Angry Robot

Notes on the End of the Console Wars

The games industry is stranger these days than I’ve ever seen it. At the root is technological change, as always: the kind of tech needed to present a passable modern game experience is now so cheap it shows up in phones, TVs, watches. The game console makers have tried to branch out and present their machines as “everything boxes” which mostly means they help you watch things. But the technology needed to watch things is even cheaper than that needed for games: witness the sub-$100 Roku and of course so-called smart TVs, which come with streaming and social apps built in.

I would bet that this generation, the machines we have thought of as consoles (dedicated games hardware costing $300+) will be essentially core gamer boxes. Only the hardcore will spend money on something that plays games, when everything else already plays games. The casual players that fueled success in the previous generation will have no need to buy consoles this time around, and even the hardcore themselves will start to question their utility. As the years pass, the game abilities of non-consoles (multi-purpose devices like tablets, phones, TVs, streaming boxes, clothes? who knows!) will only grow, while the consoles stay the same for five to eight years at a time.

How do the major players stand now?

Nintendo is not doing well. I expect the 3DS will chug along, but the Wii U is confusing to non-gamers and unappealing to core gamers – sales will get even worse. Nintendo is like Keith Richards: they may last a bit longer, but it’s not gonna be pretty.

With the Xbox One’s price, used games fiasco, and creepy always-snitching Kinect, Microsoft basically chugged poison, tripped, fell into a hole filled with spikes, and set themselves on fire. The used games issue will scare away hardcore gamers, while the $500 price makes it pointless for casual or non-gamers, despite the heavy TV pitch.

Sony will do well. They kept the PS4 price down, made the thing easy to develop for, and lured indies as well as the AAA publishers. Plus – amazing that this is a bragging point and grounds to “win” E3 – you can play used games on it.

But as time passes the new players will make things even more interesting.

As I have written before, Apple could disrupt the games industry by doing barely anything: opening the AppleTV to third party apps, and maybe making a dedicated controller / new remote. Interestingly, word out of WWDC (probably muted because of non-disclosure agreements) is that they are working on a spec for game controllers. May be nothing, but it may be a huge deal.

The Ouya, an open $100 Android-based system, is already out, although it will probably struggle to attract developers. I know little of the Android games ecosystem, but from what I read on Pocket Tactics, it doesn’t sound that robust – and it presumably takes at least some extra work to make a stock touch-based Android game work a system with a tiny install base.

Valve’s still-mostly-theoretical Steam Box is another big question mark. It’s as open as the Ouya but would have access to everything in the Steam store, which means basically all PC games. The idea of playing PC games comfortably from my couch is very enticing to me. But the only example of one so far – there may be many different models made by different manufacturers – costs $1000, which isn’t going to set any markets on fire.

Another interesting idea? Sony touted new cloud gaming features coming to PS4, PS3 and Vita. But that technology isn’t limited by the capabilities of the hardware, since the processing is happening on a server, and only the video and user input is happening on the device. This means that Sony could equally bring cloud gaming to their line of TVs that isn’t doing that well. It’s probably unlikely unless they’re really backed against a wall, but it’s an interesting thought.