New Videogame Consoles! Because…Why, Again?

Also available in black!

Also available in black!

Like all members of my generation, I have a rather ambiguous relationship with videogames.

I believe in the medium. It’s a fascinating new art form, and certain games have been central to some of my fondest memories.

And yet, every few years, I look around and realize I haven’t really played a videogame in almost forever. And then I try to remind myself why I used to care.

Part of this is just a time issue. A truly great single-player game can take as much as 50 hours to complete, and every time I get through one, I look at my watch and realize that (a) it’s three a.m., and (b) I could have read five books in the same amount of time it took me to finish one game. And when you work full time and have kids, that sort of time is at a premium.

But I think there’s more to it than that. Namely, that the games companies haven’t given us a reason to get excited in a long, long time.

This is particularly striking now, as we’re currently in a moment where all three console manufacturers are making bids to be on top in the next hardware generation, and literally nobody I am aware of is at all excited about any of the three new consoles. 

Remember the AWESOME POWER?

Remember the AWESOME POWER?

It didn’t used to be like that. It used to be that every five years, the rumblings would begin in the basement of the Internet, rumors would swirl through the air, the birds and the squirrels would perk up, and then finally there would be a huge unveiling with lasers and slutty girls dancing around, and GRAPHICS LIKE YOU WOULD NOT BELIEVE, YO. And every spoiled 11-year-old would order his mom into the Suburban to drive him down to Walmart to wait in line for 36 hours and be the first kid on his block to own the AWESOME POWER.

I guess it should be obvious what the problem is, then.

For three decades now, the entire console business model has been to get adolescent boys (and grown men with the minds of adolescent boys) to slaver over the possibilities of shinier, prettier graphics. That was always enough to get the base to the store and get the system installed in a critical mass of living rooms. But now that the current generation is more-or-less capable of photorealistic 3D, there’s nowhere to go, really. We can give moustaches more hairs. We can give fields more grass. We can make boobs bouncier. And we WILL. (Mainly because game designers still seem to think their target audience is 13-year-old boys, despite all evidence to the contrary.)

Xbox One: The first game console to make television LESS interactive.

Xbox One: The first game console to make television LESS interactive.

Which is why the press regarding these new systems has focused on everything other than the graphics. Wii U has a touchscreen, just like the iPad you already own! PlayStation 4 integrates with social media –giving your friends the thrilling experience of watching you play videogames! Xbox One allows you to watch TV — RIGHT IN YOUR LIVING ROOM!

One wonders why, if this is all they have to offer, they’re bothering at all. The answer is, of course, because this is what they’ve always done. Every half-decade, the fanboys start drooling for new technology and the hardware manufacturers are happy to give it to them. Except this time…where’s the drooling?

Anybody?

The whole business model, sadly, is a lumbering dinosaur. It’s what’s commonly referred to as the “freebie” or “razor and blades” model of doing business: You sell the base unit for fairly cheap — generally at a loss — and then you make profits by selling and licensing $60 games. But the cost of making a game has blasted into the stratosphere in recent years, as gamers have come to expect photorealistic graphics, ochestral scores, stories that actually make sense, and voice acting that doesn’t make their ears bleed. The profit margin on games has accordingly shrunk, and developers get less willing to take risks every week. Now the business model literally relies on a sizeable core — who apparently don’t have jobs or girlfriends — buying the “collector’s edition” of this year’s version of Call of Duty, and then playing it round the clock while buying every bit of paid downloadable content being offered.

The collector's edition comes with a working Optimus Prime you can ride to the theater. Wait, now I want it.

The collector’s edition comes with a working Optimus Prime you can ride to the theater. Wait, now I want it.

Is that really sustainable? It’s like if Hollywood’s entire approach was to release nothing but a new Transformers movie every month, and then rely on hardcore Michael Bay fans to pony up 50 bucks for a ticket — and then another 10 for the privilege of remaining in their seats every 15 minutes.

It’s very silly.

But apparently there’s a market for it; otherwise there wouldn’t be a new Call of Duty every year.

I guess?

Which makes me wonder: at this point, why bother with new consoles at all? I have trouble believing there are legions of Call of Duty fans out there who keep saying to themselves, “Getting charged out the wazoo to play the same videogame every year is great and all, but I wish the reflections in my teammates’ goggles were slightly more photorealistic. And also, I want my Xbox to tell me what sports to watch.”

It boggles the mind.

For my part, I’ve bought at least one console in each of the last three generations — pretty much since I was old enough to have my own money. I grabbed a Nintendo 64 because 3D gaming excited me; then I bought a PS2 because it had an impressive software catalogue (and I had missed out on all the great RPGs for the PlayStation); then I bought a Wii because motion control seemed cool. (Later, my wife got a PS3 because she decided she had to play Skyrim.)

In the case of all four purchases, it was because there were games I really, really, wanted to play. Super Mario 64 was enough to get me to buy the N64; Ico convinced me a PS2 was worth the purchase (and the massive PS1 library didn’t hurt, either); A coalition of Wii Sports, Twilight Princess, and Skies of Arcadia (for GameCube) was enough to sell me on the Wii. Skyrim sealed the deal on the PS3, but Uncharted and the promise of one day, someday playing The Last Guardian (which is the Duke Nukem Forever for those of us who like games for grown-ups) were pluses as well.

Seriously, how do HARDCORE GAMERS!!! even tell these things apart?

Seriously, how do HARDCORE GAMERS!!! even tell these things apart?

But the thing is, there’s no such thing as a “killer app” in the tech industry anymore. This is particularly obvious in the PC market, which is so bland and homogenized that the only reason to pick one computer over another is pricepoint. (Even the Mac vs. PC debate is largely moot now, since most of us do everything online.) It’s even true, though, in the area of gadgets (consoles, smartphones, tablets, e-readers), because every developer has by now realized that you make more money if you release your software to as many platforms as possible. Don’t have an Xbox 360? Here, play Call of Duty 27 on your PS3! (Even Rayman Legends, which was originally planned as an exclusive for the luckless Wii U, is now being released on literally everything. Poor Wii U.)

With all that in mind, is it any mystery that tablets, not consoles, currently rule the gadget market? They came out just as the  initial crop of gamers was reaching “respectable” adulthood, they have real business applications in addition to fun games, they’re easy to program, they’re portable, their games are affordable, and — most importantly for market purposes — they’re actually sold at a profit.

Fully integrated multimedia right in your living room...just like in the '90s!

Fully integrated multimedia right in your living room…just like in the ’90s!

The reality of the console market is — as with any TV-connected device, like a Blu-ray player or one of those HD-DVD dealies — that the market relies on a certain hardcore demographic to make an initial huge investment to hold them over financially until less-devoted consumers can be convinced to make the purchase (at a lower price point, of course). And the problem with the current crop of consoles, as I see it, is two-fold: first, they don’t seem to be giving the hardcore a lot of reasons to make the initial purchase (they could be sitting on some truly amazing games, but I have no reason to think they are); and second, the casual market seems to have left them behind.

The reality is that those of us who have only a handful of minutes a day to play games are much more likely to whip out our phones or our tablets and play five minutes of Where’s My Water? than we are to use those five minutes to wait for our PS3s to boot up. And when we actually have time to play “real” games? I just now got around to purchasing The Last Story and Uncharted, so I’m in no hurry to purchase new hardware.

Seriously though, the GlowLight feature RULES. Reading is fun again!

Seriously though, the GlowLight feature RULES. Reading is fun again!

I don’t entirely want to dismiss the multimedia function, either, but I can’t help but think it won’t be a big selling point for anyone. In today’s world, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a device that’s Netflix-enabled. When I want to watch a movie on Netflix, I can do it on my laptop, my phone, my iPad, my PS3, my Wii, or even my Internet-connected TV. (These are all devices that I bought for their primary functionalities; the Netflix thing was a bonus.) And if I couldn’t, but wanted to? Roku’s cheaper than ever, dude.  As for the social media aspect? Well, I have a Nook that lets me post interesting quotes from books I’m reading to Facebook and Twitter (which I do, sometimes), but I bought the thing to read books, not to tweet.

With no major leaps forward in graphics or gaming — and with so few platform exclusives — it becomes a question, not of who will “win” this console generation, but if anyone will win it at all. Wii U’s are currently sitting on store shelves, and there’s not much excitement in the air for the debut of the other two (note: that link was the top result on Google for “excitement over Xbox One” — just sayin’).

I don’t know if this is the swansong for videogames or not. I’m not the sort to revel in schadenfreude over the failures of tech companies, but for the first time in my life, I — a guy who once stood in line three hours for a Wii — honestly can’t think of a reason to buy a new console. Neither can anyone I know of. And yet, the market is about to be flooded with them.

Interesting times we live in.

6 thoughts on “New Videogame Consoles! Because…Why, Again?

  1. Meant to say this the first time I read it, but forgot:

    I relate totally to this, Luke. I am a person who in theory loves video games but cannot find time in my life for them. Even recently when I’ve found myself with a rare patch of truly free time, I haven’t been able to work up the energy or enthusiasm to pop in a game. Even Skyward Sword, which I’ve been 3/4 done with for over a year.

    The piling on of features and the graphics arms race does very little for me. Give me a 16 bit with a gripping story or fantastic gameplay any day.

    • I think there are a lot of people in our generation who truly want to believe that videogames are the Next Big Medium, and they’ll conquer the world in the 21st century the same way motion pictures did in the 20th. The problem is that there’s just no way for them to achieve the same ubiquity that film did. They simply take a greater commitment of time, effort, and money on the part of the consumer, to the point where I can’t really see them as anything other than a popular niche medium, like comic books are.

      I dunno, though. In a lot of ways, I think they’re currently at an artistic crossroads, where they’ll have to make a firm choice between changing the world and getting trapped in perpetual adolescence, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens. I’m certainly still watching them, but I won’t be buying new hardware anytime soon.

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  4. Interesting article, but one thing i feel should be point out is whats happening in the indy game scene. Right now smaller teams of talented programmers are making games about issues like depression, poverty and actual human relations. Lets also not forget games like minecraft, the stanley parable, FTL, super meat boy or braid. Like all art forms one wishes to engage in, we must be willing to sift through the chaff in order to find the grains.

    • You make a fair point. This article was intended more to convey my own attitude toward the games industry than be a 100% accurate portrait of its present state. That said, the industry seems to have the same problem the film business does right now: everything is either a huge-budget franchise tentpole or a micro-budget niche work. Where are the mid-budget games/films that appeal to a broad demographic and could fund the industry without breaking the bank? You’d think making more of those would be simple good business, but I guess the people in charge don’t see it that way.

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