Game File: ‘PlayStation Never,’ Nintendo Wii, ‘Guitar Hero II’ & More

Gaming's top dogs ponder when — or if — technology race will end.

How many PlayStations or Xboxes do there need to be?

On May 8, Sony will kick off E3 week, the year’s biggest five days of gaming news, with a showcase of the upcoming PlayStation 3. The next day, the company’s competitors will counter with the latest news about the Xbox 360 and the former Nintendo Revolution, now known as Wii.

Five years ago, those same three companies did the hard sell with PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube. Back up a bit more in time, and Nintendo was wrestling with Sega, and Atari fenced with the Intellivision and Colecovision.

Gamers might think their hobby will produce a new round of machines and a new round of shopping decisions every few years for just about forever. And for business reasons, it may well make sense for Sony to someday sell the PS9 that it playfully advertised years ago as part of the hype for PS2.

But from a technological standpoint, the thought of a PlayStation that could generate images as realistic as those in a mirror could satiate the desire for future consoles. One day there could no longer be a need for a better console. So as graphics get better each generation, which number PlayStation would that be?

When asked this question at a party during the Game Developers Conference in San Jose, California, in March, Phil Harrison, Sony Computer Entertainment’s head of worldwide studios, quipped: “How about PlayStation Never?”

Harrison went on to explain what makes reality look real, pointing across the party floor. The subtleties of eye movement and muscle tension and shoulder position of even the chefs cutting a slab of meat made them seem more realistic than any video game character could be in the next few generations.

Harrison’s statement suggests that there will be no end to the invention of gaming consoles — not just for marketing reasons, but because of technology. His vision predicts that developers and gamers will need a new PlayStation every few years for all eternity, as each device gets just a bit closer to displaying broadcast-quality visuals. But his comment also allows for the opposite view: that the impossibility of achieving perfection will force the eventual acceptance of an imperfect game console, one that settles for rendering something less than reality.

In Japan, at least one big-name game creator agrees with that. “Back in the ’50s and ’60s, there was this whole race between the U.S. and Soviet Union about who would reach space first,” said Tomonobu Itagaki, creator of the “Dead or Alive” and “Ninja Gaiden” series on Xbox, two weeks ago in a meeting room at his company’s office in Tokyo. “Then we sent a manned ship to the moon. … No one said, ‘OK, we’re going to go to Mars.’ Because at that point, it had been pretty much shown that, ‘OK, this is enough.’ And I think a similar thing is going to happen in terms of hardware as well. If we can come this far, then that’s enough. That’s what we need.”

So when do we reach the moon? Maybe in a decade? Itagaki does his interviews wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses, and he likes to play it cool and talk about gambling, hence his initial response: “If I sit down at the roulette table, I’m not sitting down and figuring out if — in 10 years — am I [still] going to be playing roulette?”

Nevertheless, he said he could calculate when a console will finally be able to render everything we need to see and prevent the need for any console after that — but he said it would take 10 minutes to do the math. The interview time did not permit.

And so the mystery continues.

It should be noted that Nintendo’s president, Satoru Iwata, has been saying that game graphics are already just about good enough. So expect at least one claim that the moon race is over to be made next week. But it remains to be seen how long it will take until gamers are truly satisfied and when (or if) the race ever reaches an end.

More from the world of gaming:

Many gaming critics contend that violent games train players to commit real acts of violence. Traditionally, the violence in most extreme games like “Grand Theft Auto” was activated by the press of a controller button, hardly the most physically direct correlation between committing a virtual act of violence and a real one. But now comes the Nintendo Wii and its motion-sensitive controller, which is designed to allow players to control games with gestures that match what their characters are doing. Consider the recently announced Wii exclusive “Red Steel,” a first-person shooting and sword-fighting game. In that game, players use the system’s motion-sensitive controller to manipulate the onscreen action — in this case, matching the position of their hand with the direction and angle of the onscreen hand holding the weapon. It’s not hard to see where those who believe that violent games lead to violence will take this — the Wii has the potential to ratchet up the entire debate. …

Another — probably unintended — connection to real and virtual violence can be seen in “Every Extend,” a lauded free computer game set for an enhanced (and not free) release later this year. Publisher Q Entertainment will put out “Every Extend Extra” alongside new installments of the company’s much-loved 2005 puzzle games “Lumines” and “Meteos.” The game plays like the old top-down shooter “1942” or the Xbox 360 favorite “Geometry Wars,” but without the bullets. You can only kill the enemy ships by blowing yourself up. The more enemies you take out in a single detonation, the more points you get and the more time is added to the clock. As long as time remains, you can re-spawn and ignite another suicide chain. The game is abstract and doesn’t come close to rendering anything that looks like a human being. But getting good at the game essentially means getting good at being a suicide bomber — targeting crowds for maximum devastation — and once that connection has been made, it’s hard to look at what initially seemed to be an exciting but innocent game in much the same way. The free game can be downloaded by clicking in the blue box at www.vector.co.jp. …

Eager to indulge in a video game that is completely nonviolent? “Guitar Hero” is a safe bet, and the company’s publisher, RedOctane, has launched a contest for the game’s 2006 sequel that will give independent musicians a chance to have their song featured in the game. Songs must be considered hard rock or heavy metal, and RedOctane reserves the right not to pick a winner at all. Such are the risks of guitar glory. Go to www.beaguitarhero.com for details.

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