by Geoffrey Grahn

If you’re waiting for PlayStation 3 or Xbox 2 to spice up life on the couch, don’t hold your breath. Console gamers won’t be getting next-gen hardware anytime soon. This spring, both Sony and Microsoft told antsy fans that their focus for the foreseeable future will be on developing great software for their existing platforms.

Sounds like a cop-out, but there may be something to their strategy. The ostensible idea is to give developers a stable platform to work from, and thus unleash their creativity. According to Robbie Bach, head of Microsoft’s games division, 80 percent of the time spent producing a game traditionally has gone into programming and only 20 percent into design–the creation of new worlds, characters, plotlines.

Maintaining the hardware status quo dovetails nicely with an emerging software trend. In the past few years, developers have begun using a modular strategy to build games, rather than starting from scratch for each one. Middleware developers now design off-the-shelf tools and special effects that “plug in” to the prefab code of a game engine; the end product is often good enough for top-tier publishers. The impressively realistic physics in Eidos’s Deus Ex: Invisible War and Rockstar Games’ Max Payne 2, which came out in late 2003, were both built on this model.

Given the complexity of engineering convincing graphics, lifelike movement and artificial intelligence, it makes sense to farm out work to software boutiques. Take physics modeling: It used to be that when you shot a bad guy you saw a canned animation. Now we expect “ragdoll” physics, in which a slavering zombie’s body reacts differently depending on where it’s hit, and with what. Happily, code jockeys at middleware outfits like Havok and Renderware have mastered Newton’s minutiae and can deliver a ready-made solution. To wit: When the giants in Lionhead Studios’ forthcoming Black and White 2 hurl boulders at innocent villagers, the resulting carnage will be modeled on a Renderware physics engine.

Now publishers can concentrate on creating content–eye-popping visuals, stirring audio, dazzling dialogue and, dare we hope, innovative gameplay–instead of noodling with software code. After all, it’s such trappings that make the upcoming Shadow Ops: Red Mercury different from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, even though they’re both built on the UnrealEngine2 technology. Under the new paradigm it probably won’t be long before even these titles feel dated.