A Cold Console War
We received an interesting question on the podcast a couple of weeks ago, and it’s one I’ve found myself chewing over occasionally ever since. The question was simple, something along the lines of “Are you actually excited for the next generation of consoles or just going through the motions?”
It’s a good question, and one I hadn’t thought consciously about yet. I do think I had experienced some telling internal monologue that hadn’t been fully fleshed out yet, particularly anytime some new nugget of information sprung up around the console launch. I would see whatever the thing was that I was supposed to think was important, and remind myself that I was supposed to actually care. But apparently, I didn’t.
It’s not right to say I’m not excited about the next generation. I am. Just not as much as I feel like I’m supposed to be. I remember when the Playstation or the Xbox first came out, and that rush of excitement at the unlimited possibilities provided by this next generation technology. I would go around saying how such-and-such was a true 64-bit machine, even though I had no earthly clue what that meant or why it was relevant. Apparently there was some causal relationship between the number of bits something in the machine had, or had access to — or maybe just had etched on its side, like a super-techno tramp stamp — that equated directly to how great the platform was going to be.
And the console makers seemed every bit as excited to unload useless information and constant teases of marketing, fueling great brush-fires of brand loyalty across the face of the internet. “Our 64 bits are much better than their substandard 64-bits — if they even are 64-bits that is,” their marketing message would say. I would metaphorically rise from my chair, thrust my fist in the air and shout my ignorant agreement. Obviously, I would conclude, their 64-bits were much more bittier than everyone else’s. I was younger, dumber and in love with the console cycle.
But here’s the thing: It’s not just that I’m not as excited as I used to be, whether that’s a function of knowledge, maturity or something else. Rather, I’d argue the console makers aren’t even all that excited. It’s like they’re going through the motions just as much as the rest of us are.
I think part of the problem is an intuitive feeling I have that having an XboxOne or Playstation 4 is going to be a lot like having an Xbox 360 or PS3. Not identical, mind you, but probably not anything like the leap in going from a SNES to a PlayStation, or from a GameCube to a Wii. When I look at the games coming for these systems, when I imagine myself playing them, I don’t imagine there will be much of a difference in how they feel.
For one thing, it’s evident that there is still some level of power being unlocked on the existing systems, and so we as gamers are still used to incrementally better-looking games. We haven’t been stuck under some boxed-in limitations, yearning for a hardware revolution that will finally set us free.
Which probably makes it a lot more difficult to market and build hype around these systems. You can’t just shove out a lot of still images that do the hype-building themselves. People are too apt to just look at them and think, “That’s nice. Looks like something I already play on my PS3.”
Also, the focus isn’t on raw horsepower and polygon pushing the way it used to be. People don’t think of consoles as one-trick ponies. User streaming, community management, access to independent publishers and a diverse range of media available through a single box are selling points that create a different kind of dynamic and interaction with the user. It’s not as flashy, not as focused, and not the kind of thing I’d buy a magazine to read about in detail, but at this point it’s required functionality.
After all, if the last gen proved anything, it was that a system dedicated to delivering only expensive AAA games is a system doomed to bankrupt itself. Obviously Rockstar has proved recently that under perfect conditions you can make an obscene amount of money, but my guess is that, if systems like the 360 didn’t have as many ways to take our money as it does (Xbox Live, subscription-based games, DLC, movies, music, apps), it would have ultimately proved a losing proposition.
Consoles have become sort of like oversized cell phones, in that the primary purpose of the device has become almost secondary to the things people can and want to do with the technology. I know a lot of people in this modern day and age who say that their 360 or PS3 gets daily use, and sometimes they even play video games on it.
They have become oddly practical devices: Things you have; things you need — but not things to get particularly worked-up about. I’m sure there are new advances in and models of refrigerators, stereo receivers, hard drives, washing machines and all manner of household appliances. I might even think that the new bells and whistles are sort of neat, but I won’t go around talking about the new Kenmore I’ve totally preordered for this November.
Frankly, neither will Kenmore. It’s just a different way of doing business with your consumers. Appliances live in this nebulous world between recreational luxury and required equipment. Theoretically, most families could figure out a way to get along without a microwave, dishwasher, refrigerator, washer & dryer or a water heater. And yet, they are also sort of presumed as standard accessories to modern living. I’d argue that consoles have begun to become similar. It’s not whether you have one, it’s just a matter of which one and how much you’re willing to spend.
It’s a sort of depressing way to think about consoles, as standard home fixtures that provide a consistent service, but neither is the industry as a whole stuck in its overzealous adolescence any more. Besides, in the long run, as has been stated and restated a million times, it’s all about the games. My best games of the year have been neither graphically powerful epics nor particularly defined by the platform I played them on, so it’s a reasonable question to wonder how much the next generation will actually impact what makes for a good game.
Yes, GTA5 has sold more than 15 million units and is on track to potentially sell through 25 million this year. Minecraft has sold almost 35 million units, and I’m not convinced you couldn’t get a reasonably functional version of that game going on an original Xbox.
I will buy one of the new systems, but I’m long beyond thinking that it will somehow change or redefine gaming. We are beyond the years of technology finally catching up with what game makers dream of accomplishing. For the most part, if you can conceive of a game, there is a platform that can let you match the vision, or at least the limitations aren’t in terms of processing power. That hasn’t always been true. New systems aren’t really bringing anything new in the ways they used to, and I think the makers of the consoles recognize that.
That’s not to say they offer nothing. They do, and I’m excited about many of those things. Just in a different way.