30 Years of Consoles, Abridged: Final Thoughts

A lot has changed in almost 35 years. Where consoles were once machines that could only play games, they have become something much more. Throughout the years, consoles evolved into machines that went from playing games to playing DVDs, to machines that could access the Internet, to machines that have every form of entertainment you could possibly want.

The PS2 ushered in this new era of consoles, machines that could become your multimedia machines. While this was great for the living room, it may have been detrimental for gaming as a whole. Where a console’s selling point was once solely based on its library of games, it is now based on what services the consoles can provide the user. The Xbox One is an egregious example of this, shunting exclusive games in favour of replacing your cable box and DVR functionality as a selling point.

With everything a console can do, console manufacturers are less incentivized to create and support exclusive console games than previous generations, being able to sit on third-party support for the most part and let Sony Video and Xbox Music help keep it afloat. I’m reaching just a little bit; the Xbox One has more features than the PlayStation 4, but isn’t selling as well due to its lack of first-parties (alongside a disastrous launch). Had they stood on equal footing, with equal exclusives, the Xbox One would surely take it.

If you want to look at a machine that really does it all, you need not look further than your pant pocket, or maybe even the palm of your hand: your smartphone. The machine that almost literally does it all, a smartphone can do more than a game console when it comes to media. It’s a portable machine with a screen built in, it can take pictures, manage your finances, find recipes and in a pinch, it can even make phone calls.

So, if it has the widest possible appeal, does that mean it’s unsuccessful as a games machine? It is in fact, quite the opposite. “In 2017 alone, iOS developers earned $26.5 billion [USD],” which, if transferred to Canadian dollars, could buy Saskatchewan and maybe the Territories. This is mainly due to Apple’s hands-off approach to app distribution, focusing far less on game curation than somebody like Microsoft or Sony. Taking a look at these numbers, the logical course of action for Sony and Microsoft to maximize profits it to take this exact same approach: fill their consoles with as much multi-functional capabilities as they possibly can, with as much games as they possibly can to get the most money they possibly can.

A console’s concentrated focus isn’t the only thing that’s hurting sales. The Internet, despite being one of the greatest inventions of the last 100 years, is used as a crutch to help increase a game’s longevity, instead of inherent quality.

Once upon a time, when a game was released, it was considered a finished product: what you saw was what you got. As such, games had to be packed with a high amount of top-tier content to stand out above the rest. Then, if a game was successful enough based on this criteria, a sequel would be sure to follow. When Xbox Live introduced a successful instance of digital distribution, it looked like games would surely benefit from this power.

But with great power, comes great responsibility: publishers would soon abuse the ability to add content after the fact to maximize profits. Characters created before a game’s launch to be sold at a later date, content that isn’t even remotely worth the price, and the dreaded “Loot Box” are all examples of DLC that seem to serve no other purpose than to fuck the consumer without buying them dinner first (it’s worth noting that 2 of those examples are EA games).

Where a game could once rest on its laurels and be satisfied with a completed project, most large budget games are propped up by DLC after launch, some of which is in development before the game comes out. This isn’t even mentioning “pre-order bonuses,” content you get for spending a small amount of money on a game before you can ascertain its quality. I can think of nothing more presumptuous than asking for more money, for a product that is already quite expensive, for a product you don’t know whether or not you will enjoy.

But games are bigger and more expensive in the 2010s. One would think that some of that money goes to polishing a game before release, right? One would be wrong. Games are frequently launched with issues (another EA game, to the surprise of no-one) and glitches, occasionally with fixes (or sometimes “fixes”) patched in after the fact. Even worse, some games are launched in a completely inexcusable state.

Stand-out classics like Super Mario 64 and DOOM are also becoming more sparse, while open-world games that preoccupy your time with busywork push their way into the mainstream. Achievements were created in 2005 to help legitimize this busywork, giving out Boy Scout patches to anybody who could complete certain tasks in the game, like getting a certain amount of kills with a certain weapon or getting a certain hit combo. Ultimately though, that is all Achievements are: busywork.

Looking at the most successful games of the last 10 years, it’s clear that the creative well is drying up. Most “Oscar Season” games have some, if not most, of these elements:

  • Shooting or slashing (The Last of Us/The Witcher)
  • Open-world or very linear/”cinematic” (The Witcher/The Last of Us)
  • Heavy online focus (Overwatch, Destiny, Battlefield series)
  • Lots of collectibles (Assassin’s Creed series)

Like any company in a capitalist society, game publishing companies seek to make the most amount of money they can. It is financially reasonable to see what type of game works and to make more of them; conversely, a publisher’s “financial reasoning” cripples the creativity of developers, pigeonholing them into creating games that are much similar to already successful ones. The games that attempt to break the mold are often those with the lowest budgets, and the least amount of commercial marketing.

In short, the most successful gaming platforms are the ones with the worst and most exploitative games and the cheapest hardware (smartphones). Blockbuster games on consoles are often the ones with the worst practices and most uninspired gameplay, where more creative games get lost in the shuffle.

Looking at all of that, the future looks a little bleak… at least, the future would look bleak, if gaming in 2017 wasn’t a sight to behold. There is no denying that blockbuster games could use a little spicing up, but to write off all mainstream games isn’t just silly, it’s outright wrong. The gaming community is one of the most vocal and passionate group of fans in any entertainment medium… for better or worse.

No matter how much the industry swings in favour of microtransactions, or how profitable it would be to essentially let devs self publish on their platforms, the community wouldn’t let it happen. Whether they’re rallying against EA for Star Wars: Battlefront II’s hideous microtransactions or putting painstaking hours into studying Dark Souls’ lore and mechanics for Wikis, the gaming community knows what it wants and won’t let it stray too far from the path.

2017 felt like a special year. By the end of it, there were some serious surprises. Nintendo and Xbox, two contenders that looked down and out, are on track to breaking through their negative perceptions and succeeding. If there’s anything to take away from this year, it’s that gaming will still be thriving for at least another generation.

When Nintendo created the Wii, it was initially hailed by critics, but those same critics kicked it down a few notches for its lack of both powerful hardware and 3rd parties. When the Wii U came out, critics were less than kind with it, and the sales were no better: it’s still one of Nintendo’s worst selling consoles to date. But the Switch is lightning in a bottle. Its release emboldened Nintendo fans everywhere, dissipating the storm clouds above their heads and giving them a console they could be proud to own.

It’s not as powerful as the PS4, probably not even as powerful as the PS3. It doesn’t have the features of the Xbox 360, let alone the Xbox One. It’s portable, but not quite as portable as a smartphone or even a 3DS XL. But what it does have, is games. People may use Steam for the discounts and the variety of games, or Xbox for its services, but people buy Nintendo consoles for those first-party masterpieces, those experiences that leave a lasting impression on you well after you’ve finished playing them. Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild and Super Mario Odyssey are both getting rave reviews, and their sales are showing no signs of stopping. Nintendo recently brought some of their Wii games to the NVIDIA Shield in China, strengthening the notion that Nintendo’s games transcend the capabilities of its hardware.

Sony is pretty good at this, too. Not Nintendo good, but they’re definitely the closest example. They’ve got a wide selection of first-party games, ranging from the Indiana Jones inspired Uncharted series, to the deconstruction of the Greek Hero in God of War. They’ve got their own multimedia service with the PlayStation Network, with movies and TV shows for rent and purchase. But they haven’t taken their eye off the prize: the games are the biggest draw.

Google and Apple have their niches. People may not buy smartphones for the hard-hitting exclusive titles of games, but their services create a wider, more casual audience of gamers, broadening the scope of games and creating experiences that might not be made on consoles for fear of them not selling. Low budget games for a machine nearly everyone has access to? Truly, this is an indie gamer’s dream.

Steam is their PC equivalent, with community tools like Curators to help recommend games otherwise buried in Steam’s massive library. PCs also have more avenues to find and purchase games, with options like GOG (where you can find classics like Planescape: Torment), itch.io (indie focused, with a ton of experimental games) and Humble Bundle (where a portion of a game’s sale goes to a select charity).

Windows, being at least 4 times more popular than MacOS, is the standard for PC operating systems. Microsoft, owning both Xbox and Windows, seeks to amalgamate the two services, bringing Xbox games to your PC. While they probably won’t make a dent in Steam’s marketplace, it’s a great feature, bringing those hard-hitting console exclusives like Gears of War and Forza from the console to the PC. With more options to buy the same games and the ability to play them on various devices, perhaps the Xbox might live up to its “all-in-one” mentality after all.

Consoles are essentially optimized, user-friendly machines. One might ask why one would want to play console games when they could get those same games on a PC, sacrificing game optimization for higher performance. Microsoft’s answer to that is “why not both?” Why not both, indeed.

While people love playing games, it isn’t the only way people consume them. People enjoy watching people play games, whether they be itch.io’s experimental games or Steam’s AAA powerhouses. To many outside of the community, there is no appeal in watching people play games. “Why watch them when you can play it for yourself?” What they don’t realize is that it isn’t about the gameplay alone, but about the community. Seeing the Twitch chat erupt when someone does something hilarious or something that takes a monumental amount of luck is a magical moment. These streamers create moments that the viewers can take with them and tell other game fans and hopefully get more people playing the game.

Maybe an Amazon/Twitch console wouldn’t be so bad: a machine where you can watch games, chat with people and streamers, buy them off of Amazon’s marketplace, stream them for other people, chat with them, continue the cycle. It isn’t as intimate as something like Facebook or Twitter, but it’s slowly becoming the de facto social media hub for game enthusiasts. A social media platform for game fans could very well be a step in the right direction. In fact, it could help strengthen the gaming community even more.

Nothing would make me happier: a world where game enthusiasts are encouraged to help foster a greater game community. Maybe I’m a little close-minded. After all, there are communities that do just that, if you know where to look.

 

I’ve said a lot about consoles and gaming platforms. Quite a lot.

I talked about the most successful game consoles of eras past, from the top notch library of the SNES, to the multifaceted PS2, to the polished online service of the Xbox 360. These consoles laid the foundation for the consoles of the present and perhaps even the future.

I talked about what’s succeeding presently. The PS4 is topping the charts, with a steady stream of games, but a portable home console in the Nintendo Switch and the imposing power of the Xbox One X are worth talking about. We have yet to see the full capabilities of the Big 3 right now.

I talked about the future of game consoles, platforms and which game or tech giant could feasibly make a new console. Activision Blizzard and EA are two of the biggest game publishers and have the resources to make a game console, if they chose, although a Twitch console seems possible too. Tencent has the finances and the reach to make a dedicated gaming box succeed in the West.

Finally, I talked about what could go wrong. In short: lots. But looking at the industry leaders, it doesn’t seem like the Doomsday Clock is going to hit midnight anytime soon… although I maintain that it should wind back a couple of minutes for the industry’s sake.

Doing research for these posts, I learned quite a lot about the industry. I got a little scared (can you tell?) but overall, I’m pretty excited for the future. I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m excited to find out.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more!

sph3re

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