Boom & Bust: We’re on the Brink of the Biggest Change in Gaming Since the Introduction of the Atari 2600 - Pacific Standard

Boom & Bust: We’re on the Brink of the Biggest Change in Gaming Since the Introduction of the Atari 2600

As part of our week-long series on booms and busts, Jamie Wiebe considers the contenders for the casual gaming crown. Since the early days of Nintendo, the games you play have been secondary to the systems you play them on. And now, the options seem limitless.
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(Photo: anadapanda/Shutterstock)

(Photo: anadapanda/Shutterstock)

People have been predicting the end of consoles since the beginning of consoles, from the death of Sega after its 1998 Dreamcast to today’s systematic deconstruction of Nintendo’s lifespan (or lack thereof). It’s easy to predict a console bust—PC gaming has taken center stage, offering many of the same games you’ll find on any console with graphics and processing speed that beat out even the Xbox One and Playstation 4. The long-stalwart Nintendo has never looked more desperate—the PS4 passed the Wii U’s lifetime sales after just 48 hours on the market.

But really: Will consoles go bust? The biggest players in the game don’t have a lot to lose. Even Tyler Roemhildt, better known on Reddit as Tizaki, the moderator-in-charge of the PCMasterRace subreddit, says he doesn’t think traditional consoles are going anywhere anytime soon—but he does think the next generation of products will look a lot different than the current ones. But as serious gamers turn to build-it-yourself PCs, and online services like Steam and Humble Bundle offer significant discounts on games that cost a fortune for console, it’s tempting to call the end of consoles as we know it.

Maybe there will still be an Xbox and Playstation in the future, but there are more than a few contenders for the casual gaming crown. Unless Sony and Microsoft make a few revolutionary changes, one might make bets that one of the following contenders knock them out of the ring sooner rather than later.

"Making an indie game on PC has relatively low overhead, and we also made our game pretty cheaply, so we didn’t have to wait a year to make our money back. You can make a game on a weekend and distribute it on the Internet."

COMPUTER USERS

It’s the computer gamers that are leading the charge against consoles, with the strongest front held at the subreddit PCMasterRace. There, gamers are encouraged to switch from consoles to custom-built PCs, which Roemhildt claims are superior to consoles in nearly every way.

“Consoles don’t fulfill any need. It’s overlap,” he says. “If you know how to tinker with the settings on your PC, it’s not hard to match a console.” Roemhildt played his first video games on a Nintendo 64, but switched exclusively to PCs (and a Game Boy Advance for gaming on-the-go) in 2011, when it became clear to him that Xbox and Playstation were “noticeably terrible.”

PCMasterRace’s arguments are many, from allegations that console gaming just can’t compete with custom-built computers, to more nebulous ones like a constant and unending handwringing about screen refresh rate and just how many frames per second the human eye can see.

But the group’s main position—that the big console companies are essentially operating a scam on the casual gamer—makes sense. Aside from a few games exclusive to the individual consoles, everything you can get on your Xbox or Playstation you’ll find on the computer—except faster and with better graphics. And it’ll be cheaper, too—especially if purchased in one of the many pop-up sales you’ll find on Steam, or on sites like Humble Bundle, which release groups of indie games for name-your-own-price. Plus, unlike consoles, whose components are built-in, computers themselves are customizable—when your graphics card goes, just pop in a new one and your games will look 10 times better. Why, then, would anyone tie themselves to expensive and inferior hardware just to play the same (but pricier) games? It doesn’t make sense.

MICROSOFT & SONY

You can’t, of course, write off Microsoft and Sony. They’re the current heavyweights, and show no immediate sign of backing down. It seems almost silly to wring our hands about the future of consoles when you look at the numbers for the Xbox One and Playstation 4: Playstation recently broke the seven million unit mark, and Microsoft sold roughly four million units as of January.

Compared with the previous generation of consoles—Xbox 360 and Playstation 3—there’s a clear downward trend. At TechCrunch, Natasha Lomas lays down the numbers: A total of 700,000 consoles were sold in January 2014, the first non-holiday month after the release of the Xbox One and Playstation 4. That’s a startling 1,300,000 less than the January after the last generation’s launch. The industry can’t keep pumping out expensive consoles that don’t sell. Without something revolutionary—not just a hardware update and redesign—there’s not a whole lot of future in consoles for Microsoft and Sony.

NINTENDO

The death of Nintendo has been much-heralded—the Wii sold few units and the Wii U sold even fewer, failing to meet its 2013 targets despite a $50 sales cut. In their most recent fiscal earnings report, Nintendo reported 2.41 million units sold, down 36 percent from the previous year, according to Forbes. There’s no shortage of armchair businessmen with their own prospectus for the Mario maker’s future. Sell the intellectual property, they say—Link and Mario will do just fine on iOS. But in the re-invention of PC gaming, Nintendo’s deep roster of beloved characters stacks the deck to their advantage.

Nintendo’s grasp of the casual gaming market exceeds that of all of their competitors, bar some emerging players on the handheld market like Rovio, makers of the popular Angry Birds apps, and possibly King, the company behind Candy Crush. Having friends over for a casual Friday night? You’re more likely to turn to Mario Kart than Halo. It makes sense that the future of consoles would be games playable in quick bites, and easily understood by new players. That’s where Nintendo shines, if it can just nail down its straggling marketing efforts. A console that shirks the latest Call of Duty for fun games you could play with your friends? That could be a revolution.

STEAM

Valve’s got feet in both development and distribution, making them a great candidate for the re-invention of consoles. And their newest creation intends to blend the two worlds: The Steam Machine, a series of pre-built computers intended to be used as consoles, will run SteamOS and connect directly to the Steam service, which means you get the cheap prices and wide selection of PC gaming in your living room, with enough customization between the different offerings—granted, no specs have been confirmed yet—to please gamers who want both console gaming and ultra high-end graphics. Whether the line will actually achieve that goal is a whole different story. You won’t find many details about the Machines yet—only 300 participants will get to test out the boxes this year. But several different manufacturers are developing their own hardware to pair with Steam’s OS, and Valve hopes to create a flexible universe of consoles to compete directly with Sony and Microsoft’s staid, multi-year product cycles.

It’s a direct hit to the prevailing ethos of console development today, with its long development cycles and weird insistence that the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 graphics are truly top-of-the-line. Truly, their only real advantages are their location in the living room, ease of access for newer players, and ability to make gaming a communal experience. That doesn’t just mean multiplayer—even when playing a one-person game, it’s more enjoyable to sit back and watch someone play through Mass Effect 3 in the living room, with a couch, than it is on a computer. But if the Steam Machines can offer the same games, higher-quality graphics, and cheaper prices, there’s just no reason to buy a new console.

INDEPENDENT GAME-MAKERS & -PLAYERS

The people in the most precarious position with the most to lose (and the most to gain) from the implosion of the console industry are the indie game makers who have revolutionized the industry from the inside: creators of small, understated gems like Dust: An Elysian Tale, Bastion, and Gone Home, all of which are available for PC. Xbox Live Arcade has been a boon for some, bringing smaller publishers to the living rooms of the masses. But it’s even easier to push out a game on PC, where you can self-publish or sign up with one of many Steam-like game distribution systems.

“Making an indie game on PC has relatively low overhead, and we also made our game pretty cheaply, so we didn’t have to wait a year to make our money back,” says Karla Zimonja, one of the co-founders of The Fullbright Company, which developed indie blockbuster Gone Home and recently won Best Debut at the 2014 Game Developer’s Choice Awards. “You can make a game on a weekend and distribute it on the Internet.”

Microsoft and Sony have made it easier for indie publishers to develop games for their systems, as this Game Academy article outlines. Seven of the games on Games Radar’s list of the best 25 indie games of all time were first released on Xbox Live Arcade, Microsoft’s digital video game download service. But 16 were first released for PC, and all of the games that began as Xbox exclusives were eventually ported to PC. Seven of the games have never been released for consoles. Clearly, if you’re interested in indie games—and considering the sheer volume and quality of indie games being produced today—PCs have the qualitative advantage.

“The worst thing you can do is be exclusively console and miss out on PC exclusives,” Roemhildt says. “The number and quality of those games is definitely better than you get on consoles.”

We’re telling stories all week on the theme of booms and busts. What’s on the edge—of becoming a big thing, or of falling off the radar? Read the entire series here.

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