The future state of consoles lies in the ubiquity of experience

Tuesday, 17 December 2013 14:08 GMT By Fred Wester

Some say this it the last generation of console boxes, others call that idea nonsense. Either way, a ubiquitous experience is needed to drive the arena forward, argues Paradox CEO Fred Wester.

For the past several years, gaming wonks have been all too eager to contemplate the future of console-based systems. Some say they’re here to stay, some say they’re dead meat, and Valve’s Gabe Newell even offers up Linux as the future of modern gaming.

As Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android continue to build their reputations as worthwhile gaming platforms, they may very well have people spending less time with their PlayStation 3’s and Xbox 360’s, so Sony and Microsoft are changing up their approaches to the business.

Their plan to fight back involves (at least in part) inviting more indie companies to develop for their platforms. Now small studios eager to show off their abilities have the potential to get their pet project out to the gaming community at large. Consider Spelunky, a game that developer Derek Yu created in relative obscurity but grew steadily from being a quirky darling of indie game development community TIGSource in 2009, to a multi-platform juggernaut across Xbox Live, the PS Vita and the PlayStation Network. Consider Team Fortress, originally a gritty modification for Quake and Quake 2, now a game played by millions and raking in millions of microtransactions.

Even outside of Sony and Microsoft’s marble lairs, games like Steamworld Dig became a Nintendo eShop hit sheerly through word of mouth. Some go as far as to say that Indie Development has become mainstream – while big studios shut their doors and auction their parts off. Though Penny Arcade joked about it years ago with Interplay, we’re seeing an increasingly brutal world out there for the big players.

In short: Get ready, console manufacturers. You need to be ready to support any team of any size. Your dev kits need to imagine quirks and conundrums that don’t just cater to a few big teams.

The manufacturers are free to put all their energy into developing a killer console because they know there will be no short supply of new games – the burden to produce has been dispersed, and is greatly reduced as a result. You might consider it a system in which everyone does what we know they’re best at: Sony and Microsoft make the best consoles they can, and smaller independent game studios bake as much love as possible into their games.

By trying to open up to those with the programming desire or development know-how, these manufacturers have effectively borrowed the App Store model. And that’s a good, smart play. However, so far it’s been a great deal of talking and very little walking. The App store has flourished because of easy certification and approval – the rest of the gaming world needs to follow suit.

The big advantage with consoles is that it lets you experience the game in the “TV position” instead of lying down on the sofa – “iPad position.” This enables longer playing sessions and more sophisticated controller, which culminates in a better overall user experience. There’s a very different level of immersion that works in both of these scenarios – while you might really get into that short trip to the toilet on a PS Vita, you’ll visually, aurally and by sheer physical scale find a TV-based-title rule your senses. Lying down isn’t worse, but it’s got its disadvantages. At least in gaming’s case.

Furthermore, the mobile channels are completely clogged and it is close to impossible for a small team with a limited budget to make a big splash there. The barrier to entry has been reduced so seriously as to barely be there at all. Publishers – with their clout and power within the various release channels – are more important than ever in a world where hundreds of thousands of apps clamour pathetically for attention.

Apple and Android won’t be fought off as easily as the Ouya (seriously, Ouya blew it) but if they want to ensure that their gaming hardware becomes your new favourite gaming hardware, they need to get aggressive on gamepad support. The tactile sensations of button and joystick are better than slapping your thumbs against a glass surface for an extended period of time in many current gaming experience. While there has been the odd gamepad-for-your-mobile-device released here and there, it still doesn’t feel like any of them have stuck yet.

That being said, there’s no inherent ‘better’ control experience. We have moved on from four-way joysticks to having a D-pad to one analog stick to two analog sticks and beyond that. Time has proven that things can and will change – it’s just that we cannot keep trying to recreate models that work on older control experiences on new devices if they’re not mean to be there. And vice versa.

Whatever you’re playing, it needs to be the right game for the right device. One that feels like it makes sense for a mobile phone. A gamepad for Angry Birds might work, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do it. I’m very happy that Rovio proved that a totally new property can be placed on every console, phone and toaster in the world. It’s a great edification for the indie developer. However, everyone – including Rovio – should think deeply about how well these experiences translate when they convert them.

Basically: Sometimes a controller is best. And sometimes it isn’t.

I want a quality accessory company like Logitech to step up and make the “definitive” iPad game controller. The most important thing here will be usability – the controller has to serve the game. For example, Angry Birds for Xbox doesn’t feel right. If it were well-received, such a gamepad could lead to a compelling world where your tablet sends video to your TV while you watch and interact via the gamepad.

Your tablet effectively becomes the console, as will everything from your computer to TV to microwave. As we’re quickly breaking information away from specific devices but making it more ubiquitous across them, we need to make gaming interactive between devices. We need ubiquity of experience that makes sense.

You know what? Screw SmartGlass. Screw the “second screen.” I want the screens to be part of the experience in more than an anecdotal drive of information. I want to feel like a secret agent, or a powerful ninja, or whatever it takes across a multitude of devices to create an experience, instead of being constantly re-sold the idea that I can’t look at a map on a screen. I don’t want to wait until the Xbox team and the Surface team sits down and has a pow-wow that will involve nothing other than a potential press point.

Guys, you’re all missing a big opportunity, and gaming won’t be as great as it should be until we all get past fads and put the hundred gadgets and doodads we have together and make exciting, beautiful experiences happen.