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The Future of Game Consoles

Consolecomboi_600big_3 Since the beginning of the home videogame industry, there have been battles for market share  - console wars. These wars have begun anew every four years  or so because of a recurring cycle bringing new hardware into circulation to take advantage of advances in technology and manufacturing, thus bringing more and more power into the homes of game players.

But now, the playing field is changing. On the one hand, the power consoles - such as Sony's PS3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360 - have a great amount of graphics processing power, and for all that industry programmers may complain, graphics power is the greatest proven commercial contribution from a console's design. The pressure to continue to upgrade graphics power has been lessened in this generation of consoles in part because of Nintendo's bold decision not to significantly improve the graphics power of the Wii over their previous GameCube console - which has in no way hurt their sales, thanks principally to the Wii's innovative input device.

Part of the reason that the Wii has been able to get by without a huge step up in graphics is that mass market consumers are not so game-literate as to be able to truly appreciate the graphical step up between (say) the Xbox and the Xbox 360. Gamer hobbyists, who live and breathe videogames, have a highly refined judgement that can appreciate the extra shiny graphics - but they also know that for the shiniest graphics, the PC remains the horse to back, as its graphics power continues to increase every year as a result of the ever-upgraded graphics cards technologies.

Nintendo's CEO Satoru Iwata recently stated that the four-year console cycle is over, stating he was "doubtful that such a notion of platform cycles can be applied in the future". Iwata-sans view is that the technology curve that consoles were following has peaked - there is no longer a significant market advantage to be gained from constant replacement of consoles. Rather, platform licensors should examine the technology and consider when the "sweet spot" for a new console would be.

Meanwhile, EA's head of international publishing, Gerhard Florin, has stated that they want an end to format wars altogether. "We want an open, standard platform which is much easier than having five which are not compatible," he told the BBC. No surprising - EA could make a vast saving on development costs if they didn't have to foot the bill for their multiformat commitments. Florin
suspects that the growing power of set-top boxes and so forth will eventually usurp the dedicated platforms, noting "the consumer won't even realise the platform it is being played on."

While a single open-format is a nice fantasy for EA executives, we are a long way from such a place. As long as platform licensors like Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are making a fortune from their proprietory formats, they will not give them up - and while powerful and generic home entertainment boxes are certainly on their way, the idea of a single open standard is ridiculous while there is no clear agreement on what such a standard should be.

Consider this: every advance in home console design (with the single exception of internet connectivity) has come from Nintendo. Sony's policy, as I've noted before, is to copy Nintendo's new ideas.  Nintendo are to the console space what Apple are to the home computer space - and dispite yielding a considerable share of the home console market to Sony after abusing their power in the 1980s, they never lost their domination in the handheld space, nor their genuine power to innovate - as both the DS and the Wii demonstrate.

Florin is probably imagining that the high degree of similarity between the PS3 and the 360 is evidence that an open standard is a possibility - why couldn't an open standard have been formed on this basis? Firstly, there's too much money to be made in proprietory standards,
and secondly the common elements of the Ps3 and the 360 (internet functionality excluded) all originated in Nintendo. A single open standard requires sufficient risk in competition to force an agreement on a common standard, and it requires the design problems relating to that standard to have been substantially solved. This is practically a given in (say) data storage, or video display - but it is far from the case with game consoles, where the design issues are still being explored.

We are still learning about the diverse needs of game players - Florin's comments demonstrate EA's general ignorance of the design problems the games industry faces, perhaps mistaking the centre of the current gaming audience for the whole of the audience. (They are by no means alone: almost every publisher in videogames is monstrously naïve about the videogame audience, habitually assuming its employees are examples of the audience at large). An open standard may indeed happen in the future - but only when the videogames consoles have an optimal control device (such as the mouse for PC) which is entirely resistant to improvement. The twin stick controller (Sony's refinement of an idea originating with Nintendo, of course) is certainly not it.

However, Iwata-san is almost certainly correct that the four-year cycle is over. This is principally a tribute to Sony's achievements with the PS2, the most successful console system to date (since recently passing the 120 million record set by the GameBoy), which effortlessly supported a much longer sales window, closer to a decade. But the console wars themselves are far from over. The battle to place an multi-purpose entertainment device into the home - the war between Sony and Microsoft - will continue, with Nintendo meanwhile profiting from their decision not to compete in this struggle. The only possibility for an open standard platform is if Sony and Microsoft can reach some kind of agreement - and right now, with Microsoft stealing the crown from its rival, the war is very much ongoing.

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You're forgetting that there already is a set-top-box common standard, its called the PC. Yes, its not perfect, but the data shows the majority of growth in terms of audience diversification and volume has come in web-based games running off of "build once, run anywhere" client platforms like Flash - mainly Flash. The second highest growth has been in downloadable casual games for Windows and sometimes also Mac. The Wii comes in third, often catching players who've been acclimated from the other two.

Sure, you can't use a sweet controller on your computer from your couch, but you can play Flash games on the Wii, so this convergence might come from the lower-end first, and indeed this is already happening.

You'd think EA might push for a common standard from the other end - by this I mean, drop one of the 2 "major formats" and only develop for the other. At present, the PS3 snowball is a pathetic melted goo, and with some major publishers pulling the plug on it, it would be interesting to see what happened.

Maybe it would wake Sony up?

Obviously no money-orientated creature will do this willingly - but maybe even the threat of it would help them get what they want..? I don't want them to succeed as the last thing we need is EA being able to monopolise a single format.

The fact that they have to convert to other platforms should at least stop them taking over the whole industry. Maybe they should develop hardware to facilitate port-coding. This then, in a few generations could become a new console - maybe able to play games designed for others - effectively becoming a common standard that they own. Frightening as it sounds, it would be the ultimate goal for a behemoth like EA.

As for the 4-year cycle - I think the PS2 has, as you said, stretched that out. Maybe an 8 year cycle will occur? It seems unlikely if, for no other reason, that the companies not enjoying huge success will want to gamble again by popping out another console.

Maybe we will see consoles moving even closer to PCs - with a graphics cart you can replace, and upgradeable memory. I already have to decide the size of HDD I "need" in my new gen console.

To be honest though, I want a new console every 4 or 5 years. Just as the programmers get good at getting the most out of a system, I want the system upgraded - in a sensible way - so that all those tricks can be used to even greater effect on the new system. Which was kind of what Sony were trying to do with PSX, but it is night on impossible to predict the future. If we were all using EmotionEngine chips in everything now, this would be the case and the PS3 would be the rockin'-est console in the history of things.

But we aren't.
And it isn't.

Oh, and looking at some news re the latest Atari host, maybe EA can buy the name when Infogrames dies, and move a step closer to Owning Everything To Do With Games.

My only hope is that EA buy it and the Atari parasite manages to bring them to their knees as well. :-D

Patrick: "...there already is a set-top-box common standard, its called the PC"

I really can't believe you said this; The PC is neither a set-top-box nor [much of] a common standard! :) I'm well aware that the PC market is relatively strong in places, but the PC is nothing like a games console in any shape or form. I'd go as far as saying the problems with the PC platform are the reasons for the phenomenal success of game consoles.

As for Flash games on Wii; Chico mentioned this recently as well. Is this using the Opera browser on the Wii?

Neil: if EA dropped the PS3 it would be the death knell for Sony in this round. I don't think they're ready for this yet... EA has a long and solid relationship with Sony, and they must be aware that while Microsoft have won the hearts and minds of the core market, they haven't yet showed any capacity to translate that into mass market penetration on any serious scale.

As for whether we'll see more extensible consoles - well we've had this for a while now. The N64 was perhaps the first to be designed with expansion in mind. But it turns out that the problem with expansions is getting it out into the installed base with sufficient volume to make that expansion a certainty. Because this doesn't happen easily, we end up seeing new consoles instead.

But of course, that was then and this is now...

It's interesting to hear that you *like* the opportunity to upgrade to a new console... For me, it's just a tedious waste of money every few years. :)

Best wishes!

Florin appears to be referring to streaming games in realtime to set top boxes using a compressed video stream. The box then sends controller input back to the source. So in theory you can have any device (PC or console) running the game at one end and the player, at the other end simply has a tiny low cost device decoding the video stream - basically a "thin client". Increasing broadband penetration might make this a feasible thing to do on a large scale - every Cable TV owner could be a potential customer and by flicking a switch he can play any game on any platform without having to buy anything!

But the main problems still remain: you still need to make the freakin games (design/funding/dev etc) and the right input controller has to be chosen/invented/copied.... :-)


what r u n about x-box 360 is well better than the ps3

Very good article on the future of consoles.

Although nothing really beats a SNES imo :)

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