Today, Warner Bros. announced a new Batman game, called Arkham Knight. It's got some exciting features: An open-world Gotham City! A drivable Batmobile! And equally exciting, it's only coming out on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.
In other words, there won't be a PS3 or Xbox 360 version of Arkham Knight, nor will the game be coming to the similarly-powered Wii U. This inevitably happens at some point when transitioning to a new generation of consoles, but ever since the announcement of the PS4 and Xbox One, the question of when it would happen has lingered. This fall? Next spring? Would we still be seeing Xbox 360 and PS3 ports of current games in fall of 2015?
So far, most cross-platform (or, non-platform exclusive) next-gen games have come with a last-gen counterpart. Watch Dogs will be at its best on next-gen consoles and PC, but there'll still be versions on PS3 and Xbox 360. Titanfall will shine on Xbox One and PC, but Xbox 360 owners will get a version, too. Thief came out on next-gen consoles but also on last-gen. Ditto the upcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition, Shadows of Mordor, and on and on. The Witcher 3, Evolve, and Ubisoft's The Crew are some of the only 2014 cross-platform games not to include a last-gen version.
It makes sense to release a last-gen version—the PS4 and Xbox One are both selling well, but they're still miles behind the massive user bases of either the PS3 or Xbox 360. In 2014, it's a substantial—if decreasing—risk to release a game without a last-gen version unless you're a first-party developer making exclusive games for Microsoft or Sony.
So, why is it good news that Arkham Knight is leaving the Xbox 360 and PS3 behind? The thinking goes like this: If a game is designed to run on last-gen consoles, its next-gen versions are necessarily going to be held back from reaching their full potential. Developers can add a lot of cosmetic shine to next-gen versions, but by and large, the game's maps, AI and core design will remain unchanged despite next-gen consoles' superior horsepower.
For example, Assassin's Creed IV looks and runs great on PS4, but it's still fundamentally the same game as the PS3 version. Thief has better lighting on Xbox One, but it's got just as many loading screens as the last-gen version. What would it have been like had those games' developers not been hobbled by the now-ancient mid-2000s tech running the PS3 and 360? Remember: The Xbox 360 came out in 2005 and the PS3 in 2006, a year before first iPhone. Technology has come quite a ways since then.
It's a luxury to own a next-gen console, and I don't mean to say that I hope last-gen consoles stop getting good games. (Not that they would even if I wanted them to.) It's still expensive to move to next-gen, and it's always healthy to be skeptical that this game or that game will finally make the jump worth it.
Furthermore, good game-makers can still make technically impressive games on last-gen consoles, and both the Xbox 360 and PS3 will continue to get good games for some time to come. I've recently been replaying Grand Theft Auto V on Xbox 360, and I'd wager that game's at least as technically impressive as anything released so far on PS4 or Xbox One. Considering that Persona 5 isn't coming until 2015, I'm guessing I'll still have my PS3 plugged in for a good long while, and although Nintendo's still-pretty new Wii U has similar specs to the PS3 and Xbox 360, it's a safe bet that it'll be getting good games for a long time, too.
What would it have been like had those games' developers not been hobbled by the now-ancient mid-2000s tech running the PS3 and 360?
But as time goes by, it's hard not to start wanting to see what game developers will do when set free of the memory and processing restraints of the last generation. It's something PC gamers have felt for a while now—sure, we kept getting the best-looking versions of cross-platform games, but what might they have looked or played like if they were PC-only?
It's also nice to see this kind of thing happening with established series like the Arkham games, which have done so well on last-gen consoles and whose publishers are doubtless a bit loath to leave all those players behind. I don't blame them, but all the same... how big and detailed can a game be? How beautiful can art and animation get? How smart can our opponents be, how surprising? What new experiences might we have, what new worlds might we explore?
This fall, Arkham Knight will leave last-gen consoles behind and focus on what's next. In so doing, it'll join a small but growing cadre of games that are jumping into the future with both feet. We can hope that as a result, the game will feel bigger, smarter, and fundamentally different from its predecessors in exciting ways. Leave it to Batman to take us one step closer to the "next" generation of gaming becoming the current one.