Wednesday, 17 October 2012

OPINION: Are we living in the last console generation?

The original Nintendo was released in America in 1985. The Super Nintendo followed just six years afterward in 1991. The Nintendo 64 released five years later in 1996. There were six years between the Playstation 1 (1994) and Playstation 2 (2000), and the original Xbox (2001) and the Xbox 360 (2005) were separated by just four years. It’s now been almost seven years since the Xbox 360 began the last console generation, and there has been no sign -- short of a few unconfirmed rumours -- of Sony and Microsoft even developing new consoles. Where is the next console generation?
The original Xbox and the Xbox 360 were separated by only four years.
Before we get any further, I’d like to appease all the frothing Nintendo fanboys who are moments away from sending me a strongly worded letter/angry e-mail/death threat. I know the Wii U is set to release this November. However, with graphical capability barely above what current-gen consoles offer, and a launch lineup consisting mostly of ports of current-gen titles, I feel that the Wii U is simply Nintendo finally deciding to join us in the present console generation.
The WiiU's graphical capability is comparable to the current generation
So why are Sony and Microsoft so hesitant to start a new generation? For the answer, you need look no further than their yearly revenue streams. Sony only started making a profit on their latest machine two years ago, and the Xbox 360 was actually sold at a loss for several years before they were able to turn any profit. For either of these companies to even announce a new console now would decimate the relatively small profits they have made. But while Nintendo relies solely on video games as a bread winner, both Sony and Microsoft have alternate sources of revenue. Video games are more of a side job for them, so why even bother making another console when A. It’s so damn expensive, and B. Nintendo and PC platforms like Steam can do it cheaper and better? If they can simply ride the current generation out for five, even ten more years, why not? And why did they even get into video games in the first place if it’s so unprofitable?
Despite the PS3's much criticized $599 launch price, it was still sold at a loss
To answer that, we have to wind the clock all the way back to the days of the N64 and the PS1. Back then, consoles were the be-all and end-all of gaming, and huge profit machines. When Nintendo had a bit of a flop with the GameCube in the following generation, Microsoft decided they wanted a piece of the gaming pie and came along to pick up the slack. Then there was the PS2, which was so incredibly successful that it outsold the PS3 for years after its release. It also proved that consoles could capture the elusive ‘casual’ market of gamers with ‘party’ titles like Buzz, SingStar and Guitar Hero, and the following generation was eager to capitalize on this. Look no further than the Wii, which was almost entirely marketed to casual gamers, as well as Microsoft’s Kinect attachment and Sony’s Move controller. Just a few years ago, consoles were top shit, and every man and his dog was lining up to grab the newest Mario or Call of Duty.
The Wii had a strong focus on 'casual' gamers
So what happened? Facebook happened. Or more appropriately, Farmville happened. Companies like Zynga also wanted a piece of the previously ignored ‘casual gamer’ crowd and decided the best way to do it was not to force them into buying a room full of plastic instruments, but rather to give them free games through a platform they already own (the PC) and then sucker them into paying for extra content. Needless to say, they were incredibly successful. Basically, all of the casual gamers suddenly got up and said ‘Hey, why are we buying all these consoles and subscriptions when we can just play games on Facebook for free?’ The rising popularity of smartphones and blockbusters like Angry Birds also contributed to this. Similarly, many ‘enthusiast’ and ‘hardcore’ gamers saw the falling cost of PC hardware and rising prevalence and improvement of PC platforms like Steam as a time to finally join the PC Gaming Master Race.
Farmville took the gaming world by storm
So now we reach the present, with Microsoft and Sony plinking along with their aging hardware, issuing fairly regular console ‘redesigns’ aimed at tricking people into thinking their boxes are newer than they actually are, while much of their user base is slowly getting wise to the fact that a mid-range ~$500 PC will outperform even the elitist of Xbox Elites. Both companies are either losing or barely making money, so why would they bother making a new generation? My prediction is that the PC will once again take the crown as the dominant form of  gaming. This is already starting to happen, with developers like DICE and EPIC putting the PC first and foremost, and with the explosive popularity of recent PC exclusives like Diablo III and DoTA 2. I think that the Wii U still has a place due to its interesting gimmicks that offer a completely different play-style to the PC and because people like having a ‘party console’ that can do local multiplayer, but I feel like there is no room in the gaming world for consoles that essentially function as watered-down PCs
Epic Game's Fortnite is being developed primarily for the PC
If we could wind the clock forward a couple years, who knows what we might find? Maybe Sony and Microsoft will squeeze out another generation, but I really doubt there will be another one after that. The advancements of cloud computing and initiatives such as onlive seem to suggest that in the future, ‘consoles’ will simply be a service that is sold to us directly through our TV’s or PC's, much like a netflix subscription. It’s kind of funny to think that these days, your grandma doesn't know what an Xbox is, but by the time we become grandparents ourselves, our grandkids will be asking us about the funny little boxes we used to have to plug into our TV’s to play games.

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