What Games Are: Consoles Are Sinking. Get To The Lifeboats!

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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.

“Sony’s PS4 is DOA. Microsoft has won.” So said a friend of mine on Facebook moments after the PS4 event broadcast all around the Internet on Wednesday. Similar sentiments abounded, such as Darrell Etherington’s withering take. More charitable commentary about the presentation spoke of a lack of key details (such as what the machine looked like, or the price) but with always-optimistic caution. Others are just puzzled by the whole thing.

The event followed that Apple-like script of executive ideals followed by innovations and technology talk, and then various developers coming out to evangelize. Some were predictable, such as David “every game maker is immature bar me” Cage making the same old grand claim that this time the technology had evolved to the point where he could deliver real emotion, before showing a decidedly emotionless and robotic demonstration. Others were less so, like the appearance of Jonathan Blow. Then there were the middling bits, like a Killzone trailer or a quirky concept piece from Media Molecule to talk about the Move controller.

Sony’s big idea for Ps4 seemed to sort of revolve around connectivity and sharing. There were some moderately interesting ideas like the always-on Share button, or the use of Gaikai’s cloud to allow for faster downloading, or – and this sounds pie-in-the-sky – players actively taking control of others’ games to help them out. Less specific was detail on where this content might be shared, or whether most users would really be that bothered. It seemed like an awful lot of effort for what felt like a novelty.

Overall, the message was both disjointed and predictable, and the core reason for why PS4 demanded our attention was not conveyed. Lacking a definite wow factor, the event became like all game console presentations of the last five years, which is to say incrementalist, prevaricating, small-minded and a little bit creepy. It was all features features features, but with no central idea driving the platform forward.  Videogamer.com satirised it best when they overdubbed Mark Cerny saying “We don’t want to get between you and the game. Now here’s some stuff that gets between you and the game.”

It also felt oddly like watching Sega self-immolate 15 years ago. When Sega tried to strike back at Sony’s original PlayStation (and the Nintendo 64) with a machine that was meant to connect every player in the world, every player in the world responded with profound apathy. Judging from the presentation that Sony gave on Wednesday, PS4 seems to be the new Dreamcast, from the ugly new joypad to the key sales point of deep connection into a World of Gaming. The case is not made as to why anyone on this green and blue planet should care about any of that.

So my friend seems to be right in his assessment that, even before having to open its mouth, Microsoft has indeed won. And yet I think “win” is not quite the correct term. Perhaps a better one would be “best loser.”

Consoles Are Cruise Liners

There is something fundamentally wrong with the modern game console. It’s not that one competitor is better than another, or that one has a better suite of features or platform story than the others. It’s that the game console has gone from being an extremely simple device whose purpose was clear, to a mangled behemoth of a machine trying to impose a grand vision on an audience to retain its position. Lacking another Wii controller-style moment of genius, consoles have diverged in 100 different directions from video to social networking, browsing the Internet or instant messaging, and so have become crufty and expensive hunks of junk.

You might think that the Ps4 seems like the SS Sony striking an iceberg, but the state of the console industry is more like a reflection of the entire White Star fleet (the Titanic, Britannic and Olympic) rather than any one ship. The White Star vessels were lumbering expensive ships with too-small rudders, more luxuries than sense and not enough lifeboats. One sank in the North Atlantic, one was torpedoed and only one survived until it became uneconomical to run. Sony’s PS4 may well be the Titanic, but in that sense Nintendo’s Wii U is the Britannic, and that still doesn’t mean Microsoft’s Olympic is poised to take over the world. It’ll probably just run for a decreasing audience for a while until it too becomes uneconomical.

Sometimes a whole class of a technology just doesn’t make sense any more. In an age of smartphones, for example, nobody needs a Discman. In an age of tablets and laptops, nobody needs a home hub under their TV for browsing and IM-ing, and arguably not even for Netflix. And when the graphics are physically unable to get any better (nothing that I saw of PS4 looked meaningfully different to anything that the PS3 can already output) and controller innovation seems to have hit the skids, there’s really only two vectors left for console platforms to compete.

The first vector is services. All three platform holders have made big plays for services, but at this point they’re out of control. Online play in the guise of Xbox Live, for example, makes perfect sense. Purchasing games digitally also makes perfect sense. But it makes no sense to hide those two sensible features under social media, ESPN and complex retailer relationships that keep digital prices high. Creating vast virtual worlds with the intent of selling people virtual jeans is of marginal appeal. Giant user avatar systems are expensive, and also not that compelling. Voice searching with Bing to find content makes no sense (and I’ve had little luck in ever getting it to work).

The hope with trying to sell all of these packaged services is to keep justifying high prices. The entire console business is built on being able to sell games at $50, and it fundamentally doesn’t work in a $5 app world, but this leads to all manner of over-managed and controlled deadweight. In console land it’s like app stores simply do not exist and developers should, for some reason, continue to work with these burdensome and tired platforms in the hope of maybe getting a seat at the table.

Like the expensive Windows laptop, the premium console no longer makes any sense, either for customers or developers. Their purpose has become corrupted by decades of incremental innovation, to the point that no platform holder can articulately express what they are about any more. All they have left is ways to try to insert themselves into an equation between game maker and customer in a way that ensures that they can continue to add value. Yet that value is increasingly marginal. Lacking a compelling case for services, the only vector left to compete on is the one that breaks the console business model once and for all: price.

It’s time for the game console to enter its netbook years.

Microconsoles Are Tugboats

Microconsole” describes an emerging class of game consoles that are low in price, digitally native and focused on delivering games to play under your TV. They are deliberately small-scale, often powered by Android and very developer-friendly up to and including allowing developers to set their own prices and run their own businesses. The OUYA is a microconsole. So too is the Gamestick, and possibly the Nvidia Shield. Valve’s ever-imminent Steamboxes might also be considered microconsoles after a fashion.

Microconsoles essentially combine the original idea of the game console circa 1980-1995 (from Atari through to the original PlayStation) with iOS App Store economics and distribution. Like netbooks they promise to be a low-cost offering that focuses on the use cases that players actually want from their machines rather than paying a higher price for unnecessary bells and whistles. And so they are poised to become a very big deal, possibly even upending the game console as we know it forever.

The reason microconsoles are so appealing is all down to price and choice. The Ouya, for example, is aiming to be $99. Its games are likely to be $5, or free-to-play, or something equally straightforward. And you’ll play them with a joypad on your television, just like any gaming machine. Even better, the relatively lightweight process of developing and distributing on microconsole virtually guarantees that they will play host to interesting content. Rather than try to act like an indie publisher, as Microsoft has for years and largely destroyed its own advantage with Xbox Live in the process, microconsoles promise to do the thing that developers want, which is to get out of the way.

Of course there is much about the emerging microconsoles that is unknown (such as performance, routes to market, retailer partnerships and so on) but those are solvable problems. Furthermore the common use of Android means that many other competitors might get into the market, such as Samsung. Are you seriously telling me that Samsung or Amazon couldn’t jump into this space with a little-Android-box-that-could if they believed that the market were there?

Gamers, the people who actually buy machines and games, play with and talk about them, don’t care about all the guff inflating their systems. They only care about the games, about having fun in whatever form they desire. When the natural advantages of the hardware have become all but equivalent, the interfaces have stabilized and the useful services are all more or less settled, the only thing they’re going to care about is where the good games are to be found. With microconsoles providing an infinitely better route for developers to market, at prices that everyone will like, then the next generation of the console will truly be at hand.

But for the big cruise liner consoles that we know of today? Icebergs dead ahead!