The lights are on
Despite what many in the industry would have you believe, the future of the game console is bright. However, the consoles of the future might not resemble the game console as we’ve come to know it.
“Consoles are dying.” In the last year, I’ve heard that statement made by various industry pundits, developers, and executives on a near weekly basis. Faced with new challenges from smartphones, tablets, browser-based games, and a resurgent PC market, the conventional wisdom is now that the game console is soon to be a relic of a bygone age.
It’s amusing, as in my earlier days in the industry all I heard were annual reports of doom and gloom about the “dying” PC game industry – the PC game scene that is now set to deliver the death blow to the stagnant console sector.
To predict the future, it’s instructive to look back at the past. It wasn’t that long ago that Epic Games was bemoaning the “disarray” that marked the PC game industry and was shifting its development efforts almost exclusive towards consoles. Go back a little farther, and many industry pundits were predicting the wholesale death of the PC as a top-tier game platform. Check out these quotes from an editorial that ran in the November 1999 issue of Computer Trade Weekly, which was one of the major industry trade publications at the time.
For the first time in the history of gaming, true convergence looks like it’s about to become a reality. The lines between console and computer gaming, already quite blurred, are, it seems, about to completely disappear. And the reason for this is that the PC, the last home computer, is finally about to do the decent thing, and die out as a leading-edge games platform. You can cheer now, if you like.
1. The DC and PS2 both do or will offer easy access to the Internet, with all the (previously PC-only) implications that brings with regard to online gaming, Web access, downloadable add-ons, etc. Of course, set-top boxes have tried and failed to do this in the past, but without the established gaming muscle of the big names behind them, they didn’t stand a chance.
2. One of Intel’s leading chip scientists recently gave an interview to the New York Times in which he detailed the physical "wall" which is set to bring a dramatic halt to the days of PC processor speed growth. It seems likely that the next generation of CPUs (the 800MHz – 1GHz range) will be the last – according to the Intel boffin, it’s simply not physically possible to get silicon-based chips to go any faster. (For highly convincing-sounding reasons which went right over my head – check the story out yourself for more detail.)
5. The conclusion, then, is all but inevitable. The PC will completely die as a leading-edge games platform. There'll still be a niche market for the hardcore spod [sic] and his impenetrable "strategy" games with lots of orcs and colons in the titles, and the bigger console hits will be ported across in slightly less-fun, more-crashing, 3GB-of-your-hard-drive-swallowing incarnations, but hardly anybody will care very much, and PC owners will become the equivalent of beardy real-ale bores for ever and ever.
Reading that today gave me a good laugh. It’s important to note that this was not a particularly controversial or fringe viewpoint at the time. I read things statements like this again and again.
So what happened? Well, as they always do, things changed. In the intervening years, new PC business models emerged. Digital distribution took off. The massively multiplayer online role-playing game emerged from its niche to be a major genre. Browser-based and social network gaming became viable. Valve launched Steam and single-handedly changed the face of how PC games were sold. Companies like Mojang, with its Minecraft, showed what was possible with DIY distribution models. And, all the while, PC technology – despite what the doubters said – kept getting better. In 1999, no one could have predicted any of it.
It’s also interesting to contrast those dire predictions from 1999 with some recent quotes about console games. Here’s one.
Dave Jaffe, Twisted Metal creator: “Look, consoles are going away. I think in 10 years – probably sooner, but 10 years is always the safe thing to say so you don’t sound like an idiot – but here’s what I’ll say: I’ll go on the record and say that the next generation of hardware will be the last consoles. And they should be."
I disagree. There are challenges ahead for the console market. The last few years have seen stagnant growth, and more publishers struggling to recoup the costs on big-budget triple-A titles. Many consumer are spending more time on other devices, be it their phone, tablet, or PC.
Despite the challenges ahead, I believe that dedicated game consoles will always have a major role to play in the industry. Just as the PC’s strengths – open architecture and operating systems, quickly improving technology, and more diverse sales models – allow it to survive, the console will endure because of its inherent advantages.
A dedicated game console allows consumers to access high-end graphics and technology at a budget that’s usually far below a high-end PC. Standardized controller, UI interfaces, and multiplayer functionality ensure that consumers can depend on a level playing field and ease of use. For developers and publishers, a five-plus year console lifecycle allows them to develop technology and tools for a platform that’s not constantly changing and advancing like PC. I don’t think the demand for a controller-based, standardized gaming experience that displays on your television is going evaporate overnight – nor will the demand for high-production value, sophisticated games.
Finally, it’s important to understand that when we talk about gaming consoles, we’re not talking about consoles that are just more powerful versions of the consoles we’ve played over the last decades. At one time, home console gaming meant playing a cartridge-based experience on a machine made by Atari or Nintendo. Later, it meant a disc-based game on a PlayStation or Xbox. The consoles of the future might be based around digital downloads, streaming games, free-to-play games, disc-based games, or – more likely – a combination of all of those things. They might be manufactured by Ouya or the major cable providers instead of Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo.
What they will offer us is controller-based (even if that, in the case of the Wii U, now includes a touchpad) gameplay and a high level of graphical capability for an affordable price. And, if the past is any indication, they’ll offer us things that we can’t even imagine now.