Convenience, Creation, and the New Consoles

by Scott Juster

30 May 2013

There's no doubt about it: many of things touted at Sony and Microsoft's announcements were solutions to "first-world problems" that are only tangentially related to games. But that's because those are the only types of problems the companies are in a position to address.

Now that both Sony and Microsoft have made their next generation console announcements, the general consensus seems to be surprise (and disappointment) at the amount of focus on features that seem ancillary to video games. Signficant chunks of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One’s debuts were dedicated to how we’ll get to our games, how we’ll share them, and how our systems will interact with all the other media we enjoy. It’s early yet and E3 is just around the corner, but it’s easy to see why these types of announcements are a bit worrisome. 

There’s no doubt about it: many of things touted at Sony and Microsoft’s announcements were solutions to “first-world problems”. We have so many TV channels, it’s a hassle to remember all of them. Buttons are blasé. I want to log in with facial recognition. Who has the time to wait for a console to boot up? These things are meant to facilitate playing games and line up well with the two companies’ gradual transitions from creators to enablers.
Console exclusives and strong first-party development no longer drive games the way they used to. True, there will always be games like Halo, but their numbers are dwarfed by juggernauts like Call of Duty, Madden, and FIFA. Exclusives like Gears of War exist because of contracts rather than the fostering of in-house development. When it comes to large-scale development, Sony and Microsoft are trying to make it as easy as possible for Ubisoft to make Watchdogs instead of making it themselves.

Things are similar when it comes to independents. Thatgamecompany, Jonathan Blow, and Phil Fish were hired guns that benefited from the funding and marketing power that console makers offered. Some of the best games of the current generation were created by small teams that rose from obscurity. It’s natural that they wouldn’t be highlighted for the console unveiling, especially since neither Sony nor Microsoft knows what will turn into the next generation’s Braid. Sony seems to be on the right track with its self-publishing initiative and its proactive courting of independents, but the fact remains that they had to have something on stage, which means they had to go with a known quantity like Killzone.

After so many decades and so many similar launches comprised of the usual smattering of action, shooting, and sports games, it’s foolish to think that the consoles will ever push past this sort of creative conservatism. The traditional console landscape is built around blockbusters, which in turn feeds into a cycle where development costs rise and games need to appeal to the broadest audience possible. Taking thematic risks also means taking financial risks, which means that games like Dys4ia and Papers Please will always be more at home on the PC, where the technological and publishing barriers to entry are lower. This isn’t to say this is a good status quo (I don’t think it is), but it does put Sony and Microsoft’s bland game showings into perspective.

Therefore, since the console makers can’t be counted on to provide exciting new game experiences, they turn to the trappings around the games. There’s the question of whether this sort of emphasis on media convergence and convenience feature sets is necessary at all. True, being able to see your fantasy football scores or your Skype window on top of your game seems a bit ostentatious now, but many features we currently take for granted were at some point luxuries. Do we really need wireless controllers? Built in force feedback? Cloud gamer profiles? Third-party apps like Netflix? Strictly speaking, no, but it would sure seem strange to have a console without them.

Finally, a lot has changed in terms of technology since 2005. When the Xbox 360 launched, Gmail had been available (as an invite-only beta) for less than two years. Your computer was fetching things off of a 5400 RPM mechanical disk drive. It probably took a solid one or two minutes to boot into Windows. The only thing connected to your wireless Internet connection was a laptop. Your Steam profile probably had Half-Life 2 and few other games on it.

During the intervening years, the information age has become the information filtering age. We have so much digital stuff and such quick access to it that intelligent searching and voice recognition are more than gimmicks. They’re features that will allow us to take back the time that we spend navigating menu mazes. Paging through hundreds of menu choices on a controller or waiting as a 10 gig file downloads and installs is out of place compared to other examples of high-end consumer technology. Yes, voice recognition, multiple power states, and third-party app support seems silly now, but they’ll soon become the new wireless controller: convenient features that ultimately become standard conventions.

It’s clear that most of the compelling games on the consoles will probably come from second or third-party developers, so the console manufacturers job then becomes proving that the machines these things run on can be at least as functional as the mini-computers masquerading as phones that people now carry with them at all times. Viewed from this perspective, the new console reveals are not surprising, as they focused on what Sony and Microsoft’s increasingly clear roles are as enablers rather than as creators.

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