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The No Console Future

David Jaffe joined many others recently in calling for a ‘one console’ world. In other words, a single system or standard which anyone could develop for and which many different manufacturers could produce, instead of the plethora of competing standards we have now, from the Playstation 2 to the XBox 360.

The analogy usually made is to home video, where there are quite few different companies that make DVD players but all of them play DVDs. The present format war between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD is an argument both for and against this possibility in the gaming industry. It points to the fact that format wars are inevitable in this day and age, even in a highly stable and established market. However it also shows that format wars are dumb.

Whenever anyone makes a case for the benefits of a one console industry, the counter-argument is almost always that it “simply isn’t going to happen”. The present situation is too entrenched to ever change. Occasionally someone will make a cogent rebuttal, perhaps citing the need for competition to drive innovation, but the truth of the matter is that it’s generally agreed that one set-top box to rule them all would be better for everyone. As Chris Kohler of Wired pointed out though, none of the industry heavyweights wants to be the first to blink.

There is a distinct possibility however that both sides are missing the point. There will never, even in the distant future, be only one console because in the not-to-distant future the idea of a ‘console’ may disappear entirely.


THE ONE GAME HOUSEHOLD

Ironically, the runaway success of Nintendo’s most recent system, the Wii, is also a pretty good illustration of why the whole idea of a console might just be an historic anomaly.

Nintendo’s Wii has a terrible attach rate, meaning the average number of games someone will buy for their system is very low, especially when compared to the number of Wiis that have been sold. This leads people to joke that the Wii is simply a “Nintendo player”, or more precisely a “Wii Sports player”. What isn’t being said is that we are witness to a phenomenon where an extraordinary number of people around the world are willing to spend $250 or more to play one game (maybe two).

Another example is the success of Guitar Hero and more recently Rock Band. These games sell for over $100 with the latter approaching $200. Beyond that these games are considered to be system sellers, and there’s a good amount of anecdotal evidence that large numbers of people this past holiday bought consoles just to play these games. How many of the people who bought a $120 Playstation 2 will go on to buy something like God of War or even Ratchet & Clank? I would guess not that many considering that the people who like those types of games probably already have a PS2.

So we’re living then in the strange reality where a person will pay a large sum of money for something to do every once in a while when they have friends over, and otherwise never look at again. To these folks the Wii, as the rest of us (“core gamers”) know it, might as well not exist. To them Wii Sports is the Wii, and their guitar controllers might as well plug directly into the television.

 
ALL THAT IS SOLID MELTS INTO BITS

The nature of consoles has also changed drastically with the current generation. Sony’s Playstation 3 and Microsoft’s XBox 360 aren’t positioned as simply machines that play games. Both companies admit that they would prefer if their systems were thought of as “media centers”, the nerve center of a living room that serves as an internet terminal, movie and music player, and also a games console.

Microsoft and Sony are also both anticipating the switch away from physical media to digital distribution, and are hoping that all media will be downloaded and stored on their box. At present they are both furiously building the infrastructure and functionality that will support this inevitability and the guinea pig in their experiment is the digital distribution of games, including original titles (Nintendo is experimenting as well but not on the same scale given the storage limitations of the Wii).

It’s fairly certain that the next generation of consoles will begin to transition, if not completely transition, away from all physical media. Seeing as the next product cycle is about 3 to 5 years off the machines that Sony and Microsoft present may run headlong into other set-top boxes that want to be the center of people’s media lives, namely Apple’s iTV, which will have had several years of refinement, and whatever technology Netflix is developing with LG. Apple has already started selling games through iTunes and if Netflix has any brains they will acquire or partner with either GameFly or GameTap to offer a competing service.

This all points to an over-crowded marketplace where a standard or leader will have to emerge to avoid consumer apathy. The competition will then be over whose distribution service and software can dominate, the hardware will ultimately be beside the point.

 
SEPARATE BUT EQUAL

The idea of a ‘console war’ or a ‘one console future’ will be quaint, especially as the existing distribution channels change and new ones start to open up. When I can play Final Fantasy on my phone and make Skype calls on my PSP, when everything is a console, then the idea of a console will cease to exist. As artists working in an ascendant medium, those of us in the games industry sometimes forget that what we’re really buying into is the chance to be pawns in a much larger media war.

Products like the Wii and Guitar Hero are not simply serving a different market than Sony or Microsoft, they are part of a different game. The black and white behemoths are jockeying for poll position in a race that hasn’t started yet and ignoring the obvious appetite for games that conform to an older perception. This perception sees games as friendly, social, and toy-like.

What we are looking at then is a market that will finally grow to the size that it can support several parallel sub-markets.

There will be games for family and friends to gather around and play, swatting and strumming with the same enthusiasm that people used have for counting their money during a game of Monopoly. At the same time it will not be unusual for those who have grown up with games, as well as those who are growing up with them, to settle in for an evening with a new game streamed off of whatever box ends up sitting under their high definition television.

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Authors Note: I specifically did not include the PC in this discussion because it is for the most part in a very different market from the one I’m concerning myself with here. Although if pressed I would say that computers will go down a similar path at least part way, with computer gaming in particular becoming a third sub-market.

2 Comments

  1. Charles Edward wrote:

    You CAN play Final Fantasy on your phone:

    Link
    aaand Skype is here for the PSP:

    Link

    so does that mean that the idea of a console has ceased to exist? Perhaps I was reading your statement incorrectly. There was once chitter chatter of a system called the phantom, at least i think that was its name. It was essentially a heavily modded PC that could play 360, ps3, xbox, and ps2 games. Pop in any disc and it plays it. I really liked the idea, mostly because it was kind of hush hush and somewhat illegal, but just like its namesake it disappeared.

    The one-system world, yeah, probably not going to happen. The one-format world, also probably not going to happen. But I do imagine a day where i have my “media hub” and it does what microsoft and sony imagined their latest babies would do, but it actually does it and I use nothing else. Music, games, movies, tv, hell a word processor, freakin printer attachment, why not. It even runs the security system for my house. This isn’t exactly amazing thinking on my part. Haven’t we see the do-it-all computer a thousand times? If it’s such a persistent dream and it’s certainly attainable, then I think it’s only a matter of time…and not long.

    The one game playing system. Brings me back to tiger handheld days. God those games were crap. There’s that often used distinction of casual gamers and non-casual gamers. Granted, I’ve bought systems for one game (i’m looking at you monster hunter) and I’m anything but casual. Your point that people are willing to pay some serious cash for some gaming action is really promising though. I hope they all catch the virus we have. Wii as a gateway drug, that’d be awesome.

    Tuesday, January 15, 2008 at 5:53 am | Permalink
  2. Frank wrote:

    Nice post. We may be gradually moving beyond game-as-commodity as well. For example WoW is more like Golf than it is like Monopoly in that respect. You don’t really “buy” WoW, you join an expensive club that lets you play it. Sort of.

    Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 2:14 am | Permalink

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