Reports of the Death of Consoles Are Greatly Exaggerated
Written Tuesday, July 10, 2012 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
Are consoles really a dying breed? An increasing number of industry players and pundits think so. Everyone from Crytek to David Jaffe and a million mobile developers (surprise!) say that this next generation will be the last. But save that space under your TV, because we reckon there’s life in consoles yet.
The way games are made, delivered and consumed is changing more rapidly than at any other point in the industry’s history. As a result, some of the old ways of doing business will cease to exist. That much is inevitable. But many of the arguments employed by the naysayers are flawed.
The rise in popularity of mobile gaming, the decline of retail and the emergence of streaming technology will change the gaming landscape forever, yet none of these advances can challenge what consoles do best. We love our games machines and we’re not going to let them go. Here’s why.
The Mobile Threat
Mobile gaming is on the rise. On smart phones and tablets, across Android, iOS and Windows Phone, mobile games have never been so popular, delivering cheaper, more accessible experiences to an install base that dwarfs that of consoles.
Add the blistering pace of technological advance and soon we’ll be looking at mobile devices that outstrip the power of consoles. Really soon. But does that mean consoles are going to die? Of course not.
The truth is that mobile gaming isn’t a real competitor to console gaming. It’s a complimentary platform rather than a competitive one. Sure, parts of the market overlap, but would you pick Zenonia 3 over Skyrim? N.O.V.A 3 over Halo? How about Real Racing 2 HD over Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit? More than likely not.
Mobile games can’t match consoles for depth of experience, nor fidelity of control. They’re compromised. Titles such as Dead Space iOS and Mass Effect Infiltrator may look like their console big brothers, but they certainly don’t play the same. Touch screen controls, just like Kinect and motion controls, are not designed to replace a controller, but to offer an alternative. For console games, they’re simply not good enough.
Core gamers will always prefer to play using a controller on a nice big HD screen, despite the extra cost and lack of portability. That won’t change. Put it this way, a SMART car may be smaller, more fuel-efficient and cheaper than an Aston Martin, but we know which one we’d rather own.
Perhaps the biggest threat to consoles lies in the cloud. With Sony’s recent acquisition of game streaming service Gaikai and Microsoft’s assertion that it has been looking into streaming for years, many outlets presume this to be the final nail in the coffin of consoles.
Streaming works by doing all the heavy lifting at server end, meaning that all you need is a reliable internet connection to run the most advanced and graphically impressive games on any device. With streaming, new consoles with improved abilities simply aren’t required. The next generation of hardware isn’t needed.
Except it is. Steaming gaming isn’t nearly at the stage where it can replace true console experiences. It’s compromised by lag, has compressed, blurry visuals and is at the mercy of your internet connection. And that’s if you even have an internet connection. In the US some areas don’t have broadband at all, while in the UK rural areas remain patchy. Even the best connected areas are occasionally blighted by drops in the service and bandwidth throttling.
Consoles are an attractive proposition because of their ease of use. You know that when you fire up a game on your console, it will work. Everything you need is in one place, without the need for driver updates, a new graphics card or any unnecessary fiddling. It’s immediate, you can just dive straight into the action. A streaming-only future cannot guarantee this.
Then there’s the subject of Smart TVs. Even with the digital infrastructure needed to stream games through your television without compromise, there’s no suggestion that they will replace consoles. Such an argument overestimates the willingness of consumers to upgrade to a piece of tech twice as expensive as a console. Your average household replaces its TV every seven years and many do not even own HD sets yet. For console makers market penetration is essential, so a future where smart TVs are ubiquitous is a long, long way off.
Most importantly, Sony and Microsoft do not intend to chuck years of work out of the window in favour of streaming. They’ve established a successful model of diversification and it’s far more likely that we’ll see them implement streaming alongside their current services, not instead of them. Make no mistake, streaming is a huge advance, but it’s another method, not the only method.
The Death of Retail
Stores are closing and sales of boxed retail products are dipping, a situation currently exacerbated by the tail end of the console cycle. As a result, creating traditional, prohibitively expensive disc-based games is an increasingly unattractive proposition for developers and consumers alike. Smaller, cheaper, digitally distributed games are the only viable alternative.
Furthermore, in the UK last year, the top five best-selling games across PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 accounted for 40 per cent of the entire market. What this means is that if developers aren’t trading blows with the big boys, then they’re fighting over leftovers. Consoles aren’t an attractive platform anymore.
Except they are. The truth is that as long as the rewards for success remain so high, publishers will always chase that pot of gold, even if the rainbow is wrapped in barbed wire and dunked in Leprechaun shit. When series like Call of Duty are smashing global entertainment records, delivering high-cost, high production value games to unprecedented numbers of people, why abandon the most effective mode of delivery?
The retail model of physical media may be on its way out, but doesn’t mean that the experiences delivered on those discs is in decline too. Gamers still need a state-of-the-art machine capable of handling expansive, cutting-edge titles, and consoles remain the easiest way to consume them.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that smaller, digitally-distributed titles have also found a home on PSN and Xbox Live. These past few months have delivered Journey and Minecraft, PlayStation Network and Xbox Live titles that have broken records on their respective platforms. There’s a huge upswing in digital games. All this accentuates the relevance of consoles rather than points to their death.
Consoles are diversifying, delivering a range of big and small games alongside entertainment experiences like movies, music, TV and web services in a variety of ways. With this in mind the dwindling retail market is an irrelevance. No longer a dedicated games machine, a console is an entertainment hub. It’s the only box you need beneath your TV. Disc-based games are in decline, but they’re an increasingly small part of what consoles do.