The chorus claiming the incoming console generation will be the last dedicated games machines won't stop singing. The harmony's starting to make a great deal of sense, says Patrick Garratt.
There's no question: the gaming console concept you've been using for the past 30 years is under extreme pressure, and will almost certainly not exist beyond the coming generation.
The statement du jour in games journalism and trade circles is that console gaming is "dead". We are about to see, apparently, the last dedicated machines released in PS4 and Xbox 720, and you're soon going to be exclusively using iOS, Android and PC for games. There are some convincing arguments doing the rounds - probably the most notable being from Scattered Entertainment eccentric Ben Cousins - claiming the "old world" of pure-game boxes into which you insert discs is about to be crushed out of existence. Does Cousins have a point? And what does it really mean for "games"?
In the main, Ben is almost certainly right. Watch this. It's nearly half an hour long, but if you haven't already seen his GDC 2012 talk, you definitely should:
Cousins makes a good fist of explaining why consoles are soon to be dead (watch the presentation for what he means by "consoles" and "dead") and since the start of this year we've seen we've seen a chorus of voices and developments which add weight to the argument.
In summary, the traditional console business is losing money for a variety of reasons and game-playing on mobile platforms is exploding. Tablet power is now comparable to current gen consoles and we're seeing an inextricable shift towards catering for what Cousins dubs "mainstream console gamers" on touchscreens. As for the ultra-core "I'll-never-play-anything-without-a-pad" market, we have "open" hardware initiatives like Steambox which are sure to draw an indelible question mark on the issue of whether or not companies should be producing expensive dedicated hardware when you can plug-and-play with a TV-PC, Ouya, or whatever other platform allows access to an enormous library of digitally delivered software.
There's no question: the gaming console concept you've been using for the past 30 years is under extreme pressure, and will almost certainly not exist beyond the coming generation. The real kick in the nuts to the games box concept will probably be AppleTV, which is likely to be announced this year. An AppleTV, what with its processors and obvious loveliness, hooked up to an iPad, iPhone and the App Store with its increasing number of "light" core games, is going to be all the gaming many people need. Stick a Steambox on the side with its biometric controller and it isn't difficult to see why the next PlayStation is probably the last.
Not everyone wholly agrees with the prognosis, obviously. More consoles were sold in the last generation than the previous one and 3DS is proving that IP is still key. People will buy a dedicated games machine - over the past generation they've bought hundreds of millions of them, in fact - if it's the best place to play the best games. The truth, though, is that Xbox and PlayStation, in the coming generation, won't "own" the market as they have done previously. They'll just be a part of a much wider spread of choice. Logically, it'll be the best libraries of content that ultimately succeed in high-end gaming, with Steam, the App Store and Google Play being the obvious front-runners. "Consoles" won't vanish, in that people will still buy machines on which they play games, but the Xbox and PlayStation models we use at the moment, of the fortress-thick walled garden, will soon be over.
If you're still struggling to get your head round this, equate it to the way Amazon sells books. Kindle doesn't completely dominate e-reading (thanks, Kartik) because it's some kind of super-reader that touches your nipples while you're sucking up your mommy porn; it wins because Amazon has an insane library of content, pushes endless sales and discounts, and has refined the buying experience to a wallet-destroying art, just as Steam has. Don't have your Kindle with you? No worries. It has an app for every platform imaginable so you're never far from the content in which you're becoming ever more invested. Kindle isn't about hardware. It's about breadth of content. Up to this point, hardware has been a key factor in allowing you to play games. As with books, physical considerations are about to be eliminated from gaming's equation and replaced with services.
What does this actually mean for games? It's amazingly good news, thankfully, as it unlocks content and spreads it everywhere. More people are playing games than ever before, in more guises and on more platforms. The market's been injected with creativity by F2P and touch, and the low-budget "art" offerings afforded by digital distribution have bloomed in number. And fret not: triple-A will never go away. If you buy it, they will make it and publishers will publish it. The way we all consume games may be changing, but there will always be games. It's doubtful you'll be playing them on an Xbox in ten years time, but there will always be games.