The fog around next-gen hardware is lifting, and gamers are finally starting to get a clearer look at what to expect from Sony and Microsoft’s new consoles. Recent presentations for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X provided a sneak peek at the games that will shape the industry in the coming years, along with some of the technology that makes them possible. But even as more information is released, the answer to one key question remains vague: What defines a “next-gen” game?
This isn’t about the physical hardware you use to play them. People want to know about the new horizons being opened up; they want to know about the things that are not possible today, but will be possible soon. We’ve heard about ray tracing, solid-state drives, triangles, reduced load times, and more – but how do those translate to gameplay? How do they change how you interact with worlds and characters? How do they help create more than bigger, faster, prettier versions of familiar templates?
These aren’t new questions. They are the same ones we have asked with every transition to a new generation for the last 20 years. And just like previous transitions, it’s probably too early to expect definitive answers. This could be framed as a failure by Sony and Microsoft to fully “sell” the potential of next-gen gaming, but I don’t see it that way. In fact, gradually discovering the answers to these questions is my favorite part of moving from one generation to the next.
I’m not a game developer, but I know it takes time, iteration, and expertise to figure out how to make the most out of new hardware. Though we have received plenty of good, exclusive games in new console launch windows, truly groundbreaking ones are rare. As we wait for PS5 and Xbox Series X, it would be premature to point to one specific feature, capability, or specification that defines the next-gen gaming experience. Instead, the delight comes from seeing this vision solidify thanks to the efforts of many studios making games that push boundaries in different ways.
I’m surprised by the games in the current generation I think, in retrospect, exemplify experiences that weren’t possible before. I think of Dreams, which not only provides a wonderful creation toolset, but also facilitates creativity and community among players. I think of No Man’s Sky, which was ambitious in concept but really found its success thanks to Hello Games’ commitment to continual improvement through new content and updates. I think of Red Dead Redemption 2, which I initially thought would just be “bigger, faster, prettier” than the original, but instead brought the Old West to life through its magnetic characters and intricately detailed world.
My point is: All of these games looked interesting to me before release, but I had no idea how they would change my perspective and raise my expectations. I couldn’t have known, prior to the launch of the PS4 and Xbox One, these games would possess qualities that would help define my perception of this generation’s biggest steps forward. And even if I could have known, I don’t know that I would have wanted to. I love being surprised and amazed. I love the moment of awe when I realize that I’m playing something special.
That’s why I’m not bothered by the “What does next-gen mean?” question. We just don’t know yet, and that’s okay. But I am excited to figure it out over the coming years. In the meantime, I am happily anticipating my time with cross-generation games on new hardware; even if they don’t represent what new consoles can exclusively provide, I know that I want to play games like Cyberpunk 2077 and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla at their best. Beyond that, I embrace the uncertainty of the future. I look forward to being shown things I didn’t even know I wanted to see.