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Last Updated: Saturday, 31 December 2005, 03:18 GMT
Towards games with the wow factor
The new generation of game consoles have the processing power to herald a golden age of gaming, argues leading game maker David Braben.

People playing Xbox 360
The Xbox 360 provides a first taste of next generation gaming
Many of us have now seen Microsoft's new games console, the Xbox 360, and have been impressed by the crispness of the high definition displays and beautiful imagery, but we have not yet seen a true 'fifth generation' game.

As with previous new console formats, there have been some understandable criticisms of the first few games out on the format as expectations have been sky-high, but the main improvements seem to be graphical alone.

The games industry is at a watershed right now. We have been moving ever more to games that are driven by the subject matter.

But there comes a point where, as with the film industry before us, the artistic content becomes the main driver rather than just a small part, and the extra impetus given by the massive step-up of Xbox 360 and the forthcoming PlayStation 3 has the potential to push us into this new era.

A similar transition happened in the early 1930s in the film industry. In the 1920s, films were almost pure spectacle, and that spectacle became ever more extreme to keep the audiences coming back - cars skidded around towns, people dangled and fell from buildings, cars were forever being smashed to pieces on railway crossings.

The stories were light-weight justifications for linking the dramatic moments together. The advent of synchronised speech, the Talkies, didn't change this right away.

But it opened the door for the golden age of film, where Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd gave way to Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles in the 1930s.

Telling tales

With hindsight the contrast is immense, and I think we are on the cusp of a similar change in the games industry.

Perfect Dark Zero screenshot
Games for the Xbox 360 have been graphically stunning
In games on the fifth generation, glorious imagery is not a problem. Details like beads of sweat are now expected.

Natural-looking fur can make creatures and people look very real, though non crew-cut hair brings many additional problems if it is not set in place with military strength hair gel, but that is not the point.

This is merely a slight increment over what fourth generation games are doing on the PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube and is behind the complaints being voiced - the appetite is there for more and we are tired of the car-on-a-train-track spectacle.

Story-telling in games in most cases is little different to the stories of those Harold Lloyd films of the 1920s.

The player is stuck on pre-defined railway lines, forced to follow their character's pre-determined adventures, much as in a book or a film.

In story-telling terms at least, games have not yet broken free of their non-interactive roots.

The Holy Grail we are looking for in fifth generation gaming is the ability to have freedom, and to have truly open ended stories.

Games that have even hinted at that freedom in the past like Elite and Grand Theft Auto have been hugely successful. This Holy Grail is what will herald the new era for gaming.

Freedom of choice

My team has been working on achieving this new freedom, where a game character's objectives are defined rather than the overarching story narrative, to allow the story to unfold in response to the player's actions.

This relies on the intelligent processing of character scripts by the game, using the huge processing power of these new machines.

The Outsider game
Frontier is trying an open-ended approach in The Outsider
We have been making great progress already, where the player can come at problems in many different ways that have not been pre-planned.

Our first game to use this approach is The Outsider. This is a thriller where the player begins by being accused of a terrible crime but can respond in many different ways, from getting revenge, to proving his innocence, to joining the secret organisation that came after him.

It is this sort of freedom that will distinguish the fifth generation, and hopefully usher in this golden age.

The reason that the first few games are little more than graphical enhancements of what has gone before is it takes time to craft the new elements people may be expecting from day one.

Perhaps it is a little like a racing car driver getting used to a new car, and to all its quirks.

The important thing is where it leads. In film, many quickly adapted to the new golden age, like Charlie Chaplin who went on to make the Great Dictator and to found United Artists.

Our golden age has not yet started but the door is open, and somewhere are the Welles and Hitchcocks of the future. They may even be reading this piece right now.

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