Home Console Gaming May Suffer Death By A Thousand Cuts, Rather Than A Major Revolution

The Ouya is making its way out to backers even now (though my shipping notification still hasn’t arrived. Grrr.) and judging by early impressions, it’s no silver bullet to take down behemoths like Sony and Microsoft. The $99, Android powered console still isn’t fully formed exactly, but it’s doubtful that between now and June 25 it’ll take on giant-killer proportions. Likewise the recently-announced BlueStacks Android gaming console, which features a subscription-based pricing model, probably won’t alone topple the giants.

But combined, these and a slew of other devices including the GameStick, smart TVs from manufacturers, Steam Boxes, and even Google and Apple hardware are eating away at what was once a fairly exclusive field. It seems a lot of people are waiting for a watershed moment to signal a significant shift away from traditional console gaming to a new paradigm, but increasingly, it looks likely that what we’ll see instead is an erosion that more closely resembles glacial shift, but on a less geological time scale.

There’s evidence to suggest that console gaming is already losing significant ground, like quarterly results from Nintendo that show a dramatic decline in consumer interest in the recently-launched Wii U console. And while Sony saw its first full-year profit in half a decade, most of the good news was on the smartphone side, and PlayStation sales fell for the year. Microsoft is still doing fairly well with the Xbox 360, but growth of key accessories like the Kinect have slowed with time.

Slower Kinect sales are a good bellwether for the industry’s overall health, if only because it and devices like it are where console makers are turning to try to inject some fresh life into a market that had recently started to look fairly stale. To some extent, Kinect, Move and other gimmicks like the screen of the 3DS are an answer to incursions by mobile gaming and other alternatives. Just like point-and-shoot cameras needed differentiating features like long zooms to prove themselves relative to smartphone cameras, video games needed something new to reel in new buyers.

The new crop of challengers to the console gaming market, including Ouya and the new BlueStacks GamePop console, risks getting discounted by critics as just another round of devices like the GP2X Wiz or the Gizmondo, which had limited appeal and then faded into the background of video games history as little more than a minor footnote. But that’s taking too short-term and dismissive a view on what’s currently happening in the video game space. It’s true that, as ardent console gamers continually remind me, there will always be a demand for that type of content.

Increasingly, however, there’s a growing contingent of players that are fine saying, “if I can get it on my phone, why do I need it anywhere else?” and that’s a market that’s ripe for a living room transition like the ones being attempted by Ouya and BlueStack. It’s easy to discount these ahead of their full consumer launch, and I don’t expect them to have an immediate impact on console sales, but they are signs of a sure shift, and one that won’t go away, even if doesn’t provide the sort of bomb shock disruption that we’re so fond of identifying and championing.