Gamasutra is running a series of articles this week focusing on the game console transition. We kick it off with an edition of Ask Gamasutra.
The PlayStation 4 just launched last week, the Xbox One is in the wings, ready to launch this week. New consoles are here, eight years after the "last-gen" launched in 2005.
A lot has changed since 2005 -- we've seen free-to-play, smartphones and tablets and browser games emerge, we've seen expectations change, and a widening of the audience for games, as well as a wider array of game developers. None of these significant trends originated on game consoles.
So for this latest edition of Ask Gamasutra, the question is: What do you think game console makers need to do in order to stay relevant over the next five years?
Convincing people to spend $400 or $500 on a new video game console is an extremely difficult argument to make. So the question of console "relevancy" is more rooted in whether or not Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo can sustain a years-long discussion with the public, and turn a nice chunk of that public into console customers.
Much of this battle for relevancy will be a marketing problem that is exacerbated by the number of non-console options players have today, vs. the number they had in 2005. The console, its games and the policies around it need to be strong, but that's just the (very important) foundation for success. Actually reaching that success will require some extraordinary communication from platform holders to the public about the value of a console, so people will buy a whole bunch of these things -- because let's face it, "relevancy" is closely tied to that numerical value called "installed base."
You only have to look at the early months of the 3DS, the floundering Wii U and the yawn-worthy sales of the very capable PS Vita to see just how difficult this value argument is for a console these days. Sony has nailed its argument -- the messaging -- for PlayStation 4 so far, zeroing in on the nostalgia factor, and speaking directly to fans. "PlayStation is back," is the sentiment. A very specific group of people already want to believe that, to embrace that sentiment.
But these believers are ready-made fans -- fans who might argue that "games sell the system," at the same time buying a system with almost no games. 1 million people who love video games essentially purchased PS4 on a marketer's promise. I'm just saying: marketing is a powerful factor. So the question is what's next? Or rather, who will buy next? Going forward, game marketers are the ones who will need to answer that tough question, at the same time working to solve the issue of console relevancy in a time of game industry upheaval.
I know a lot of people say there's no point in comparing the current downward trend of the Nintendo Wii U with these other newly released consoles, since Nintendo is in its own generation and blah blah blah. I still think there's plenty that can be learnt from what's happening with the Wii U, though, that can (and should) be taken onboard by Sony, Microsoft, and anyone else that decides to play the console game over the next five years.
From what I've seen, and what I've always said, is that price and games are the two most important factors in the success of a console. The Nintendo 3DS is proof of this - look how it massively swung from a complete disaster to equalling the early success of the Nintendo DS, simply via a combination of a price drop, and a handful of games with the word Mario
I can't honestly see either the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 falling into obscurity anytime soon, since they already both have ridiculously large and hungry fanbases. The "winner", if you want to call it that, will be whichever company manages to get all the best games. Again, it's sounds massively simple -- "Games consoles needs lots of good games?! Duh!" -- but we've seen time and time again when console manufacturers fail to drum up enough third-party support to keep hardware afloat compared to the competition.
The greatest threat to ongoing relevance for consoles is that they're closed spaces with a lot of barriers to entry: High hardware cost, discrete accounts, little portability (Sony doesn't seem to have proved the value proposition in 'taking your game with you' via Vita), pricey software.
Of course, this has always been the case -- but audiences have so many more alternatives today than they did last-generation, and many of those alternatives have probably even changed how players think about the terms of engagement with video games. There are now countless games of various sizes at diverse price points on PC, in-browser, mobile, etc. Even for the consumer that strictly prefers a traditional AAA retail experience, we're now as a society much less tolerant of up-front costs or waiting to download anything whatsoever thanks to evolutions in the way we consume general tech.
That's why it's concerning the current console gen seems actually to be increasing the barrier to entry. There are more complications for consumers to understand, and the 'always-on' requirement seems tough to swallow for an audience that's become acclimated to maintaining precise control over its relationships to owned devices. People who play a lot of big AAA games are liable to run out of storage space on PS4 and require to subscribe to PlayStation Plus and these are just quick examples about how platform-holders are creating previously-unseen friction for consumers who are less tolerant of friction than ever.
The "gamer audience" believes it can get experiences on consoles that it can't get anywhere else, and that belief is the only hope the traditional market has. Even supposing that audience is dedicated enough to sustain the ballooning, risk-averse AAA space, console manufacturers need to do everything they can to make engagement intuitive, even necessary -- not raise more barriers for consumers to consider and decide whether they want to overcome.
What I found really interesting as I talked to a ton of different developers at the PlayStation 4 launch event in New York City is how many of them have faith in the console model ó the idea that gamers want to play big games, want to play together on consoles, want to sit on a couch. People really do believe in it. I'm not saying I don't, it's just that it's difficult to see how things can't be eroding for some. For me they're eroding because triple-A console games have gotten away from what I personally love about games, but for others due to tablets and PC, there's less of a need for these machines.
What console makers need to do is evolve. What impressed me most about Sony's sell on the PS4 is that they know they have to reserve resources to upgrade the OS and keep it evolving. MS did this on the 360, of course, but I'm not sure they added services that people really cared about. This generation, evolution will be key. More PlayStation Plus style ingenuity will be required.
If console manufacturers are truly set on this Bradbury-esque vision of an all-in-one entertainment center to encompass and define the living room, they need to hone in on what it is about modern games that make them system-sellers.
When I look back at the outgoing console generation, the most successful hardware in my eyes is Nintendo's 3DS -- good, solid games, neat but unobtrusive sharing features, and a thrifty enough price point to be at least modestly inclusive among one's social group. Take a look at how social media was absolutely flooded
with enthusiastic game chatter thanks to Animal Crossing: New Leaf
's screenshot sharing feature, something vastly under-implemented across the rest of Nintendo's catalog. ACNL might have ended up somewhat faddish in the end, but it definitely moved hardware, and the potential to draw out experiences like that in the long term should be more than apparent.
We see similar social features baked into both Sony and Microsoft's next-gen consoles, and that's a step in the right direction. Now we just need games worth getting social about -- different, innovative experiences that get us excited or happily frustrated, enough to want to delve deeper into them with other people. Right now, we see more of those games coming out on iOS and PC, like Papers, Please
and Super Hexagon
, and with Steam Machines poised to bring a lot of those to the living room, Sony and Microsoft (and arguably, Nintendo) need to have a hard look at just what makes their respective hardware unique, and fine-tune that usage.
Even a few days into the launch of the PS4, we can see that its Twitch streaming feature is popular. That is something that can be built on: make that less of a gimmick, allow video saving, and bring in games others will want to watch and tweet for more than a day, week, or month. It's possible, insofar as this vision of home entertainment utopia is at all possible -- Sony and Microsoft (and Nintendo if it wants to take its successes with the 3DS forward) just need to build it.
Sr. Contributing Editor Gamasutra; Independent game developer
This is a tough one. Recently I was thinking aloud on twitter
about what OUYA would have to do to gain some relevance right now, while exclusives are just a hindrance for fans, and tend to be timed, at best (unless the platform holder owns the developer).
I figured something along the lines of Sony's PlayStation Plus program would work, where players pay a set amount, and then get a certain number of games for free over a set amount of time. This increases interest in trying stuff out on a console, and keeps players thinking of that console as a destination. I'll admit I hadn't played a game on my PS3 for probably a year before they started giving me "free" stuff with PS+ (I like the 360's triggers better, and Xbox Live Indie Games). Once I saw what they had on offer, I returned to playing games on the console, instead of just using it as a netflix box.
But these sorts of subscription programs won't work forever. While they keep players engaged, in the short term they cost more money than they make. Going forward, these consoles need to try to anticipate what players are going to want
, instead of just following trends, integrating facebook and whatnot (though they should still do that). The PS4's streaming tech exemplifies this sort of thought, and could continue to keep the console relevant for some time. But they'll need to keep adding little bells and whistles like this to maintain interest.
How about getting devs to do director's commentary for their games, free to players? Enabling public tournaments within the console? I don't have all the answers, but things that bring players together, but also enable their individual agency - those are the things that will keep people coming back.