This is the greatest advertising opportunity since the invention of cereal. We have six identical companies making six identical products. We can say anything we want.
— Don Draper, Mad Men
At last year’s E3, there was a pervasive feeling of a show on the edge of some massive change. We all knew that the following year, 2013, would be the year of the “next-gen” console. The 2012 event was just the vestigial tail of the last console cycle leaving the building. The vague future, at that moment, let us choose to see huge and almost limitless potential.
After this week’s Microsoft press conference, we now know what that future entails. Hell, we all knew it on the show floor in 2012, just no one said it out loud. These consoles will feature shinier graphics, more RAM, and a few new features that tie us closer to our machines. I cannot imagine the expectations of anyone genuinely surprised by the recent console announcements. Were we really waiting with bated breath for a new console to satisfy our unmet gaming and entertainment needs?
If you listen to announcers cry their wares on stage like traveling salesmen, the answer is a resounding yes. The Xbox One, as its painful moniker denotes, finally encapsulates our entire consumption feed into one box, a living room monolith that satiates our immediate thirst for entertainment in a simple-to-use package. The new console will allow for group video calls via Skype and Kinect, voice activation lets us switch between apps by speaking just two words, and our television viewing is finally augmented by a fantasy sports overlay.
The Call of Duty announcement revealed dog graphics and such heightened details as dirt under a character’s fingernails — something you will really appreciate when frantically shooting down corridors at terrorists. These follow naturally from David Cage’s obsessions with pixel count at Sony’s press conference. Both these graphical obsessions imply that there has been a need that we can, at last, finally satiate — that the great restriction in our path towards storytelling has always been technologically bound.
The television software angle creates this same mythology of need. As though the buttons on our controllers were too complicated, our phones and set top boxes too cumbersome when used independently of one another. I have never been so struck by a combined effort of console makers to construct the very future they profess to herald. These conference are framed as though they have some answer to a solution for a problem that has never existed.
That is not to say some of the functionality could be useful or neat. I play Fantasy Football, so the ability to watch a game and bring up my rosters live score could be cool. Switching between input devices on the flow or having the ability to stream easily would be fantastic; indeed, I am genuinely looking forward to a lower barrier of entry for the latter. However, these individually entertaining or potentially interesting components should be treated as such: minor augmentations of the same product. Nothing grand is changing, we make baby steps here and there, but there should be no illusion: what we really want are good gaming and entertainment experiences, and the power to deliver this belongs to another.
Leigh Alexander in a recent Gamasutra article rightly points out that the mythology Microsoft peddles is also disconnected from reality:
Let’s say you did want to do all of this: you kind of need a huge TV. You need an Entertainment Altar where instant voice command is a cool-future status item, where everyone is wont to sit As A Family in the thrall of the Entertainment Altar. You need to live in a fantasy of the privileged that is diminishing amid an economic and technological disruption where it’s hard to believe this kind of device is going to be broadly relevant.
For a core gaming audience, the conference hit few high notes. The entire show felt as though it were targeting a non-existent future, which I believe was Microsoft’s intent. They seek to create the audience they want to sell this to. They play the long game where the core functionality of the system is a given and they can claim to be one of the first.
Like countless others, I’m not sold. In fact, I am not entirely convinced that I want one system to dominate my entertainment landscape. I want competition in my living room because I have no need, no deep and undying thirst, for what only Microsoft or Sony can supply. I want experimentation and smart implementation and a bunch of technology producers eager to satiate not my hunger for the console to end all consoles, but my hunger for better storytelling. At this point, it seems deeply egotistical and blind for a manufacturer to put these products center stage as if to address a call for material, a call that we never made. I hope the consensus after the latest conference flair is a universal distaste for the false creation of need.
Of course I understand that I am essentially complaining about the way advertisements have sold products for decades. Still, at least as far as the games industry is concerned, I have never seen such a startling divide between the making of brand mythology and reality.