Gaming in 2020: what the next decade holds

29th Jan 2010 | 13:05

Gaming in 2020: what the next decade holds

Industry plans motion and mind control, 3D MMOs and more

The state of play, foretold: videogaming in 2020

In what ways will computer and videogames change in the next 10 years? It is a question that tech-obsessed gamers often ask each other (often after a few pints on a Friday night), when we consider just how far we have come since the early days of the Spectrum and the C64 in the 1980s.

The last ten years have been gaming's golden decade. The next-gen consoles fulfilled their early promises. And then some. And we were treated to some truly classic gaming moments, as we recently documented in TechRadar's top 12 games of the noughties.

But the games industry is nothing if not forward-looking. It doesn't tend to do nostalgia. And with a flurry of new gaming technologies on the near-future horizon we want to know what the industry experts – the developers, the publishers, the hardware makers - think that gaming in 2020 is going to be like.

As such, we asked them to extrapolate from current developments across a range of emerging gaming tech including motion and voice control; MMOs and online gaming; 3D and new display technologies; cloud gaming and more. We wanted both wild speculation and measured opinion. And we got it.

2020: the generational tipping point

Rob Cooper, Managing Director of Ubisoft, thinks that we will have reached that all-important 'generational tipping point' by 2020, when "it's likely more people will have played games than have not," which in turn, "means that it will become much more part of the establishment like TV and film.

"This broadens the potential audience and makes it more culturally acceptable to be 'a gamer', particularly by key thought leaders in the mainstream media," the Ubisoft MD adds, also noting that games are beginning to pervade education and, "in the future, it's likely that kids and adults alike will learn about science, climate change and so on through game simulations to recreate or explain these scenarios."

On a more whimsical note, by 2020 (as one analyst joked) might Google, PopCap, Linden Labs and Blizzard join forces to produce the ultimate mirrorworld MMOG? "Which goes on to become a nation in itself, whose citizens are paid entirely in virtual currency, and remain a real-world economic force via their pivotal roles as part of the global information cloud, overseen by the Blizzgoocaplabs Corporation?"

Quite.

The future: full motion control in 2020

The so-called 'Natural User Interface' is definitely gaming's new Holy Grail, with Sony and Microsoft currently working hard on developing their own motion-control technologies to compete with (and better) the huge strides made by the Nintendo Wii in the last decade, in an attempt to appeal to an ever-widening audience of casual gamers.

"Perhaps the most crucial factor to a paradigm shift in new motion control schemes are whether all audiences accept it to ensure profitability," argues Ubisoft MD, Rob Cooper. "The game controller has been and is still the accepted input amongst core gaming audiences, so we need to ensure they accept these new forms of input, too. Microsoft has iterated on Nintendo's offering with Project Natal in introducing a paradigm shift, and Ubisoft is supporting Natal with over 10 products in development."

Project natal promises the next step in motion control

IN MOTION: Project Natal promises the next step in motion control

So it is something of a no-brainer to assume that hands-free motion gaming (in combination with new 3D technologies and the like) will be leveraged more and more in the coming decade. The real key, as ever, is whether or not the games that you play on them will work better than the traditional style games we currently play via our fingers and thumbs (or, via mouse and keyboard, in the case of PC gaming).

Screen Digest's gaming analyst Steve Bailey, agrees, telling TechRadar, "how far [motion control] progresses will, as always, come down to sufficiently innovative software rather than any wishful thinking on behalf of the industry itself (and that innovation will, increasingly crucially, be a function of design AND service, rather than simply the former)."

The Screen Digest man also thinks that, "we'll continue to see elements of gaming, especially the ideas of 'comfort food' mechanics, creeping into our lives, and arguably for the better, via what we currently see as wellness gaming and lifestyle management."

"Anyone who gripes about this being 'a bit like the Matrix' will seem as fusty and unwilling as any parent who ever failed to get to grips with a TV remote. Ten years ago, of course, the idea of us being able to publish and broadcast virtually every element of lives, via a real-time spree of multimedia content and ambient intimacy on increasingly flexible social networks, must've seemed like a bit of a queasy pipe dream to some."

Project Natal is currently the most interesting technology in this arena, not only because of the 'you become the controller' tagline, but more because of the fact that you don't even have to learn anymore how to use a controller.

"I have a couple of sons who are aged 14 and 11 now, and these days they've come to terms with the Xbox 360, but a couple of years ago when they were just that much younger, I would sometimes find them in tears as they struggled to learn how to get to grips with the controller in a new game," says Richard Huddy, Senior Manager of Developer Relations at AMD. "It is just really quite difficult to learn that. So everything that we can do to get rid of complexity in game control is a good thing."

Face, voice and mind control

AMD's Richard Huddy also thinks that Natal "and its derivatives afterwards" will go much further beyond facial recognition and motion recognition. So by 2020 you will be able to control things very finely indeed, even at a distance and, he claims, "you will be able to use finger configurations to indicate fine grain detail, in very much the same way that you can on a keyboard at the moment… I really don't think there is any reason to think that you should be able to type onto absolutely nothing."

The AMD man also likes to envisage playing sports games where players can start to give each other a secret code – very much in the same way that you do in a game of Rugby or American Football – "where you all huddle down and give each other a secret signal, holding up three fingers behind your back, or whatever… I'd like to see that kind of thing do-able in a videogame, so that if I am part of a team game then I can just signal in the same way that I do in the real game."

Frown and the game helps you

In addition to that, he hopes to see more games that understand that you are struggling at a certain puzzle or point in the action, purely from your facial expression.

"There is a recent Indiana Jones game that I have struggled with for hours to try to crack one puzzle," he candidly admits. "And I just cannot crack it! It's embarrassing to admit, because it is a LEGO game, but it would be fantastic if the computer can just see the frown on my face and realise that I just cannot move beyond this point in the game.

LEGO indiana jones - a surprisingly difficult game!

PUZZLING: LEGO Indiana Jones - a surprisingly difficult game!

So expression recognition will certainly be a big thing in 2020 – where the computer recognises different levels of frustration or elation and pushes you to do the right things to enjoy the game better.

"Very much in the same way that you and I can tell things about a person that we are communicating with, through facial expression, gaming systems ought to soon be able to do the same thing," thinks Huddy.

Plus, in addition to motion control, we will also see massive steps forward in the area of speech recognition and synthesis, technologies that are currently improving rapidly.

"I expect us having conversations with incredibly realistic NPC voices (while having no requirement for massive amounts of voice acting!) and intelligent understanding of what the player is saying," thinks games developer Simon Barratt, MD of Four Door Lemon.

Barratt also reminds us that motion control "is no longer something that occurs in just the living room, personal motion control devices which we carry permanently on our person will soon interact with all devices we want. "

Mind-controlled environments

Ultimately, the goal of any interface is to remove the barriers between human desire and controllable object, and some developers are already thinking in terms that are way beyond our current comprehension of motion-control and facial recognition.

One such developer is Creative Director at Adept Games, Daniel Boutros, who thinks that the future is not merely better, more responsive types of motion control but also mind control, with "[mind controlled] devices becoming easier to make, and the cost of goods to build such devices (currently only at a 'binary' on/off stage of functionality at the consumer level) coming down rapidly."

He notes that there are already a number of mind-controlled gaming patents that exist, "making it hard for innovators to go in full throttle without fear for more sophisticated devices in the more immediate term." Which means that we are probably at least another generation away before we will be able to control our games meaningfully with brain power alone.

"Depth of sophistication is tougher to build, at least at the consumer level of affordable manufacture, though it has existed within the military for some time," adds Boutros.

New, infinitely-malleable 3D MMO worlds

World of Warcraft set the standard for massively multiplayer online gaming in the last decade and new types of MMO gaming will definitely emerge over the coming decade, with our current understanding or definition of MMO itself already evolving to include Facebook apps, iPhone apps, and Alternate Reality Gaming.

"These new types could proliferate due to tech savvy, younger audiences that have grown up with consoles and the internet," thinks Ubisoft MD, Rob Cooper. "New technologies such as pervasive networking, when networks become seamless, could mean the same MMO could be played on several different platforms by the player throughout the day."

WoW set the mmo standard last decade, with virtual world's set to flourish by 2020

WOW: Warcraft set the MMO standard last decade, with virtual world's set to flourish by 2020

One obvious drawback about MMOs right now is that they have a fairly low standard when it comes to the quality of the graphical experience. But AMD's Richard Huddy is very confident that the graphical quality of these online worlds is going to improve rapidly, "particularly if you have MMOs supported by cloud-style streaming, where there is no longer any reason to rely on integrated graphics so long as you have a decent internet connection…and then I guess we can start to build bigger and bigger online worlds."

Following the runaway success of James Cameron's Avatar and the heavy focus on 3D TV tech at CES 2010, 3D gaming is gaining a lot of attention right now. But will it really take off or will we look back in ten years' time and identify it as yet another passing tech trend?

"2020 is a long way off and really hard to predict, especially given the new expected spike in 3D gaming interest we think will occur," says Chris Chinnock, President of specialist display research analysts Insight Media, who recently carried out an extensive survey into the predicted growth of 3D display tech in the next decade.

"However, I think it is safe to say that most games and all AAA games will be authored in 3D by 2020. That does not mean they will all be played in 3D, but the capability will exist to do that. By then, I also expect decent performance from auto-stereoscopic displays, which means no glasses. Head and eye tracking will also be widely used by games developers to improve the stereo effect."

Improved perception of the game world

3D in gaming is already starting to move beyond its previous incarnation as a bit of a gimmick and, if done well, is already starting to give gamers a slightly better sense of range. One thing that we don't do in computer games right now is to take into account the focal settings of the players' eyes – and put things in focus and out of focus accordingly. (Cut scenes excepted, when focus will be used to draw your attention from one thing to another). But in current games the whole scene is all rather oddly all in focus.

"I guess we need to do a better job there, taking into consideration the fact that we have a focal plane, which is set for our eyes in the same way that you set it for a camera, and start to take that into account," thinks AMD's Richard Huddy.

"If the game was a genuine war simulation, for example, where you are trying to train soldiers, then clearly you want them to be able to react in a realistic way – and allowing them to choose focal distance would make a real difference there."

Graphics tech such as Intel's Larrabee (even though it's now been canned), and AMD's Fusion, really do present major disruptive possibilities in the games market. "When we bring an integrated GPUCPU to market, if our GPU is not just the regular kind of GPU that we build at the moment – do we then create an opportunity for games to start to look quite different, in an interesting way?" asks Huddy.

Indeed, the possibilities that newer chips open up to games developers to make use of things like 'radiosity' and 'ray tracing' solutions means that you might soon see very different looking games with "an almost infinitely more malleable environment, for example, because it will be rendered much easier and much quicker."

The ultimate 3D gaming house

One company that has a strong interest in this area is the (previously Philips' owned) 'ambient' gaming specialists at amBX. That company's new CEO Neil Macdonald is one person who can certainly foresee a gaming world in ten years' time where the game experience has broken out of the confines of the screen/console/controller device paradigm and into the real 3D world of the gamer.

"Combining 3D video, HD projection and sensory ambient effects, such as those provided by amBX,as well as 'natural human interfaces', without hardware controllers, will create a 360 degree natural immersive experience in the room," Macdonald tells TechRadar.

"In fact the experience can be extended to other rooms which are part of the gameplay, thereby possibly turning the whole house into the game-zone. You will really feel as if you are inside the game – because you will be – and that is exactly what we know gamers are striving for."

amBX man predicts ambient lighting and sound will augment gaming

IMMERSIVE: amBX man predicts ambient lighting and sound will augment gaming

And if all of that sounds like a little bit too much effort (after all, gamers are overly fond of their couches) then the amBX man adds that "your avatar can do that all for you, or engage in someone else's game-zone – basically, the game content and play can be mapped into the physical environment of the gamer and others can join in too so a player could 'host' a game which will open up new dimensions in classic gaming as well as social and network gaming."

And as our games develop to employ more human senses, we will be able to fight or outwit our opponents, even when we cannot see them, because we will start to sense their "actions and characteristics represented by nuances in the 3D environment with light, sound and motion."

Such technologies and new capabilities will also no doubt open up entirely new ways of designing group and family-based games, thinks Macdonald. "Public game-zone worlds can be opened up using the same technique, so there is a physical coming together in the gaming experience.

Sci-fi augmented reality contact lenses

Going beyond the current Hollywood 3D standard, there are already various forms of 'sci-fi' display tech that exist, such as 3D holographic projectors and augmented displays for and on contact lenses in development.

"Though that may be a bitter pill for the masses to swallow," laughs games developer Daniel Boutros, after considering their potential for gaming applications. "Glasses are a hard enough sell!"

"There'll always be a need to sit on a sofa and twiddle thumbs over having to run for real, through a holographically projected street while getting shot onto fake pavements, bleeding imagined streams of blood and feeling every bit of it, as exciting as that seems."

What is looking very likely indeed is the fact that by 2020 we should be able to render a convincing reality. In real time. Not necessarily every reality, but a good many. Which in turn then raises the thorny question: "What of the moral implications of rendering reality convincingly?" If you have an exact replica of yourself or your friends rendered into a game, could you not argue that you could have your throat cut or blow your mates' heads off in what will seem a rather alarming degree of realistic detail in your games.

"Well, you get that imitation of reality in movies at the moment and we let that go," says AMD's Richard Huddy. "It would be okay to watch a movie where someone's throat was cut. We have 18-certificates and we try to control where that shows up in people's lives.

"But by the time somebody is an adult, we let them make their own choices. As a general rule. As an example, I saw one of the recent Hostel movies and after fifty minutes or so I just walked out. It was too realistic. And I just don't want to see things like that. But to me that's my choice. I certainly don't want to stop it being on. I don't want to censor it.

"I most certainly would not say that I am unwilling to work towards achieving completely convincing avatars in games that look exactly like me, or that type of thing. I think that is an okay piece of tech. And it doesn't have to be misused."

2020: the 'holodeck' tipping point

Moral quandaries aside, AMD's Richard Huddy is 100 per cent convinced that "2020 is the point where we will be able to fully render reality in a realistic way and we will have the majority of scenarios that we experience in this world rendered convincingly.

"So I will be able to take you out onto a desert, for example, which is a nice easy thing, or I'll be able to put you in a far more complex environment such as a busy shopping mall with hundreds of people bustling around you. Or I'll put you in a historical battle scene from 1000 AD and render all of that completely convincingly."

Right now such scenarios are difficult to picture, because the vast majority of us are playing our games on relatively small, low-resolution TVs and monitors.

But, as the AMD man puts it: "The more I can see, the more I can do. That is the nub of it. I love being able to see lots of stuff. And when it comes to controlling information, clearly having a second or third display is a good thing. But what I really want to do, at times, is to fill my whole field of view with computer rendered stuff.

"Whether that be a desktop environment to make me more productive at work, or whether that be inside a gaming environment, in which my peripheral vision really is being used in the same way that I use it in the real world – to locate stuff, and to be able to react accordingly," says Huddy.

AMD's multi-screen eyefinity tech points us in the direction of where displays are going

MORE TO SEE: AMD's multi-screen EyeFinity tech points us in the direction of where displays are going

"We've done some interesting stuff already with EyeFinity – and we've taken that tech to LAN parties to see how professional, highly competitive gamers coped with and without their peripheral vision in the game," Huddy continues.

"And the results were completely consistent, the more you can see the better you can do. If the game is working hard to give you that extra information then you are simply better off."

Huddy offers the example of playing a racing game, in which your field of view is horizontally-bound – ie you are not really interested in looking up and down – which "is the epitome of that kind of experience, where three or even five monitors will continue to bring you benefits and when you can clearly see if and when there is a car on your right hand side jostling to get past you."

Seeing more stuff = better games

Put simply, gaming is just better if you can see more stuff. And AMD's recent three and six monitor support "is really our first steps towards this, we most certainly want to get to the stage where it is rather more like the 'holodeck' where everything around you that you can imagine is displayed, and also that the display is updated so quickly that you are not aware of it updating itself.

Right now, the human eye has a better resolving power than the screens we are using. "So at AMD we would certainly like to be able to cope with that and the field of view that I tend to fill with my monitor should take around 25 megapixels, ideally – because at that point we are at the resolution of the human eye. And if we extend that outwards to include the rest of our vision, including the peripheral vision and so on, then we would probably need something like 100 megapixels to give a really convincing view. So we would need a lot of computing horsepower in order to achieve that job!"

But this is the 'tipping point' and the stage at which things "will be more convincing and we will no longer have to worry about fiddling with the detail – anti-aliasing and so on – because everything will look just right."

And the most exciting thing is the fact that this is not 'all' far off future tech dreaming, because AMD has been showing off some beautiful graphics tech experimentation recently using its new DX11 hardware where they have been doing 'global illumination' in real time in relatively simple scenes in games. (Global illumination, for those that aren't aware of it, is what Shrek 2 was rendered in, compared with Shrek 1 which was rendered with more traditional 'rasterization' and 'ray tracing' techniques). And Huddy also admits that AMD is also currently talking to a games company who is looking at putting that tech into a game that may even ship later in 2010.

Cloud gaming and an Apple console?

The recent moves towards 'cloud gaming' with the recent emergence of server-side gaming from the likes of OnLive and Gaikai has led many in the console business to predict the end of the console, as we know it.

Are we perhaps getting a little too ahead of ourselves? Surely the current console giants - Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft - will all be around for some time yet. But it does increasingly look likely to be the case that we will never see a 'brand new' PlayStation 3, Xbox 720 or Wii 2 - and instead start to see incremental improvements to the current (familiarly branded) forms of tech on an annual basis.

"This is where the power of the brand - "XBOX", "PLAYSTATION" and so on - becomes important as consumer purchase is based on brand affinity, game offering and the integration of additional services, such as Sky Player, iPlayer, Facebook, Twitter etc.," says Ubisoft MD Rob Cooper.

Additionally, might we perhaps see a new entrant into the market soon? "We could see a new "all-powerful" device," says Cooper – think a supercharged PSP or iPad - "allowing you to play effectively the same game on the move or plug into your 52" 3D TV. Permanently connected - and permanently backed up in case a hoodie mugs you for it?"

Apple ipad

NEXT BIG THING: Might Apple's new iPad be the next disruptive tech in gaming?

And, if this should become the case, might we also see a new player emerge in the market soon? An Apple or Sky or someone else to take on the might of the Sony-Microsoft-Nintendo triumvirate?

Analyst Nick Gibson, from Games Investor Consulting, is not so sure, telling TechRadar: "Many will be predicting the death of the games console by 2020 so I will play the contrarian and predict that consoles will still be sold and an important part of the games market in the year 2020.

"The console manufacturers show no material signs of moving beyond the concept of proprietary hardware formats even if future platforms are simply scaled up versions of existing technologies and software is delivered digitally rather than via physical media. Stable technology platforms and predictable, long-term user base growth are and will remain crucial for developers and publishers' business models.

"Following Sony's successful lead with PS1 and PS2 sales, all of the manufacturers are looking to extend their console lifecycles beyond the standard five-year shelf lives and we expect all three to release new consoles in the next two to four years. As such, it is likely that some of these consoles will still be around in 2020. If they haven't been superseded by a subsequent console generation that is..."

Keeping the consoles

Steve Bailey, games analyst over at Screen Digest is largely in agreement with this vision of the future of consoles, adding that the current crop of console tech may be the first generation of gaming hardware whose lifespan could, arguably, be extended almost into the next decade, "thanks to the fluidity of firmware, the sophistication of middleware and increasing uptake of online services... and perhaps necessarily so.

"Survival of home consoles may no longer be a case of producing a sufficiently featured next-generation of hardware, more in being able to evolve current machines in order to blend them ever more closely with the emerging trends of online gaming.

"If nothing else, this could bring about a 'golden age' for gaming, where the ballooning budgets and asset-generation marathons begin to stabilise, allowing ideas to flourish, hopefully dragging walls down rather than building them higher."

Finally, and following on from that hugely positive note, many others in the games business agree that, in the current churn of technology we are in the midst of right now that there are huge opportunities for other people coming into the gaming business and upsetting the current dominant players.

Apple as a major games player?

"This situation certainly opens up opportunities for other companies to come along and join in," argues AMD's Richard Huddy. "And Apple has shown, with very clever use of technology, how it is possible to upset gaming environments. They haven't pushed Nintendo out of the way because the DS and DSi are still far more significant than the iPhone in the mobile gaming market, but they have certainly got a good foothold in there.

"Apple used to half-heartedly support gaming on its PCs, but to go into this style of gaming has been quite fun for them. And, I guess, pretty profitable as well. So yes, there are more than enough opportunities."

Game developer Bruce McNeish, CTO of Cohort Studios in Dundee also wonders if Apple might look at combining its App Store and Apple TV setup to develop a home console.

"If there is any company that has the finances to back an entry into the home gaming market it is certainly Apple. The iPhone has been a phenomenal success, has allowed Apple the time to develop its App Store, and has also given a large number of developers experience of developing for their platform using the now mature SDK.

"This platform could easily be used as the basis of a home-based console, so I would be more surprised if they did NOT develop some kind of overt home gaming hardware in the next decade."

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