What Games Are: Reinventing The Games Console Half Way Won’t Work

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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.

In some ways you’ve got to feel bad for Microsoft. The company has spent years trying to find ways to expand its Xbox idea. It put together a very interesting camera peripheral that many people bought into, but not too many games. It’s tried, on several occasions, to use the games console as a way to win access into the living room. Yet now it’s at the point of having to roll back many of its big ideas because the market reacted so negatively. The company has run into a hard truth: In the minds of the market “console” means something specific, and is not inclined to expand its thinking.

In essence what Microsoft wanted to do was similar to what Apple did for phones. Long before iPhones there were many years of terrible feature phones. They had Java games, shambolic web interfaces and data plans that charged per megabyte. They stuck resolutely to sticky keys and small screens, and at best some of them had styluses that pretended to be able to recognize handwriting. Apple managed to leapfrog that mess by reinventing how it controlled, how it looked and what it felt like. Mobile phones went from being cellular devices to something else, something with sexy touch-screen effects and whatnot, and that in turn opened the door to many other innovations.

That, in essence, was Microsoft’s big idea with Kinect. If the company could redefine control to be much broader than stuffy old joypads, then that opened the door to lots of other avenues. In a sense it was trying to take “console” into the realm of “smartconsole” but it had an unwillingness to really go for that. Like Sony and Sega before it, Microsoft has attempted to achieve its vision by expanding the metaphor of what “console” is supposed to mean rather than defining a new type of product from the ground up. And the market has yet again said no.

Unlike in the computing space where one machine acts as arbiter and translator of all content toward multiple screens, the living room has never really been able to unify. We have several smaller devices that all plug into one big screen. And often they have duplicate functions. The games console seems like it should solve that. It should be a point of access for content and functionality, roles already filled by computers but in the living room. So much more could be brought to the living room if only the audience would get behind that idea. Throw out all your confusing boxes, it seems to say. Bring back some sanity to your life. One box to rule them all and make your life elegant.

Yet no company can really get there. No one company can strike deals with all cable-box makers to essentially cut them out of a key part of their value chain. Nobody is yet able to convince television manufacturers to get behind one standard control method. And since that means there will always be fragmentation, players really just want consoles to play games. They view consoles as essentially gaming CD players, and preferably cheap ones at that, and steadfastly refuse to buy into the bigger picture.

Their resistance is with good reason: Transitioning from cheaper many-box to expensive one-box means giving up a lot. It means forfeiting the chance to play games on other systems. It means disconnecting from a pre-existing media service and converting or dumping a lot of material in the process. (Could you ever see iTunes on your Xbox?) The argument has not yet been made strongly enough to the market that the trade-off is worth doing. While smartphones show that dramatic evolution is possible, a platform holder like Microsoft needs to go much further than it already has if it’s going to change how gamers think.

Several commenters have lamented that Microsoft’s recent reversal on DRM is caused by players being short-sighted, putting immediate value (used games) ahead of long-term potential gains (digital connectedness). To me this reflects a key dissonance. It’s rare that the market gets educated, and instead much more common that it gets fixated on an idea of what a product category is. It hears “PC” and it thinks “powerful desktop computer.” It hears “console” and it thinks “shiny games deck.” It sees one sort of trying to act like the other and resists. No no, it says. The device is supposed to be like this.

Even though every PC, smartphone and tablet in the world has a front-facing camera, for example, the market finds something weird about consoles doing likewise because that doesn’t seem to add much to what it believes “shiny games deck” is supposed to be. Even though Nintendo has a great idea for how second screen gaming could work, the market fundamentally regards it askance. A shiny games deck is supposed to be about joypads and such. The tribe only understands “console” as one thing and is only really interested in features that bolster that vision. All else is viewed with suspicion.

There’s some kind of smart-TV idea trying to be born at Microsoft, an interesting technology which seems just out of reach. There’s something to its Minority-Report-esque idea of swiping, swishing and talking to your television. There’s some notion in the middle of that with tablets and interactions and second screens. But to get there needs a deep reinvention, and the road toward it does not lead through changing everyone’s minds about the meaning of “console.” Instead it needs to be a new product, even a whole new category, and its adoption has to go slow.

Rather than adapting a product into something that is complicated, confusing and suspicious, the right approach would be to create something new. One example would be a Kinect standard that could be licensed to television makers and integrated into sets. A standalone camera, irrespective of gaming, that perhaps makes all sorts of remote control tasks easier. And not called “Xbox” at all. Not called “console” either. Or, if the vision mandates that gaming still be involved, a gaming deck that gets beyond the joypad.

Much as the iPhone managed to sell itself by walking away from keypads, arguably the gaming machine that moves beyond “console” as a product category needs to move beyond the joypad. This is very hard to do. Nintendo almost managed it with Wii before running out of steam and then trying to create a joypad/tablet combo that few people really like. Kinect tried too, but gestural games are somewhat limited in their scope. Perhaps through SmartGlass or some haptic variant of that in combination with Kinect, Microsoft could get us all into the idea of a new product category like “smartconsole.”

Or maybe the reason that this product struggles to come to life is simply that there is no place for it. There isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with the games console as a device. If you like to shoot stuff, jump on platforms, race, and play sports or roleplaying games, the console form factor that we have right now does that. All of the sector’s problems are about how it runs as a business rather than a form factor (which is why microconsoles are a big deal, as they primarily innovate on the business). Much like the computer or the car, the form factor for doing all those things has not significantly changed in 30 years – and there’s precious little need for them to.

Blaming the market is all well and good, but there’s no reason for it to change its idea about what a games console is. And that’s a hard truth. That’s the sort of truth that makes games executives depressed. That’s the kind of truth that, after years of working on grand visions game makers often realize (and become bitter about) that they have to lower themselves back down into the muck. Rather than change the fundamentals the market consistently tells game makers to lean in. Make it bigger. Make it better. Make it play well. Make it feel right. Make it cool. Make it, you know, a great game. That’s all the gaming market cares about, and as yet no one’s made a compelling case for it to think differently.