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Consoles cannot die in a way that matters | 10 Years Ago This Month

We poke fun at the people who proclaimed consoles dead a decade ago, but can we argue they were actually right?

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past.

So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

In June of 2012, consoles were dead.

The time of death was noted by David Jaffe, game director on 2005's God of War, who was predicting not-great fortunes for Nintendo's upcoming Wii U.

It wasn't for the "OMG Nintendo doomed lol" sort of reasons you get from rabid console war fanboys, but for the "OMG consoles doomed lol" sort of reasons you get from serious industry observers. (And to be fair, Jaffe also mentioned a lack of interest in the software shown, which was a sentiment many shared after Nintendo's E3 briefing.)

"It's a declining market, I think," Jaffe explained. "That doesn't speak ill to any of them as pieces of hardware -- it just speaks about the fact that the industry has changed, the business models have changed and the world has gotten even smaller with smartphones and tablets and the internet, and stuff like Gaikai and streaming.

"Look, consoles are going away. I think in ten years -- probably sooner, but ten years is always the safe thing to say so you don't sound like an idiot..."

David Jaffe

"Look, consoles are going away. I think in ten years -- probably sooner, but ten years is always the safe thing to say so you don't sound like an idiot -- but here's what I'll say: I'll go on the record and say that the next generation of hardware will be the last consoles. And they should be."

On the face of it, it's clearly a Bad Call. Specifically, it's one of our favorite and most frequently documented types of Bad Call in this column: a dramatic pronouncement of the death of the console market, with a specific deadline within our preferred time horizon, and one we can look back on and laugh heartily, because so many of us are sitting here two generations of hardware later and the console market is thriving.

At 108 million sold, the Switch family of systems has already outsold Nintendo's previous best-selling home console ever, the Wii (102 million), and it should at least surpass the Game Boy's installed base (119 million) by the time it's done.

The PS4 likewise topped 100 million sold for Sony, and Sony can't keep up with demand for the PS5 more than a year and a half after launch.

The Xbox One... well, there were reasons for that. But the Xbox Series X and Series S have rebounded and are likewise supply constrained, although apparently not to the same degree as the PS5.

Clearly, consoles are in rude health, and everyone who said they were dead is wrong, so the pointing and laughing is defensible, if not particularly nice.

But we can be a bit more charitable than that. And reading a bit further into Jaffe's explanation affirms that.

"It doesn't mean you won't buy a piece of hardware from Sony, but you'll probably buy a television that streams the stuff," Jaffe said. "And you'll still have Sony, loud and proud and strong making these great, big, epic games like God of War and Uncharted, and they'll be making great little games like Sound Shapes, but they'll become more like movie studios for video games."

He added, "The asteroid has hit the Earth, the dust cloud is covering the sun and the dinosaurs are on the way out -- but not the games! We'll always have great games and bleeding edge graphics... it's just going to be a new delivery mechanism."

It's still a version of "consoles are dead," but it's more about a specific version of consoles -- the console paradigm we were used to in 2012 -- being dead.

Even if we look around and think the PS5 is at heart not that different from the PS3, the console market itself had changed pretty drastically since 2012

And even if we look around and think the PS5 is at heart not that different from the PS3 -- we connect it to a monitor and buy discs or download games from first- and third-party publishers to play on it -- the console market itself had changed pretty drastically since 2012.

For one thing, platform holders' walled gardens are increasingly growing onto each others' lots. Players on one console platform can compete with those on another, or with PC players and mobile players. Sony is bringing many of its first-party exclusives to PC, and published MLB The Show 21 and 22 on Xbox and released them both into Game Pass on day one.

Microsoft has put Minecraft on everything, and released indie-developed hits like Cuphead and Ori and the Blind Forest on Switch. Nintendo -- perhaps the most stubborn of the companies when it comes to releasing its products on platforms it doesn't own -- caved to investor pressure at a financial low point in 2015 and started making mobile games.

The console libraries are also becoming less important, as the exclusive third-party games that used to tilt previous console generations have become exceedingly rare, and multi-platform ports for big games are more or less assumed (provided the hardware is powerful enough to handle them). The lowering of barriers to indie developers also means the big three platforms are awash in more new original content than any player could possibly enjoy in a single lifetime, so every system is a firehose of entertainment for people to drink from.

And then there's on-demand cloud streaming, which was what prompted so many of the "consoles are dead" predictions in 2012 to start with. At the time, Gaikai and OnLive were pitching their services, and developers and industry-watchers alike could see the implications if the tech a) worked and b) caught on.

OnLive: The original console killer

And for all the poking fun at the "consoles are dead" prognosticators we do in this column, the reason things are the way they are right now may be largely down to a) the tech not working quite as well as promised in the early days, b) the tech just not catching on.

OnLive struggled to find a good business model for streaming, laid everyone off en route to bankruptcy, and ultimately shut down. Gaikai sold to Sony, which used it as the basis of the PlayStation Now service that it launched in 2014 and -- if we judge by the marketing push for it -- largely forgot existed.

But Game Pass and Stadia have demonstrated that streaming technology is considerably better now (and the necessary ISP infrastructure better built out), and Microsoft may have hit upon a business model that works in Game Pass, which lets people either download or stream the titles they want in an all-you-can-eat subscription service bolstered by a first-party studio system.

Much like the console doomsayers of yesteryear, Microsoft has also been questioning the need for an actual Xbox console

And much like the console doomsayers of yesteryear, Microsoft has also been questioning the need for an actual Xbox console. An attempt to reduce the consumer equipment to a USB plug-in streaming stick was recently shelved, but an Xbox streaming app for Samsung smart TVs is still coming this year. Clearly, Microsoft is planning for an Xbox ecosystem that could outlive the concept of the traditional console.

Among the big three console manufacturers, Microsoft is currently bringing up the rear, but its Game Pass strategy could conceivably change that in the future, and is already starting to bear fruit. Just this week, the NPD Group said that so far in 2022, American consumers have spent more on Xbox Series X and S consoles than Switch or PS5. There are caveats in that Switch still leads in terms of unit sales and PS5 appears to be more supply constrained, but this is still a significant improvement from the Xbox One generation. The stronger the company's console business is, the more compelling the non-console extensions of it are likely to be for consumers.

And while many of the criticisms around streaming games in 2012 are still present
-- players need good internet connections and if the servers go down the players are left with nothing because they don't really own anything -- it turns out digital distribution, always-online requirements and games as a service have been making those same limitations familiar to the non-streaming side of the industry. I could see a point in the future where the "traditional" console experience and limitations are close enough that the convenience benefits of streaming will outweigh any negatives for most consumers.

And if we hit that point, consoles could very well die.

[Cue the thunder clap and spooky organ music, wind blowing open an old window and extinguishing the lone candle that was lighting the room. Perhaps Vincent Price laughing?]

But it's fine, really. I'm not sure consoles can actually die in a way that matters, because as far as I can tell, there's no consistent definition of what a console is to begin with.

This is not a console, but why not?

What separates consoles from PCs, smartphones, handhelds, or whatever else we use to play games? It's just the gaming box we think of that hooks up to the TV, even though a number of PCs, smartphones, and handhelds have long done the same thing.

Consoles are a platform ecosystem owned by the company making the hardware that ensures standards and ease of use for players and takes a cut of third-party software revenues, but again, that doesn't really distinguish them from iPhones.

What separates consoles from PCs, smartphones, handhelds, or whatever else we use to play games?

Consoles used to be the game boxes where all the games came on cartridges or discs that we would swap out to play games, but hard drives and digital distribution changed that. Then they got the ability to be patched, then they discovered free-to-play, and some of them discarded physical media entirely. They have nice controllers and the hardware was specially designed for playing games, but again, these are traits that non-consoles adopted long ago, just as consoles branched out from their focus on gaming to streaming movies and music, and posting to social media and live streaming platforms.

So maybe you say the only consistent thing about consoles are the names: PlayStation, Nintendo, Xbox. But Microsoft pushed the Xbox branding to PC years ago, Sony had its whole PlayStation Mobile push, and even Nintendo has been putting original games featuring its most valued IP on smartphones.

So sure, consoles are dying, and consoles as we know them will not exist in the not-too-distant future. But the killer won't necessarily be cloud streaming or tablets or AR or whatever else; it's just the usual cycle of iteration and invention, a slow-motion process of death and rebirth that borrows from and bleeds into whatever else is going on in the world of gaming and consumer electronics.

We can lament their passing -- RIP always to the Dreamcast, you were too beautiful for this world -- but we can't stop it from happening, because change is the only constant.

What else happened in June 2012

● E3 2012 took place, with Nintendo unveiling a Wii U launch window lineup led by Pikmin 3, New Super Mario Bros. U, Nintendoland, and Zombi U. It also announced that the Wii U would allow for players to use two GamePads at once, though this feature never actually came to pass.

● Along with Halo 4 and Gears of War Judgment, Microsoft's big announcement for E3 was the SmartGlass second-screen functionality that would let people control the Xbox 360 with their phones or tablets. EA was a big believer in it, but the use cases provided -- play-calling in Madden, displaying a map of Westeros while you watch Game of Thrones on the big screen -- were not substantially compelling, and more than a little reminiscent of the less-than-critical functionality of past innovations like Dreamcast VMUs and the Nintendo DS' second-screen.

● Meanwhile, Sony debuted The Last of Us to partially salvage a briefing mostly focused on things that wouldn't quite land: God of War: Ascension, PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale, Assassin's Creed 3, and the still-new PlayStation Vita.

● Outside of the media briefings, E3 also had John Carmack showing off Doom 3 BFG Edition on a VR headset and providing the first seeds of buzz and excitement around the soon-to-be Kickstarted Oculus Rift.

● Several months after a seemingly overwork-induced medical scare, Capcom producer Yoshinori Ono set the record straight about reports that Capcom had told him to take time off to rest.

"Whoever told you that is lying," Ono said. "The situation is the complete opposite. Nobody told me to take a rest. When I returned to work, Capcom didn't even acknowledge that I had been in hospital.

"There was no change in my schedule. I was at home for an entire week before the doctors allowed me to return to work. When I returned to my desk there was a ticket to Rome waiting for me. There's no mercy. Everyone in the company says: 'Ono-san we've been so worried about you.' Then they hand me a timetable and it's completely filled with things to do."

Perhaps shockingly, Ono would continue to work at Capcom for another eight years.

Good Call, Bad Call

BAD CALL: Whoever decided to introduce the concept of digital preorders. At least with physical media there was a realistic fear of missing out should the local game store not order or receive enough copies. Digital preorders are like a consumer revolt against making informed purchase decisions.

BAD CALL: Nintendo president Satoru Iwata pointed to the E3 announcements around Microsoft's SmartGlass second-screen push and Sony's Vita-PS3 connectivity as a good sign that the competition was interested in mimicking the Wii U after seeing its unveiling the previous year, saying, "That suggests to me that they clearly see value in what we're trying to do. I think that an approach that nobody follows is one that few people see value in."

It turned out that relatively few people saw value in the Wii U, SmartGlass, or Vita Remote Play. On the other hand, loads of people saw value in the Switch, but it's an approach that no console maker has followed.

BAD CALL: When asked about a Nikkei report that Nintendo was prepping a 3DS XL, Shigeru Miyamoto dismissed the idea, saying he was already thinking about a next-gen successor to the 3DS.

"I really feel like I'm satisfied with the 3DS hardware as it is," he said. "I feel like it's the best for this generation... What we're thinking about right now is probably going to be for a future generation of handheld."

The 3DS XL was announced less than two weeks later. It was followed by the Nintendo 2DS in 2013, and the New Nintendo 3DS in 2014, the New Nintendo 3DS XL in 2015, and the New Nintendo 2DS XL in 2017.

BAD CALL: Microsoft's then-VP of studios Phil Spencer told us at E3 that "a lot of the same stuff" that happened with Kinect would happen with SmartGlass. If he meant that it would be relegated to the dustbin of gimmicky gaming innovations with few appreciable benefits, this might have been a Good Call. But this was 2012 and Microsoft was still so high on Kinect that it was going to make it a requisite piece of equipment for the following year's Xbox One launch, so instead he meant it would become a ubiquitous and well-loved feature.

"I get very few questions about Kinect now because Kinect just shows up across almost everything that we do in ways in which seem natural," Spencer said. "Of course you can say 'Hey you' in Splinter Cell and guards will turn around because they hear you. That's because Kinect is there and it's working. Two years ago no consoles could hear you but people expect it now. With SmartGlass a lot of the same stuff will happen."

BAD CALL: In an interview just after taking over as president of THQ, Jason Rubin hit back at critics who saw the publisher as a sinking ship, pointing to the prominence of its games at E3, saying, "Everyone's out there beating us up, but there we were, along with the big games. And everyone's saying, 'Oh, look, Stick of Truth'. They're looking forward to it, that could be huge... but 'THQ isn't going to make it'. There seems to be this disconnect. Metro gets best game shown nominations, but 'THQ may not make it'. Company of Heroes -- nominations, but 'THQ isn't going to make it'."

Everyone beating the publisher up turned out to be right, as THQ filed for bankruptcy in December. Metro: Last Light was published by Deep Silver in 2013. Company of Heroes 2 was published by Sega in 2013. South Park: The Stick of Truth was published by Ubisoft in 2014.

BAD CALL: EA, which promised an "unprecedented relationship" with Nintendo in 2011 at the Wii U's original unveiling, told people it was "holding onto more Wii U announcements" after teasing only a Mass Effect 3 port at Nintendo's 2012 E3 briefing, with EA Labels president Frank Gibeau promising, "We've got a couple of more games in development for Wii U and we'll have a bigger line-up for Wii U than we did on the Wii. It is the first next-generation platform coming out so we're really supporting it."

EA released a grand total of four games on the Wii U before pulling the plug on support for the system six months after launch. It released 89 games on the Wii.

GOOD CALL: EA' Gibeau gets a partial redemption --and stops Jaffe's death of consoles from somehow being the Best Call in this month's column -- for predicting that people would still be playing Star Wars: The Old Republic in a decade despite questions about a drop-off in subscribers from the game's launch.

The Old Republic is indeed still alive and kicking at EA, and launched its Legacy of the Sith expansion earlier this year.