Ask Gamasutra: How to avoid screwing up next-gen consoles
Ask Gamasutra is a regular column that takes issues from within the video game industry, and poses them as a question to the editorial staff. For this edition: dos and don'ts for next-gen consoles.
Seven years. It was seven years
ago that Microsoft's Xbox 360 kicked off the current console generation.
If anything, the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii have proven to be relatively adaptable to an incredibly dynamic marketplace. That adaptability has given the current hardware unprecedented viability.
But let's face it, video games are inherently tied with technology, and technology is constantly marching forward. Over the past seven years, there has been an incredible amount of change happening in the world of games, from new ways to control games to new ways to pay for them.
A new generation of video game consoles is about to kick off next month with Nintendo's Wii U. We want the next generation of consoles to succeed, but change is afoot and missteps will be ugly. So the question for this edition of Ask Gamasutra:
For the next generation of consoles to remain relevant (culturally and commercially), what are the dos and don'ts console makers need to follow?
DO: Focus on the user experience.
It's ridiculous today that I need to take six or seven steps to get to my game library on Xbox 360's dashboard, for example, wading through ads and non-game content. Video game consoles used to be the epitome of plug-in-and-play. Make the console itself fun to use, and that's a big plus for their commercial and cultural relevance.
DO: Open up more.
When the current generation of consoles kicked off seven years ago, this whole "democratization of game development" movement wasn't in full swing. Now, people who create games have all kinds of tools and resources at their disposal. Give these people a proper venue, and don't relegate their work to a dark corner of your interface. Warning: curation and discoverability will be a huge pain in the ass.
DO: Come up with and support next-gen business models.
Console evolution used to be centered on processing power. Then it became about new ways to control games. Now it's going to be about who can provide players with the most attractive means of spending money to play video games. With the revamped PlayStation Plus, I can't help but believe Sony has the jump on its competitors here.
DON'T: Ignore what's happening on PC and mobile.
I'm only going to have one "don't" here, because it covers pretty much everything. Everything from curation to discoverability to pricing to the way people play and pay for games -- emerging platforms have done a lot of the homework, and its up to console makers to parse those hard-won lessons and apply them to their own strategies.
Ok, fine, one more. Don't price any of these things at $600 ever again.
I totally won't buy it, especially when I have so many other good options these days.
Do: Open up your platform and allow anyone to sell a game on it.
Locking your system behind an iron gate is antiquated now. You know how Nintendo is always exactly one generation behind on some key component that its competitors grab hold of? I'll bet you this next time around, it'll be this.
Do: Fire some producers and hire some curators.
Yes, having a hit game to call your own could mean a huge return on investment, but there is no such thing as a guaranteed hit. Stop funding risky games, and start focusing your energy on telling your players about those third-party games that you KNOW are good. Your slice of the pie might not be as large, but having a storefront that makes sure your players are only seeing your best content is a win for everybody.
Do: Unify all of your multimedia content providers into one seamless experience for the end user.
The idea of separate Netflix, Hulu, ESPN and HBO "apps" is unfriendly and weird for a box that strives to be the only thing connected to the TV which, last I checked, was the goal for every one of you.
Don't: Create your own exclusive multimedia content.
Yes, incentivizing people to watch videos on your console is important, but unless you're Sony, you have little to no experience creating video (and even then, I really doubt PlayStation and Sony Pictures are talking to each other). Unless you're funding the next Avatar or something, nobody's going to buy your console to watch your exclusive videos. Focus on your partnerships.
Don't: Lock people out of their entertainment for a system update unless it's actually important.
Most users will gladly invest the time to upgrade their systems if it's necessary to play Mass Effect 4
or something, but unless hackers have gotten REALLY clever lately, there is no legitimate security reason to lock me out of using Netflix without upgrading my firmware. As trivial as it may seem, I find myself turning on my Xbox 360 far more frequently than my PlayStation 3 for this very reason.
Don't: Ignore Steam.
Valve is about two years and one easily marketable, cheap Windows set-top box away from destroying you all, and it did it by listening to its players.
Editor, Game Developer magazine
Do continue to offer game developers multiple entry points to your console
; programs like PlayStation Mobile and Xbox Live Indie Games are an excellent way to inject some much-needed creativity into the console space at price points that can catch impulse buyers.
...Do not marginalize these games to a ghetto nested ten menus deep!
Make it easy for me to see which small games I should buy (preferably by splashing them on the console's home screen, since I'd rather see ads for those than movie trailers). Give me personalized lists based on what my friends are playing. Offer free games, or aggressively slash prices for a short time like Steam does. Right now, my problem with my Xbox and my PS3 is that I don't use them on a daily basis, but I do use my PC, smartphone, and tablet on a daily basis, so I end up buying games for those devices more often.
Do play nicely with other devices.
Give me a reason to check out Xbox Live from my iPad when I'm not even at my console. I already keep my phone and tablet next to me when I'm playing games anyway—let me do something with them, like chat with other people watching a live video stream or use them to supplement the actual in-game action.
...Do not try and funnel me into your "ecosystem"
by supporting only your phone OS or mobile devices. You guys came late to the platform party. I am already stretched between Google and Facebook. iOS and Android, Windows and Mac OS. Don't for a second believe that you have anything compelling enough for me to go all-Microsoft or all-Sony.
Do continue build up your other media features.
Your boxes sit underneath or next to millions of TVs across the world; I want to watch things on those TVs that I can't get from my cable TV provider, and you can help me with that.
...Do not forget that the people who are turning your consoles on are likely there to play games!
My Xbox Live home screen is usually saturated with ads for movie rentals, and lots of other stuff that isn't relevant to me. Let me opt out of those
, and opt into more announcements about games.
Sr. Editor Gamasutra; EIC, Game Developer
Here's my big deal: Don't follow.
Nintendo is coming out with the Wii U, and will make some innovative and interesting ideas with that system. Then about 20 companies will make middle-tier ramifications of that same idea. One of them might succeed well enough to make it worthwhile, but the rest will fail, be panned by critics, and make no money. And yet it happens every console cycle.
How many HD ports and safe sequels do we usually see at a console launch? How about that Mass Effect 3
on Wii U! Is that something people need? Is the implication that people that own Nintendo consoles only own Nintendo consoles, and thus could not have played Mass Effect
? I reckon we can expect a couple new Ridge Racers
, since new consoles seem to be the only time that game comes out.
But this is the time to take risks! People actually expect -- even desire
-- new ideas in new console generations. It's supposed to be new! Risks, backed by solid developers, are often rewarded - look at Katamari Damacy
, in the early days of the PS2. Look at Flower
on PS3, or Braid
Let's stop being so straightforward and safe with every new console generation, and actually experiment with something. Let's see what interesting AI can do for our games, as Chris Hecker is attempting with Spy Party
. Let's find some new social interactions, like ThatGameCompany did with Journey
. But most importantly, don't use my examples -- find that new risk for your own company. Do something different, this is the time!
Here's some relatively simple advice for console manufacturers: Make your next digital storefronts easy to use!
I've come to hate browsing for new content on all of the current home consoles, as you need to sift through tons of subfolders and advertisements just to find interesting content. Hell, you have to flip through five tabs and click on multiple icons just to check out the new releases on Xbox Live! For an industry that's supposedly going more digital by the day, that's far too cumbersome, and the consoles of tomorrow will need to make things a bit more streamlined if they want to keep up with more accessible storefronts like iOS or Steam.
And while we're at it, let's see if we can get rid of the rigid pricing structure for current console games.
Charging a standard $60 for retail games and $10-15 for downloadable titles has worked pretty well so far, but over the last several years other game platforms have become much more consumer-friendly when it comes to game pricing.
Steam and other PC storefronts, for instance, often sell multiplatform games for far less than their console counterparts, and why would consumers want to spend money on consoles when the PC offers approximately the same experience for less? I've personally been spending far less money on consoles for that very reason, and I'm sure others have been doing the same. That said, I'm glad to see the console makers experiment with digital discounts
and free-to-play games
, but hopefully these companies will push things a bit further as we get closer to the next generation. If they don't, I suspect we'll see players spending their hard-earned money elsewhere.
DO: Release digital versions of games on the same day as their physical editions, and offer a discount on the downloadable release.
Sony is starting to do this for PlayStation Plus subscribers, but all of the console makers should adopt this approach if they want more consumers to buy full digital games.
DO: Offer a variety of options for business models to attract a wider range of developers and game types.
Console makers shouldn't only allow developers to take advantage of current popular business models, but also be quick to implement others into their systems.
DO: Make game discovery a major priority
when setting up and designing digital storefronts, enabling quality indie games to flourish alongside their bigger-budget counterparts. You want a great amount and variety of titles available, but people don't want to wade through it to find the good stuff.
DON'T: Make it difficult or expensive for small and indie developers to release the kinds of games they want to make on your system.
And again, it shouldn't be difficult for developers to get quality games noticed, either.
DON'T: Ignore that the way players consume games is evolving.
Many players want to be able to share and talk about their experiences as they go through them. Nintendo has built the Wii U with this in mind, integrating a social network that all games can tap into, and other console makers should at least consider something similar.
DON'T: Make it more expensive than a new iPad.
The number one thing that Microsoft, Sony et al need to be extremely mindful of is game pricing.
You've now got 99 cent apps that are providing fairly meaty experiences on smartphones and tablets, $5 indie downloads for PC that are gathering huge attention from press and gamers, and free-to-play rolling through the industry like an unstoppable juggernaut.
That doesn't mean that you can't charge $60 for a quality AAA game anymore, but it does mean that you need to be aware of what can hold that price tag, and what can't. Download versions of retail games, in particular, need to lose the ridiculous pricing. Why would I pay £48 for FIFA 13
on PSN, when I can head down to my local Tesco and grab it for £30? Encouraging consumers to visit your online store is so incredibly essential in this age of instant gratification, and so leading them to believe that there's really no point in checking out what you have on offer is only going to be bad news for your digital strategy.
Conversely, let's not sell ourselves short. Consoles do not need barrages of 99c and free-to-play games. Many "traditional" gamers -- i.e. the majority of the people who will be picking up the PS4 and the Next Xbox -- are still fine with swapping a pile of cash for your high quality titles. There is no shame in experimenting with pricing, and not leading with hard pricing rules set in place. There's a sweet spot for pricing on consoles that we still haven't completely discovered, and until we have, it's worth fiddling with the prices to maximize sales.
DO: The better a console's native software integrates with a user's existing home browsing behavior -- including other devices like phones and tablets -- the better.
DO: Keep it physically small, unintrusive and appealing.
The smartphone generation has acclimated us to conceive of hardware as a designed object, a lifestyle accessory -- the days of kiddy energy-drink neon and toy-like, chunky controllers are over.
DO: Keep prices low -- the aim should be to sell the hardware at a loss and recoup investment on the content and service side.
The difference between console brands is generally minimal to the average consumer, so price will matter more than it ever has.
Don't: Rate brand over user experience.
Marketers are constantly trying to sell the press on why certain console-exclusive channels are exciting, but much of the time that kind of content is arrogantly hollow, just a sales endorsement for the product people already own. If exclusive programming is to be a selling point make it actually competitive.
Don't: Make it hard to buy things.
Xbox Live clings to an absurd and illogical points system, while PSN demands meticulous and often capricious attention to one's banking info. Users should be able to set up and edit billing choices (which should include PayPal) from a computer and making purchases needs to be more instant and painless than it currently is.
Don't: Get hung up on "apps."
People like the app concept on phones, but so far the same kind of thinking hasn't translated to other devices. The way Xbox Live currently clusters Netflix into a "My Video Apps" section or can't seem to decide how the service on the console will relate to the service on smartphones shows the peril -- the console should be seen as a fluid, channel-oriented broadcast device, not a giant smartphone.
Talk about a thorny issue. I do believe that what Chris Hecker has ranted against -- video games becoming a cultural ghetto in the vein of comic books -- is coming to pass, at least on consoles. I'm not saying people aren't going down fighting, whether it's from inside the genres (Spec Ops: the Line
) or outside (Tokyo Jungle
.) We tend to think of ourselves as like the movie industry, but comic books is a better analogy: the big flashy Marvel stuff in the front of the store, and the interesting, low-budget indie stuff in the back.
So my Do
would be: Remember that you need to attract different kinds of people to your platforms. As a first party, Microsoft has done this in an extremely polarizing way: either you're there for Kinectimals
or you're there for Gears of War
. Rumors suggest Durango is going to add more mainstream video content to even things out. I'm sure that's not going to have any sort of interesting effect on it as a game platform.
On the other hand, Sony seems to have recently seized upon the power of variety, whether it be Heavy Rain, Uncharted
, or Papo & Yo
. Culture and commerciality go hand-in-hand, because drawing large audiences who buy different kinds of games is crucial. With Steam (and, maybe, Steambox) coming, it's going to become even more difficult to retain people who don't just want to play shooters.
would be: Don't let yourself get trapped into a single way of thinking, then. Right now things seem to have stratified: major huge budget productions that leak testosterone from every orifice (God of War
, for example) and scrappy, clever indies (say, Spelunky
). Do the big games really have to be as dopey as they are? Not really. Do we really want this dichotomy? No. Different ideas require differing expressions, and we need clever thinking about how to empower them and let them flourish up and down the budget spectrum. As the world brings us more choices, the next generation of consoles shouldn't bring us fewer.