Continuing Gamasutra's series looking back at the past console generation, Leigh Alexander examines the cultural implications of a new generation of shiny black boxes.
Here is a hypothesis: right now, if I wondered about the precise depth of the HDMI ports on a PlayStation 4, there would be multiple outlets where that information exists. How stable is the optional living room stand accessory? Someone has reported on it. Here is a new console generation: We have exhausted our analysis of the hardware. We have fetishistically lavished attention on whatever details are available, because consumers want to know.
How many kinds of numbers do you need to know to be able to provide every possible detail about an Xbox One? Specifications: Resolution, USB, API, CPU, GPU, DDR3, esRAM. You have to learn to speak a second language. Teardowns, unboxing, hyper-attention to the guts of these brand-new machines, and fan-made detective work about what it must or mustn't be like to develop for. Someone is an authority on the message board. Someone else has derived unverified but viable previously-unseen details from a foreign language report.
The job of the press, lately, has been to reflect on the previous generation, to share memories. The awkward job of summarizing a mainstream product cycle with personal stories. We all have to do it. I mean. I felt I should have done it, but I struggled, honestly. It's not that I haven't before. I have a lot to say about playing games on old computers, and a lot to say about the omnipresence of 16-bit devices throughout my childhood, tucked under the misty 1990s television units in my home and the homes of my friends.
"I was that consumer"
I even remember buying a GameCube, during a financially ill-advised period (whose early college years aren't financially inadvisable?), with my boyfriend at the time, because we didn't feel like waiting for Resident Evil 4
's exclusivity period to expire. That happened -- I was that
consumer, who gouges a parched wallet to buy some new gadget for the sake of one game. I was a kid.
I have to remember this, though, because I look at the console market now as a journalist and find myself saying things like, "nobody's going to buy a five hundred dollar device for one game." People do. People also travel great distances to crowded, expensive game conferences and stand in cramped, hot, crowded lines for two hours to be the first to play a demo of a franchise sequel that releases only a few months from now. I used to be that person, but just because life has changed for me doesn't mean the world has changed for everyone.
Clearly, in a lot of ways, nothing has changed: We're greeting the new console generation the same way we have greeted every previous hardware generation -- with speculation, argument, team-sports style loyalty contests, exhaustive lists of inscrutable alphanumerical details. We offer sprightly retrospectives on the last generation, the tech innovations, the milestones. This is another console generation, just like every console generation. It's just the "next gen," marching onward as progress inevitably must.
In a lot of other ways, though, everything has changed, and our loyalty to a business-as-usual fashion of greeting a new round of hardware feels a little bit hollow, on a cultural level. I could join in; I have the vocabulary, history, memories to join in. It just wouldn't feel sincere. I'm not a kid anymore.
It's hard, complicated and inconvenient to perceive and admit the way the business, art and culture of games has left high-end next-gen product fetishism behind. Tech companies and publicly-traded publishers can't possibly accept that there are prolific and explosive alternatives to their long-held mode of business. They built the industry as it's widely understood, and led it through our childhoods to its current logical conclusion: Risk aversion, low quality of life for creators, flashy, monolithic "big reveals" that make us wince now that we're old enough to have a nuanced view of what 'cool' means.
"The things we've long felt loyalty to might go away"
If we get bored of that, and if we're finished with that, the industry as we know it doesn't march on, and the people who are used to making money don't make money. And the things we've long felt loyalty to might go away. So we do it, we celebrate, agree to be curious, and discuss how we might be getting hungry to buy. That's what they're supposed to do.
But the interesting games aren't coming from the mainstream. Everybody knows that. And developers don't have to work in environments that restrict their creativity and their quality of life anymore. Except for those devs who've been shut in the triple-A vault (developers on big games always tell me they never get time to play anything) most of the industry understands that "indie" is no longer a fringe element to be optionally celebrated or ignored, but a broad term that just means "I can make the games I want to make and possibly even earn a living at it."
In our recent installment of Ask Gamasutra
, we talked about business decisions console manufacturers need to make to fit well in the modern environment. People will buy new hardware; there will always be people who care about brand-new, expensive franchise sequels. Ideally for the industry, there will be enough of the former to monetize the continued development of the latter.
I don't really expect that to come to pass, but my predictions aren't worth much; predictions aren't my job. I'm not especially interested in questions about whether the console is "viable" (although they are very good questions). I'm more interested in whether it's relevant. Not from the perspective of business model, corporate strategy, but in simple terms: How many of us really care about these things any more? How much do we really need to care about them?
So many of the developers I know at big studios, many of them people whose names you know, have said the same thing to me in the last couple years, conveyed off the record, dark as a guilty secret: I just don't care about triple-A anymore
. It's not that they're going to retire, or start another career, as would have been their main options had they got frustrated with their jobs even a generation ago. They want to start their own studios. They want to set their own terms. They want to make something new. They've done three games in a franchise and they would do anything to not have to do another.
"It's unpopular to say you don't care about consoles"
"Is the indie revolution going to destroy the traditional business" is an incredibly simplistic question we've been hearing for years. The idea of a binary between "mainstream" and "indie" is ideal for drawing battle-lines between sets of values, but it's unplugged and useless.
Better instead to pragmatically evaluate how the business and culture of games have genuinely shifted. There are now many different ways to play games, and there are different ways to make money, and all of them are, with very few exceptions, more interesting than the traditional concept of the business where console is the main cornerstone.
It's unpopular to say you don't care about consoles, to suggest you don't need to care. It feels like disloyalty to the industry. But what's becoming clear, even if it feels controversial and treacherous to say -- even if it threatens the industry and its loyal consumers, galvanizes them to internet arguments -- is that the console business and the industry models that built it are no longer the main avenue for the medium of games. They're probably not even the most important, even though they remain the most visible to your average person.
They're definitely the least relevant. Our excitement about new hardware launches is knit together with our hunger for and expectation of progress, and the most progress just isn't happening in this space. I think deep down we know it. Here's another platform, and it's always great to have more platforms, but this isn't everything.
Who cares? That's the most important question the next-gen faces.