State of Play – The Next Generation

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State of Play – The Next Generation
 
Welcome to State of Play, a new editorial column from Pixelated Geek. In State of Play, we’ll be dealing with major issues in the gaming community, and we’ll be reaching out to our community for feedback and interaction. Our goal with State of Play is to create a respectful, professional, and insightful dialogue within a group of serious interested parties. Games are serious business, not just the largest moving part of the entertainment economy but a form of expression where emotionally impactful stories are told, where communities can grow and bond, and they’re an important educational tool. We take games seriously here, and the goal of this article is to seriously analyze the serious business of game.

We’ve known that the next generation of major consoles is coming for some time via patent filings, interview slip-ups, and internal leaks. Much of what we know is based on these ephemeral sources, and so up to now, discussions of syntax and semantics have been as prevalent as grounded, factual, logical discussion.

On the evening of February 20th, 2013, Sony ‘unveiled’ the Playstation 4, in a press conference broadcast publicly (available here). There were a lot of reveals, and a lot of details and numbers about the tech involved. There were great trailers, there were confirmations of the continuation of great franchises.

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If there’s another Playstation, there will be another Uncharted, another Ratchet & Clank, another Little Big Planet. The controller is a mutation of the DualShock. It will be sleek and black, and the user interface will have that specific sexy Sony polish that we expect. It’s another Playstation, the last in a line of incredibly designed, reliable, powerful gaming machines with unquestionable pedigree, and one launch day, we’ll almost swear we can see Kutaragi-san’s vague visage, nodding and bowing and smiling.

So why don’t I care? I love Sony. I love every Playstation product I’ve ever owned, from the venerable juggernaut that was the Playstation to the bewildering fiasco that was the PSPGo. Even when they’re ahead of their time, or just not viable in the current market, Sony products are jammed to the gills with state-of-the-art tech, always boast a sleek, sexy aesthetic, and they’re always both durable and reliable. Sony has always gone out of its way to show its user-base that they are a valued priority. With the exception of some strange decisions about network security, the only complaints I’ve ever had about Sony seemed to be their love affair with less-than-marketable (if admittedly cool) technology.

And it wasn’t as if Sony’s presentation was offensive. The projected price point isn’t wild, especially in comparison to the PS3’s $600. The package has no glaring empty holes, and the technical specs are certainly competitive with those leaked for the next-gen Xbox. The games looked excellent, and apart from the lackluster presentation of the admittedly fabulous looking Destiny, I couldn’t even complain about the ‘personalities’ promoting the system, features, or games.

So why don’t I care? Why wasn’t I giddy as a schoolgirl? Why didn’t I pop popcorn and plop down in front of the TV like a kid on Saturday morning?

I sat down with a cup of tea and toyed idly with my phone, my cat and my laptop while the address progressed. I had to force myself to pay attention to this address, and that just isn’t like me.

It’s not because I don’t care about Sony. It’s not because the Playstation 4 isn’t impressive. So why? It’s because

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The very idea of a generational cycle is antiquated. Technology evolves every second of every day, and neither the PC, Tablet, or Mobile Phone industry operate on the sort of cyclical thinking that Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are guilty of. Many products are launched in these competitive industries every day, and at price points below, at, or higher than, the console gaming industry. As these industries gain ground in the gaming market, the disadvantages of marriage to antiquated scheduling of releases will become painfully apparent.

The spectre of persistent online connections. The restriction of used games. The continued lack of effort in courting indie developers. Prohibitively high price-points on consoles AND games.

These are the first and easiest industry problems to identify, but far from the only ones.

The entrance of competitors presents another problem. The Ouya and Gamestick may appear to be minor players, but the lower price point and cross-platform functionality, as well as a direct focus on smaller, cheaper indie titles will steal market-share. The only question is how much. But the Steam Box, the Piston, and other comparable living-room optimized PCs are the real threat. For a reasonable percentage increase in cost over a “Next-Gen’ console, these offer a comparable-to-superior experience with all the advantages of a PC – customization, multiple options for gaming networks, and of particular note, the original online service (aka “the entire Internet”). Steam is an industry titan, and Valve’s entry into the living-room market space should not be ignored or underestimated.

But the biggest problem, the real threat to industry status-quo, is the complete and total lack of willingness to acknowledge the imminent storm of change. It’s not down the road. It’s already here. Personal Computers are less expensive and more powerful than they have ever been. The best selling games in the world are $.99 and you can play them anywhere from under the conference table to the toilet. More people play Angry Birds and Farmville than Call of Duty and World of Warcraft.

None of these problems are insurmountable, but together they form a nasty pile that anyone would be reluctant to tackle, so I understand the instinct to sweep most of these issues under the rug. But you can’t, not when it’s your job to beneficially position your company to address the current state of the industry.

So how do you fix it?

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The gigantic elephant in the room that is the industry’s attitude towards used games in the coming generation was addressed in no way, shape or form, and if there anything that can be described as a hot-button issue, that’s it. This avoidance tactic was used to a completely illogical degree, as it took a press inquiry to confirm the Playstation 4 will not require a persistent online connection, a fact that Sony did not present despite the fact that it would both be considered a universally positive point as well as a crucial advantage over the next-generation Xbox.

But alas, no, rather another in the long string of press conferences cooked up by a PR team too afraid of losing face or position to a competitor to take risks. There is, of course, still time. The console won’t launch for nine months, and E3 is not far away. It’s not too late.

And even if none of the Big 3 (how long will we be able to call them that, I wonder) address the situation, I suppose it’s not the end of the world. Games are a bigger business than ever. Industries change, businesses change, and it doesn’t have to mean the end of gaming as we know it. But if the major players in the console industry don’t wake up and pay attention, we’re going to see a shake-up, and it’ll likely be a really nasty one.

Now frankly speaking, this is a free economy and whatever is coming cannot possibly be bad enough to kill the entire industry. So if it knocks some heads together (or a few off) and we get a meaner, cleaner industry out of it, then by all means bring out the guillotine of free-market competition. But I don’t think any of us that grew up with Super Mario Bros., Final Fantasy or Halo really want to see this get as ugly as it is currently leaning. What we all want, all of us, and I would hope everyone in the industry as well, is for everyone to play hard and fair, everyone to shift and grow together, and we can do that.

So please, guys, Jack and Kazuo and Bill and Steve and Satoru and Shigeru, can we all sit down and address the concerns that are threatening the industry? Can we make this a little more about the games and the gamers and a little less about posturing, competition, and holding on to old ideas? That way those of us who are still at least a little bit fond of you return to impatiently drumming our fingers on the wheel, rushing into the store, jockeying for position in line, tearing back to the car, speeding home, reverently unboxing, and beaming contentedly as we forget the cold, nasty world of numbers and bills and responsibilities.

Sincerest Thanks,

Signed, THE PEOPLE WHO PAY YOUR CHECK.

Thanks for checking out State of Play. The above is a sounding board, a soapbox, and a pulpit, but it is by no means an unassailable one. We hope you found the above to be insightful and well-reasoned, but if not, we’d love nothing more than to hear your responses and opinions, just do us the favor of being sensitive, thoughtful, and respectful.