I spent a lot of time over the past few months trying to figure out what the phrase "next-gen" means in regards to the gaming world. The phrase is thrown around regularly in just about every game-journalism medium, but it's never clearly defined. It's a concept, a semantic. I mean, it couldn't be about powerful graphics: Nintendo's consoles are working on some pretty last-gen hardware, but they are still owning -- at least -- the handheld market with some brilliant and revolutionary games. There are certainly some face-melting visuals on the Playstation 4 that caused me to drop my jaw and whimper "the next gen is upon us" (Killzone: Shadow Fall is a thing of beauty), but most of their launch titles don't really break new ground in the gameplay department. So I don't even know if the phrase applies in that instance. Furthermore, the Xbox One is attempting to bust down walls in pursuit of an all-in-one entertainment hub, but the interface and hardware isn't perfect. Also the Kinect 2.0 tends to be more intrusive than game-changing ... it kind-of scares the shit out of me.
So what truly is a next-gen console? Well, it could be all or none of the previously stated gaming systems. There's no doubt that we are in the next generation of gaming (new consoles, new games), but when I hear that phrase, I expect something revolutionary. Not just a graphics upgrade, a gimmicky controller or Skynet commandeering my living room. These are the things that keep me up at night. First-world gamer problems.
My answer came to me when Valve announced the Steam Machine, previously predicted to be the Steambox. As of this post, there are currently 14 of them. 14 independently-manufactured video game consoles. How? What? Why? In the same way that the Android Operating System may be utilized with multiple phones/tablets from different companies, the Linux-based Steam Operating System is being adapted by multiple PC companies to create a small army of Steam-centric video game powerhouses. For varying prices, you could have a video game console with the power of the Playstation 4 or you could drop some more dough and buy a superpowered machine built to last for years to come. All of these provide access to the tried-and-true Steam library of games.
Now, the biggest argument from the self-proclaimed "PC master race" is that you could go on websites like Newegg.com or TigerDirect.com and build a PC from scratch way cheaper than if you purchased a Steam Machine. While this may be correct, this isn't their market. This is Valve's way of bringing console gamers to a PC marketplace. They are attacking the industry from the inside out, and if Sony or Microsoft don't play their cards correctly (exclusive titles, etc), it could mean the end of the console war with the Steam Machine playing deus ex machina (the greek literary device, not the game series ... but that too I guess).
As we enter this new era of gaming, every single console on the market now has (and will have) something different to offer those willing to invest their money. But in my opinion, the next-generation truly lies in synergy: a company's willingness to work alongside hardware developers in an attempt to expand their market. As long as big-wigs like Sony and Microsoft are developing their own hardware, we as consumers are finding them more and more isolated on their respective islands. How long will their small handful of exclusive games like Halo or the Uncharted series keep these companies afloat? Time will tell. But what Valve is doing in turning PC gaming to the mainstream is showing consumers that nobody needs to be a purist or exclusive to anything. In fact -- just like PC gamers have been doing for years -- you can now choose just how powerful you want your console to be with a price-range of $499 to $6000. That degree of control will go a very long way of attracting new blood (and third-party game developers) to Valve's corner. I don't game on a PC at home (I haven't for years), but I do own a PS4 and an Xbox One. All I can say is: we're only a few months into the next generation, and I'm already prepared for an upgrade.
Take a look at some of the recently-announced Steam Machines below: