A post-console world: Has the concept of a dedicated gaming machine become outdated?
When Andrew first told me he wanted to discuss whether we need consoles, or if the gaming industry has outgrown them completely, I thought the question was a little silly. Consoles are great. You buy them, hook them up, put in a game, and play it. They allow us to play games that are more complicated than what we get on our mobile device, deliver better graphics than our portable systems, and are less complicated and expensive than either buying or putting together a good gaming PC.
So there is a workable niche there. For many people, especially those who appreciate a good Netflix box or the other secondary features consoles provide, they’re a good value. It’s a product that fits in with your home entertainment center, and tends to be the center of your gaming world.
I like consoles. I’m buying a PS4 and an Xbox One, and I would likely do so even if it weren’t my job to stay caught up with these things. From the NES on, I’ve begged, borrowed, and stole to make sure I had every console, just because I hate the idea of missing out on a great exclusive or the better version of a game. I don’t just like consoles, I like many consoles, and the differences between them. There’s a lot about the business model that needs to be adjusted, sure, but the ideas behind them are perfectly sound.
Besides, if consoles went away tomorrow, if we started living in a post-console world, what takes their place? Are we really interested in just mobile devices and PC games?
To preface this, I should say that I've always been a console gamer. In the past few years though, I've slowly gravitated more and more to gaming on my PC. It has never been out of a sense of PC elitism or devotion to the PC gaming lifestyle. It just happened naturally. And now that I look into my living room at my consoles I don't see any reason to go back.
Now that we're looking ahead to the next console generation I'm finding myself asking why we need those things at all. The problem I see with the debate between console and PC is the idea that there's such a thing as a “console game” and a “PC game.” There can be differences in philosophy between the two, but for the most part games can be put on any system.
Console exclusives are not games that could only be on Xbox One or PS4. They're games that are contractually locked to that specific console through business transactions, not creative decisions. So it's important to note that even if we were living in a gaming future that only subsisted off of mobile and PC, we'd still have most of the same games. They'd just be on a different platform.
The other problem is that consoles have long been tearing down the walls between consoles and PCs. The big difference between a console and a PC is that one has an operating system that is easy to navigate with a controller. We've already started to see companies like Valve design things like Big Picture Mode on Steam which are designed to make PC gaming easier with a controller.
So from my vantage point, the only advantage to owning a console is an easier living room user interface, and the ability to play ball with corporate executives when they lock games down to a single platform. The first is evaporating quickly, and we can only hope the second will soon.
Well, there's another aspect to this discussion, and that's economics. Consoles are often sold at or below cost to get people to buy them and spend money on games. You may be able to buy a gaming PC for the same cost as an Xbox One or PS4, but it's doubtful that PC will be able to provide the same amount of power. The PC is always going to be more powerful than the consoles, but you have to pay for that power. PC gaming is also always going to be more expensive for this reason. You don't have Valve subsidizing the cost of your hardware, at least not yet.
And that's just pre-made systems. You can save a ton of money by building your own system, but that's a complicated process for your average consumer, and trying to figure out what components work well together can likewise be a trying process. We simply haven't gotten to the point where PCs are as cost-effective or as simple as consoles, and consoles will always have an advantage in those two areas. There just isn't a competing product that can do what a console does in the market, and what a console does is very attractive to a great many people.
Besides, we can hate on exclusives all we want, but exclusives allow great things to happen. Look at Naughty Dog: They have the sort of budget that allows them to spend more time with their actors, who perform their scenes in the same room, and often give thoughts on what their characters would do or say. They have the time to really dig into the performances, and the characters evolve with time. This happens because Sony funds the games, understands the competitive advantage of having Naughty Dog games as exclusives, and treats the developer better than they might find if they were published by a company that was making a multiplatform game.
Exclusives give the platform holders a competitive advantage, and they'll invest heavily in making exclusive games the best they possibly can be, and they'll push for games that use their specific hardware to the best of its abilities. Look at Halo 4, there is nothing that comes close to that game graphically on other systems. Look at the investment Sony put into the Uncharted and Last of Us games, it's rare to see those kinds of performances in multiplatform releases. Giving the platform holders a reason to push for the best games on their system possible is good for games, even though gamers complain about having to buy multiple consoles to play every game.
Consoles lead to more power for less money, and exclusives often turn into the best games of each generation. These aren't bad things at all.
I don't disagree on any particular point. Right now, PC gaming is the more expensive individual option, and console exclusives do allow developers to throw extra money at a project because they're show pieces for a larger business. But that's what we get for the $4-500 investment, and not a whole lot more. You also only get access to one platform's exclusives. Following all of console gaming will set you back more than a thousand dollars at launch, which is more expensive than a very nice pre-built gaming PC and still gives you access to only a fraction of the games and services available on PC.
Exclusives can allow great games to be enhanced, but it's not the only path. Just look at what Rockstar has done over the past decade, especially with LA Noire and Grand Theft Auto 4, or Bethesda with Skyrim. Rockstar and Bethesda have been making exclusive-quality games without the console-exclusive backing for a long time. I think we'd still get games like that if we lived in a console-less future. There would be fewer, but that is going to happen anyway as development costs continue to blow up.
I think your most salient point was to note that PC gaming is too complicated for the average user, and I agree with that. But I don't think it's an insurmountable problem by any means. What we need is a friendly user interface in the living room that is built around the openness of the PC platform. The living room and user friendly operating systems aren't the enemy. The closed off nature of the consoles is what I'd like to see end.
I look at Xbox One and I see a console that is fighting against all that has been great in the gaming business for the past couple years. I see a difficult system for small companies and indies. I see a system that is region locked so we won't be able to access many of the games being made in up-and-coming territories around the world. And I also see a system that keeps prices artificially high by keeping the amount of games available artificially low.
Those are the things that have made gaming great in the recent past, and consoles aren't embracing that. In every area I feel like the open nature of PC gaming has proven to be a better deal for gamers and developers at every turn.
Ben's final thoughts
It's also important to bring up the fact that used games don't exist on the PC, nor can you loan games. You know me, I don't think this is a big deal, and I think that the death of used games could be a good thing for many reasons. But it's a very important thing for many gamers. Still, if consoles are going that way anyway you don't lose much.
Most of your arguments aren't against the idea of consoles, but how Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo are implementing their interpretations of a console. They should be more open, and Sony is certainly taking more steps to welcoming smaller developers and different monetization schemes. DUST 514 is an amazing experiment, and it happened because of Sony's willingness to be a more open platform. What you want out of a console can certainly happen, it's up to the platform holders to make it so.
The problem, if I understand your thoughts correctly, is that with the next-generation of hardware we're often getting the worst parts of the console experience combined with the worst parts of the PC. I also don't like the fact that the new Kinect is mandatory; it's a peripheral that will drive up the cost of the system, and only exists because Microsoft wants us to interact with non-gaming interfaces in a very specific way.
I've played with the new Kinect, and it's certainly an improvement, but I don't want to wave my hands at my console to get things to happen. My controller works just fine for that, and it's less expensive.
So I disagree that we're heading towards a post-console future, but I do think that both ways of playing games can learn from each other. I'd love a gaming PC that plugs into my TV with a single HDMI cable, plugs into the wall for power, and is controllable with just a wireless controller. Bring the open nature of the PC to the living room, while keeping what we like about consoles: ease of use. Of course, it's important to remember that Steam is just as much of a walled garden as anything Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft create.
I think both sides are learning from other right now, but they're learning the wrong damned lessons.