You’re probably seeing stories that the games console market is on the rebound, the presumption — and these stories are steeped in unalloyed presumption — stemming from initial record-breaking PlayStation 4 and Xbox One sales (more than two million sold a piece, though the release timescales and markets they’ve been introduced to differ).
I’m not convinced this is what a rebound looks like. Not yet.
Who’s buying these systems? What sort of consumers? Conventional wisdom would see us label these folks “early adopters” or “enthusiasts.” But today’s gaming audience is generationally larger than it was even six or seven years ago. I was finishing up elementary school when the Nintendo Entertainment System arrived in 1985, entering college when the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo followed in the early 1990s, and — leaping forward here for brevity’s sake — in my mid-30s when the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 and Wii arrived in 2005/2006. With the PS4 and Xbox One and Wii U, I’m saying hello to my early 40s. There’s an age-progressive demographic adoption process that’s still playing out, in other words — not a question of which age groups prefer this or that literary or cinematic genre, but a generational question of who plays games at all versus who doesn’t (to say nothing of population growth worldwide in general).
That more PS4s and Xbox Ones were sold during their respective launch weeks than any prior game console may be as indicative of that forward-sliding generational shift as of the rote media narrative about “uncorking pent-up demand for new technology” with its implicit, presumptive reference to last-gen hardware saturation. If I’m right, it would mean these banner early sales are less about last-gen gamers scratching a seven-year itch than an expanded gaming base opening their wallets. More people may be buying systems than before, but are they doing so in greater percentages relative to that broadening potential audience?
How sustainable is this early, arguably unexpected momentum (many thought consoles had lost their spark and predicted a more dismal start)? No one knows. Microsoft and Sony’s new systems face precisely the same longterm hurdles Nintendo’s Wii U does: delivering compelling software. Cranking out the next Call of Duty or Battlefield or EA Sports title offers obvious revenue deliverables, but capturing the imaginations of gamers looking for the medium to make good on years of lofty claims about games-as-art is a trick on another order of magnitude.
One more presumption: that the market was stagnant and needed new blood to rebound. Why, if this were true, did Grand Theft Auto V shatter sales records a few months ago? What do we mean by stagnation anyway? That consumers aren’t buying enough hardware or software? Total industry revenue, consisting of aggregate hardware, software and peripheral sales? What does it mean if everyone that wants a game system already has one? Glancing through NPD’s 2013 retail charts, while hardware sales are consistently down, the last several months show meaty year-on-year software sales increases. And those software figures are surely underrepresented: you can still track hardware at retail, but with digital downloads, the software-verse is upside down (and getting upside-downer, between micropayments, downloadable content and full digital downloads). So here we are, one generation passing the baton to the next, and last-gen software sales are booming.
It’s a very strange model: roll out your new whiz-bang platform, work like the devil to gin up an install base, then just as your base is settling in and developers are rolling out mature, provocative, intelligent and compelling experiences, you pull the rug out and unveil a brand new, architecturally byzantine platform, in part to recalibrate your longterm hardware revenue trajectories (to this day, Nintendo’s profitability wizardry aside, these systems seem to function more as loss leaders that crazily convert annual software booms into fiscal losses).
It’s a shame we’re so focused on the PS4 and Xbox One, because the best games this year — not just of 2013 but of the last generation — are on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360: BioShock Infinite, Grand Theft Auto V, The Last of Us, Rayman Legends, XCOM: Enemy Within, Saints Row IV, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Tomb Raider, DmC: Devil May Cry, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. Had we given the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 another year or two to ripen, well, just imagine what else we might have seen (and sure, may still see, since neither system’s disappearing, but from a marketing and media standpoint, the narrative is firmly next-gen).
The biggest challenge for game designers, creative spark aside, is mastering a given development environment: ramping up quick, so you can focus on the game itself and not untangling architectural idiosyncrasies or wrestling with immature software toolkits. Look at Apple’s iOS, which though the underlying hardware evolves from year to year, has changed so subtly from a software standpoint that games like Angry Birds Go! and Infinity Blade III still support the original iPad forward and the iPhone back at least two or three iterations (and Infinity Blade makes no distinctions, ostensibly capable of functioning on older iPhones still, the only catch being that you might run into performance issues).
I wonder, assuming Sony and Microsoft tow the x86 line forward, given x86’s industry bedrock-ness, if we might not be on the verge of a console paradigm shift, one in which Sony CEO Jack Tretton’s hardware-locked notion of the “10-year console” vanishes. Instead of throwing developers under the grinding bus-wheels of re-acclimation and crowding consumer entertainment centers with legacy machines plus-plus, I wonder if we’re not about to witness the iOS-ification of hardware architectural iteration, say something that looks more like Valve’s hardware-modifiable Steam Machines — something where continuity and developmental stability matters as much as memory bandwidth and calculative teraflops and processing cores.
It’s not unprecedented in console-dom. Nintendo’s Wii was effectively a souped-up GameCube (thus your ability to play Zelda: Twilight Princess on either system at launch). And how many Game Boy and then DS handheld versions has Nintendo produced over the years? I’m not talking about backward compatibility for its own sake, I mean an architectural environment that’s sufficiently stable over periods that might dwarf Tretton’s 10-year pipe dream. In such a world, developers could enjoy the upsides of occasional raw power upgrades in tandem with environmental familiarity — more deeply scalable, PC-like architectures, in other words.
The PS3 and Xbox 360 were architecturally poles apart. By contrast, the PS4 and Xbox One are almost cousins. Like Apple when it wrapped OS X around Intel’s microprocessors in 2006, Sony and Microsoft have each embraced PC-like architectures (so PC-like, in fact, it’s prompted speculation that actual PC emulation of either system is plausible). Imagine Sony and Microsoft rolling out new iterations of the PS4 and Xbox One two or three years along instead of seven or eight — not merely slimmer-for-the-sake-of-slimmer boxes (how much slimmer than the PS4 do we need?), but with ramped up internals, offering developers the muscularity they’re always looking for without dragging them through boot camp. I’m thinking of something that sits somewhere between the fixed, proprietary nature of a legacy console and the sometimes crippling boundlessness of a pure PC (where developer support for bazillions of potential hardware configurations can wreak havoc on development timetables and costs).
Maybe I’m nuts. Probably I am, expecting Microsoft and Sony to figure this out before someone else does. Change is hard when you’re staring at these kinds of launch figures. The temptation coming off what’ll surely be a banner holiday is going to be to proceed forward, business-as-usual. In the meantime — forget about Apple and Google and talk about mobile gaming’s encroachment for a moment — Valve’s Steam Machines are about to embark on a fascinating almost-like-what-I’m-talking-about experiment that, if successful, could finally put an end to decades of assumptions about how we approach console gaming in the living room.
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