At A Crossroads: The Home Console

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E3 2013 was one of the most important for the video game industry, and set the tone for this generation.

Three years ago, E3 2013 was ready to descend on Los Angeles, as it does every year, with a steady stream of announcements and surprises promising to shake up the video game industry. However, 2013 was a different year – E3 would play host to the unveiling of two console announcements – the Xbox One and the Playstation 4.

These E3s are rare, the ones where the video game industry essentially shows everyone what has been going on behind the scenes for the past five years, and lays out a path for the future. These are the can’t-miss events, and as usual all of my thoughts and social interactions during that time were focused on every little rumor, extrapolating it out five, ten years down the road, eager to anticipate all of the new and exciting ways I would be partaking in my favorite hobby.

Of course, there is always a pessimist in the group, and a friend did not share my enthusiasm of the upcoming announcements. I recall one spirited conversation in which he argued that the concept of home consoles was outdated – people are moving away from playing games on their living room TVs. Games are played on phones and tablets, he argued, and they are constantly evolving. He saw the upcoming offerings from Microsoft and Sony as relics of the past, and wondered if the industry as we know it today would even exist in ten years. Of course I disagreed – mobile gaming is definitely not a fad, but it can’t offer the experiences that consoles and computers can with games like The Elder Scrolls.

Three years later, on the eve of another E3, I keep wondering if my friend was on to something after all. The eighth generation of video game consoles has produced no shortage of amazing games, but the direction Sony and Microsoft have gone (alongside whatever it is that Nintendo is doing) has me wondering – what is the future of the video game console?

The home console is at a crossroads, more so than at any point in the past 15 years, since Microsoft first entered the industry and ushered in a new era of online gaming. Recent developments suggest that, down one path, is a future in which the large, black box under the TV is no longer tethered to one screen, and is more open and malleable than ever before. But the other path is one where the already high financial cost of entering the hobby is about to get bigger, with no clear plan to make it any better for the consumer in sight.

Taking In The Environment

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Scenes like this are fairly common today, and it’s no surprise when you consider how other tech-focused industries have evolved.

Predicting specific events in any of the tech industries is anything but an exact science – it’s more akin to getting drunk, grabbing a bunch of darts and trying to hit the bullseye on a board that actually doesn’t exist. No one could have predicted how disastrous of a showing Microsoft would have at E3 2013, losing all the momentum they gained over the last twelve years, and how Sony would expertly capitalize on it to lead the eighth generation in sales. It was equally surprising to see, just two short years later, Microsoft reboud and have one of their best showings in company history.

While specific events may be impossible to correctly guess, predicting the bigger picture of the video game industry isn’t quite as tough. All one needs to do is look at other industries, ones that cost far less money to experience (such as music, film, TV and literature), and see what they are doing today. Looking around the greater world of technology today will most likely tell us where video games will be in a few years.

What does that world look like right now? Well, if my friend were sitting over my shoulder as I write this, he would be gleefully reminding me of our conversation three years ago. Not only are music, movies, TV shows and books mobile, but people can take their entire collection with them, anywhere they choose, on a number of devices (for some book nerds, like Theory of Gaming co-founder Nick Olsen, that’s only a fraction of their book collection). I can use Spotify on my laptop, sifting through thousands of hours of music in “my” library, and without a thought I can switch over to my phone, taking that same collection with me on the go. I can do the same with my Comcast/Netflix/Amazon subscriptions. Hell, if I’m waiting at the doctor’s office and decide that, right in that moment, I need to see my favorite fight from UFC 3, then I can without a thought. Similarly, my wife can take her entire book collection with her everywhere she goes, from a dedicated ereader to an app on her phone or tablet. Other industries have opened previously closed barriers, and have taken experiences that traditionally happened at home or in the living room and brought them out into the world.

At the start of the eighth generation, the buzzwords were social, sharing, always-connected. The Xbox One was more a multimedia device than a gaming console, and the PS4 was equally concerned with social media as it was games. Both companies wanted to go head-to-head with Netflix, with Microsoft founding a TV studio and Sony showing off their own TV show, Powers. But the currents have shifted, and the home console is starting to resemble the mobile technology that took off a little over five years ago, for better and for worse.

Taking The Good …

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The ability to play Playstation 4 games, such as Uncharted 4, on my laptop without any visible degradation, is a step in the right direction for the home console.

For my recent review of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, I felt I needed to replay the single player campaign, to better judge the pacing and the whole story. However, I awoke just days before the review was ready to run, only to find my wife in the midst of a Netflix binge that would last throughout the rest of the day. How would I navigate what is the epitome of a first-world problem? The Playstation 4 is connected to the same TV that will be showing Person of Interest episodes for the foreseeable future, and I don’t have a second TV to connect the console up to. Even if I did, would I really want to wrestle with the growing tangle of HDMI cables and ethernet wires that are slowly making their way up the walls as if they’re ivy?

Fortunately, I had foreseen an event like this occurring, and the previous night I installed the Remote Play app onto my laptop. All I had to do was plug a controller into a USB port, and within moments I was playing Uncharted 4, lag-free, in all of its glory, on my laptop.

If this doesn’t seem like such a big deal, it’s only because we have been able to do this with other services for a few years now, and even then it should still be considered a big deal. Slowly but surely, the home console is shedding its tether to the living room TV, and it’s going mobile. I can play any Xbox One or Playstation 4 game on my laptop, and there are zero hiccups – games run just as smooth and as fast as they do on my TV. And the Wii U takes this a step further and lets gamers play their games right on the controller – I’ve spent more time playing Mario Kart 8 on the Wii U gamepad than I have on my big-screen TV.

Prior to this, most gaming on the go was done with handhelds, and though I love my 3DS and Vita, the hardware inside of them is limited, and support for the consoles ranges anywhere from amazing to less than thrilling. Either way, the experiences on them are not quite the same. But now, all that is changing – I no longer need to be on my couch to guide Nathan Drake through the jungle, and more importantly for my wife, I no longer need the TV for eight hours uninterrupted.

But I can already hear the PC gamers (of which I count myself, mind you), sarcastically welcoming the console peasants to a future that they’ve been able to take advantage of for a while. Indeed, Steam does offer a streaming ability identical to Sony’s Remote Play, but that’s precisely why this change excites me – home consoles are finally starting to act more like PCs, and in ways that, just a year ago, seemed impossible. Take the recent launch of mods for the console versions of Fallout 4. That Microsoft and Sony are now allowing third-parties to create content for a game on their console is a huge advancement, one that cannot be overstated. This is a shift in thinking and operation that no console manufacturer has demonstrated before – both of the major industry players are handing more control over to developers and gamers than ever before. This will help the artists who make games and their fans concentrate on a conversation that I’ve championed – developers should have artistic license over their work, but gamers should be allowed to bend and break those games as they see fit. With mods on consoles, that conversation has now opened up to millions of people who were previously left out of it.

But mods shed light on another issue with the video game industry in general: how closed-off it can be for the consumer. Each platform, from Nintendo to PCs, is a closed ecosystem, and with console prices already providing a high financial barrier for entry, having to buy all of them just to ensure that you can play every game and play them with your friends is a daunting ask for the majority of gamers. For many, it is impractical to own two consoles, which makes deciding which platform to buy a multiplayer game for all the more difficult. Are you friends all on PC, except for you on your Playstation 4? Then sorry – late night DOOM multiplayer sessions are a no-go. Not only does this create an unnecessary burden for gamers, but it helps encourage and strengthen console allegiances. People will most likely buy the console that their friends own, making an emotional connection to that device, which creates an atmosphere where people find it acceptable to send death threats over a franchise turning into a console exclusive.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that light is… Rocket League? Yes, the game about rocket-powered cars playing soccer may be the first sign that the most frustrating aspect of the video game industry is changing. Rocket League is the first game this generation to feature cross-platform play, meaning people across PC, Playstation 4 and Xbox One can all play against each other. It’s a small step in the right direction, but it’s at least a start, and with it the high financial barrier to entry into the video game market may be lowered just a bit. As more games move to cross-platform play, gamers will feel less pressure to purchase every piece of hardware, and hopefully enable everyone to focus on making and play better games, instead of arguing whether or not Xbox fanboys really are dumber than Playstation fanboys, or where PC gamers fall on that spectrum.

These changes signal a future where the once closed-off home console is now opening up, accessible on the go and turning more control over to those who make and play video games. These are all positive steps, but much of this progress could be undone with some ill-conceived business strategies heavily rumored to be right over the horizon.

… With The Bad

Not every upgrade is worth player’s hard-earned money.

If the words PS4.5 and Scorpio mean nothing to you, then I’m about to make your day a little less great. But if they do, you can already see the thin ice the home console market is treading on.

Upgrades to hardware are nothing new – Sega introduced the Sega CD and the 32X for their Genesis console, and Nintendo allowed players to expand the N64’s internal memory, allowing for more complicated games. Sony has a long history of refining the hardware for their consoles, and when the Xbox 360 first launched, it lacked an HDMI port and the ability to play games in 1080p. While these were welcomed changes that didn’t fracture the market by allowing only some people to play certain games, the latest news suggests that Sony and Microsoft have other ideas for this generation.

At this year’s E3, Sony is set to announce a new version of the Playstation 4, codenamed PS4.5, which is considerably more powerful than the current hardware. An article on Polygon suggests that the upgrades will allow Sony to run games for their upcoming virtual-reality headset at 60 frames per second, but this comes with a catch – developers will now have to make two versions of games, one that can run on the Playstation 4, and one that can run on the new, faster PS4.5 hardware, because developers didn’t already have enough on their plates. Not to be outdone, Microsoft is rumored to be releasing two new versions of the Xbox One. The first is, like we’ve seen before from Sony and Microsoft, a slimmer version of the console currently on the market. The other, codenamed Scorpio, is said to be anywhere from 2-6x times more powerful than the current model. In both instances, these new consoles are projected to sell for $400 – more expensive than current versions.

Why would Sony and Microsoft effectively fracture their markets to introduce newer versions of the same consoles? When asking this question in the context of the home console market, it seems to make little sense, but when looking at the recent proliferation of smartphones, the idea begins to come into focus. It’s still misguided, but at least it’s clear where Sony and Microsoft are coming from. Companies like Apple and Samsung make money off of hardware sales, and while they still try to court new customers every day, they can make more money convincing current customers to abandon their old phone for a brand new one. There’s no doubt Sony and Microsoft see this, and are experimenting with the traditional console cycle. Instead of releasing a new piece of hardware every six to eight years that will go unchanged for the course of its lifetime, why not release a slightly upgraded version every three to four years, keeping the Xbox One and Playstation 4 branding around longer than previous generations. It will make more money, and further strengthen an identity with consumers.

Of course, there is one huge problem with this – when people get a new smartphone, they often sign a contract with a cell phone provider, and slowly buy the phone over the course of multiple years. It’s a way for companies to still make money off existing customers, while also giving them a deal that may cost them more over the two years, but has a low up-front cost. I’m just as guilty of doing this – not even a week ago, I walked into a Best Buy with a barely functioning iPhone 5, and walked out with an iPhone 6S+. Total cost for the phone at the point of purchase? $52.

As of now, no such upgrade system exists for home consoles, meaning that dedicated gamers will have to put down another $400 to upgrade hardware that’s only three years old, while going through the hassle of selling their current console to a store like Gamestop, in order to put that money toward a newer model. This is far from a perfect system, and the entire situation is an unacceptable ask, especially when the industry is finally finding common-sense ways to lower that cost of entry. All this could change come E3 2016, but the signs are not encouraging – as we’ve discussed, console companies have some interesting ways into forcing gamers to upgrade their hardware, and it’s not a stretch to see Microsoft holding their hand out every three years, asking for another $400 of player’s hard-earned money.

Where Do We Go From Here?

For an industry so intrinsically tied to technology, the home console market has been slow to adapt. For the first time in years, the industry is poised to make some big changes, and for the most part the future looks bright. Unlike what my friend thought three years back, home consoles are seemingly here to stay, and yet he was right in that people are expecting to take these experiences with them on the go, and it seems that Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are comfortable with that.

But as the cost of AAA game development rises, and gamers and developers have more freedom over the end product, Sony and Microsoft will look at new ways to keep this industry (and their bank accounts) afloat. I have no problems with companies acting in their best financial interest, so long as it also makes sense for the consumer. But with every positive step forward, it seems that the powers that be insist on taking one step back.

The home console is at a crossroads, and hopefully the path the industry chooses will allow all of us to keep playing these amazing games for years to come. Let’s hope Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo can hear us atop their continually growing piles of money.