What Games Are: Who Will Create The No-Bullshit Games Console?

Next Story

What To Watch For At WWDC 2013: More Freedom For Developers

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.

In any line of technology there’s always a bit of spin as part of an attempt to build a marketing story. A successful platform is often as much about the sexiness of an idea as it is about its engineering, particularly in the early days. As it fills out then some of the promise of the idea is met, some maybe not so much. Yet the next version will have more.

There may be a little bit of bullshit involved in that process, but ambition is good even if it doesn’t turn out quite as planned. Aspiration is good even if reality looks little pale by comparison  Whether it’s Elon Musk talking about how awesome it might be to die on Mars, or Peter Molyneux awarding a prize for a player to directly influence his next game, big ideas are to be welcomed. Almost everybody  wants a little razzmatazz, even if it is half-baked.

But sometimes all there is is bullshit. All there is is prevarication, contradiction and the banging of square pegs into round holes. Often times this occurs because of oligopolies. When there’s only a few big players in the market and each is focused on overcoming the others, the quest becomes less about inspiring the customer and more about beating the opponent. Usually that means assembling giant lists of feature upon feature upon feature upon feature.

When this happens, the simple idea is lost and replaced by Frankenstein-product that no longer makes any sense. I don’t necessarily mean a product with broad uses (such as a computer), rather one with 10 small use cases stuck together with staples and stitches. It ends up like the product Tom Waits describes in the song Step Right Up: “It filets, it chops, it dices, slices, Never stops, lasts a lifetime, mows your lawn, And it mows your lawn and it picks up the kids from school, It gets rid of unwanted facial hair, it gets rid of embarrassing age spots, It delivers a pizza, and it lengthens, and it strengthens, And it finds that slipper that’s been at large under the chaise lounge for several weeks, And it plays a mean Rhythm Master…

If you’ve read any of my posts of the last few months on TechCrunch, you’ll know that that’s pretty much how I feel about the console industry. With complicated  propositions that are all about frilly features and less about a core purpose, modern consoles are meatball sundaes. They consist of bits-and-pieces features glued together. They’re less about selling one great idea and more about selling you on one of ten half-ideas, hoping you’ll acquiesce to having the other nine ideas come along for the ride. And that you won’t mind paying extra for the privilege.

Core Purposes

When originally conceived as the Magnavox Odyssey and Atari 2600, the video game console was as simple an idea as you can get. You could hook up to your TV and play arcade games in the home. That was it. The games were also super-simple, such as Pong and its famous one-line instructions: “Avoid missing ball for high score”.

We may have left the joystick for the joypad and the touch-sensitive controller, gone HD as opposed to the old black-and-white cathode ray tubes, but playing games is still as basic. It may look much nicer, yet Angry Birds is simply “Aim birds to destroy pigs for high score” while Hay Day is “Grow crops to make money and build your farm”. Simplicity has the virtue of mass appeal, immediacy and not scaring players off with the perception of being difficult. Not unlike how the personal stereo went from the Walkman to the iPods Touch, Nano and Shuffle, the core idea remains the same because the core expectation of customers remains the same. Or rather, it should but there’s a mismatch. All three major manufacturers seem to have forgotten it.

Consider the iPod Touch. It is capable of doing a lot more than a Walkman ever was. It has a camera and can run apps. It’s essentially an iPhone for people who don’t have iPhones. And yet Apple doesn’t call it the “iTouch” or the “iNote”. The company does not pitch the product as a many-featured wee machine because that’s just a hard sell (“What’s it for?”) and so keeps the conversation about music-plus-extras. It’s an iPod. It plays music. Oh and some other stuff too. And if you look at many of its commercials for the device, the iPod Touch is primarily still about the music, musicians, artists, earphones and so on, with the apps in a support role.

It’s great to be able to play movies and connect to Netflix, but they are nice-to-haves. The original PlayStation was a passable CD player at a time when CD players were expensive. The PlayStation 2 was likewise for DVD players. It was great that the Xbox 360 could play ripped Xvid files, and it’s neat that it has access to a variety of video apps like Hulu. But those features always feel like passing conveniences that will soon be solved by an easier product such as the Apple TV, Roku or Fan TV. Something much simpler. To think that those nice-to-haves somehow fundamentally change the nature of the device? That’s a stretch. Those 8.45m viewers who watched Microsoft on Tuesday last week and laughed in derision or howled in anguish had a point.

My overall point is that the major console manufacturers seem to have the idea that what they sell is the home TV version of a tablet, a device with many thousands of possible uses, some of which involve games. But what they actually sell is more like the iPod Touch, devices with a lot of useful features but whose message still has to be about the core use case. That disconnect explains their promotional efforts but doesn’t change the reality: Nintendo is a gaming brand, Xbox is a gaming brand, PlayStation is a gaming brand.

Nintendo took the Wii, with a simple control method and a clear focus on fun casual gaming, and turned it into the most complex console controller in the history of history and a gaming social network. Microsoft is lost in dreams of winning a living room that few recognize with an only-mass-market solution that considers allowing a Minecraft to  grace its platform as an example of being down with the kids.  Sony may want to convey the message that it’s all about gaming but this feels more like a reactive move to Microsoft. The PlayStation 4 is actually a behemoth of social networking, sharing, streaming and who knows what else. All three companies used to know that they were in the gameplay business, but each has been bewitched by its own narrative.

They need a disruptive dose of simplicity.

The No-Bullshit Console

What does that dose look like? Well there’s OUYA, GamePop, GameStick and Valve’s much-talked-about Steam box, a group that I call microconsoles. None of them are ready for mass success yet but arguably they don’t need to be. Each is in the phase of early adoption and figuring out price, business model, convenience and marketing story. Each recognizes that there is a gap, not just in the technology but in the console idea itself, and thinks that they could be the disruption that the sector needs. Personally I think the right mix for one or more of them to hit will look something like this:

Digitally Native: Like your phone and tablet, the no-bullshit games console doesn’t use disks or stores. You connect to its app store, buy your games, job done.

Powerful Enough: A consistent argument that hardcore games fans level against phones, tablets and microconsoles is the perception that they’re graphically weak. Casual a mid-core players don’t care about that, but since hardcore gamers are the most vocal of early adopters the no-bullshit console will probably need some oomph. Just not necessarily a whole dedicated custom architecture.

Small: The modern living room is less about how many devices you can stack under your TV and more about how easily they get out of the way. Technology is miniaturizing and personalizing and few people want a machine the size of an aircraft carrier to take over their space. Similarly, the no-bullshit console should be silent.

Look Sexy: When the original PlayStation debuted it was considered a masterpiece of design. Apple spends a lot of time making the iPod Touch looking super sexy. Both are simple machines, but also lovely objects (for their time). This matters.

Useful Menus: One of the reasons why Xbox has become more about the short head over time is that Microsoft keeps pushing the idea that it knows what you want. That means lots of screens showing only three or four useful panels with lots of advertising, which nobody wants so they just choose the most apparent default option. Similarly, the PlayStation’s cruciform-style system makes finding content or options an oft-byzantine experience. For the no-bullshit console it’s important (both for customers and developers) to show enough options that allow long tail effects to happen. It may be boring, but a menu system that shows the user straightforward icons tends to be better at driving exploration over an attention-guiding or semantically organized system.

Curators But Not Gatekeepers: If mobile has taught us anything, it’s that platforms are at their best when they maintain some standards, but stay out of content decisions. While Google, Amazon and Apple all operate this way to a greater or lesser degree, big console makers are finding that they have to put more and more of their own money into making the games for their platform. They have created a setup where few others can afford to, and they get in the way of making it happen. This is why all the most interesting game development happens everywhere but console these days, and will continue to do so until the console makers get out of the gatekeeper business.

Annualized: Apple manages to upgrade the iPad every year, Samsung even more frequently than that with the Galaxy, and yet neither experiences much complaint from users. Yet in the console industry the conventional wisdom is that specs have to be locked for long cycles, because if they aren’t then some games may not work on older systems, or vice versa. This then fuels the urge to completely change architectures every few years and destroys backwards compatibility. With a digitally native approach the user is protected from buying games that won’t work on his system, and this allows consoles to adopt an annual upgrade cycle just like every other technology, which they need. Seven year cycles guarantee that the Xbox One and PS4 will look slightly ahead of the curve for about 18 months, but after that they will already look obsolete.

Accessible Controllers: The modern joypad now has three movement controls (one digital and two analog), four triggers, two option buttons, four face buttons, tilt, rumble, motion tracking and – in some cases – touch sensitive parts. And yet the single biggest barrier that non-hardcore players find when thinking about buying a games machine? The perceived complexity. So why not two triggers rather than four? Why not ditch the D-pad entirely? Why not three face buttons? Why not step back from the perception that a game controller has to be like the Onion joke about razors with 6 blades and three strips, and consider that maybe it’s ok to ask some of the specialist customers (like fighting game fans) to buy specialist controllers? Tablet games are taking the world by storm and have almost no controls at all. The no-bullshit console needs to think about why, and then adopt a similar stance.

Sensibly Priced: The new gaming warhorses are looking like they’ll be at least $499, or heavily subsidized with cellphone-style subscription plans. Even Nintendo, who tend to launch hardware cheaply, is asking for $349 for the Wii U. Those kinds of prices are just too much in a world where the console is considered as for-games-with-nice-extras. The no-bullshit games console needs to be $199 or $249. Certainly no more than $299, the same price as a 32 GB iPod Touch.

Conclusion

I know that my no-bullshit console idea is a little pie-in-the-sky, but it illustrates where the games industry (and especially its console sector) could be if it stopped getting high off its own supply. While I have no doubt that the next generation platforms will sell 20 or 30 million units, they will do so largely to the hardcore. The idea that Franken-consoles are going to get anywhere near 1 billion units seems like just a sad joke, however. Users don’t want nightmarish mish mashes of complexity from a device category whose core appeal is supposed to be simplicity, yet none of the manufacturers seems to know that any more.

However if the microconsoles could crack that iPod Touch code of price, access, affordability, simplicity and power then the next generation could easily belong to them.

(Original photo by jm3)