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Within the next few weeks, the Xbox One and PS4 will both hit the marketplace. This essentially marks the beginning of a new generation of games and consoles. With that in mind, we thought it would be good to quickly revisit the impact of what we like to call the “three” generation of the Xbox 360, PS3 and their old rival, the PC.

Here are the five storylines from that generation.

New storytelling techniques

The techniques for storytelling in games has evolved over the 8 years of the three generation. Much of this can be attributed simply to the evolution of the medium. Gaming has become a big business and more mainstream, this has led to bigger budgets and the ability to draw on more and more talented people, enabling the discovery and development of new ways of telling stories interactively. The increased graphical and computational power that the generation brought with it certainly can’t be ignored either.

Perhaps the strongest new developments over the three generation has been the move of games to be more cinematic in scale and scope, as well as the increased use of the environment to tell stories. While neither are completely new ideas in themselves, they have taken a particular form in this generation, specifically;

–          Shorter 10-30 hour games

–          Snappy dialogue, frequently delivered during “down time” while travelling between encounters

–          Separation of a main plot told through dialogue, and a ‘world story’ told through found items, radio chatter, looted items, and the art design of the world

–          Increased use of significant NPCs to create an emotional attachment with the player, these NPCs are frequently companions and things that happen to them are used to drive the drama of the final segment of the game

In my opinion, Grand Theft Auto IV was the first big “blockbuster” title of the three generation, and established both of these elements. Despite its length, GTA:IV told a very film-like story, a three act drama of a refugee finding his way in America, full of conflict and sub-plots. It also oozed story out of every part of the environment, from the posters on walls, to the chatter on the radio and all the little bits you could interact with such as watching TV.

If it was GTA: IV that heralded this type of storytelling for the generation, it was the Bioshock series that took the idea of environmental storytelling and really developed it. These ideas and techniques have now become incorporated into almost all big-budget, story-based games, and at the end of the generation, games like The Last of Us are a sign of just how far we’ve come.

 

Bioshock showed the world how a story could be told using the environment.

Bioshock showed the world how a story could be told through environment details like the layout and appearance of objects.

The death and resurrection of the PC

The PC has faced a remarkable cycle during the three generation. Much of this was as a result of the generational shift in TV screen technology. For much of the generation all three platforms competed on the equal playing field of the ubiquitous 1080-line resolution.

In the early years of the generation, the Consoles appeared to have a clear ascendancy. In addition to operating at an equivalent resolution to most PCs they had a cheaper entry point, hardware consistency, effective online stores and DRM. They also had the benefit of big-spending owners who ensured that developers prioritised the development of games as console-first, often to the detriment of PC versions.

Naturally this led to a lot of stories about the “death of PC gaming”, which for a while seemed to be sustained exclusively by World of Warcraft and a few die-hard FPS enthusiasts who refused to give up point-and-click shooting.

Things have changed towards the end of the generation however. Predictably, over the eight year cycle, the power available to PCs has increased well beyond what the consoles can manage. Less predictably, digital distribution on PC, particularly through Steam store has grown to rival anything on the consoles and the PC has actually found itself at the forefront of business innovations with the emergence of web-based and free-to-play gaming.

Content and services beat hardware?

Sony clearly went into the three generation with the most powerful console. It wasn’t really until the Kinect came out in 2010 that you could really say that there was anything that the Xbox could do better than the PS3 (is this perhaps why it is such a big part of the Xbox One?).

Tech gear is typically sold on power and features. And yet, despite the power disparity, the two consoles maintained a relative stalemate in terms of market share.

It’s hard to ignore the aggressiveness of Microsoft releasing a year before the PS3, and spending big on exclusive content as being part of the reason for their success. Early in the generation, Xbox established a strong exclusives line-up involving Halo, Gears of War, Viva Pinata and the GTA:IV DLCexpansions.

Cross-platform publishing

Once parity was established between the two platforms, it became entrenched. The large third-party publishers such as Ubisoft, EA and Activision all maintained a largely agnostic approach to the two consoles and PC. Games were built to look and play as identically as possible on all three. Arguably this was to the detriment of the PC and PS3 who had their versions restricted to what was possible on an Xbox 360.

It is also fair to say that the PS3 proved to be simply too difficult to write for. Only a very small number of first party games really showed that the PS3 was capable of doing more than the 360, and almost all of those seemed to suffer blowouts in terms of release schedules. Perhaps the greatest evidence of this is that the hardware for the PS4 is no-where near as idiosyncratic as its predecessor.

Changing of the guard of dominant franchises?

The eight years of the three generation also saw a shift in the dominant franchises in gaming.

Arguably the biggest franchises coming into the generation were GTA and Halo. Both had huge releases within the first year or so, but then had a large hiatus in which they dropped out of the public consciousness. In the case of GTA it has only just re-emerged 5 years later, having had 3 major releases in the 5 years before GTA IV.

In the middle of the cycle, the rhythm game phenomena of Guitar Hero and Rock Band dominated Christmas shopping and DLC purchases, but both died out during the course of the generation.

Now at the end of the cycle, Call of Duty is the biggest game in town. It has managed an annual release through the entire generation, and has really kicked on since the landmark Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007. If you only see one TV ad for a game this year, it will almost certainly be for Call of Duty.

Speaking of annual releases. There has also been a bit of movement in the sports games genre. Early in the generation EA Sports managed a complete victory in NFL by wrapping up an exclusive license for the game and shutting down all competition. They won it the right way in football however. Fifa adapted better to the generation than PES, and since 2009 has been the clearly dominant game. It hasn’t all been good for EA Sports however, as the NBA 2K series has established itself as the premier basketball franchise, perhaps because 2K sports doesn’t have to invest in NFL rights and development any more.

Conclusion

That’s our five top storylines from the generation. What do you think are the biggest developments and changed in the gaming landscape that have occurred over the past 8 years?

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