This week has seen a awful lot of chatter around the latest round of the console wars. The early salvos have already been fired with Nintendo announcing a graceful bowing out of the fight in a Sega-esk manner to concentrate on games development over hardware as Xbox & Sony break out the brass knuckles. After the Xbox One announcement's emphasis on the new console as an entertainment center, combined with a stinging rebuke to the used game market and game sharing, so far all the points seem to be headed Sony’s way. With a far smaller price point and a savvier reading of the piranha tank that represents gamers people are already jumping on social media talking about pre-orders, but is this really where the true battle is being fought?
Games Companies talking it big is nothing new, with the fight going all the way back to the 80s and the Sega Master System vs the Nintendo NES anyone over the age of 30 could be forgiven for thinking the term “Next Generation” is getting a little worn out. Dave Lee at the BBC asked this week if we were seeing “the end of an era for games consoles”? With new technology being revealed all the time can this new generation of game boxes keep up with PCs, Mobile phones & Tablets?
Well, the market has changed the traditional battlefield between PCs & Consoles is rapidly disappearing. Partly this has come from the trend for integrated technologies, which while nothing new has seen a dramatic increase in pace with the use of new programming languages as well as faster internet and mobile internet speeds. Part of this is the increasing availability of Smart devices; the increase of services that can be accessed across multiple platforms and the impact of community thinking, in terms of marketing and how a device or app is monetised. The existing array of Play.TV, LoveFilm, Netflix, Xbox Live & PlayStation Home are just a few examples of games consoles trying to keep up with the rush, but in the long run the far more rapid evolution of other devices, like smart TVs, is likely to see games consoles left out in the cold. After all, who wants to pay hundreds of pounds for a box to give you the internet and on-demand services when your TV & PC do it already and at the same price or less?
So, where is the REAL cutting edge?
Are there REAL challengers Sony & Xbox, and more improtantly consumers should be looking at?
The impact of social media on games really can’t be understated. For many the very idea of Community Management as a method for creating customer and brand loyalty grew out of the MMO boom in the early to mid naughties. It is hard now to find a game, on or off social media, that does not encourage you to share videos on YouTube, Tweet achievements or send challenges to all and sundry. However, with Zynga seemly caught in some terminal spiral, and EA rapidly back peddling from social media with the closure of Playfish and titles like Sims Social we could be forgiven for thinking that the likes of Farmville have had their day. Much like the gold rush for MMOs in the naughties this is less a matter of failing business models and more the bursting of a bubble. As I’ve mentioned in blogs elsewhere Freemium & F2P will always be a tough business model to get right and while Zynga is suffering from a lack of novelty games and over stretched ambition the likes of Candy Crush Saga, Panda Jam & Bubble Witch do seem to keeping a solid grip on people’s attentions. What we are seeing is Social Media games joining the mainstream of games so the meteoric impacts that launched Zynga on its Icarian flight are, likely to be, a thing of the past. With games consoles already having or building links to social media the knock out blow is unlikely to come from this angle.
With easy development, simple distribution and increasing amount of content for many Tablets and Mobiles it’s hard to deny that Mobile Gaming is the primordial hot bed of games development. With smart phones becoming more powerful, more available and increasingly integrated into every area of our digital lives with SMS alerts, apps and updates to the growing raft of social nets Mobile Phones are a great platform. There has been a lot of talk about Tablets unseating games consoles & PCs as THE gaming platform but this hasn’t happened yet. Kinect & Leap bringing motion control closer and cheaper every day, plus manufacturers increasingly creating tablets with keyboard options or PCs with touchscreens the novelty of the tablet as a major games platform is likely to just get swallowed up in the noise.
As a challenger to a home system your average mobile also suffers from having a terribly small screen (compared to your TV). Admittedly, mobile gaming was a factor in the demise of the PlayStation Vita and the sluggish sales for Nintendo 3DS but lacking power and screen size I think your average smartphone has a way to go before challenging Xbox or Sony.
So important gaming platform? Undoubtedly
Xbox/PlayStation Killer? No
Game Streaming services?
Some may remember gaming streaming services OnLive & Gaikai. No? Well not entirely surprising. Hailed as the next big thing a few years ago OnLive quickly died a death due to technical issues and lack of funds. While likely pointing the direction of where technology will be going, and a stunning example of how technology is growing together OnLive likely arrived too soon. Interestingly rival service Gaikai is faring better having been picked up by Sony for the PS4 in 2014.
So on one hand you have a great idea waiting for better bandwidth and on the other you have a system that is now owned by Sony. So no sale here, at least not for now.
The ‘Other’ Consoles
No, we are not talking WiiU here, as mentioned earlier Nintendo are bowing out of this muscle match for now, so who are the other players?
If there is a real contender that Xbox & Sony should worry about and could genuinely upset the apple cart it would appear to be the range of cheap, simple Android based consoles that have started to grow from Crowdfunding sites like KickStarter.
The ease of development and ability to publish quickly has made Google Android a proven games development platform, and as mentioned above the REAL cutting edge of growth and innovation in videogames. Any question about whether a small console has the processing power for the job were quickly put to bed when the Raspberry Pi started flexing it's muscles as a media centre and showed what ARM processors could do for Quake 3.
So who are the contenders?
Of these contenders I've immediately discounted Shield & Steambox for reasons of price and in Shield's case the fact that it is heading for a dying market. Of the remaining 2 that I have seen the one that jumped out for me was definitely the GameStick. As the cheapest and notably by far the smallest the GameStick provides the convenience of a portable game system with the fun of playing with or against friends on the big screen. Cheap, easy to use and genuinely innovative the GameStick encapsulates a lot of the core values that set consoles apart from PC gaming.
So could a console like the GameStick topple the big two? Potentially, no product, no matter how good is guaranteed greatness, but with large price points and an economic downturn Sony & Xbox have set themselves an uphill battle. Xbox for gamers have taken themselves out of the game by limiting sharing of games, and with big titles like Call of Duty & Assassins Creed only likely to get more expensive now may be the best time for a new player to make a serious mark. With GameStick looking to use the app model and already talking to developers about changing the shape of the playfield there is serious potential. When Sony knocked Sega & Dreamcast out of the game it was in part by spending, and Sega having taken a nosedive with the Saturn. Sony could market better, more widely and importantly had great relationships with 3rd party developers. However, that was 20 years ago. With the development freedom provided by Android and similar OS, the increasing power of the cloud, the ability for developers to self publish, title development, and most importantly, retail costs that are tiny compared to most modern AAA titles, and the amazing power of processors intended for Smart Phones from ARM and Intel pushing the boundaries we may have some serious giant killers.
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