At this year’s GDC, as usual, most of the talk was about mobile and PC platform games. The most common questions I heard: “What are you doing on mobile?” “How are you doing your PC distribution?” and “When is your PC game going mobile?” Dedicated gaming consoles, on the other hand, seem to be the platform everybody is quickly forgetting about. Some have even gone so far as to prepare for their inevitable “death.”
Perhaps that’s an overgeneralization. What seems to be actually happening right now is that the lines between PCs, consoles, and mobile devices are blurring, with more functions appearing on every device that had once been the sole domain of a single platform. Mobile devices, particularly tablets, now have amazing graphical capabilities. Ever-growing broadband availability and increasingly powerful laptops are enabling the PC to be a more compelling and more portable gaming device. The content available online for console users is widening every day, and motion controls and touch interfaces have arrived in the form of Kinect, Move, the Vita, and the Wii U.
Is it a fair fight? It’s not that consoles are underpowered or underappreciated – nobody expects the current lineup of gaming hardware, now going on seven years old (with the Xbox 360 released in late 2005), to be a match for recently developed technology. It’s that the consoles’ main draw is getting lost in a sea of other devices that provide high-quality gaming experiences and other core functions. Why would consumers pick consoles when they deliver neither the inherent connectivity nor the portability of a mobile device, nor the versatility, variety of design, and cutting-edge processing power of a personal computer? Right now, thepse competing platforms can do just about everything a console can do, plus a few things they can’t.
In order to stay relevant, dedicated game platforms need to recapture and emphasize the things that they can do that users can’t get from anywhere else. The core of the console’s identity, in many gamers’ minds, is the ability to provide the “hardcore” experience. The triple-A blockbuster games – the next Uncharted or Gears of War or Final Fantasy – are always going to appear on a platform that lets studios show off their advances in graphics, animation, music, and so forth. Those kinds of theatrics are best seen on (what else?) a home theater. Simply by attaching itself to the latest in HD displays, surround sound systems, and utilizing a control system that can be easily used from the couch, the home console is still the best platform for such games.
Speaking of home theaters, the consoles also need to double down on their other entertainment content, namely TV and movie content. Most of this is already in place: console owners can get streaming content from Netflix, Hulu Plus, and other providers via any current console. While these services may also be available on tablets and PCs, consumers prefer to consume their TV on a TV. Right now, the console is the device of choice for this content, but those consoles need to make sure they offer the simplest and most satisfying way to do so, perhaps through better interfaces like Kinect or voice control. Unless, of course, they’re prepared to lose customers to the emerging market of app-enabled Smart TVs.
The next generation of consoles needs to offer just as many options for the acquisition and use of content: expanded digital distribution, for starters. I would go so far as to say it may be time to ditch the disc entirely in favor of purely downloadable offerings, which would also give the publishers (and gamers) the control they’ve been hoping for. Always-on connectivity, a robust digital catalog, and enough expanded storage to make use of them: these are the bare essentials for the next consoles to stay relevant.
This is hardly an impossible task. Sony and Microsoft have already started down this path, but they need to move faster (if possible) or else someone’s going to beat them to the punch: A few weeks ago, rumors circulated about Valve getting into the gaming hardware business, and while the company officially denied those plans (for now!), that possibility was extremely easy for all of us to believe. If Steam could bring its massive catalog and userbase to bear in a couch-and-controller setting, they could turn into a force to rival Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo.
The console itself is not dead but perhaps the traditional concept of the console is breathing its last breath. As standalone gaming devices, consoles are being swallowed up by increasingly powerful and more versatile devices. The console must be reinvented as a replacement for the “set-top box,” acting as the primary conduit for people to consume all kinds of digital entertainment – games, television, movies, music, and social media.
Rapid changes in technology threaten all media ecosystems. Similar to other media platforms, consoles have a simple choice: evolve or die.