New Consoles, Same Old Story
The console cycle rumbles on, but the biggest threat to Sony and Microsoft is the consumer's right to choose
If you have even a passing interest in the games industry, there's a good chance you've spent much of the last week thinking about boxes.
Nintendo's latest box, perhaps, which has limped from an inauspicious start into a post-Christmas funk that has analysts wringing their hands with delight (or dismay, depending on where they placed their bets). Or maybe its Sony's new box, source of the raging torrent of rumours and half-truths that have clogged the news-ways this month. Indeed, if you're given to nostalgia, the boxes on your mind may even be the three sitting beside your TV or gathering dust atop the wardrobe, soon to be little more than futuristic doorstops.
"My interest in a new generation of consoles ends at 5pm sharp, when another working day draws to a close"
Historically, I have greeted these moments of transition with barely concealed glee, hungry for every nugget of information about the hardware that, in an ideal world, would dominate my spare hours. But not this time. Where in the past my personal and professional lives would have blurred into a single, nebulous whole, these days my interest in a new generation of consoles ends at 5pm sharp, when another working day draws to a close. Beyond my duties as a journalist, the best I've been able to muster is bemused apathy.
In retrospect, my relationship with consoles has always been somewhat fractious. My earliest gaming memories are not of Link or Sonic, but of Footballer of the Year on the Spectrum 48k - and believe me, I had no say in the matter.
Sega and Nintendo consoles were an ever-present feature of my young life, though only ever from afar. My parents lacked the resources to endlessly indulge my whims. There was never a compelling enough justification to opt for a Mario-machine over a home computer that offered far more than just endless cruelty to pixelated animals. Consoles were an isolated fantasy-land erected specifically for my pleasure, with a £40 cover-charge every time I wanted to get back inside. To my parents, the comparatively flexible Amiga 500 was in the best interests of the family.
I looked at the SNES and saw exclusive access to the best games anywhere, but my mother saw only hostility. She turned away from consoles then, and I now feel it's time to do the same.
And let's face facts, there's very little left to lose. The personal computers of today are infinitely more affordable, accessible and adaptable than those in 1987, with a wildly diverse catalogue of available games, while the consoles of today have lost virtually all of the unique qualities that lent credence to their nose-thumbing, members-only attitude. Ease of use was a cogent argument when Microsoft Windows was a new concept, but not when millions are playing on smartphones and Facebook, not when the acceptable face of PC gaming is the Steam UI, and not when EA and Ubisoft are both studiously building their own PC-focused communities and store-fronts.
"The box with the best chance of prospering in the near future will be the one with the most decisive strategy for not really being a box any more"
Microsoft, Sony and even Nintendo may well be surprised at how many people can live without the Halos, the Uncharteds and the Zeldas if the industry remains as tractable as it has in recent years. The unfortunate position in which early adopters of the Vita and the Wii U have found themselves is regrettable - adrift in the wastelands of their respective software schedules - but they weren't short of people advising them to wait and see. In a sense, though, that's almost irrelevant, because the decision to purchase any console is largely a matter of faith, and the wisdom of that decision is dictated by forces far larger than an individual consumer's $400. Case in point: my first console was an Xbox; I kinda wish I'd gone with a PlayStation 2.
The delay of Rayman Legends on the Wii U seemed to open a nerve, prompting an outcry from both the public and its development team, and forcing Ubisoft into a largely meaningless conciliatory gesture. But beneath the indignation is a publisher simply making the only smart call under very difficult circumstances. Whether those circumstances are specific to the Wii U or significant of a wider issue facing all consoles remains to be seen, but make no mistake: third-party exclusives will be a rarer beast over the next seven years than they were in the last, and PSN and Xbox Live will have to get an awful lot better to offer much consolation.
For the time being, this is all just a matter of opinion, but in the event that I'm not just a cynical crank, what can the new consoles offer to fight the entropic forces dragging on their moulded plastic cases? In the last few weeks, I've heard it all: Open development and distribution channels to independent studios. Block used games. Embrace the cloud. Encourage products that fall between the traditional $10 and $60 price-points, including those that cost nothing at all.
For me, however, it's already too late. Even if the next iterations of the Xbox and PlayStation delivered all of the above they would still merely be flirting with aspects of the games business that the PC has pioneered, and may well perfect in the next few years. It is clear to me that the box with the best chance of prospering in the near future will be the one with the most decisive strategy for not really being a box any more. At that point, the decision to purchase one amounts to little more than subsiding the console companies as they figure out the precise ways in which they will cease to be relevant. The only question is how much of my money will be invested by the time they figure it out.
"Essential and disposable are supposed to be binary states, and yet the console companies shove us between one and the other as their needs dictate"
This is not a prediction that the general public will abandon consoles wholesale. This is not a screed about the inevitable collapse of Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo. Rather, this is a personal account of why the console proposition now feels like a needless limitation. I have little interest in the snackable world of mobile and social games. I am the target market for Xbox and PlayStation, but I no longer need a console to access what they offer. It is time to walk away, and the rewards for doing so will tower over the clutch of AAA games I'll miss in my absence. I'd like to think that publishers are smart enough to realise that the PC now needs to be treated with equal care and consideration when it comes to their key products. And if they fall short, well, so be it - at least the console companies won't be alone in losing a customer.
As a journalist, I have covered the sweeping changes that have wracked the industry these last few years from every angle and at exhaustive length, and it just so happens that, as a consumer, I am not immune to the fallout. My future is more likely to be a Steambox with Big Picture Mode than an Ouya, Gamestick or Apple TV, but I have time to consider the multiplicity of options - roughly equivalent to the amount of time it will take for my Xbox 360 to reach the nadir of its planned obsolescence. Essential and disposable are supposed to be binary states, and yet the console companies shove us between one and the other as their needs dictate. Well, not me. Not any more.
In the rush to make accurate calls about the industry's future, it's easy to forget that the only meaningful gesture an observer can make is where to put their dollars. The console cycle ends when we say it does. For me, it's already over.