Brian Crecente wrote a pretty divisive article about consoles needing to fade away as they aren’t needed anymore. Those who know me will be surprised to hear this, but I don’t agree with this sentiment. Brian completely overlooks the important role that consoles play, instead directly comparing to computers. Consoles are not perfect but are an integral part of gaming.
The article starts off by belittling consoles, calling them anachronistic devices that are not only unnecessary but wasteful as well. There is so much wrong with this idea. Consoles are still plagued with ideas and systems that are out of touch with the present, such as digital publishing fees, but the console as a box that plays games is entirely modern. You see, there are two ways to play AAA games — on a console or a PC — and both have their benefits and shortcomings. While PCs have come a long way in the “ease of use” department they still don’t have that effortless experience of dropping a disk in and playing without messing with any settings. In an age where Apple products are used primarily for their simplified “it just works” user experience, I find it difficult to believe this aspect of console games could be completely overlooked. An analogy I always liked utilizes cars. PCs are like exotic and sports cars while consoles are like SUVs or sedans. A Ferrari can go much faster than a generic family car but in the end both vehicles get you to the same place: happy gaming fun. (That simile always falls apart at the end). Aside from this, consoles also have a much lower startup cost. This is especially important for newcomers to our hobby but it is also a positive feature for people who only buy a couple of games a year, such as Call of Duty or FIFA.
Now, despite my support for consoles I do believe their potential is squandered. I don’t subscribe to the notion that consoles are outdated but I firmly believe the approach to making them is. So much of the design behind consoles is based on an outdated view of physical media. The best part is that most of the pieces needed to evolve the console experience to a true “next-gen” status are already in play. We have social systems, a near-requirement for internet connectivity, digital distribution, store fronts, and cloud based computing. All we need is for somebody to put these pieces in the right order. You see, console’s biggest flaw is also its greatest strength: the lack of upgradability. The core tenet that allows you to play any game perfectly is also what keeps the graphical restrictions on games for the better part of a decade. What if users didn’t have to wait for a new console just to see new graphics? What if you didn’t need to buy a new console every decade just to play the newest games? If a console came out tomorrow that would run any game at the highest PC settings, including games that hadn’t come out yet, would you buy it? What if that console cost a fraction of the price of a Playstation 4?
If it isn’t obvious, I’m referring to microconsoles that utilize streaming services such as OnLive or Nvidia GRID. Well, I guess OnLive doesn’t really count since it has closed down. The idea behind these services is that a high end computer in a server room does all of the heavy computation of playing modern games at their highest graphical settings and then streams the video to your console. This technology meant you could play Batman Arkham Origins on your five year old Samsung Galaxy S using the OnLive app. Unfortunately, with OnLive gone the only contender is Nvidia’s GRID service but they don’t seem too keen about opening that up to all Android devices. It is currently only available on the Shield family of devices but this could be due to it still being in beta. Consoles are better suited for this since they already exist in a closed garden ecosystem where game files are hidden from the users. In fact, the user experience of streaming games wouldn’t feel any different from buying digitally except the noticeable lack of a multiple hour download. Browse the storefront, click the purchase button, and start playing. There are negatives to this approach, such as the requirement of a good internet connection, but I feel like it would greatly improve the console experience. It would remove any of the frustrations and lost time of things like downloads, patches, disc errors, and upgrading hardware. The player could simply pick the game she wants and play. Isn’t that why people gravitate towards consoles in the first place?
Even before a console is made it has already run into an obstacle that holds it back from greatness: competition. Everybody who plays on a PC can play with anybody else on a PC across any game that has ever come out. Console games don’t support cross platform play, much less cross-generation play, so users need to not only “pick a team” but also have to ensure all of their friends have the same console within the same brand. This fragmentation isn’t necessary at all. In fact, the users don’t gain anything from it as it only benefits the companies. Brand loyalty, console wars, and fanboy arguments diminish our friendly hobby, turning an activity that used to promote healthy competition and friendship into something that brings out the most vile aspects of humanity. The divide also creates a need for exclusivity, another practice that is anti-consumer. Seriously, think of another media that limits the options of the user based on platform. Well, I guess market specific bonus tracks on CDs were like that but that trend faded fast as everyone complained about it. With how identical the hardware is between the Xbox One and the Playstation 4, it is a great disservice to the people who play games to still force the idea that they are different in any meaningful way.
It isn’t the console itself that feels anachronistic, it is how we currently think about, approach, and build them. Despite being the simple way to play games they aren’t actually all that simple. There is a ton of information needed just to buy a console. Consoles are also fixed products, forcing video games to bend to each generation’s hardware limitations. Both of these can be alleviated by switching to a single unit, streaming console. Hopefully the future will yield a time when we don’t ask others what system they have, but what games they would like to play together.