Monday, June 10, 2013

A Deeper Problem with Consoles

I don't really think this console launch could have gone any better. Or worse, for that matter. I'm kind of a determinist about corporate behavior: it rarely surprises.

The problem is that consoles are fundamentally played out. They can't generate much more innovative IP.

Ahhh, that sounds annoying just hearing it said in my head. Let me explain:

In each console generation until the 360/PS3 season, every new console would bring a new technology. That new technology did more than look shiny on the TV ads - it allowed for new kinds of games. The NES allowed for games with real levels and save games. SNES and Sega improved the handling and performance so that the games were actually fun to play. Then the CDs with their ultra-high data levels, then the poly-pushing monsters of the PS2 and XBOX one the first.

Not all these attempts succeeded. Full-motion video, for example, crashed and burned until it became a part of every game ever in the PS2 era. But at its heart, every generation of console brought a technology to the home, and that new technology allowed for games which would have been very hard or impossible to create on earlier models. Not just in terms of graphical fidelity, but in terms of core gameplay.

There were jumpy platform games before Super Mario - even ones with scrolling levels. But the NES came out and made it easy. You didn't need to work through clever, delicate algorithms to get this shit to run - anyone could make a game that did it, and therefore everyone did. It allowed for innovative IP. New games which played in new ways.

the thing is, you could always clearly see what the next technology was going to be. It was always foretold by the adjustments to the earlier consoles as they aged. They got add-ons, pushed new kinds of gameplay... these late-life techniques were rarely impressive, but when you saw the Sega CD you knew that this piece of crap was what the next console was going to polish. You could always see it coming down the line.

Late game in the PS3 and XBOX 360 lifespan. What innovations did you see?

Motion tracking.

That's it.

Unlike the CD, motion tracking is obviously not ready to have a solid generation of consoles based on it. When you saw crappy CD games - Dragon's Lair or Sewer Shark, for example - they were crap. But you could see that there was a new resource there. They were incredibly impressive while, at the same time, being crap.

But there was never so much as a single motion tracking game this generation that was even vaguely impressive. They were 100% universally panned, at least in terms of what motion tracking brought to the table.

No, the real innovation in this console generation is the tablet - the new winner of the console market.

Tablets (and smart phones) offer new kinds of play, an evolution of the handheld consoles that allows for touch screens and tipping. They give us new affordances that make it easy to create complex physics and timing games in ways that consoles and computers have a hard time with. All of the phone and tablet games can run on a PC, but the PC has different affordances so they feel very awkward. Diner Dash is fun on a tablet because you poke the hot spots. On a PC you have to scroll over to them each time, it's not nearly as intuitive or nice. And this is just the first generation of tablet games, the equivalent of Dragon's Lair and Sewer Shark.

Ironically, it seems MS and Sony really did know that tablets and smartphones were winning, because they tried to make their consoles into the same kind of massively multi-purpose device. But it seems unlikely that the use cases for a small portable device can be mirrored into a large, immobile device. Fundamentally, part of the innovative nature of games on tablets is that they are played in your hands, right there.

Nintendo obviously noticed. The WiiU is literally a tablet attached to a console. There might have been something to that idea, but we already have tablets. The WiiU probably has new affordances, but Nintendo failed to sell us on them. In fact, they didn't sell their device at all. We basically have no idea what experience it's intended to give us.

What I'm saying is that consoles really didn't have anywhere to go. Their market is being eaten by tablets, but the new technologies they need to give new affordances isn't really ready... fuck it! JUST GO!

So of course they suck.

The question is whether consoles are "dead".

To me, a console is fundamentally a "place". You go to the console, you sit down with the console, and you play with the console. It's a bit like board gaming. The whole point is that consoles create an immersive environment.

Computers can play all the games consoles can, but my computer is not a "place". It's an interface. My computer doesn't exist separately from my life, it is a core part of my life. The complex controls and daily routine that are my computer interfere with my ability to get immersed in a game. This is an especially large problem because I have two screens, which means I can always see the computer behind the game.

Right now, consoles are marketed more or less to "people who don't have proper computers but want to play games". But they cost as much as computers because, guess what, they're computers. So those people are happy with their laptops or smart phones or tablets.

But if a new device came around, one which embraced the idea of being a "place"... I think that'd be really interesting.

It'll probably involve motion controls.

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