Whither The Console: Is This The Sunset Of The Dedicated Game Machine?

After sitting through three major press events at E3 this year and wandering the halls, I began seeing comments regarding the viability of consoles in a constantly-changing tech landscape. First there were the memes that essentially suggested that this year’s E3 was a gift to PC gaming and then John Carmack, the granddaddy of FPSes, (and bear in mind Carmack is working on a virtual reality helmet so he may not be quite grounded in absolute reality) said:

“Console gaming might morph. You can certainly see cloud gaming being built into every display device and traditional consoles could become more like the audiophile niche of people who want the extreme experience there.”

Now his statement may seem absurd on the surface but let’s unpack it. He’s suggesting that as a piece of hardware the console may go the way of the high-end turntable or a really nice stereo. The rabble will use cloud-connected PCs to play popular games but those who want “pure” experiences will spend thousands on gold master discs and a powerful console to play them on. Again, this is far-fetched – a game that is truly divorced of the media on which it resides – but it could happen.

But assessing how things look in the short term is a different animal. Take, for example, the rumored Steam console. This device will epitomize the vision of cloud gaming but, if rumor is correct, it will be less a purpose-built console and more a living-room PC.

And there’s the rub: as technology swiftly outpaces even the most conscientious of gamers, how can a console hope to beat an upgradable PC or a simpler streaming service like OnLive in the living room? Why would a parent buy a Wii U when junior is just as happy with a few games on a platform that will grow as the child grows?

Obviously there are lots of reasons for buying a console – franchise titles, a stable experience, media streaming – but many consoles are now jacks of all trades and masters of none. A console offers a stable platform that developers can grow into and a universal control device that works (for some people) better than a keyboard/mouse combo. But is that really enough? Sure the Xbox is encroaching on cable boxes, but is that really a source of revenue? Most of the folks Microsoft hopes to woo with cable channel access don’t want a game console. They just want to watch reality shows on TV after surfing five hundred channels with giddy abandon.

I’m definitely not saying that this E3 nailed the lid on the console coffin. It’s clear that the manufacturers are biding their time and allowing current generation hardware to reach its natural end of life. We can probably expect to see new consoles announced next year from Sony and Microsoft with shipping dates in 2014 or 2015, but I worry that by then a high-end, dedicated console will look as quaint as an HD-DVD player in the living room. The technology can catch up, to be certain, but that doesn’t mean the consumer will always wait for it.

[Image: Kesipun/Shutterstock]