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
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.
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 THE PAST
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.
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.
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.
DO WE GO FROM HERE?
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
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."
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
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."
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
HARD LOOK AT HARDWARE
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
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
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
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.
SO BRIGHT, I GOTTA WEAR PIXEL-SHADERS
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
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."
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!"
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."
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
SOUND OF PROGRESS
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."
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.
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."
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
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
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
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."
IS HERE (ALMOST)
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!"
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."
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
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."
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 EA.com will be releasing the upcoming
paranoia thriller Majestic only as a download.
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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."
says EA's Whyte: "Imagine a multiplayer RPG running
off your Palm 10 that you can play on a beach. That'd be
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.