Ed Fries, the ex-Microsoft executive who was a driving force behind the founding of the Xbox, has said that there is plenty of room left for hardware innovation, but that big-budget software is in danger of stagnation.
In a GamesIndustry.biz interview, published today, Fries spoke about the problems inherent in multi-million dollar game budgets and the risk aversion which they incur, but remained confident that Kinect-style 'environment sensing' technology would keep hardware innovation moving.
"You know, I was on the board of a company called Canesta, which Microsoft purchased last fall - they make, well, Kinect style technology is probably the easiest way to describe it," said Fries. "I think that's a rich vein of innovation that Microsoft's going to be pursuing - I'm not sure how the other companies are going to react to that.
"Certainly those depth-sensing cameras are going to get better and better - so that they can really differentiate what's happening in a room, movements of fingers in a hand, highly detailed data I think that's going to open up a potentially interesting new interface. To technology as a whole, but primarily to game designers.
I worry more about innovation on the software side, honestly.Ed Fries
"It's really easy to predict the future. The hard part is predicting when that future is going to happen.
"You give game designers a whole new capability and they figure out what to do with it. You can kind of see that happening now with iOS and iPad. The touchscreen. So many limitations are related to a controller with buttons. If you try to put on-screen buttons and press them, it doesn't work so well.
"Now people are actually designing for the interface they're creating games which are really relevant and interesting because they're doing things which are native to that. I think that's what you're going to see with both the current and future consoles that can sense the player and the environment and react to it. I think there's going to continue to be innovation there, on the console side, the hardware side."
But over-inflated production budgets mean that publishers are playing too safe with sequels for fear of alienating audiences, Fries believes.
"I think the challenge is less about that... I worry more about innovation on the software side, honestly. I worry about too many sequels. The problem when budgets and teams get really big is that it just gets too risky for publishers to go out and do new things. I think the heart and soul of entertainment is surprising the audience. Doing something new and different.
"How many times do we want to play Halo? I love Halo, but I want something different - I've been playing that game for a long time! [laughs]
"Call of Duty is another great example right now. At least with Call of Duty there's this rich history of war you can tap into and present new things. These experiences can only go on so long. You see that in the movies, right? You can only go on making sequels for so long. Viewers decline. People want something new. They want something different and surprising.
"How does that come into a market where budgets have gotten so big and expectations have gotten so big? How can we make room for that creativity to appear? I think that's the challenge for these big console publishers. They know that. It's a tough challenge."
Where Fries does see hope for software to continue to evolve is in the mobile and social scene, a landscape less governed by large budgets and shareholder expectations. Low barriers to entry and limited risk mean more innovation, Fries continues.
"To me what's exciting is social network gaming, mobile platforms, digital distribution and how it's opening up the world to indie development.
"I think that's exciting. Part of what I talk about in my presentation is the similarity of the evolution of game genres to the evolution of people. There's a book I mention which says that if you went back in time and played evolution forward again it might not be the same. We didn't necessarily get the survival of the fittest, we didn't necessarily get the best creatures. Once certain life forms become established they're very hard to displace.
"You can see that happening with certain game genres. There was a lot more diversity in the content which was available in the past, now it's down to, sort of by force, a small number of genres in the console world because they're the ones that can support $100 million budgets. The question is, whether these newly evolving platforms will follow the same path because their customers are different or the hardware is different, or just through the luck of evolution."
Read the full interview with Ed Fries on the front page.