The death, rebirth and survival of home consoles, Part 3.
Video games are only a child in the entertainment business, compared to film they’re only here a few years, yet they’ve seen as much if not more change. Ever since scientists first decided to use their supercomputers for a bit of sneaky fun instead of curing diseases or saving the world, they’ve be overhauling the machinery that powers our past time of choice faster and more frequently than almost any other technology. In this piece I’ll be examining the impacts of the streaming future and how each of the current console manufactures will likely attempt to combat, survive or pivot towards it. But first lets look at what happens when the gaming industry does change with the times and what happens when it doesn’t.
Google Stadia seems neat. It’s basically everything I wrote about in a previous ‘pie-in-the-sky’ what could streaming become article along with a bunch of interesting and/or terrifying YouTube and web browser integrations. Playing on your TV, you could get kicked off it because someone else wants to use it, set your phone on the kitchen table, point the Google controller at your phone and pick up where you left off. You could be watching a YouTube video of someone playing a souls-like game and once they arrive at a boss the creator could set up a checkpoint. You could then press a button and instantly open a new tab with the same game instance loaded and try to beat the boss in less time than the Youtuber does. Or you could be playing a split screen game where neither side of the screen has to give up any fidelity because each players section is being rendered by a distinct computer rig off in a server farm rather than one machine trying to show what two players are up to at once.
However, the question remains will people adopt Google Stadia? And how will the current console manufactures change to combat a company as all-encompassing as Google? First let’s look at other gaming industry sea changes and how the console market adapted to them and how those that didn’t were left in the dust.
The Dreamcast was Sega’s last console, but they had sealed their fate with the Saturn. Launching in Japan a solid year before Sony and Nintendo’s stepped into three dimensional graphic space, initial sales were good. However, there were problems. While the console could render 3D graphics, games like the port of the Arcade’s Virtua Fighter were praised at the time, the Saturn wasn’t built from the ground up as a 3D console. Sega of Japan fearing Sony and Nintendo’s generational leap in technology sent out a last minute directive that the Saturn was to use a dual chip solution in order to give the console enough horsepower to competently run 3D games. The unintended side effect was developing became much more difficult on the platform, even 2D games which until now were being optimised to run on a single Super RISC CPU had to be reconfigured. Sega had chosen to continue to pursue the highest quality 2D graphics rather than create a console which was designed for 3D game creation, only to at the last possible chance back out from this direction and chase the trend of 3D gaming. This crippled the Saturn’s image, during its marketing cycle. This was not helped by the confusion caused by where it fell compared to the 32X and Mega CD add-ons for the Genisis. The Saturn was outputting incredible looking 2D games but they took too long to make and its 3D output looked dated before the PlayStation had even launched. (1)
Many original PlayStation games have aged much worse than Sega’s 2D output of the time, but 3D was still obviously the tech of the future. People flocked to the original PlayStation not because its games were better but because they were more forward thinking. All this this was paired with a disastrous early launch of the Saturn at E3 1995. Once again a message from Sega of Japan came down, much to the detriment of the rest of the company. It was a desperate bid to beat Sony’s hyped machine to the American market and it backfired. Very few stores were supplied with the Saturn for the surprise launch and those that weren’t were so spiteful that when stock was offered few promoted it and some even refused to carry the console. Saturn sales in the US were an embarrassment after the success of the Genesis.
Five years later when the Dreamcast came out the damage had been done. Despite a litany of innovative titles, some truly insane ideas and basically being a powerhouse of a console at the time the Dreamcast was released by a company seen as inconsistent and unreliable. Often thought to be living with one foot in the past while the other was blindly trying to make its way into the future, consumers saw Sega for what it was, a company at conflict with itself. Its past, its present and its future.
Sega’s philosophies were catching up with them. The game line up on Sega’s first console, the Genesis, was about bringing classic arcade experiences into the home, at the time a futuristic idea, but as explained by Valcan on the gamerx channel (2) this too became a problem. People didn’t want high-score based arcade experiences at home, they wanted slower more experiential games. By the late 90s the arcade wasn’t as cool as it once was, so why would you want to play games at home just trying to emulate that experience. PlayStation and Nintendo were offering games like Mario 64 which would take days to 100% rather than have you compete to break someone else’s high-score in short bursts. Gaming had changed, and Sega was too slow in noticing. In its lifetime the Dreamcast only scratched 10.7 million units sold, while the original PlayStation eclipsed that at an estimated 101 million. By 2001 after launching in ‘98/’99 (Japan/USA) Sega announced they were leaving the console manufacturing business and becoming a third party. This is what happens when games don’t adapt, they die. (3)
Survival is possible. In the mid ‘90s when games like Night Trap, Mortal Kombat and Lethal Enforcer were being scrutinised by the US government, the games industry knew what would happen if they didn’t confront the scare head on. Parents would insist someone protect their children and senators at the hearings would claim that if the video game industry couldn’t do it themselves the government would have to get involved. This was the last thing any game publisher, not to mind developer, wanted. A system being put in place where every regional government decided what could and couldn’t be shown in a game, could be disastrous. Forcing developers to add or remove code so their game could be sold in particular regions? This could balloon development and QA time and costs to untenable levels.
During senate hearings in 1993 Nintendo was happy to throw the rest of the industry under the bus, pretending to be just as shocked as everyone else that ‘these games have blood in them?’. However, the rest of the industry came together to form a self-regulating body and ratings system known as the ESRB. Nintendo quickly followed suit, when they failed to put enough distance between them and their violent and depraved rivals (4)(5).
The Entertainment Software Rating Board certainly isn’t perfect. Scott the Woz has even put forward a pretty compelling case for them to be considered irrelevant (6) . However, it prevented the industry’s direction from being controlled by the government (instead now it is directed by out of touch ‘peers’) and stopped games development from becoming fractured and overwrought with demands from governments holding games to their changeable standards. This is what the industry adapting looks like.
So, the day after Google has announced Stadia (20/3/19), what will the big three console manufactures do to survive? Sony will double down on being a gaming platform first and foremost, Nintendo will go back to straight up selling us toys while Microsoft is the only company with the bandwidth and money to split the difference and compete in both markets both.
Google spent much of their presentation toting their reasoning behind their streaming experience being better than any potential competitor. The sheer number of servers they have available to ping will apparently allow them to bypass most of the already busy public internet. In theory what this means is that since less information is currently passing through their fibre wires, the information being sent by them can travel much faster. In practice, the hope is that this would allow for a much lower latency experience, something Sony has wrestled with for years now and recently (partially) threw in the towel on.
Back when Sony bought Gaikai in 2012 this streaming future seemed like an impossibility. When Sony launched PSNow in beta on the PS4, PS3, PSVita and PSTV across 2014 they proved that to be the case; the technology was not ready for the spotlight. Inputs were laggy and the quality of the stream would drop to disruptive levels. The nicest thing you could say about PSNow was that it continued to exist. Sony showed some follow through, adjusting its pricing structure; no longer requiring you to pay both a subscription and individually for each game you wanted to play. This made it function more like Netflix where once you subscribe you gain ‘free’ access to over 600 games. After several years they’ve implemented a download option; this means that if your internet isn’t fast enough to compensate for Sony’s lack of servers you can still play many PS1,2 and 4 (but not PS3 because emulating the Cell Processor would be hard) games by installing them straight to your PlayStation 4. All this is to say PlayStation does have a streaming service, but it has a poor public image from its botched launch and it’s not nearly as robust as what Google claims to be offering.
So, what will they do to counteract the streaming future. I believe their only option is to double down on what made the PS4 so successful. A system for people who want an uncompromised gaming experience. Cast you mind back to Sony’s scare mongering about Xbox One’s original ‘always online’ systems prior to the launch of the PS4. It’s easy to forget now but Sony made a big deal of how Microsoft’s console would always demand an internet connection. However I’m willing to bet that nowadays if you lose connection to the internet while playing any modern single player game you’ll be booted to a menu to reconnect to a server that’s only tracking your gameplay info and habits. The intire industry moved to the ‘always online’ future Sony told us to fear.
Irony aside, it would behove Sony to play up the traditionalist aspect again, honing in on the idea that Google Stadia ‘has the potential to be a inconvenient experience’ and sell whatever the PlayStation 5 is as the no latency, internet independent, gamers game machine After that it’s a case of hoping the core gaming audience latches on, playing it safe rather than risk being beta testers for Google’s first gen of tech. Then through word of mouth they would hope to spread the good word to their non-enthusiast friends. They can build up a player base because it’s a simple box that JUST PLAYS GAMES WELL, with a backlog of 1st party exclusives and they can ride on the coattails of “gaming is really damn popular now” for a while longer, maybe until they work on a streaming competitor or alternative. It worked for this generation; the PS4 has already passed out the PS3 in lifetime sales and is gaining on the PS1 and PS2 at a cool 91 million units.
Note: after Mark Cerny’s interview with Wired, the appears to almost certainly be the tact that Sony is chasing. Instant load times, through an SSD, is an excellent counter to streaming claims that are dependent on a strong internet connection. Disc based backwards compatibility over xbox’s current method of emulating a 360 on the One would be much more convient as it would mean that each game wouldn’t need to go through a re-licencing process or have to be downloaded separately despite you owning the disc meaning all PS4 (and maybe 1,2 and 3 games) would instantly be playable on a PS5 and giving Sony a huge back catalog advantage. Finally the guarantee of support for the PSVR service shows a comitimet to past technologies and a core gaming audience Sony is usually quick to fall off with, see the Playstation Vita and how despite games having a strong adapotion rate the systems support from Sony was only ever minial at best due to low initial sales. An reassurance that they’re still very much so interested in VR is Sony’s strongest signal that they intend on keeping their market share diverse and health and understand that doing so begins with keeping their most engaged audience invested.
Nintendo are current enacting their plan and have been for years. It is why their hardware can afford to lag behind and why they turn a profit on each unit of hardware they sell unlike their competitors who allow themselves to lose money for the first few years. As stated before, they make toys. No matter how many servers you can connect your phone to it isn’t a Labo set. No matter how many videos you can link out from to demo a game it’s no Mario and no matter how much connectivity you have there is a magic and giddiness that Nintendo infects even their worst products with that can’t be denied; a can-do attitude of a wide eyed child. Who else would think up of and support amiibo like Nintendo have (by which I mean, not really supporting them at all but still selling gang busters). Who else would make a console that not only can become a handheld but plays a snap through the system when the Joy-cons are clicked into place and has a ‘HD Rumble’ for some reason. Maybe this is just my ‘Nintendo is 125 years old, life will find a way’ naïve coming through but the mindset of selling toys and not consoles has worked for Nintendo since the NES and people are still buying them. Whatever they are. Apart from the Wii U, because it looked like a defective Fisher-Price ‘educational tool’.
It’s also worth noting Nintendo has played around with streaming games to the Switch in Japan. Games like Resident Evil 7: Biohazard and Assassin Creed Odyssey are playable on the system this way. This does seem to be much more of a testing ground than anything else and they have little in the way of plans for expansion currently but it is worth bearing in mind that we may see a Nintendo solution to streaming at some point and that could either be very exciting or hilariously disastrous.
Note: since writing rumours of a Pro/Light version of the Switch have been swirling to the point of being dizzy. The Light, as successor to the 3DS, reinforces Nintendo’s stance on wanting to be babies’ first console (hooking them early on with incredible exclusives). While the idea of a Pro Switch model seems to be an acknowledgement that they must continue to move with the times to stay relevant but also shows a growing self awareness of the aging demographic (as seen with they’re continued support of more and more mature exclusive games like those developed by Platinum).
Microsoft is left as the most interesting case study. After the kicking they took compared to the PS4 during this, the 8th generation of consoles (the Xbox one has sold well just not PS4-shockingly-well), Xbox, Microsoft and Phil Spencer seem to have set their sights high for the next few years for gaming. It began with Phil Spencer’s title being changed from the Head of Xbox to the Head of Gaming at Microsoft, a clear indication that they don’t believe gaming will be contained to one system in the next generation. This was confirmed by the existence of Project xCloud. However, they seemed to have changed their tone at E3 confirming that not just one but several pieces of next generation gaming hardware are in the pipeline.
What does this mean? Well on one hand Microsoft is one of the few companies which can challenge Google on capturing the mainstreams attention with streaming, even on a purely infrastructural basis when it comes to servers, but on the other an aggressive build-up of new first party studios seems to show a clear intent to appease the hardcore gaming audience first. Microsoft is clearly planning on splitting the difference. Already there are rumours of a streaming/download focused skew of the Xbox One being released for the console’s twilight years so it’s likely we’ll see two boxes in the next generation; one powerful enough to run your games at home on location and one which will outsource most of the heavy lifting to Microsoft’s xCloud system. This could be a smart move alleviating the diehards concerns about ownership and preservation of games while still appealing to the massive market of people who really just want to be able to go ‘Look, Halo on my TV.’ Press a button and say ‘Halo on my phone’.
Note: since the time of writing Microsoft has both shown off Project xCloud working at an Xbox Live Event and announced the Xbox One S: All Digital Edition, while finally allowing customers to conbine there Game Pass and Xbox Gold memberships. A warning shot across the bowe that they take streaming seriously and will be willing to make the investments and bare the brunt of short term loses against Google while also being a stern reminder to Sony that they have no intention in leaving the console space either.
It’s a scary time and many questions have still yet to be answered, some questions we’re only thinking of asking now. But I can guarantee you this, the video game console is dead, long live the video game console.