Alright, so I've discussed why retail bans of games
won't work as a way of stopping digital distribution, as well as touching
on the issue of how GameStop can prevent themselves from going the way of Blockbuster or HMV. That leaves me with only one way to go: Where Games Are Going in the Future.
As I said before, physical media is never going to fully disappear. However, it will not remain the same. Right now, we're starting to see the point where games are going to have to think about migrating from DVDs and BluRay to some other media. A large part of why consoles from the last few generations don't have the longevity of older consoles has nothing to do with quality and everything to do with the amount of moving parts in each. While the storage capacity and cost of manufacturing are impressive for DVDs and BluRay, the failure rate and noise the drives which read them make are less so.
While optical media is fine for data that can only be read in a single way, like music or video, it just isn't practical for games. I can't be the only one who installs certain titles to my Xbox 360 just to keep it from sounding like a jet turbine. Likewise, a lot of PS3 games have to install to the system's hard drive because of the same factor that makes the Xbox 360 loud: Transfer rate. Even if you doubled the transfer rate of currently available optical drives, they are slow, plodding beasts beside friction-free media like USB 3.0 thumb drives, current-generation SD Cards, and similar media.
Currently the transfer rate for those friction-free forms of media is scaling with increases in size, unlike optical media. This means that when video games finally get to the point where they need to transfer dozens of megs a second to keep up with the demands of a game's engine, they can do so with ease and do so silently, two things that even BluRay discs have problems have already, let alone in the future.
As a desirable media for tomorrow, optical drive media are in an arms race that they have already lost. They are a dead end clinging onto relevance only due to the extraordinarily cheap cost of manufacturing, and sooner or later that's an area where friction-free media will catch up as well. As a bonus for console manufacturers, the need to put in an expensive-at-launch optical drive will be eliminated, driving the cost of manufacturing the units down and decreasing the odds that some part of the console will fail.
I do, however, think that digital distribution is the future, as I mentioned. About the only thing that's going to change is the ability to purchase digital titles in actual stores. Perhaps even go a step further and actually offer a way for customers to bring portable storage media to the store and allow them to purchase and then take home downloadable titles. I imagine there are still going to be people who choose not to put their consoles online, or just don't feel comfortable purchasing their titles online. Even if it's a relatively small portion of the market, they'll be worth catering to.
A big thing coming in the future is the idea of console unification, or even the death of consoles entirely. A lot of analysts are saying that in the future, your TV is going to have the computer needed to play the latest games, that you'll have a controller that you use with it for your gaming, and that at the end of the day, it's going to be all about software and not hardware. To be honest, I don't buy all that.
One of the reasons people use consoles in the first place is that they are easy. You don't have to worry about having the right video card, about having enough RAM, or anything else. You just set the console up, put the game in, and play. No fuss, no muss, no problems. The same principal works for developers, too: When they develop for a specific console or even two or three consoles, they know right from the start exactly what specs they're working to, what behavior they can expect from the hardware, and what method or methods of input will be available to the player.
A large contributor to the thought that consoles will eventually be eliminated comes from the idea that the processing power of devices in the future will be so powerful that developers won't need to worry about what the players are using: Everything will be powerful enough to run whatever game the player wants, just because the internals are so beefy that no game could possibly use all the resources available to it. I can't help but think that such a view is hopelessly naive, at least as far as the next few decades are concerned.
Games have a lot more room to grow. Games haven't quite hit their peak yet: graphics, environment detail, size, interactivity, and a lot more factors that we take for granted at the moment have some room to grow. Even factors players don't see like artificial intelligence still have leaps and bounds of improvements yet to be made.
Since we're talking hypotheticals here, let's discuss a hypothetical installment of Grand Theft Auto. In this version, every person in the city is tracked by the game, even if they're not rendered on-screen. They have schedules where they wake up, leave their home or apartment, go to work, maybe go out to a bar or restaurant, and then go back home. They can do this because the city the game takes place in is rendered fully thanks to procedural generation during development, right down to the individual rooms in apartments. An environment which, like Red Faction, is fully destructable with NPCs whose job it is to repair any damage you do. Just like a real construction worker.
And of course, sometimes people will spot the player and run in fear. That's because they recognize the player from that time one week ago when he drove his car into the restaurant the NPC works in and ran over three people. Of course, if the player has changed clothes, they might not recognize them right away, or at all. Of course, the persistent state of the people in the game will also give the player new ways of tackling missions: You can break into a warehouse during the day, allowing you to steal a needed car and kill a target, or you can break in at night and then drive to the target's house in the car you just stole.
Of course, the NPC population in general can also recognize patterns. If the player starts to just drive around willy-nilly spraying automatic fire into crowds, there's going to be a lot less crowds hanging around. Maybe more civilians will start to carry guns to fight back just in case they start getting shot at. If the player starts to jack only nice cars, people will respond by trading in their nice cars for cheaper vehicles, and the player might be able to start stealing those nice rides out of used car lots instead of jacking them from the street. Or the game could react to and emulate a thousand, ten thousand, or a hundred thousand other natural cause and effect changes.
Does this sound like a game computers will be able to handle, even ten years from now? Even with today's graphics, that game would be impossible with the computers we'll have in ten years... And we all know that in ten years, games will not have today's graphics. And all of that is just an argument for why computers outpacing game developers is impossible: It doesn't even touch on the fact that consumers don't want consoles to go anywhere.
While there is change on the horizon, I don't think in the end all that much is going to be different about gaming over the next twenty years. We'll have the opportunity to buy our games at launch through our consoles and finding a GameStop might be a little harder to do than it is now, but for the most part we'll still be playing our games on dedicated consoles instead of through a computer in our TV.
The controllers might have another button or two, we might have switched back to cartridges, leaving disc-based gaming in the dust, and games will certainly be bigger, better, and more beautiful than they are even today. Maybe we'll get a true 3D display somewhere down the road, instead of the illusion of 3D the industry is currently borrowing from film theaters.
And honestly, I'm looking forward to what the industry has to show us. Even if it's just so I can look back and see how far games have come since they first appeared in arcades. It's already quite the view today, and it's only going to get better as the industry grows older.
Well, I hope you've enjoyed this series of articles. I've had fun writing it, and I think I'm going to find the time to write more like it in the future. And hey, I'm open to topic suggestions.