I believe this generation of consoles will be the last for the typical idea of a console. Microsoft pushed a great idea but never really told consumers their plan, instead resorting to simply saying “trust us.” Disregarding their horrible job at properly describing their product, the idea they were implementing was not a knew one. Well, most of it wasn’t anyways. The core idea of registering games to an account and either installing from disk or downloading from servers is what 90% of PC games do. Steam, Origin, uPlay, Capsule, Desura. These are all storefronts and game launchers built into one. You buy or redeem your game and then to play it you need to have the client running. Steam is still the most popular but Origin and Uplay are catching up in terms of services(not in user count or deals though). There are two main ideas as to why this worked so well on PC but was shunned on console enough to warrant Microsoft’s quick reversal.
The core reason why Steam works is because of its non-obtrusive take on DRM. Despite many people defending Steam, it is still, at its basis, DRM. It ensures that your copy of a game is legit and conveys data about game trends to Valve. PC gamers have had to deal with all sorts of DRM over the years. Everything from SecuROM to StarForce and ending with the horrible always on Ubisoft DRM(yup, Microsoft tried to use a failed PC idea on console users). DRM has been a long fight for PC users as the pirates usually end up with a fully working copy while the purchasing consumers have buggy games and resource hogging programs running the background(just look at Simcity). Steam is a non-obtrusive DRM, meaning it does not impede on people’s gaming habits. Other than requiring the user to be online the very first time it is run, and of course to download games, Steam can be run in offline mode and the experience is not different at all, other than not having any online components such as friends, multiplayer, etc. Steam also hides its DRM core behind its services. Achievements, cloud saves, free and secure multiplayer servers, friends lists with text and voice chat(including “party chat”), and the best deals on video games on any system. They have recently introduced the Steam Workshop which provides mod support for any game and a new meta-game called Steam Trading Cards. They continue to add features that enhance the experience of gaming, in any situation. Is your PC hooked up to your TV and do you mainly use a controller to game, Steam Big Picture Mode makes it easier to navigate the store and your library with a new UI that was specifically built for controller navigation.
Another strong argument lies in the main philosophy of the PC, flexibility. The PC gamers were not forced into using the clients and, for the most part, are still not. Though some games do require them to be registered on a service it is still not a a widely used practice. EA pretty much requires all of their recent games to run through Origin and Activision requires the Call of Duty games to be run through Steam but other than that you can put a disk in your drive and play it normally. If Microsoft had announced the return to the original ideals of DVDs and ownership, but allowed users to opt into the all digital era of their own will. They could have appeased both crowds while still introducing the positives of the new architecture. Instead they set the consoles back a decade.
None of this should scare you though. While Sony has shown that digital sales are not meeting and retail sales, and while the consumer voiced their concerns about the X1, that was all in a different time. This upcoming generation is starting with a brand new idea that could help sell future consoles. The PS4 and X1 switched from proprietary architectures to the universally utilized x86 architecture. This is what all desktop and laptop computers run on. This is the reason why I can still play my 1990 video games: doom, street fighter 2, X-Wing vs TIE Fighter. Whether it ran on DOS, Windows 3.11, 2000, or XP I can still play those games because the underlying code has not changed in over two decades. As long as consoles continue to use x86 they too should have this capability.
Consumers outside of gaming have eaten up digital distribution. Phone apps, iTunes, and Netflix all showcase how consumers have acknowledged the want…no the need, for instant data at their fingertips. And on top of that they don’t want any of this data taking up space on their physical storage. Imagine buying a new Playstation 6 and immediately having a library of all of your PS4 and PS5 purchases waiting to be installed. Just like when you upgrade your phone, everything you have purchased should work out of the box due to a retention of architecture. (If this sounds like a dream come true, just remember that it has been reality for PC owners for about 9 years. Even without the cloud storing all of our games, PC gamers have enjoyed the thought that a purchased game could be played for the rest of time. The idea of waiting for an HD remake or hoping Sony puts your favorite PS1 or PS2 Classic in the store will be over.)
Having an all digital system also removes the costs of manufacturing. There are no disks, no manuals, and no cases. This removes the need for cd burners, paper, plastic, ink and gloss for the case inserts. All of this should bring the price down. Steam typically has a 10-20% discount on Day 1 purchases and games launch at $50 instead of $60.(Saints Row 4 is $60 pre-order for X360/PS3. It is $50 on PC and only $45 on Steam if you own SR3) Since games will cost less to manufacture, companies can see profit with less units sold which should make business a little more viable(lets face it, the “go big or go home” idea in AAA gaming right now is stupid and is bankrupting too many good companies). Cheaper games = more people playing your game = more profit. Better chances at profitability will allow more companies to stay afloat which creates more competition and, hopefully, true innovation(something we have rarely seen this generation). With bigger profits we might even see some bigger studios taking risks instead rehashing ideas and creating endless sequels(I’m looking at you Ubisoft Montreal). Going all digital might help some developers self-publish which will lead to more money for the developers and less restrictions on what they can make. It will also deteriorate the asinine control that Metacritic has over developers.
I believe, hands down, that this is the future of consoles. As of right now the PS4 and X1 are little more than PCs running special software for the OS. While they have been hindered this upcoming generation, the future hold opportunity for massive advancement in what being a console owner means. Hopefully we can see the day when “backwards compatibility” and “rare, sold out niche game” become terms of the past across all consoles. Maybe, just maybe, being a console owner won’t mean being trapped inside of a cage just for ease of gaming.