Console Demise? Don’t Hold Your Breath

Every so often, I hear someone say that the demise of the video game console is inevitable (and likely not far off). Their reasons vary: “closed platforms can’t survive”, “consoles are becoming too specialized”, etc. Having thought about it, I just can’t come to the same conclusion. Consoles aren’t going anywhere in the next ten+ years or so (beyond which I can’t claim to understand what the market will look like. There’s too much cultural and technological uncertainty.)

To be clear: I’m defining “console” as “a closed or semi-closed hardware platform dedicated primarily to interactive entertainment.” Does that necessarily mean “software and hardware designed, produced, and distributed by a single company?” No. There could be alliances on the software or hardware side of things, and those alliances could result in independent product variants that share a base level of compatibility. What matters is the presence of very stable standards that lead to a reliable, accessible, and affordable gaming experience. In other words, a guiding hand still matters.

Why consoles succeeded in the first place

First, let’s be clear about why consoles rose to prominence in the first place. As I intimated earlier, consoles offered reliable, accessible, and affordable gaming power at a time when computers were extremely expensive, hard to use, prone to inexplicable problems, and cursed with compatibility issues. (“Do I have enough RAM to play this game? Is my CPU fast enough?”) Pop the game in, turn the console on, and it works — no questions asked. Consoles were easier to buy, easier to set up, easier to maintain, easier to use; pretty much easier in every way. That value proposition spoke volumes to consumers craving entertainment… not another frustrating technological adventure.

The proposition to developers was no less compelling. Yes, they were forced to suffer a gatekeeper, but in exchange they received a stable, standardized development platform with a relatively long lifespan and a bunch of eager customers (who, thanks to the console, were also far easier to support!) And last but not least, consoles offered the profoundly important “ten foot experience” — playing games on the couch, often with friends, in front of the living room deity (also known as the television.)

Why consoles are still succeeding

What has changed in the last couple decades? Well, home computers have dropped in price (dramatically), but “gaming PCs” still tend to be expensive. And despite major strides made by Apple and Microsoft, consoles are still simpler to use, if for no other reason than they don’t have to support the wide range of applications and uses that a home computer does. Reliability remains an important selling point (note Microsoft’s dramatic three-year warranty extension, which is as explicit a recognition of this as any I’ve ever seen.)

Consoles, because they are closed, also offer a vastly superior environment in which to feature parental controls (for those consumers who care about filtering the content that their children consume.) And people still don’t have to worry if they have enough RAM or processing power to play the latest game; consoles remain the great equalizer, to the benefit of consumers and developers everywhere. Console-mandated certification processes also help produce games with fewer problems and inconsistencies (though certainly not bug-free games.) And last but not least, the ten foot experience has grown more important than ever; two signals of this are the advent of party games like Buzz and of space-consuming games like Dance Dance Revolution.

Living room computers (like Windows Media Center PCs or Apple TVs) seem ready to clone the value proposition of the console, but the more they do so, the more they effectively turn into consoles (which themselves are evolving into limited media PCs!) Regardless of how this plays out, I think it highly likely that future winners in the living room will remain at least semi-closed. There are simply too many things that “work better” (from a consumer and entrenched-developer standpoint) on a closed platform, and the rewards of owning said platform are too alluring for corporations to resist them. If Apple TV were magically to transform into a (winning) console, do you really think Steve Jobs would fully open it?

Specialization is not a bad thing

Here’s the argument that always most confused me: “consoles are becoming too specialized.” Proponents of this point to the Wii as an example of “the increasingly great lengths that consoles must go to differentiate themselves.” But specialization is precisely the source of the console’s strength! It’s what makes it tolerable to the large number of human beings who hate the average complexity and reliability of most computing products.

And specializations (like those featured by the Wii) are a source of enjoyable novelty, which, I would argue, is one of the most important components of any entertainment experience. Consumers crave new forms of play, as long as those forms are affordable and accessible.

I’ll quote my colleague Kim Pallister out of context; he wrote this comment on an unrelated post of mine a while back: There are not 3 consoles today. There are DOZENS. The ‘premium’ consoles (360, ps3, wii), the budget/price-waterfalled consoles (AFAIK, you can still publish a PS2 game), there are budget/dedicated consoles (like the retro-atari ones that come with 20 games built-in), there are kids consoles (leapfrog and one or two other companies make them – same razor/blade biz model), and there are console biz models on multifunction devices like set top boxes. The bigger the market grows, the more opportunity that a niche segment can sustain a console targeted/dedicated to just that niche.

Specialization is fine, as long as it’s entertaining.

Cautionary lessons for existing console manufacturers

What can existing (and wanna-be) console manufacturers learn from all this? First and foremost, KISS… “Keep it simple, stupid!”

The console controller has been evolving into something complex and frightening, and Nintendo is being rewarded right now (in part) for addressing that in a major way. Kudos to them. Going forward, I predict that all console manufacturers will be forced to rethink the complexity of their various input devices, and what “accessibility” truly means in general. Microsoft, as revealed at E3, is certainly thinking about these things.

In terms of user interface and functionality, the Wii, PS3, and Xbox 360 are all far more complicated than their predecessors. In many ways, that complexity is still better managed than it is on home computers. You don’t have to “install” games. When you want to play something, you know exactly how to do it, no matter how long ago you last turned on your console. Menu systems offer you a relatively small number of meaningful choices. Etc. But we’re on the edge. My wife cannot navigate the 360 menu system nearly as easily as I can. Both the PS3 and Wii offer remarkably sloppy digital shopping experiences. (I wish I’d documented my problems the last time I visited the Wii store — being forced to download a system update before continuing, and not immediately remembering where to perform the update, was quite the experience.) We’re dramatically increasing the things you can do with a console, but advances in UI development and “assistant technology” are not keeping pace.

… and now I’ve run out of time. I could write another ten pages, but I’d rather hear your thoughts and prepare for part two of this article. And again, please bear in mind that I’m not making thirty-year predictions here. Nobody can claim to understand what things will look like so far into the future, least of all me.

5 responses to “Console Demise? Don’t Hold Your Breath

  1. You seem to have hit the main points pretty well.

    For me, it\’s a simple value proposition.

    To play the best PC games on the market today (and have them run smoothly on my machine), it would take a 1500-3000 dollar up-front investment, and two years from now, I\’d have to pay for major upgrades to continue playing the best games, and having them run smoothly.

    To play the best Xbox games today, I only have to make a $500 investment (console, controllers, game), but that investment will hold out for 5-6 years if I buy in at the beginning of the cycle. The best Xbox games will always run as smoothly as designed on my machine.

    And with a console, I never really have to worry about hardware upgrades, as even when a manufacturer tries to offer a hardware upgrade, this usually fails. The only exception i can think of is the RAM pack for the N64.

    Well, that sums up my thoughts, but I think it\’s more of a rehash of what you said than anything new.

  2. Ever since the better-off kids at school showed off their 386’s and laughed at my Super Nintendo, I’ve always had a jingoistic preference for consoles over PC gaming. PC gaming seemed nerdy and antisocial, with its pokes and cheats and bloody flight simulators that were less fun than being stuck in traffic. Consoles were fun, and cool, and democratic.

    Having said that, I think you might be underestimating the importance of price. The basic reason those kids had a PC and I didn’t was price: we couldn’t afford one. With cheaper hardware and more expensive games, consoles were ludicrously well suited to a parent’s financial schedule. Get one one Christmas when they’ve been extra good. Games the next Christmas, and at birthdays.

    As consoles have become a more adult phenomenon, and PCs have multiplied into almost every middle-class (in the British sense) household, this has remained true. But now I do think it’s starting to change. OK, gaming PCs remain expensive, but surely the explosion of fancy cases and gimmicks of Alienware et al means they’re struggling to justify the high prices by tech alone? The truth is the gap between PC and console prices is smaller than ever.

    And that’s why I think the PS3’s disastrous pricing is perhaps a more serious harbinger of doom than the wii’s UI problems. It’s perfectly possible now for a parent to go into a UK electronics store and be confronted with the choice between, for the same amount of money, a new, quite powerful PC for the same price as a PS3. Parent sees PC, pictures homework, adorable-t-shirt-with-picture-on and other such possibilities. Parent sees PS3 and thinks of guns. Who seriously think the kid is going to get to go home and pick up a Sony controller?

    Of course, the market isn’t all kids any more. But let’s be honest, in many households you could substitute “wife/girlfriend” for “mum”. The PS3’s price is just too much for an impulse purchase – it’s something you have to plan, to discuss, to justify. Like a computer. The success of the Wii is centrally down to staying in the impulse-buy market. For that matter, the success of the original Playstation was heavily down to how quickly its price went down from what was then a high start point.

    Look at the great console failure of the 1990s: 3DO. Trip Hawkins used to claim people would shell out $750 for it because it also got you a CD player, a Kodak Photo CD machine (!), and so on. Did it work? Did it hell. You’re right that people want consoles for games, not all the other stuff. But what it’s really important to remember is that that means they need to be cheap.

  3. It’s nice to see another HCI perspective on console usability. I have complaints about all three “major consoles” with how the interfaces are set up. I’ve only had a very short time with the PS3, but knowing what I know about the XMB from the PSP, it’s a reasonably effective front-end that starts to lose its relevance when more complex tasks are initiated, like playing media, for example.

    I have to smack myself in the forehead sometimes about how the 360 runs, and I have to wonder if your wife encounters similar problems. For example – I start a download, and then cancel it before it completes. Since I have effectively purchased it (at zero points), the 360 polls XBLM, XBLM says I bought the item, therefore it was previously downloaded. Obviously it wasn’t. If I did download it but I don’t know where it went (for example, the Viva Pinata Interactive Video), I select the “Find My Download” option. And then the system tells me where I can find it, but it doesn’t actually take me there or open the object. I mean, I’m probably trying to find it because I want to open it, right?

    The Wii is marginally better in some ways, but worse in others. WiiConnect24 is the worst culprit. It was originally hyped as an ability for the console to update itself overnight without user intervention, but thus far it seems basically only set up to receive messages from the server and nothing else. I don’t like how the console reboots every time I leave a channel, and that somewhat destroys the “TV channel” paradigm that Nintendo is employing. I somehow doubt this will ever be remedied. If they really wanted to stick with the TV channel paradigm, then I could see absolutely *huge* opportunities for managing the interface, like being able to send a game into Picture-in-Picture while you start the Internet Channel to look something up about the game, or check your messages.

    The 360 is *almost* there, but it definitely does still need work.

  4. @Rav — agreed, price is tremendously important (which is why I stressed “affordable” multiple times in my post.) RE: the PS3 — I’ve criticized its price in the past; I just didn’t want this post perceived as “more Sony bashing.” The truth of the matter is, all consoles are “expensive” to a huge number of (US & European) consumers until they drop to US $149.

  5. Not sony bashing either, but…PS3 is crazy.. and seriously the wii..these enhancements for the system are out of control, 150 bucks for addons. These systems need to come with this stuff standard. I do love my 360 though…cant live with out it.

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