Gaming in 2020: What Does the Future Hold?
Futurists and science fiction writers like to imagine what society will be like at some distant point, far removed from our current era. These future imaginings are like a mirror, reflecting back on our contemporary social problems with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Moviegoers and readers like to be entertained by these future visions, as much as they can also be horrifying. Sometimes the most banal aspects of these future worlds are the most interesting: How will people of the future go about their daily lives? How do they entertain themselves? What sorts of clothes do they wear?
When it comes to predicting the future of video games, there is a distinct lack of both clarity and realism. Many of the most popular depictions focus on immersive, virtual reality games, in which players often struggle to discern events in the game from real life. Zoned-out teenagers, plugged into giant VR goggles predominate. Technology has taken over their lives to such an extent that their frail, emaciated bodies go uncared for in real life. Unfortunately, science fiction portrayals like the holodeck tell us more about the technological paranoia of the early 1990s than they do about gaming in the far reaches of space. A more realistic approach is needed.
This looks very uncomfortable.
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The key to understanding the future of video games probably lies in their past. Once a basic technological form is set, future development seems to follow the same general trajectory. For example, consider the automobile. We have been riding around in bulky metal cages on four wheels for well over a century now, without having changed much about their design. And of course, many of us are still waiting patiently for the flying variant, which has been promised since the 1950s. Ground-based cars remain safer, more practical, and more cost-effective.
Looking back to the not-so-distant past of 1998, video games from that year seem primitive by today’s standards, but in fact share many of the same features as today’s high-definition titles. Among the games released in 1998 were Resident Evil 2, Star Craft, Metal Gear Solid, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Fallout 2. The most popular hardware that year was the Sony Playstation and the Nintendo 64. The Neo Geo Pocket and Game Boy Color dominated the handheld market.
More than a decade later, it is hard to argue that much has changed in the basic form of video games. Most of the familiar brands and titles remain (sorry, Dreamcast). Some would argue that the only thing that has changed about updated versions of games like Metal Gear Solid and Zelda are the graphics. While that is not entirely true, the tight and predictable pattern of technological progress tends to be much more boring than fantastical science fiction accounts would have us believe.
Although games in 2020 will look similar to the titles of today (and yesterday), they will still be pretty cool. Among the improvements will be graphics and sound, but those aren’t the only things.
Looking at the difference between the original Playstation and the current PS3 gives us some indication of the technical specifications that consoles will have in the year 2020.
Core CPU Speed: 33.8 MHz
Polygons per Second: 300,000
RAM: 2 MB
Storage: 649 MB (cd-rom)
Core CPU Speed: 3.2 GHz
Polygons per Second: 275,000,000
RAM: 512 MB
Storage: 40 GB
Core CPU Speed: 320 GHz
Polygons per Second: 27.5 Billion
Ram: 50 GB
Storage: 4 Terabytes
Looking at these specifications, it is clear that in the decade or so between the two consoles, there has been roughly a 100-fold increase in performance. That’s right, in the year 2020 we can reasonably expect home consoles to be 100 times more powerful than the Playstation 3. That means a lot of processing power, a lot of graphical fidelity, and a ton of storage. It is hard to even imagine game developers and players finding ways to make use of all that extra performance. But they will.
For example, doubling the resolution of current high-definition displays to 2160p would certainly chew up a good amount of that graphical processing power and RAM. Rendering two sets of images simultaneously (for a true 3D display) would require even more horsepower. Adding realistic physics simulation to effects like water, skin and hair would definitely benefit from a 100-fold increase in CPU speed. Advances in artificial intelligence, procedural content generation and real-time statistical modeling will place additional demands on hardware.
In other ways, however, the game consoles of 2020 will remain completely recognizable to a time traveler from 2008. They will still require a box in your house that connects up to the television set (and these will still be called television sets). Although it is unlikely that consoles will require or include optical disk trays of any kind, they will still accept portable storage medium like memory cards. They will also connect wirelessly to the Internet the same way that they do now. Most games will be purchased through download services like Xbox Live and PSN. Controllers will probably look much the same as those from 2008, although we can’t vouch for Nintendo. It is unlikely that gamers will be willing to give up their trusty old dual analogue input for flashy new motion tracking software, unless developers get it pixel-perfect. Many newer games probably will use motion tracking, however, pointing the way toward the eventual obsolescence of physical controllers.
Video game consoles from 2020 will be square and boring.
In sum, game consoles in the next decade will be awesome, but probably not as awesome as some science fiction portrayals would lead us to believe. Many of the core ingredients (controller, television display) will remain pretty much the same, while major technical improvements are made under the hood. Games will become more realistic and immersive than ever, but they will still be played in our living rooms, from our sofas. VR headsets and hover-sofas will have to wait until 2040, unfortunately.
This is part 1 of a three-part series on the future of gaming. In part 2, we will look at some hot new releases from 2020 to see which gameplay conventions have carried over from the past, and which features have been added to the new crop of games.
About the author:
Kris Erickson is the senior editor for the GameFlavor.com network. He is also an academic who studies the interactions between technology and society.