feature | Gaming

DestinyOnline gaming today has more players and costs more money than ever before, so what happens next?

OK, so we can’t predict the future, and we don’t pretend to know any more than you, so don’t read on expecting undeniable facts.

What you can expect (read right to the end, we’re watching you), is our thoughts on where the online side of gaming is going, and what experiences we can expect to encounter.

A digital future

Players of GTA Online have been given half a million in-game dollars to apologise for the shaky start.
Players of GTA Online have been given half a million in-game dollars to apologise for the shaky start.

The two next-gen consoles stand primed to clash in the greatest technological showdown of our generation, but what about the games?

One thing is clear – offline-only games are going to be few and far between. The rise of online-only games was felt more this year than ever before, in both successes and catastrophes.

The latest Sim City gave players cause for concern when it’s online requirement backfired spectacularly, but the highest profile casualty has to be Grand Theft Auto Online.

While the game is, if nothing else, incredibly ambitious, Rockstar fell under pressure quickly when there were countless problems with the game – a free addition for players of Grand Theft Auto V.

Weeks after launch, and after several title update patches to try to iron out the issues, GTA Online still feels creaky and glitchy. Not to mention the race to level up has left many players behind, particularly in races where no amount of money can buy car upgrades which they haven’t unlocked yet.

With so much seemingly against online games then, why do publishers and developers keep pushing for more?

It’s not about the money, money, money

Defiance always had a mountain to climb in setting up its infrastructure from scratch.
Defiance always had a mountain to climb in setting up its infrastructure from scratch.

Building an online platform, especially from scratch, is a massive undertaking which requires a lot of initial investment and on-going maintenance.

For big publishers like EA and Activision, these sorts of technologies are already on hand and so often can be adapted or acquired more easily, but for many games there isn’t so much backing on tap.

The title which really stands out in this regard is Defiance, whose developer Trion Worlds reportedly invested $70million to get the game up and running for multiplatform release earlier this year.

Despite a shaky start, the game performed well and lived up to nay-sayers who suspected it would never work. Unfortunately it has struggled more recently as the player numbers have began to fall.

Thinking inside the box

Stars of the TV series were available in the game ahead of the events of the TV show and the player got an extra insight into how they got to where they are at the beginning of the show.
Stars of the TV series were available in the game ahead of the events of the TV show and the player got an extra insight into how they got to where they are at the beginning of the show.

Where Defiance has an opportunity to remain relevant is the fact that first and foremost it is a multimedia enterprise, married up with TV network SyFy who have created the companion TV series alongside it.

Could multimedia hold the key to a sustainable future for online gaming?

Microsoft is very well placed for a multimedia revolution and the likes of Netflix (available on all consoles bar the Nintendo ones…) are announcing exclusives and special shows on an increasingly regular basis. Will we see games which tie-in to these net-based shows?

Then there’s the game spin-off TV shows themselves. Halo is working with the well-respected director Steven Spielberg and there is also a live action Need for Speed film in the works starring Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame.

Of course tie-ins of the latter sort are nothing new, indeed there have been plenty of embarrassing crossovers in the past, but with the opportunities of distribution through this new round of the consoles all the more smooth can we expect more?

It’s in the game

Created by coders formerly of Infinity Ward, Titanfall is one of the hottest games due next year.
Created by coders formerly of Infinity Ward, Titanfall is one of the hottest games due next year.

The way we play has also affected the games themselves, not just driving titles to being always-online (to get those coveted ‘living, breathing worlds’), but in terms of how they are structured and how they play.

Hotly anticipated next gen title Titanfall foregoes a traditional singleplayer campaign, opting instead for a skirmish-based cooperative campaign. The cooperative part is key, since the game wants you to play with others and grow with your characters and your team.

The risk here is that without a singleplayer campaign, players won’t get sucked into the story elements or the lore of the title and end up merely taking it at face value.

Bungie has high hopes for its new IP, Destiny
Bungie has high hopes for its new IP, Destiny

In a similar boat is Bungie’s Destiny. Responsible for establishing the Xbox with the original Halo, the company clearly know what they are doing when it comes to gaming.

Bungie simply describes Destiny as an ‘action’ game, suggesting that players will enjoy “a compelling storyline, competitive multiplayer, cooperative gameplay choices, wide open public combat destinations, and third-person community spaces where you can repair and rearm before going out on your next adventure.”

Once again, despite also offering player vs player modes, the main focus is cooperative, one of exploration and creation. It remains to be seen whether players will lose themselves in Bungie’s new world, or if they will just spend their time grinding for new items to use in team deathmatch.

Stormy weather

Forza developer Turn 10 claimed the time saved in development from having the cloud ready to deal with online multiplayer meant higher-quality visuals.
Forza developer Turn 10 claimed the time saved in development from having the cloud ready to deal with online multiplayer meant higher-quality visuals.

The power needed to keep all of these games afloat is potentially limitless, as countless players around the world all interact, much as they have for years, except with bigger, richer and more dense worlds to explore.

That computing power has to come from somewhere, and it’s likely that cloud-based processing power will become increasingly important, especially as the games grow and change to adapt to their developing environment.

It’s unclear how effective or how close gaming will realistically get to the potential of the technology. The biggest stumbling block, and criticism, particularly in the UK is that internet speeds simply aren’t quick enough yet.

The cloud can take over processing power for things which might be able to be sent back through the web without the player seeing a lag, but for things like fighting games where split-second timing is key it’s unlikely the cloud would ever be able to ‘take over’.

The end game

Companion apps and integration are undoubtedly going to be a big part of online gaming in the future.
Companion apps and integration are undoubtedly going to be a big part of online gaming in the future.

The opportunities and possibilities of the continuing trend of converging media have the potential to make gaming more mainstream than ever before.

Ubisoft’s The Division sees players fighting in teams over a sprawling, dystopian world map. This game will use multimedia to link into players real-world lives and draw them back in by sending messages straight to their phone or allowing players using tablets to interact directly with players on the console through a meta-game function generally known as ‘commander mode’.

What is key to the success of these sorts of big ideas though, is whether players actually make use of them, and that gaming companies actually make money out of them.

Micro-transactions, DLC and in-game advertising are a whole other side to the funding debate entirely, but what will be the proof of the sorts of innovations above is if they substantially lengthens the lifespan of the game.

What to expect from next gen online gaming then? In a nutshell more of some of the things we know already and plenty more coming besides that. Better warm up the router now…it’s not going to get a lot of rest soon.

James Michael Parry

Xbox One Hands On | Preview | Gaming

Xbox One LaunchThere’s only weeks to go before the biggest head-to-head of the year as Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s Playstation 4 go on sale to the masses. Ahead of all that excitement, indulge in some first impressions on what Xbox One has to offer after a special preview event.

The Box

Xbox One
That’s right, it looks like…a box. There’s a shock.

There’s no getting away from the fact that Xbox One is a big machine. Designed to be the hub of your living room, it’s size is reminiscent of the original behemoth which its grandfather was back in 2001.

This isn’t a drawback, providing you have the space, and Microsoft clearly seem to have compensated (possibly over-compensated) on cooling, which proved to be such an issue for the Xbox 360.

Power is something which is quite subjective, and in this regard, there’s no denying the One lags behind the Playstation 4 on paper and, as it turns out, in practice.

The debate is bringing the internet to its knees as we speak, so no need to recount it here. Briefly – the One is running games at less that 1080p native resolution, while the PS4 apparently manages it without too much bother. Suffice to say people are unhappy about that.

Xbox One Event - GAME Reading OracleIn reality, when you are engaging with these games, you are not going to notice the difference unless you immediately go from one to the other, and for many the gaming experience goes far further than just how pretty the game looks.

That said, Microsoft has a mountain to climb to fulfil its claims about what the machine can deliver in terms of using the cloud and being truly future-proof for the next 10 years.

Xbox One ControllerThe Controller

Although the basic design of the controller remains from the 360 era, there are a number of changes, updates and innovations within the new controller which push it to the next level.

Rumbles in the triggers are the most obvious change, but the subtlety of how responsive and precise the controller feels is probably the most important long-term improvement.

The balance of the controller remains virtually the same and the lack of battery bulge on the back gives you more space to stretch your fingers.

Jumping out to the guide with the Xbox logo is now more swift, with the screen zooming out to reveal a Windows 8-esque start screen. The start and home buttons have changed too, but it’s difficult to say how significant these adjustments will be until you are living day-to-day with the console because of one very big elephant in the room…

Xbox OneThe Kinect-y-ness

In fact, Kinect is no longer the black sheep for Xbox gamers, since it seems this time around the technology is going to live up the expectations set a few years ago when Project Natal was first announced.

So far we haven’t managed to get our hand on (well, actually NOT on) Kinect 2.0, but the various demos shown off so far definitely seem like more than smoke and mirrors.

The greatest change will be the interface. For some, this new Kinect is their first experience of the technology at all, since before it was dismissed as “foolish arm-flailing”. Now it’s in the box, there’s (almost) no getting away from it, and it definitely seems like the gesture control and even more so the voice control will be very popular.

The Gameplay

Xbox One Event - GAME Oracle Reading
Nothing like promoting a console by sticking a massive banner for its competitor right next to it.

Diving into the first-party and exclusive launch line-up for these games doesn’t feel Earth-shattering. These games are pretty, in fact in Forza 5‘s case they are astounding, but the gameplay is familiar.

The increase in scale possible with the technology is there, but it’s difficult to appreciate until the developers have begun to get their head around the technology properly. Of course the scope of these games is impressive, but also fairly safe.

Dead Rising 3 (admittedly in demo form) offers only a wall of zombies to keep players occupied. All individually animated and reasonably independent in terms of behaviour and reactions, though zombie mentality in general is more like a mob in any case.

These are all positives, but where the game is already showing itself up is with various animation and spacial awareness issues. For example there only seems to be one ‘finishing’ move with each weapon and the transition between play and these is abrupt.

Equally irritating is that when main character Nick is wielding a park bench, poised and ready to decapitate a would-be brain-muncher, you move around to get a better position and find the bench happily passes through a nearby lamppost.

Auto-aim for lobbing such items is also not quite in tune with the camera, rarely seeming to aim towards the zombie or group you are trying to exact wicked vengeance on.

Forza 5 on Xbox OneForza 5 looks great and handles beautifully, but is it breaking the mould and pushing the envelope as a racing game? No. Things like in-depth car customisation (beyond selecting a colour) or fine tuning of settings as you might expect in real cars – admittedly insanely expensive ones.

Of course these sorts of features may be added later or show themselves when the game comes out, but the point is – these games are the flagship titles for the console, they should be trying something different.

With Ryse: Son Of Rome Microsoft at least have an experience you can’t get anywhere else at the moment. Looks wise it looks solid, especially the particle and fire effects, but the gameplay isn’t as fluid as you would expect when you are controlling a highly skilled warrior.

The swordwork – although slightly overusing slo-mo – looks stylish but is overly simplified to either horizontal or vertical swipes and the control scheme despite being simple is difficult to pick up on a first try.

Try to use any more exotic weapons at your peril. Spears and siege weapons tempt you with their shininess (and often necessity in order to progress, at least in the multiplayer mode we played), but then proceed to not be picked up, not fired and not aimed where you thought they should be. Not to mention they are far too slow to be effective on anything but very long range targets which you couldn’t take out any other way.

Returning brawler Killer Instinct has all the style and production value you would expect but very little rudimentary logic in its control scheme (where on Earth is block?!), which makes it a frustrating challenge for first-time fighter fans.

In all it’s third-party titles like Battlefield 4 which over the spectacle that you might hope for from the launch of a console, which is why it’s a shame the hotly-anticipated exclusive Titanfall won’t drop until next year.

The Controversy

Don Mattrick has faced a bit of backlash, so much so that he's left the company - oops...
Don Mattrick has faced a bit of backlash, so much so that he’s left the company – oops…

Always online, then not, Kinect compulsory, then not. The One currently sits in an easy place as we approach what should be its shining moment.

Most consumers will be oblivious to the to-ings and fro-ings, getting the download from their local GAME staff member on the day, but for those well-invested in the brand, it’s been an uneasy few months.

The extremity both of the u-turns (perceived or literal) and the PR cock-ups from MS execs which often followed, has severely tested the fanbase, leading some to jump ship and many more to reconsider where they had placed their faith.

In the coming weeks and months the vision which MS tried to explain back in May will begin to come to life. How true it will stay to what was originally conceived remains to be seen.

Xbox OneThe Potential

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the One’s chances though, despite all the uncertainty.

The features originally talked about and then canned could well return. The quality and fidelity of both games and graphics will improve, and already they are looking pretty tasty – even if they aren’t blowing your socks off.

Most significant of all of course, is the service which binds everything together – Xbox Live. Microsoft have an opportunity to push the community aspect of what they have created over the past decade.

Friends lists expand and include Twitter-like followers, more interconnected play over different devices and better access to friends than ever before.

It’s almost a shame that cross-generational gameplay isn’t possible, even if it was on something simple like Bomberman or Uno, because there could be an opportunity to tap into the browser/tablet games market through Live itself that way.

Once multiplayer numbers are beefed up and the community divided into like-minded individuals so that the hardcore competitive people can play together while the more groovy laid-back types can take their time with things, for example, there is the makings of a truly powerful web of people.

On top of that there is the potential of ‘the cloud’, but it all seems t0o intangible and vague at the moment to get a real sense of how that could shake things up.

The Verdict

Look at it...sitting there...teasing us...
Look at it…sitting there…teasing us…

In all, there are a lot of reasons to be excited about this console, but another, smaller number to be cautious about.

What’s key to remember though, is that it is early days, there is a lot of potential out there and even if the Playstation 4 does ‘win’ the war – i.e. get more players, more power and more games – it won’t take away from the fact that there are still some excellent experiences which are going to be only on Xbox One.

Besides if you wanted everything, with all its bells and whistles shining like the sun, then you would have switched to a gaming PC by now anyway.

Game on.

Read more about Xbox One on This Is Entertainment.

(An excellent reveal round-up from Mr Matt Lees here which we just have to share with you, thanks VideoGamer)

James Michael Parry