Time and Tides Wait for No Man..
Times are changing, the technological landscape is changing, the business models are changing, but more even more important changes are in the wind. Recently Ben Sipe wrote an article on why he was not interested in buying the next gen consoles. This is a sentiment that I have seen echoed all over the internet, and I am willing to bet that Microsoft and Sony are going to see sales that are dramatically lower than what they are expecting. Why? Well, there are several reasons, but I think the most pressing one is that the tide of consumer demands are changing.
What Goes Around Comes Around
This is not the first time that we have seen the situation facing the current generation of console. Many of you may remember the Video Game Crash between 1983 - 1985, and those that don't should do a little research because there are definitely some parallels between then and now. The main four reasons for the crash were simple:
- Too Many Platforms: Part of what led to that crash was that there were simply too many platforms available. This meant that the hard core gamer had to make a much larger investment, for dubious rewards, and the chances that your highly anticipated game was going to be on your favorite console were slim.
- Too Many Developers: While it may seem like it is impossible to have too many game developers, anyone who is familiar with Facebook, Google Play, the Apple Store, or other app markets knows better. You have to sift through the crap to find the gems, and that is too much like work.
- AAA Developers Abused Their Fans: While those that remember the crash likely remember the hype about E.T. being responsible, the problem was that the AAA publishers were turning out rehashed garbage, much like today. You might also remember that Nintendo saved the game industry by requiring developers to meet higher standards for their games.
- Commercialism Instead of Creativity: If you can remember the endless movie/television IP spin-offs, sequels, and even brand themed games(Koolaid, Yo Noid, etc), you will know what I mean. Making games IS a business, but it is a business in which creativity is the product you are selling. If you lose that, you lose your business.
Glut of Platforms
Today's climate is not that different. Just counting platforms on the shelf (as of yesterday at Best Buy) you have: PS Vita, DS, 3DS, Wii, Wii U, Playstation2, Playstation3, Xbox360, PC, Android, & iOS. In the next gen series, we will be adding Ouya, Gamestick, Steambox, PS4, and XboxOne. Even if we discount the Wii & PS2, you still have fourteen platforms that developers can release on and, more importantly, that consumers must choose between.
Given that the graphical quality between them is not that great, particularly in the latest generation, the graphics have stopped being as major of a selling point as they were in the past. As mobile platforms catch up with consoles in processing power that also becomes a smaller point of differentiation between them.
Where does that leave developers and consumers? Well, it leaves them relying on clairvoyance as to which developer is going to offer the best selection of content in the future, which is always a bit of a gamble.
Too Many Developers
As an aspiring game dev myself, this is hard for me to swallow, but it is the truth none the less: There are simply too many developers out there at the moment. It is not, strictly speaking, a question of numbers, but rather a question of quality and content control. I doubt that there is a gamer alive today who has not seen at least one clone, and if truth be told, we have all likely seen hundreds if not thousands of them.
Whether you are looking at the hundredth version of Bejeweled, the glut of WoW clones, a never ending supply of Zombie Apocalypse games, or Call of Duty 9000: SSDD, there is no doubt that we are in the midst of the Clone Wars. Having a lot of developers could be good, if they were not all developing the same thing. The truly terrible thing about it is that the wonderful gems that do arise are often buried so deep in the shit that they can be nearly impossible to find, particularly since most indie developers do not have an advertising budget.
Developers Abusing Fans
While this subject could be (and has been) an article in its own right, I think recent examples such as EA's Sim City debacle and SOE's notoriously poor customer support are prime examples. However, it is not just the game publishers that are guilty, but also the console makers. Microsoft's planned meddling in customer privacy and consumer ownership rights are just the latest in a long line of poor treatment of a very loyal consumer base. Half-baked releases, abusive pricing schemes, poor quality, and DRM schemes that break their products.
Gross Commercialism Trumping Creativity
This one is a little harder to pin down to any one thing, though we have all seen examples of it. One reasonable example is the constant spam of banners and ads in supposedly free to play games. I am not against them making money, but that shit reminds me of the folks asking you for $.75 so they can get a bus ticket.. .. .. If you are going to charge for your game, charge for it. Otherwise, make the methods for players to support your game unobtrusive.
While the blatant begging is one method, abusive and game breaking micro-transaction schemes also fall into this umbrella. Don't get me wrong, I love micro-transactions when done right, but all to often the schemes that we see break all logic and sense. For example, charging players $10 for a one-time use in-game object. Ridiculous.
The last method I am going to discuss here applies, in part, to making clones as a way to monopolize on a IP's popularity, but also extends to making unimaginative and glitchy games based on other IP's such as movies and television. Creativity is the soul of the game industry, and without it, it will sink.
Is this the end?
With all this gloom and doom talk, I am not saying that this is going to be the end of consoles, or the end of gaming in general. Games will exist as long as there are human beings around to play them. That being said, I wouldn't be surprised to see the old giants topple out of the console world to make room for new growth, just like what happened back in the 80's. As for where I am placing my bets: PC, Playstation, Nintendo, Mobile and perhaps OUYA, though it still needs to prove itself.
I think the Microsoft Console days are reaching their end, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see the Xbox One tank. I also wouldn't be surprised to see the PS4 tank. Neither of these two brands are bringing anything new to the table. While people may discount Nintendo from the running, I actually think that they have one of the strongest positions because of their innovative offerings, backwards compatibility, unrivaled creativity, and history of thoroughly vetting every title that they allow on their system. PC's will remain strong, particularly in the simulation and MMORPG sectors not only because of their universal accessibility, but also because they have already transitioned almost entirely to digital distribution, allow much better access to modding tools, and have unrivaled processing power. It is still to early to tell about the OUYA and Steambox, but Mobile is here to stay, for better or worse.
In short, expect to see some upheavals in the next few years, and it might be wise to hold off on release day purchases until we have a better idea of which console is going to be giving the best access to content.
Who is going to win?
The winners of this current generation are going to be those that really understand what is going to be the major differentiating factors between platforms, and what consumers really want. What it will ultimately come down to is who can provide the easiest access to the most creative and innovative games, and whichever one shows the most respect for their consumer in terms of support, respecting their privacy, and in right-pricing their content to meet the consumer budget. Right now, the top three that meet those qualifications are the PC, followed distantly by Nintendo and PS4.