The Future of Gaming: 2006

Retrospective? That's old school. We want to know about the future, as we're sure you do. So what will the next five years bring to the world of PC Gaming? Find out what industry experts are saying in this awesome investigative story.

Why five years, you might ask? Why not look at the future of gaming in 10, 20 or even 50 years? Simply because the possibilities are only barely imaginable. Obviously, we all know that we'll drive hovercars to work, come home to skimpily clothed robotic spouses that never have headaches, and we'll play our games inside 3D virtual holographic playgrounds. That much we know from sci-fi movies and Star Trek. But the truth? We haven't a clue, and nobody else out there does either.

Technology moves far too quickly and unexpectedly for us to predict long-term advances with any accuracy. Thirty years ago, few people could have envisioned that computers would become common household items - they were far too big and took up entire rooms - much less understand the concept of websites, chat rooms, or 3D graphics. The future five years from now, however, is being planned as you read this.


To understand where we're going, first we must consider where we've been. Back in 1996, the Pentium 200 was the fastest processor money could buy. MMX was going to come out and revolutionize the gaming industry. A new upstart named 3dfx had just introduced the Voodoo graphics chipset for 3D gaming that would undoubtedly make it super-rich and super-successful for years to come. DirectX was around but hardly anyone used it, games still shipped for DOS, and you even had to configure your sound card and joysticks manually. And the hottest games on the market were Myst, Dark Forces, Duke Nukem 3D, and WarCraft.

What a difference five years makes. Intel has just released its Pentium IV 1.5GHz chip. MMX is a distant memory. 3dfx stumbled and fell somewhere between the release of the Voodoo3 and Voodoo5, eventually selling its core business to competitor NVIDIA. And, finally, any game that doesn't play on Windows gets tossed out the window.

Only the games haven't changed. Myst is gone, but the 3D release Real Myst just appeared, with Myst III on its way. Duke Nukem Forever and WarCraft III are both in development, and Star Wars is heading online. Though the technology powering the games has jumped ahead by leaps and bounds, the games are pretty much the same.


"If you look back at the games from five years ago, they're not too dissimilar to the stuff we're playing now. Probably the biggest advances have been in 3D," says Stuart Whyte, the producer of such classic games as Populous and X-COM: Terror From the Deep, as well as EA's upcoming SimCoaster. "I think the biggest advance in the next five years will be games that play more on the emotions and immerse the player in the game universe."

Cliff Bleszinski, Epic Games' producer/designer responsible for Unreal and Unreal Tournament, agrees: "I would like to see more games that encompass the full emotional spectrum. Right now we're really good at capturing fear, excitement, and anger…but there are so many human emotions that we could coax out of the gamer."

But to achieve that kind of emotional commitment, realism will have to advance even further. Says Bleszinski: "Regardless of what many purists may say, graphics do make a huge difference. You can feel emotion a lot easier when characters and environments look realistic."

Of course, more realism isn't always a good thing. "I suspect people will take the easy route and start making excessive photo-realistic games using scenery scanners, Hollywood voice talent, and motion capture," says David Perry, president of Shiny Entertainment. "Then they'll keep adding Roman numerals. After 'Photo-Realistic Soccer 27' or 'Buffy Slays Everything Yet Again 14,' we'll begin to tire of videogames and start to look for more of an experience. I'd like to see game worlds that I don't want to leave."

Or as Greg Zeschuk, joint CEO of BioWare (Baldur's Gate II), puts it: "Pushing realism is the future, not graphically but in artificial intelligence. As technology improves, actual immersion should follow - if it doesn't, we're falling short of the real potential that exists."


So if immersion, realism, and emotion are the Holy Grails for game designers, then they'll need some heavy-duty hardware to get there - starting with the very heart of a PC, its processor. During the past five years, the power and speed of the average desktop computer processor has increased by approximately 700 percent, a trend that industry experts say will continue for the next five.

"Intel researchers have achieved a significant breakthrough by building the world's smallest and fastest CMOS transistor. This breakthrough will allow Intel within the next five to 10 years to build microprocessors containing more than 400 million transistors running at 10GHz, or 10 billion cycles per second, and operating at less than one volt," explains George Alfs, an Intel spokesman.

Just imagining what kind of games a 10GHz PC might be capable of running is awe-inspiring enough, but the improvements won't stop there. "AGP 4X continues to be a robust graphics solution, but work has begun on an AGP 8X spec," reveals Alfs. "You'll see continued improvements in graphics solutions that will complement this platform with incredible 3D, allowing the CPU to go to the next level of AI and physics that make games more realistic."

One of the graphics solutions Alfs refers to is the GPU (graphics processing unit) that powers the newest 3D accelerators, and helps offset the work a CPU has to devote to graphics instead of other tasks important to gaming, such as AI and physics. The 3D graphics market has exploded over the past few years, with no end in sight. And that's definitely a good thing for gamers.


"The graphics industry has exceeded Moore's Law cubed," says David Kirk, chief scientist for NVIDIA, "doubling performance approximately every six months, while continuing to add several new features to dramatically improve image quality. That's phenomenal!"

In fact, the market is so explosive that it's hard even for those most intimately involved with the business to predict exactly where it's going. As David Nolasco, technical marketing manager for ATI, told us: "Looking five years into the future in such a fast-moving field is really difficult. If you think about where we were five years ago, when 3D gaming was still a fairly new concept, it's incredible how far things have come."

While graphics card companies aren't quick to announce specifics about products that haven't been officially announced, let alone are years from release, there's one thing that everyone agrees on: film-quality graphics on your home PC will become a reality. Says Kirk: "By 2006, I believe that we will see real-time PC graphics exceed the quality that we are seeing in movies today. Pixar's Toy Story and Square's Final Fantasy movie are excellent examples of what's possible with computer rendering. All of these effects will be achievable on PC hardware in real time, and more!"

So, how will this be achieved? "Over the next few years, game engines will be programmed to take advantage of programmable vertex processing (vertex shaders) and programmable pixel shading," describes Kirk. "The biggest, most noticeable changes will be real reflections and shadows, and lifelike characters. Artists won't be bound by technical limitations; they'll be limited only by their imaginations."

Of course, we've heard most of this before. Gamers have been promised movie-quality games ever since some developers championed FMV as being the wave of the future following the introduction of CD-ROM drives. But the thought of a future game like Deus Ex 3 with Toy Story-quality visuals does make the mouth water in anticipation.


PC sound is one of those areas that we suspected had hit a brick wall. After all, what more can be done with it? Plenty, says George Thorn, Creative Labs' director of audio development: "I expect to see continued progress in the area of multichannel sound. As the PC evolves in its new role as a 'connected sound system,' I believe we'll see it overtake today's traditional home theater systems in scope and capability."

In fact, Thorn says that he expects to see multichannel speaker systems extend beyond the current 5.1 surround sound specs, to 10.2 and beyond. For example, you might play a game and literally be surrounded by a total of 10 speakers with two subwoofers, bombarding you with sound from all directions. Additionally, future generations of processors will allow sound artists to use more simultaneous effects at one time in a game, pushing audio realism even further.

The most significant advancement in sound, however, may not come from any speaker system, but from you. "I am convinced voice-controlled games will be ready for prime time in five years," says John Dongelmans, technical evangelist for Microsoft. "Maybe even a few years from now, you'll see a complete new genre of games where the only thing you have to do is use your voice. You really need a new genre and a new game-input design to make this possible."

Some are more cautious, though. Fred Swan, director of marketing for Logitech, says that while he believes the main inhibitor to voice-controlled games is consumer acceptance, he doesn't think that voice control will ever replace handheld controls in the majority of games. "There are many types of action for which even the best voice control could provide only intolerably clumsy control. Imagine trying to play soccer by just telling your players what to do: 'Run. Faster. 30 degrees left. Stop and pass to #4. Run. Left. Kick 70 percent to 50 degrees right with a rise of 5 degrees.' It's just ridiculous."


So, if handheld controls will still be the main means of input for games in five years, what will they be like? Using the SideWinder Strategic Commander as an example, Dongelmans says, "We feel that over the next few years, genre-specific devices will continue to emerge, as new and hybrid gaming categories - like real-time strategy/roleplaying games - become more prominent in the industry."

Some developers think that it's about time. Says Shiny's David Perry: "There's not enough focus on how to interface with games. Right now, games are limited by the joypad, and every company just copies the last one."

While it seems unlikely that gamepads, joysticks, mice, or keyboards will be replaced anytime soon, don't assume that we won't see any revolutionary changes. Logitech's Swan explains that while people often look for change, they are hesitant to buy products that appear too different - a fact that peripheral manufacturers take into account when designing new products. Listing such recent innovations as force feedback, optical mice, and motion-sensing gamepads, he believes there will be many more such developments in the coming years. "I think that voice-control, wireless, video-capture, and tactile-feedback technologies will have an increasingly important effect on gaming."


If there's one technology that most everyone we talked to believes will have the most significant impact on gaming, it's broadband. "Broadband will make the online action experience accessible to the masses," says Epic's Bleszinski. That may not be such a good thing in the eyes of EA's Whyte, who notes: "Online games might turn into chatrooms for adolescents!"

Does broadband mean the end of the single-player experience in 2006? Not a chance, says Bleszinski. "Single-player will never die - there are far too many cool things that can be done with it. In the future, the best online games will have an offline element that allows you to practice your skills by yourself instead of making a fool of yourself in front of other, more experienced, folks."

Feargus Urquhart, Black Isle's division director, agrees: "We'll always be able to tell a story better if we control most aspects of the game, which - while not impossible - is very difficult in a massive multiplayer arena."

But the coming era of broadband communications doesn't have to be limited to massively multiplayer gaming. "I think that broadband will allow a gamer at home to control a dumb terminal connected to a mainframe that gives them more rich content than they could ever afford," says David Perry. "Imagine flying a $20 million flight simulator from your living room or controlling things somewhere else in the world and getting a video feedback. True broadband will be a radical change to the way we play."

Another far-reaching effect of broadband may be how we get games, as much as how we play them. Software retail stores themselves may become outdated once users can simply download a full game in minutes from their home computer. Blue Byte Software, the publisher of the Battle Isle and Settlers games, has already announced that it will begin selling all its games online only beginning with Dragon's Lair 3D (though not as a download), and will be releasing the upcoming paranoia thriller Majestic only as a download.

The ramifications are that publishers may eventually become content providers, streaming games to online subscribers much like people who pay every month for HBO. It's doubtful that such a system will become reality by 2006, but it won't be many years after that that it'll crop up.


There's a potential new platform on the horizon, and you may already own one. At Comdex 2000, 3dfx announced that it would begin making graphics solutions for cell phones and PDAs as soon as 2005. Though 3dfx is no longer a player, we asked the buyer of 3dfx's core technology, NVIDIA, if it had similar plans.

"We will bring the GPU to whatever platforms make sense," says David Kirk. "As higher-performance graphics engines continue to become more and more efficient at using power, other platforms become viable for 3D graphics. In the long term, count on NVIDIA to bring stunning experiences to 'anything with pixels.'"

Don't laugh. Though it's improbable that you'll be playing Quake III on your cell phone in five years, over 100 million people in America own a cell phone right now. That's an impressive user base, and game developers and hardware manufacturers aren't likely to ignore it.

"ATI…is always on the lookout for promising new applications for this advanced technology," says ATI's David Nolasco. "With the combination of low-power, high-performance processors and brighter displays with more colors and higher resolutions, the quality of games you can play on these platforms should improve tremendously over the next few years."

In fact, some companies aren't waiting. Varatouch Technology recently announced that it will begin making a miniature joystick called MicroPoint specifically for cell phones and PDAs. Could simple platform games be far behind?

Right now, the main limitation to these platforms is their small screen size, which may mean that only very simple games will be played on them. However, game developers may find uses for these mini-computers that supplement their gaming on conventional PCs. "What I find exciting is communication between all these devices," says Epic's Bleszinski. "A cell phone that alerts you when your base is under attack so you can quickly press 2 and order some drones in to defend until you can return to your PC…this is where things are going."

Or, says EA's Whyte: "Imagine a multiplayer RPG running off your Palm 10 that you can play on a beach. That'd be pretty cool."

And this is a distinct possibility. As online persistent worlds continue to be built, more and more games will be running 24/7. A full commitment to our onscreen avatars may just necessitate owning a portable wireless device to keep in constant touch. But as far as we're concerned, that's a fair trade-off … if the future of gaming in five years lets us play games from the beach, then count us in.