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The Console Isnít Dead Ė Itís Evolving
by Robert Levitan on 04/10/12 02:09:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


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.

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Ryan Marshall
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For me, the biggest draw of the console is the ability to ignore everything else that's going on with a less-dedicated machine. When I'm playing a PC game (probably watching Netflix over my PS3 at the same time), I'm also constantly checking my email and facebook and the performance of my favored kickstart campaigns.

When I'm playing a console game, I can get more into it and ignore everything else in the world - aside from those times when the game is being deliberately obtuse and I'm forced to get up and walk over to my computer to research what I'm supposed to be doing in the game, but that's just a result of poor game design rather than any actual fault of the console. Of course, I'm also more likely to experiment and try new things in the face of a weird situation in a console game, compared to a PC game where the cost of looking it up in a guide is almost non-existent.

That may also partially explain why console-based MMOs haven't hit it so big over here; most MMOs require constant access to the appropriate resource pages in order to get things done in an efficient manner.

Yuliya Geikhman
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Consoles are definitely not dying. I spoke to a few indie developers at PAX East this weekend and they said that publishing their game on the mobile market is just the entry point, and that they hope to go on to consoles from mobile. And it is important for consoles to evolve to "keep up with the times." The 3DS and the Vita both have internet connection, 3G, wi-fi, you name it.

But it can be tough to keep the existing fans and the potential fans all happy. For example, the issue of digital downloads is a big topic of debate among video game fans because so many (including myself) prefer having a hard copy of their games. If Microsoft announced that the next Xbox will only support downloadable content, many fans would be furious. Similarly, when companies like Square Enix announce that they'll be "pursuing the mobile market more aggressively," their fans feel like Squeenix is selling out.

I think the roles of consoles and mobile devices are very different - and one will not "kill" the other simply because they're competing in different markets. That's why the PS Vita isn't selling like hotcakes: it's too similar to mobile phones, but without the phone capabilities. Mobile devices are for people on the go, and need quick games that can be picked up at any point. Consoles, as someone before me mentioned, are for a more involved experience. The evolution of consoles is a must... but in a different direction from mobile devices. I get the feeling that this unfounded fear of mobile devices is going to push console companies to make some bad decisions.

k s
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I like to keep work and play separate, so I work on a PC and I play on a console. I don't want a jack of all trades and master of none for my gaming, I want a master of gaming.

This article reminds me of an idea I had a few weeks ago for a dedicated gaming platform, I call it the Indie Tab. Essentially it's a tablet computer with buttons and circle pads that uses a digital distribution delivery system but all the games are produced and peer reviewed like XBLIGs are. I'd like to see this be the future of dedicated gaming systems and not this jack of all trades BS we're seeing now.

james sadler
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I have to agree with this. I was actually just thinking about this topic earlier today. Consoles aren't dead, nor will they be for some time. Their dedication to gaming is already dwindling, but the hardcore players will still want a hardcore system. I live the idea of the Steambox and would pick one up if if ever does get released, but I also know that it wouldn't be too different from a PC I could build myself. Unlike a lot of people I love my PS3 vs. my 360. I can see the differences in the hardware pretty easily and that is something I want to see more, and I think is why the console wont be dying anytime soon. People want bleeding edge tech in their games. Its something that has been going on for decades now. The problem with the way consoles are nowadays is that that bleeding tech doesn't stay bleeding edge too long. I'm still amazed at what the PS3 can do with only 256megs of Ram. Most modern PC's can't even boot with that low of ram. But it can't do anything higher than DX9 I believe, which is still pretty amazing visually. Future consoles will need to learn from the PC market and see that it needs upgradability.

Axel Cholewa
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One additional big advantage of consoles over PCs is simply that you don't have to care for graphics cards, processors, cooling or the like. You don't have to upgrade your hardware, you don't need a virus scanner, you're not (as mentioned by Ryan) bothered by email, skype or other stuff you might have running on your PC. You don't need to adjust graphics settings or fumble with keyboard layouts. Heck, all the MMORPG stuff I'd probably give a shot, but a keyboard is too bad an interface for gaming.

Personally, I'd never change to PC gaming when there are consoles. This is simply because I'm one of those couch players who want to sit in front of a fracking big television with a controller in their hands.

That said, the indie scene is of course much more vibrant and alive than on consoles. That sorely needs to change in order for consoles to stay relevant. And this is where the console manufacturers have to step up and make it easy for indies to develop and publish their games.

k s
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I agree 100% with almost everything you said!

Evan Combs
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I'm with you, part of what makes a console nice is that there are no variables. Everything is the same so you know your new Xbox game will work on your Xbox with no problems.

Right now a large segment of mobile gaming is a fad, it is a fad that isn't going to go away, but for most people it is still new. While it is new I would imagine you would see a slight decline in consoles from the mainstream segment, but once the newness runs off mobile will just be another platform along side consoles and PCs. The only threat mobile games are to is dedicated handheld devices. Who knows maybe in the long term it actually help to grow the console market.

Consoles aren't going to last forever, but people will always prefer to have a dedicated TV device that you plug in once (or is built in) and never have to plug in again. Right now Consoles fulfill that role.

William Johnson
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So the problem is, consoles are becoming more PC like, then why do we need consoles? Why not just hook up a PC to your big screen TV and sit on your couch. Coincidently, I am doing exactly that. Sure I also have my consoles hooked up for when I get the itch to play something I can only get there, but for the most part, I've been finding myself playing a lot more on the PC then on my consoles after I've done this.

I think that's the cusp of the problem. Consoles are redundant. Why should I pay $400 for a new system, when my PC can do that. Sure do I have to pay a bit more for my PC hardware? Yeah, but the games I've been playing more recently have been a lot cheaper, basically, free. You can't get experiences like League of Legends, Tribes: Ascend, or Spiral Knights on consoles and that cost a whole $0 to play. Though to be fair, I have thrown them a few bones because I do like their games and figure developers need to eat too.

I guess, there technically, isn't anything physically preventing games of this nature from appearing on consoles. Yet there are so many barriers placed on consoles to prevent these kinds of games from ever being able to flourish. Most notably developers needing to pay to release patches and that DLC has to be pay.

And then there is the other 900 pound gorilla in the room, OnLive. Why even bother paying for hardware that'll be obsolete in a few years and break backwards compatibility with your current library, when you could always just get it all from the cloud?

Gaming isn't good enough. That's why the consoles are doing more then just gaming now. If consoles are really to remain relevant they'll need an experience that cannot be found anywhere else. Why do you think the Wii is the best selling system this generation? No one else made motion controls. I assume the reason why Nintendo is finally releasing the WiiU isn't because of slugging sales, but is do to the fact they released that now that the competition has motion controls, they need to move on to a new experience that can't be found on those other systems. I'm pretty sure Nintendo has been sitting on the WiiU's concept for a while now. After all it technically is a very large Nintendo DS.

Now my concern is, can the WiiU offer a game experience that can't be found on something like the iPad for cheaper?

As for Microsoft and Sony, unless they can bring an experience that can't be easily emulated on PC or the cloud too, they'll probably just dropped out of the console race altogether. They've, after all, lost a lot of money this generation, and if that continues next generation, what's the point of throwing money at a sinking ship?