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.

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