Halo 3 was my first FPS. When I think back on my time with Bungie’s prime foray into the current generation, I’m surprised by how many of my memories are oriented around a feature that had nothing to do with graphics, audio, or gameplay: theater mode. Having a record of my own adventures with Chief and the anonymous Spartans of multiplayer, in addition to those of my peers, proved a tremendous boon to me individually and to the Halo community as a whole. Now, six years later, that same idea is one of the driving forces behind the next generation of consoles. Sony spent a significant portion of the PS4 reveal event showcasing the system’s “share” button, touting their machine’s ability to record and edit footage from any and all games it can play. Microsoft, too, has confirmed this capability for the Xbox One, though the news was largely forgotten in the nightmarish public relations fiasco that followed their event. It may be tempting to dismiss replay functionality as a gimmick or a distraction, but there are numerous ways in which it might positively impact the industry at every stage of a game’s life, from design to purchase and beyond.

First of all, some clarification on "replay functionality" is in order. A game (or console) is considered replay functional when it gives players the ability to review, save, edit, and share footage recorded during a play session. This was clearly illustrated by Microsoft during their media briefing. Having just executed a crippling combo in Killer Instinct, the triumphant player ordered his machine to save the match for editing. The trimming process was previewed briefly, wherein the player used the analog sticks to achieve the desired length for their clip. Though this is the essence of replay functionality, more features were hinted at: slow motion, filters, text overlay, and commentary were present in the final cut.

A separate but equally exciting feature of the next generation consoles is the ability to stream live play sessions. Both Sony and Microsoft are working with services like Twitch.tv to make establishing a channel and broadcasting live gameplay as easy as sharing recorded clips. While distinct, the technologies are often grouped together as one feature, and will be treated as such here.

Before a player even gets his hands on a game, replay functionality has already positively impacted his experience. Behind the scenes, in the dark and strange smelling halls of your favorite developer, a programmer who might have spent sleepless nights designing a software-level "theater mode" will instead polish content that would have otherwise been ignored. He might discover and rectify a previously game-breaking bug. Or maybe he'll spend some time with his kids. Happier designers make better games! Regardless of the specifics, the time and resources Sony and Microsoft spent developing and implementing a hardware-level replay feature will be returned tenfold in software quality over their consoles‘ lifetimes. The effect this will have on the industry can be compared to that of interchangeable parts on early 19th century society: while only producers were directly impacted, everyone benefited from the positive shift in supply. This time the benefits will be largely limited to gamers, but as gamers we will all be better off. 

In addition to receiving  a better final product, replay functionality will provide consumers with more information than ever on a game prior to purchase. A picture is worth a thousands words, and journalists would be remiss to not capitalize on this new technology. Summarizations and verbal opinions will still provide a sturdy backbone for future game reviews, but it’s not hard to imagine a rapid expansion in associated media. Screenshots and videos, being easier to create and publish than ever before, will soon provide the meat of the analysis. Encounter a maddening glitch? Record a video and share the struggle. Did your jaw drop at a gorgeous vista, but can’t find anything comparable in official screenshots? Go snap a few of your own. This has been realized to an extent already, with many prominent sites and content producers like IGN and GameSpot taking advantage of third party programs to capture game related media. Hardware-level integration will remove the final barriers that prevent a wider utilization of visual resources. "That was perfect, I wish I had been recording!" complaints will be a thing of the past.

The prior benefits would be classified as “externalities” by an economist, as they are unintended byproducts of an advance in technology. The intended benefits of replay functionality are reserved for gamers; one need simply listen to Microsoft and Sony discuss the feature and its virtues become abundantly clear. From Microsoft’s Xbox One webpage: 

“Why let that once-in-a-lifetime goal go unnoticed? With Game DVR, it’s easy to capture your greatest game moments. Xbox One keeps a rolling record of your most recent gameplay, so you can go back and share replays with your friends on social networks and Xbox Live. And if you want to see what your friends have been up to, check out replays of their best moves, too.”

The two main uses are outlined here. Gamers will be able to not only record their own accomplishments and share them with others, but also partake in and study their friends’ experiences and methods. This could go a long way to relieve the detachment and division that has come to define console gaming. Services like YouTube’s “Let’s Play” videos and Twitch.tv turn one’s private triumphs and frustrations into shared experiences reminiscent of the split-screen escapades and massive LAN parties many gamers grew up with.

Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, none of this is guaranteed. The virtues of replay functionality extolled by Microsoft and Sony should sound familiar; these services are exactly those provided by Halo 3’s theater mode back in 2007. While clips of impossible sticks and dancing Elephants were welcomed by an imaginative portion of the community, to many the ability to record and share gameplay served solely as a distraction. What’s to prevent history from repeating itself? Put simply, hardware-level implementation translates to ease of access. Imagine if Halo 3 had connected you to every Xbox user, all of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers, and the entirety of YouTube’s vast community. How would players have responded then? We’re about to find out.