Editorial: The Death of Conventional Gaming?

The console gaming industry circa 2008. A heady mood of self-congratulation and hubris pervades the purveyors of boxed gaming product, for you see retail sales were at record highs, and expected to go higher still. What follows is a grim cavalcade of lazy game design, populist by-the-numbers software, console manufacturers repeatedly overstepping their mandate as licence holders, and publishers hell-bent on locking access to every tertiary feature of their games behind online paywalls in order to cruel the second hand video game trade. What also follows is the proliferation of wildly successful digital gaming platforms; from Valve’s relatively orthodox Steam online retail service, to digital services offering smaller, cheaper software formats such as iTunes, the Android Marketplace, and even the online stores belonging to Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft.

In many ways an improvement
OK, so in some ways conventional gaming is already dead ...

The console industry circa 2010. It is difficult to know precisely what volume of trade the big three are doing on their online networks (though I could venture a guess at Sony’s April numbers), yet what is clear is that the boxed retail gaming market has been shrinking by a considerable margin over consecutive years, and this is true for both console and handheld software. At the same time the burgeoning smartphone market has been seen to rip a large chunk out of SONTENDO’s handheld racket, and while it perhaps disingenuous to contrast smartphone success directly against the stagnating PS360 market, I nevertheless have no great difficulty in believing Jobs’ iOS machinations have been like a shot of kryptonite to the established console licence holders.

The death of physical gaming products is a notion which I find rather unpalatable. For one thing we cede control over our purchased software to the console holder by default, no trading, no borrowing, no selling used. If the network should happen to go PSN on you, then that is just too damn bad.

For another thing it is no great certainty that the online gaming market will be able to supply an agreeable financial model to facilitate the development of complex AAA gaming experiences in the absence of the physical game trade. So long as the traditional console business maintains a physical retail presence then they are held aloof from the likes of iOS as a more qualitatively legitimate gaming product. Should you loose that facade however, then consumers begin to ask why one digital gaming product is priced differently to another, an injurious turn of events given that all too few console games are worth their asking price. And suddenly the Emperor is seen to be wearing no clothes. Subsequently game prices fall to remain competitive, and budgets are slashed to compensate.

Lane can look forward to playing Diablo 4 in his browser!
Diablo Kitty will not stand for a caption!

That said, I am not about to castigate the emergent digital platforms as interlopers threatening the quality of our industry, nor am I about to blame the gamers for increasingly turning to cheap downloadable trifles, rather I lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of developers for making console gaming into a bad value proposition. After playing Final Fantasy VII could any of you even put a price-tag on that experience? After playing Final Fantasy XIII could any of you honestly say that it was worth much more than $15? I don’t necessarily think that this is a case of gamers abandoning consoles altogether, but rather it is gamers opting for a surfeit of cheap downloadable titles in order to pad out the interim between major console releases. Personally speaking, several years ago I was wont to purchase a significant number of games that I was only half interested in, so that I might have something to play. Currently however, I am more than happy to dick around with iOS titles while I wait for games that I am legitimately interested in, which is bad news for the publishers of crappy games! Unfortunately the console gaming market has grown so exponentially over the previous several years that any substantial withdrawal of purchasing power will most likely result in a significant contraction of the market, a contraction we are only now seeing with some dramatic underperformances and high profile lay-offs.

This console generation has resulted in a sharp increase in the cost of development. Subsequently developers did everything they could to penny pinch, cut the quality and quantity of game content, and lock away features behind their ‘online pass’ game breaking software, all in an effort to pass their costs to the consumer. No doubt this would have gone swimmingly for them if these precious little snowflakes lived in a fucking bubble, but sadly this is not the case. Console developers fancied that they were the only game in town, yet this was a conceit and nothing more. So no, I’m about to blame consumers for taking the only reasonable course of action available to them, and I am certainly not about to begrudge Ethos his precious downloadable versions, though such realities are to have some very real consequences going forward.

In weighing up this potential contraction, the optimist in me hopes that it will result in the console market experiencing a smaller number of high quality releases in a calendar year, while my inner pessimist fully expects it to result in an even higher imbalance of CoD-style online shooters, I guess the best we can realistically expect is a little of both.

Alternately, if the quality of console gaming does not improve then perhaps it would be best that it die out as a medium.

3 comments

  1. There is no way whatsoever that I can put a price tag on playing FFVII. It remains one of the most important experiences I have ever had as a fan of RPGs.

    I would have paid more than $15 for FFXIII. But I contend that it is worth about $30 at most.

    I expect us to see lots more shit on consoles before things begin to get appreciably better.

  2. Well, one thing that could lower overhead is publishing price. The cost of printing booklets, case jackets, making cases, and putting out BluRay/DVDs is non-negligible. Sure, it pales in comparison to actual coding and art asset development, but it’s still there.

    And that’s where digital distribution takes the cake over physical media.

    As consoles approach the media PC level, I do expect that PC and console gaming will eventually merge. I think we’ll see a VAIO/PS merger, an XBox/Games for Windows merger, and Nintendo will either limp to the gate with what they have or just stick to handheld consoles and game development.

  3. I’m thinking that in the next ten or twenty years the concept and definition of console gaming is going to become really murky, especially in a digital distribution future where physical delivery infrastructure is meaningless. That will essentially mean that anyone with an online delivery system will be capable of delivering exactly the same content as the console manufacturers. Apple and Android will no doubt make a play for console gamers, Apple’s iPad2 is already capable of running games at 1080p from your TV, all they need to do is to pack in some wireless controllers and a more generous hdd, and then they’ll start challenging consoles through bracket-creep rather than through some brave and insolent gesture (a la Microsoft’s foray into gaming).

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