The new generation of consoles has arrived with the Xbox Series X | S and PlayStation 5, and Ubisoft has kicked off the next generation with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Watch Dogs: Legion, and Just Dance 2021, with more on the way including Immortals Fenyx Rising and Far Cry 6. New consoles present new possibilities for both developers and players, and the dawn of the next generation is the perfect opportunity to look back at how previous generations have shaped games today, and what the newly released hardware could mean for the future.
To find out more, we sat down with Projects Director, Editorial Technology Dominic Butler and Immortals Fenyx Rising Game Director Scott Phillips, who between them have a combined experience of 34 years in the games industry, working on various games in the Assassin’s Creed series amongst various other titles. They shared their perspectives on how things have changed before, and how they could be changing again.
How has playing and developing games changed since the last generation of consoles launched?
Dominic Butler: For me, the biggest change has been the establishment of solid digital delivery platforms on consoles. For players, this has meant more options to access an even wider array of games, and now we’re even seeing major consoles launching with digital-only delivery systems. For developers, it has meant that smaller games are quicker and easier to get published, and that opens up some games to a much broader audience than what was possible previously. It has also created a large audience for free-to-play games and the resulting surge in free titles in the last few years; there was a time when having tens of millions of players only days after release was almost unimaginable.
Lastly, consoles have evolved from online features being an option to being almost integral to the experience, which presents developers with a viable post-launch delivery system that allows for faster reaction times and strong player support. This makes it more possible to develop content for players long after a game’s release.
Scott Phillips: For me, the focus on the idea of the “share button” and streaming has become huge over the last few years. It barely existed in the previous generation, but now more than ever, sharing content through streams and updates on social media is a big deal, and I expect it will only get bigger. And I also think post-launch delivery has become key to continued support for games; being able to fix bugs, make improvements, and add new content means that even single-player games can be enjoyed for a long time.
On the development side, we continue to get access to more powerful hardware and a wider range of possibilities to bring our dreams to life. This often means bigger teams, longer timelines, and more effort per pixel, but our tools are also getting more and more impressive to keep up with the leaps that each new generation brings.
"The solid-state hard drives are especially exciting because of the fast loading and streaming of data, which are absolutely key for open-world games."
What do you think has a bigger impact on the games that are developed with each new generation: the advances in hardware, or the development of the audience?
SP: Visually speaking, the hardware has much more impact, and each generation tends towards trying to simulate visual realism. Content and gameplay have certainly developed a lot since the last console launch, and continue to change dramatically as the medium of videogames matures along with the audience. As developers grow along with the medium too, the stories we tell, the characters we create, and the experiences we craft can be vastly different in each generation.
DB: The two go very much hand in hand, but I think it is the audience that ultimately dictates where the industry moves. We have seen technical advances that audiences have largely ignored or have been slow to adopt fully, despite big pushes and a lot being put behind them, and things can end up as niche or disappear completely. On the other hand, we have seen how some very popular titles, which have developed far beyond their initial design, can now be argued to be as much social platforms as they are video games. It’s a place to meet and spend time with friends, and the game is one part of a larger whole. Tech advances support the players in their needs, but in the end it’s them who decide how it will be used.
For the first time, we’re seeing major console makers offer versions with no physical media slots at launch. Are you fans of physical media, and what does this mean for game distribution in the future?
DB: I’m old, and have spent many years happily collecting all the games-related content I could, including a well-kept museum of classic machines and games. Then, as I moved around, each time I reluctantly had to purge a little – I couldn’t drag it all around with me. I do miss seeing the physical boxes, and all the memories I would have as I scanned my library, but I have found this generation that I have switched to at least 70% digital on all my consoles for various reasons, whether that’s cost, convenience, or space-saving. I miss the tactile nature of physical media, and I will be getting the disc versions of the new consoles, but I suspect I will go even more digital in future, particularly with the strong subscription-service offerings that are around now.
SP: I’m torn. I definitely prefer digital media for the ease of use and lack of physical space. However, I also like the confidence I can have in the lifespan of a physical copy. I’m still able to boot up my old NES to play games from when I was a kid all these years later. It’s great to see companies making old titles available on current platforms, and backwards compatibility on the new consoles is great, but I do like the flexibility a physical game offers.
What excites you most about the new hardware?
SP: The steps forward in technology, power, and the capabilities of the hardware are the most exciting parts of new console generations. The solid-state hard drives are especially exciting because of the fast loading and streaming of data, which are absolutely key for open-world games. When you’re working with a piece of technology from nearly 10 years ago versus suddenly having something brand new, it’s really exciting to see the changes. It’s like going from your old brick phone to a brand-new smartphone; it feels special, and like a whole new world of possibilities has opened up.
DB: Over the years, I’ve come to care less and less about jumps in visual fidelity. The most exciting things for me are the increasing connections with other players through features like cross-platform play and sharing content, and in particular the potential for new hardware and cloud technology to create deeper, richer worlds for our players – and for me as a player too. It remains to be seen how developers will ultimately use this potential, but I would love to see worlds with more connected systems, deeply interconnected AI, and player tools that make sharing easier and more fun.
Where do you see game development heading in future generations?
DB: I think that the increase in power and flexibility of third-party development tools, such as we see with Unreal and Unity offering features like in-game stores by default, means that we can see more and more use cases for them, particularly for teams without strong in-house tech options. On top of that, the worldwide lockdowns have also shown the viability of remote work, and what can be done with limited or no access to the usual workspace. There are, of course, limits to this, and many may not want to switch to this way of doing things exclusively once things have settled. But I do think it shows the potential for it as an option for teams going forward.
SP: I see a lot of games continuing to push into multiplayer and longer lifespans, but at the same time, I see a very strong core of single-player or co-op focused experiences for people who prefer those. I am the type of player who will always be looking forward to the next giant single-player RPG. I love getting lost in new, imaginary game worlds, and with the capabilities of the consoles getting ever better, it’s exciting to imagine where we’ll be in the future – hopefully experiencing complete immersion in huge, open-world VR games that we couldn’t even possibly imagine right now.
To find out more about the Ubisoft games on the next generation of consoles, stay tuned to the Ubisoft News hub.