Another console generation is coming to an end. Things 'ending' always tends to put me in a reflective mood, but the end of this generation feels quite special to me - even if the next gen of consoles don't bring much that's entirely "new" to the table. The transition from generation 8 to generation 9 has snuck up on a lot of us, this time - COVID 19 derailing the hype train far more effectively than any botched E3 presentation could have. For me, it's been a generation in which my gaming habits have been changed dramatically. For my kids, it's been the generation that has established them as videogame players. For people my age, it was the NES that did that for most of us... but for my kids, it's been the Xbox One and the PS4.
When the Xbox One arrived in the house (at about 12:20am on launch day), my daughter was 6 and my son was 3. At that point in time, the only person in the household who played games regularly was me. Lachesis would occasionally indulge in some pad passing on Assassin's Creed, but aside from that limited herself mostly to Nintendo games (she adores stuff like Professor Layton and Luigi's Mansion) - while I had turned into the guy who played pretty much everything. What I'm saying in my roundabout, rambling way is that the last time around, at the point of the new consoles arriving I was the only person in the house who cared.
Every generation is defined by something - that exact something changing each time. The transition from NES to SNES was about bigger games, better sound, parallax scrolling. The PlayStation brought in 3D and a more adult spin on games. Since then, each generation has gotten bigger and better and, on the graphics front, closer and closer to photo-realism. For me, the Xbox 360/PS3 generation was defined by RPG's and single player narrative games; Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim each swallowed hundreds of hours of my time, while Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and The Last of Us both told stories that I'm yet to forget. The most interesting thing about this generation is that, for the first time in my life, I have two other people in the house who've played a lot this generation - and each of them have their own ideas about what this generation was about. Unsurprisingly, their opinions are very different to mine. Looking around at wider gaming culture, there are three things that have defined gaming this generation. Games as a service, free-to-play and social games. The three of us have all leaned into these to differing degrees.
Games as a service have been something I've had a love/hate relationship with for much of this generation. Destiny and its sequel absorbed me for years, teaching me that the hundreds of hours I put into the RPG's I mentioned previously could, in fact, be a drop in the ocean. A check of a couple of stat websites reveals I spent over 55 days playing the first Destiny game, and I've chucked another 30-odd into the second one... and I'm still playing it. I have no idea how much time I've poured into Sea of Thieves - but it wouldn't surprise me at all if the numbers were similar. They've given me worlds to live in and to explore, at the cost of playing a lot of single player games. As I work through those as the generation closes, I can admit that a part of me is wondering whether or not that trade-off was worth it. They're the best examples I have though of a way in which the zeitgeist has changed - with these 'living' games, there are a subset of players who genuinely seem to expect a constant and never-ending stream of content... and they can get nasty when they end up (inevitably) disappointed.
The next 'sign of the times' that has to be talked about is the rise of battle royales and free-to-play games. These are the games my son has leaned into in a big way; he loves Fortnite and he loved Dauntless - and he's always eager to try out whatever new BR game appears. He flirted with Apex Legends and Hyper Scape and doubtless would have loved Call of Duty's Blackout mode if I'd bent to pester power and let him play it - but he keeps on going back to Fortnite. He's going to look back on it with the same affection that I reserve for Super Mario Bros and The Legend of Zelda - and while it's not how I really expected it to pan out when I first caved to his incessant requests to install it, it's... fine. At the start of the 8th generation, he was a three year old sitting in front of a tv with a disconnected joypad with no batteries in it. As it ends, he's a ten year old who lives for the crispiest sniper shots. He got his Revoker on Destiny 2 before I did, and can often be found wielding it in the Crucible. Asked what it is about BR's that he loves, he tells me that he "loves how the game can be different every time," and that "playing one vs ones with his friends isn't funny anymore" because "he's so much better than them that they accuse him of cheating." His first answer pretty much summarises what I love about Sea of Thieves. Asked what he wants to do for a living, he'll generally answer "make games" - which is the answer I gave for a period of time when I was a kid and had just discovered this beautiful medium. Yep, this generation has created a videogame player there.
My daughter is the one who's leaned in to the social and creative games. She loves Minecraft, and has spent a crazy number of hours building and furnishing houses in The Sims 4. It's not a multiplayer game, but she has a friend who plays on PC - and it's common to find her playing it while her friend does the same thing, all the while chatting on Whatsapp. For her, gaming is not about skill or speed or precision. It's about building the pictures she has in her head, and creating a reality for herself that's maybe more pleasant for her to be in than the seemingly perpetual lockdown that 2020 has offered us. She's also tried out Abzu, and fell head over heels in love with What Remains of Edith Finch - but those two were the exceptions to the rule. Put her into a game that she can use to express herself, and she's sold.
So, one generation and three players - all of whom have managed to find games they loved. And for me, that's the big takeaway from this generation. Yes, service games and free-to-play have risen. Microtransactions have become an established business model, for better or for worse. Content droughts have come to exist. Games have gotten prettier, and machines more powerful - but at the core of all of that is variety. The generation that led me to love games brought with it a number of stone cold classics - but when asked which games we loved from that generation, the vast majority of us will list the same few games. Super Mario Bros and Zelda, Megaman and Punch-Out, Castlevania and Metroid will all likely feature on that list. At some distant future point when my kids are looking back at "when they fell in love with games" they'll have a diverse list of titles... that all ran on the same machine. Their friends will likely name a load of games they didn't play, or maybe have never even heard of.
That burgeoning diversity is what I'll remember this generation for. It was the generation where I played Destiny and Sea of Thieves for years, and where I regularly dipped into Abzu and Sayonara Wild Hearts for a more surreal experience. Where Uncharted 4 gave me an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones, and in which Star Wars Squadrons let me live out a fantasy I've had since I was younger than my kids are now. AAA games have sat comfortably alongside indie games developed by single developers, and this generation has afforded them all with opportunities to find a voice and an audience. I got to play lots of different games, for lots of different reasons - and I enjoyed the vast majority of them along the way.
The net is being cast wider and wider, and that's the best thing that any of us who love games can hope for moving out of one generation into the next one. More players, faster hardware, more games. Even as I write this, my shiny new Xbox Series X is sat on the kitchen table. She's brimming with possibility and promise. Here's to the future.