Last week’s article on the Oculus Rift raised a certain propensity towards prognostication regarding the immediate future and relevance of a new piece of hardware. For the most part, such thoughts on the matter are without conceivable merit: history has demonstrated that sometimes even the most sure-fire thing eventuates in failure (the launch of the Playstation 3, and its current, albeit successful, third-place standing), while devices destined for failure become successes beyond even the most wildest expectations (the Wii).
Microsoft finally took the wraps off the next version of the Xbox last week. Known as the Xbox One, this new console will be, according to Microsoft, the only box needed under your television for the near future. That is, if you happen to live in America.
The Xbox One presentation had all the hallmarks of a truly American assault. It’s all too easy to vilify Microsoft for creating a console for its home territory, but doing so significantly alienates an international market that it really cannot ignore. Microsoft’s standing in Japan, for example, is particularly dire: sales of the Xbox 360 were regularly trumped by the Playstation 2, a console five years its senior.
Perhaps Microsoft doesn’t need Japan. After all, America provided the lions share of total sales for the Xbox 360; maybe Japan is simply a ‘nice to have’ market. However, Microsoft’s demonstration highlighted a severe miscalculation of its ill-defined market: the perceived importance of a central television in every American home.
We no longer live in an age where entertainment pivots around the TV. Entertainment is far more granular and widespread, and no longer relies on the bizarre omnipotence of television networks to satiate an audience’s desire. It’s a testament to the intricacies of our personalities and lives that we are able to seek out what we want, when we want. Microsoft has created a device that attempts to tick every single possible box that’s ever existed while creating new ones at the same time, and in doing so fails to create a relevant argument for its existence. Attempting to shackle an audience to a format it long abandoned is not exactly a viable route to profitable success.
Something that Nintendo has certainly learnt (and Sony, to an extent) is that a games console boils down to its games. What can a potential customer experience on a given console that cannot be replicated elsewhere? According to Microsoft, absolutely nothing: large swaths of time were dedicated to EA Sports and Activision reveals of their latest sports and Call of Duty titles, respectively, all of which are console agnostic. Furthermore, Microsoft’s apparent desire to make video games a ‘relevant medium’ resulted in yet another ill-advised spectacle of television and film comparisons. It’s as if the only way for video games to take their place as a relevant form of artistic expression is to couple them closely with the distinct, publicly-cemented worlds of television and film: why bother funding the next generation of independent developers to craft beautiful, original game experiences when you can trot out Steven Spielberg to talk about a new Halo TV-series?
Microsoft doesn’t seem to actually want to make a games console. Their own prognostication has foretold of a future where the dedicated gaming machine is extinct. Perhaps they’re right. The world has changed since the 2005 reveal of the Xbox 360. Gaming is more ingrained in popular consciousness than ever before, yet the amount of poisonous vitriol against it is higher than ever. Microsoft’s solution is a kitchen-sink device that also happens to play games: it’s a one-size fits all answer to a problem with an infinite amount of sizes, and just isn’t fitting many of them well at all.
Microsoft announced the Xbox One last week, and most people aren’t too impressed by it. Well, so far it’s just a glorified smart TV, and I don’t think anybody will be impressed until they show off their exclusive games at E3.
Much like the PS4, Microsoft’s new offering doesn’t appeal to me very much. There’s no innovation – "Kinect plus one" and rumbling controller triggers do nothing to impress. Microsoft have announced a "safe" successor to their previous generation, and I’m sure it’ll sell quite well. In America.
For the rest of us, it leaves us with yet another forced hardware upgrade in the Microsoft camp. Sony are exactly the same with the PS4. (As I said in a previous article, Nintendo are the only group trying to do something different and innovative – but Nintendo are unpredictable. They’ll always just do their own thing.) The problem with these two latest console announcements is they’re pretty much identical to their predecessors, and to each other.
This is a self-destructive loop for gamers, developers, and hardware manufacturers. One console gets popular, so developers focus on making games for that console. Gamers see lots of games on a console, so that’s what they buy. Hardware manufacturers see a popular console, and emulate it as best they can. The cycle continues.
With this cycle, consoles are quickly becoming identical. The controllers are the same, the computing power is the same, and for the most part, the games are the same. Hell, with the upcoming generation of consoles, the PS4 and XB1 use processors and graphics technology that are a hair’s breadth away from off-the-shelf PC components.
These "next-gen" consoles are simply glorified PCs with fancy controllers attached. But they have many downsides that PCs do not: they lack backwards compatibility, customisation options, upgradability, and general control over how the console behaves and interacts with the internet.
By the time the next console generation rolls around, I would be surprised if a better contender hasn’t appeared. One that isn’t locked down to a certain hardware vendor. A platform that supports real backwards compatibility, gives you full control over your software, and allows you to upgrade your hardware whenever you want.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking – that’s a computer! And yes the humble PC is what I think will be the "next-gen" console of the future. Somebody just needs to package one up so that it’s accessible to everybody, and is as conveniently available as any other TV console.
And here’s the kicker: we’ve known about such a device for a while now – it’s called the "Steam Box". When Valve announced Steam ten years ago, most people dismissed it as a ridiculous idea. Gaming was a very different beast back then, and the PC as a platform was struggling under the might of the PS2 and the other gen 6 consoles. Valve’s online-only offering was not something that any "sane" company would create. However, create they did – and today, Steam is as synonymous with gaming as PlayStation and Xbox. Only recently have other larger companies been able to keep up, with EA and Ubisoft introducing their own platforms to compete with Valve’s offering.
Valve did something ridiculous to revolutionise the gaming industry – and now they’re trying to do it again with the Steam Box device. These are simply packaged PCs with Steam installed on them – no vendor, hardware, software, or operating system lock-ins to be found. Valve are trying to lower the barrier of entry into the PC market – and once they do that, the platform will completely dominate the gaming market. Everything Valve has done with Steam recently has been to further this lofty goal – from Linux support to the "Big Picture" interface.
That’s the direction I hope gaming will evolve in. The sooner the industry and fanbase drops the concept of "exclusives" and "console preference", the better. We can stop the petty console wars, the stupid console reveal presentations, and all the other pointless crap, and just focus on making and playing games.
However, industry being what it is, this might not happen. Companies want to make money more than anything – and nobody is exempt from that. Valve would be taking a big risk if they tried to muscle in on the console hardware markets. If Sony and Microsoft feel threatened, they’ll fight as hard as possible to discredit them. And they might just succeed. And Nintendo? Nobody can predict Nintendo. They’ll just keep doing their own thing.