What Games Are: The “Beyond Games” Mirage

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer, creator of leading game design blog What Games Are and creative director of Jawfish Games. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Here are some numbers to chew on:

2012 also marked the Xbox’s biggest year for entertainment and games usage. Users enjoyed more than 18 billion hours of entertainment in 2012, with entertainment app usage growing 57 percent year over year globally. Last year in the United States, Xbox LIVE Gold members averaged 87 hours per month on Xbox, an increase of 10 percent year over year.

That entertainment number sounds very impressive, and, yet, only Microsoft seems to think so. That’s because it’s not. There are 76 million Xboxes out there, 24 million Kinects and 46 million Xbox Live users. 18 billion hours of “entertainment” (which I’m going to assume is mostly video services like Netflix and ESPN) breaks down to 236 hours per machine per year. Put another way, that means about two movies per week per machine. Or, if you want to just think in terms of the Xbox LIVE crowd, three movies per week.

Moreover, I think the 18 billion number is soft, much as the idea that the PS2 would own DVD proved soft. All it will really take for Microsoft to lose that ground is for cable providers to make better boxes, or Apple to actually advertise the Apple TV (5.3 million sold with no push whatsoever). This despite having hundreds of partnerships, simulcast content, HD output, Sky TV in the UK et-cet-era. Those 76 million Xboxes took an awfully long time to put together (the Xbox 360 is more than seven years old). To put that in context, Sony’s PlayStation 2 sold 130 million machines. In a smaller time period, Apple has sold more than half a billion iOS devices, including more than 100 million iPads. And, not to be unfair to Microsoft, the picture is very similar for Sony’s PlayStation 3. Remember when it was the machine that was supposed to drive Blu-ray adoption?

I bring all of this up to talk about a particular delusion that both companies (and to a lesser extent, Nintendo with the Wii U) have fallen into. In the MicroSony paradigm, the world is filled to bursting with feature-loving media customers. These “medians” want nothing more than to own a single device that serves you games, movies, music, social networking, status updating, showing off, books, podcasts, avatars, phone calls, video calls, holographic calls, interwebs, emails and so on. They’re out there, just waiting to be tantalised with exactly the right suite of features, and they will come in their droves.

And yet, while both can talk as long and as loudly about living-room strategies, wedge strategies, battles for the living room and moving beyond just games, customers continue to buy Xboxes and PlayStations to play games. While both can get very excitable about video cameras, connectivity, streamed media and so on, nobody gives a good goddamn about the vast majority of those features. If anything, they are voicing their displeasure through supporting leaner microconsoles like OUYA. Yet the powers that be in Redmond and Japan are simply not listening.

It’s worse than just a lack of focus. The issue for both is that they have largely run out of compelling platform stories. They either don’t believe that there is anything more to the gamer market than they have already captured, or that they have no meaningful way to attract them any more. So, like the Tom Waits song “Step Right Up,” wherein he recites a laundry list of features for a product (“it fillets, it chops, it dices, slices, never stops, lasts a lifetime, mows your lawn…”), for both big-M and big-S, life is about seeing just how many boondoggles and doohickeys they can staple to their platforms. Those days of courting the lifestyle gamer, the passionate gamer and the indie gamer? Long gone.

All in the hope of attracting a median dollar that is more mirage than reality. Perhaps the most poignant article on this subject is Nat Brown’s “Stupid, Stupid xBox!!“. Brown – one of the original engineers behind the console, who even dreamed up its name – lambasts Microsoft thoroughly for making deep dives on features that nobody cares about (and, in my opinion, are mostly poorly executed) and navigation systems that are unusable (again, agree – the Xbox dashboard gets worse with every major iteration) while failing to solve the obvious problems in front of them.

The main problem, as Brown sees it, is the ham-fisted way in which Microsoft handles independent development and relies on big partnerships. While you can easily build an app for mobile, tablet or PC these days, building for Xbox is impossible unless you have a lot of money and partner-level relationships with the platform. Your game will, at best, end up in a graveyard hidden under 100 tonnes of nonsense. Even the portrayal of the Xbox 360 as seen in Indie Game: The Movie (which is not kind) is like some shining reverie of the past compared to the modern version.

Of course we do tend to sometimes converge on devices, such as the PC, the tablet and the smartphone. This is largely to do with either necessity (we need a family computer) or convenience (why carry a walkman and phone when my smartphone can save pocket space) or both (tablets). Manufacturers mistake this for a desire for features, inferring that there must be other markets out there that want all of their stuff under one lid. But they don’t really. Regular users dislike cruft, and they actively hate the sensation of being jerked around.

The PC has always lived with this tension, and smartphones are showing signs of it, too. These devices attract several groups of people whose use cases are very different, and so each has gripes. For some, one interface goes too far, while for others not far enough. The word-processor-and-email user just wants a simple computer to do that and finds the techie side frustrating. The gamer wants power, and for the operating system and other software to get out of the way. The programmer wants something different again. So too the graphics artist. Arguably the big reason why iPads are so popular is that they are much simpler than PCs, drawing the word/mail crowd away. Meanwhile the gamers are still sticking with their power PCs but couldn’t care less about Windows 8.

While game consoles certainly seem as though they could be the ur-box that sits under your TV and converges everything, that vision is one which has been in front of users for a long time, yet they just don’t care. When Sony lifts the lid on the PS4 next week, and Microsoft presumably does something similar at GDC for Xbox, we will know more about their concrete plans for the future. We expect that both will be long on waffle about entertainment applications, especially Microsoft, and the awesome power of using Internet Explorer on your telly.

My prediction has long been that the console that convinces gamers that it’s really just about games and focuses on executing for that is the one that will win. We already know that Nintendo has laid a big egg with Wii U (sadly), and that means the market is wide open. So the question is whether the other two will fail to capitalise or not. Thus far neither of the other two major platform holders is doing that, which is why smart eyes are starting to look to microconsoles instead.