The Minecraft problem: the PS4 and next Xbox need flexibility, not power
Sony has sent out invitations for an event on February 20th, and the rumor is that we’re going to see the PlayStation 4. I believe it. What seems to be solid information about the power of each of the next-generation systems has begun to pop up in the press, and that information seems accurate based on my own sources and conversations across the past few months. It’s hard to keep this sort of thing under wraps, and we’re getting very close to knowing exactly what each company is packing in their next console, and when we’re going to be able to buy one.
In today’s industry, however, the services may be just as important as the hardware. It doesn’t matter if one console is slightly more powerful than the other, what matters is how welcoming the consoles are to developers.
The Minecraft problem
This is something I call the Minecraft problem, and it’s going to be a much larger problem with consoles moving forward if nothing is done. Minecraft has sold over 9 million copies on PC as of January of 2013, and the game has sold over 4 million copies on the Xbox Live Arcade. All told, the game has sold 20 million copies over every platform, and that number continues to grow. I took my son to Math and Science night at his school last night and saw three kids playing Minecraft on tablets or phones. They discuss what’s happening on their respective servers at lunch. It’s a huge hit, and an innovative platform.
It also would have been impossible on any existing console.
Minecraft may have ultimately come to the Xbox 360, but the game breaks many of Microsoft’s rules. “It’s not that bad, somehow we managed to get in the contract that we can do free updates, which they don’t do. Somehow [Mojang’s Carl Manneh] managed to do that,” Markuss “Notch” Persson told me in an interview. “I think we managed to convince them based on the fact that it worked on the PC. So that’s how we did it, I understand why it happened. But it’s kind of… it’s a unique position to have.”
He’s right. The only reason that play worked is that the game was already a huge success. Consoles will die if they continue to wait for PC games to innovate and then bend the rules for certain titles. While I may argue with the relevance of NPD numbers when it comes to the entirety of the industry, they do a good job of tracking console games sold at physical retail stores, and those sales are down. Large publishers are dying left and right. The days of the $60, packaged game aren’t over, but we’re certainly in their twilight.
Microsoft has shoved games into the background of the Xbox Live dashboard in favor of ads and multimedia features, making it harder to find and buy games.
The company won’t let developers set their own prices on Xbox Live Arcade, a service whose very name is an anachronism, and they space out releases in an arbitrary way. The industry has moved past the point where most gamers think there’s a difference between a “downloadable” title and a more expensive game they buy in the store, and right now more innovation is happening in the downloadable space than on consoles, and not by a small margin.
When I think about the truly exciting games of the past few years, I think of games like Minecraft, FTL, and I think of Artemis. While some gamers don’t like free-to-play, it’s hard to argue against its success, and consoles seem to be unable, or unwilling, to support free-to-play titles in any way. There have been some experiments in this area; Happy Wars didn’t seem to make much of a splash on the Xbox 360, and we’ll see how Dust 514 performs, but the consoles have been less than accommodating to new ways to monetize games.
Power is great, and better-looking games are always welcome. This will also help PC games looks better, since the economics of AAA game development all but require every title be cross-platform. Power has always been a solvable problem, though, and the strategy of ditching the expensive, proprietary designs of consoles like the PlayStation 3 is wise. What we haven’t seen is what the console manufacturers are going to do about the Minecraft problem, and how they’re going to deal with the fact that Steam has become a much more attractive platform for many developers.
The industry is changing rapidly, and in many cases painfully for companies like EA and THQ. The consoles can either evolve with services that allow games to innovate on consoles as well as the PC, or they can suffer the consequences. Developers are no longer desperate for what Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft used to control with an iron fist. They have many more options, and those options can be very profitable.
Sony and Microsoft need to recognize that reality in the coming generation, and adopt a more flexible, agile platform for games and services. They need to evolve not just in power, but in features, and I’m not talking adding support for Facebook or Twitter. Power, ease of use, and developer-friendly terms for digital releases and flexibility on monetization and patches are the holy tripod for the console that will dominate the next generation.
Whoever nails those three things, and does it well, is going to win.