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Game Hardware is Dead, Long Live Game Hardware

Matt Spall wants to play any game, anywhere and on any device he chooses

It's been inevitable for some time that physically distributed bits of plastic carrying software that's basically out of date the moment you get it ("you must download a 750Mb patch before you play this game") would die away and be replaced with online services. As broadband speeds increase and storage of those digital assets becomes ubiquitous and, essentially, commoditised, ease of access, choice and pure laziness win out. Music suffered for it with the switch from CD to MP3, and thankfully is being saved by the likes of iTunes, Amazon and Spotify, as well as loads of new ways to discover new artists feeding out through services like SoundCloud. TV can be consumed pretty much exclusively online now through all manner of devices from smartphones to internet connected smart TVs. Films are getting the same treatment with simple availability of almost instantly streaming content from Love Film and Netflix, delivered to built-in devices or accessories costing little more than £50 and offering all kinds of other cool media services.

"The death knell is ringing for boxed software, and the next target to be consumed by the digital revolution are the bigger bits of plastic that you shove the boxed software into"

So what's with the headline? Well it's simple in my eyes, the death knell is ringing for boxed software, and the next target to be consumed by the digital revolution are the bigger bits of plastic that you shove the boxed software into. And if you need it spelled out for you, dedicated game hardware you own to play games on is over - we're already hearing all kinds of rumours about new hardware from Sony and Microsoft, and Nintendo has already shown its hand with the Wii-U, but really, what are these machines for in world with little or no physical product?

So here's the prediction in nutshell; the next big gaming platform we see won't be a shiny new bit of game-centric hardware from the creators of the devices we all know and love, but games and computing delivered as a service, to these devices and many, many others. I'm talking about services delivered to devices we probably already own, or devices we'll buy for a nominal charge (or even free) for signing up to a subscription. Utility computing based services, or as I cringe at every time I hear the words, cloud computing.

At this point I can already feel hackles rising, and these thoughts are ones I got roundly flamed for when I originally made the prediction three years ago at the Develop Conference, but here's the basis of my thinking:

Broadband Speed versus physical media

I've been a video gamer for over 30 years, starting with the Atari 2600 and yearly visits to the Margate arcades. Likewise I've been a subscriber to online services from the early days of CiX and Compunet through 2400 baud modems. On this basis I can probably be considered an 'early adopter' and have experienced first-hand how data delivery to the home has improved to now be properly on a par with the memory and delivery speed required for contemporary content.

The past couple of years have seen exponential growth in the speeds available to internet users, as well as the way broadband can be consumed. This is going to get easier and easier with services like fibre to the home, proliferation of IPTV, shared services like Fon, municipal WiFi, uncapped 3G services, and now 4G LTE.

After a blip in production a few months back storage prices are also falling through the floor, at the time of writing, a 500GB hard drive is running at little over £50, that's 10p per Gigabyte. So storing your 10GB game isn't an issue either.

What this adds up to is that, in a lot of places, you can download and install a game in less time than it takes to get it from a shop, or wait for it to arrive from an online retailer, and in a lot of cases, for less money.

The march of silicon

Computer hardware is getting a lot cheaper, that's a fact. It's not uncommon to be able to buy a relatively well-specced laptop with an installed OS for less than £200 and basic systems running early versions of Android for £80, 'smart' blu-ray players for £70, set top boxes that deliver services like iPlayer and Netflix are £50, and the Raspberry Pi (when anyone gets one) is £25.

"You can download and install a game in less time than it takes to get it from a shop, or wait for it to arrive from an online retailer, and in a lot of cases, for less money"

These are all capable devices, often able to deliver full HD video, web services, and importantly, hidden away in them, really good quality gaming performance that the majority of people will find more than acceptable.

Of course, those that want awesome graphics capabilities can buy or build the latest multi-processor fire breathing machine, but it's highly unlikely the console manufacturers will have any chance of keeping up with the changes in hardware, releasing systems with GPUs that are already lagging behind the moment they hit the shelves.

What's acceptable as a satisfactory game experience?

So, this is a pet subject of mine and one I'll try not to harp on too much about here, but really, what is it that gives a user an acceptable gaming experience?

At a recent conference I heard the phrase "triple A gaming" said more times that I was comfortable with. There's no denying the success and money made from epic AAA franchises like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Mass Effect and others. But there are other games doing equally well that get little or no recognition on charts because they're not considered "triple A" or can't be tracked by individual sales of units.

Games like Bejewelled, that can be consumed pretty much anywhere, skill games from the likes of, the plethora of hidden objects games from casual portals like Big Fish, top sellers and top grossers on mobile devices like Draw Something, Fruit Ninja, Kingdoms of Camelot, and the ubiquitous Angry Birds.

These aren't games that can be categorised as 'AAA' or blockbuster, often games that have been put together on shoestring budgets by groups of only a few people, but what they are doing is attracting gigantic audiences, not hung up on graphics power, and immersive 3D graphics, but on what really makes people play games, and not worry about paying for it, and that's gameplay.

It's hard to properly predict where this is going, and guesses are all I've got, but based on the evidence of the past couple of years, I can see the total commoditisation of the console and the games market moving quickly toward a solution where the consumer is able to buy and play a broad range of video games on a broad range of hardware from a broad range of services. But what will happen, is that there will be little or no differentiation of whose games you play, on what hardware, wherever you are.

"There will be little or no differentiation of whose games you play, on what hardware, wherever you are"

There's no reason today, given an average internet connection, why I can't play the simplest block puzzle game, right up to the most amazing first-person shooter on pretty much any machine I choose to, from a £25 bare bones single chip computer plugged into a 16 inch portable TV, to a £2000, overclocked, liquid cooled mega PC running on a 50 inch HDTV (or a Wii, PS3 or Xbox 360 in-between).

Services like Onlive and Gaikai will let me stream amazing quality images to pretty much any machine, and if I'm unsatisfied with the experience there, it's my choice to spend money moving the power away from the server side to my end with faster processors and graphics hardware.

Where cloud game services fall over is with the gamophile, the gamer that must have the hottest hardware, but there's room here too. How long is it before I can buy a device that specifies a certain level of performance, the same way I can buy a TV or HiFi based on my needs and have the parts of that product that rely on certain aspects to be executed or processed where it's best done?

So really, the only reason now to have any specific game hardware is to be able to play the games that the hardware manufacturers spent a small fortune on building to get you to buy their hardware, but in reality, 95 per cent of the games that are released, and do really well, are available on all of them. So why not expend the effort and cost of developing new hardware on a system that lets me play a game on the best of breed on hardware I've already got, and offload the heavy lifting to things I can stream?

So, video game hardware is dead, long live video game hardware, in a form that lets me consume games the way I want to consume them, on the equipment I want to consume it on.

Matt Spall is a games industry veteran and current consultant for Tenshi. Tenshi's group of games industry consultants are providing regular opinion pieces for GamesIndustry International.

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Matt Spall