The console monopoly
It’s no secret that the current home console generation has dragged on for a remarkably long time. The only other to come anywhere near its seven year duration is the previous one (sixth generation), that spanned a total of six years, originating with the Sega Dreamcast in 1999 and finishing with the introduction of the Xbox 360 at the tail end of 2005. Only now are we beginning to see the start of an eighth generation with the Wii U.
Even though what we have seen so far from Nintendo has been very promising, we will still have to put up with the tail end of the current generation for at least another year. This is a conservative estimate that gives Microsoft and Sony enough time to announce their next game changing behemoths at E3 2013 before unleashing them onto an eager market in time for next Christmas.
“But why is this a bad thing?” I hear you cry. “Surely we should be thankful that we don’t need to drop another couple of hundred dollars on some new hardware?” This is a very valid concern. Nobody wants to be continually spending money on hardware just to keep up with the latest games. There is a cut-off point, however, and I would consider seven years to be more than adequate for getting your money’s worth. Anyone who doesn’t want to jump into the next generation yet can hang onto their Xbox 360s, PS3s and Wiis for a while longer. There is a huge back catalogue of games available for them, but the rest of us need to embrace the new generation with open arms. The very future of our hobby may depend on it.
In an interview with GamesIndustry earlier this year, Square Enix’s Worldwide Technology Director Julien Merceron directly criticised Microsoft and Sony for dragging on this console generation for too long. He said that the wait times between generations is causing developers to jump ship to iOS and browser based projects, strengthening those platforms before the big manufacturers have a chance to bring out new hardware. Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot has also recently voiced a similar opinion, stating that fewer IPs are being developed for aging consoles because publishers are not prepared to take risks on them.
This is a depressing reality to face. Not only are large amounts of new IPs being turned down by publishers, but talented developers are switching to casual gaming projects in growing numbers. Microsoft and Sony’s dominance over the hardcore market is giving them a monopoly over which games get published, favouring first party and well established series over fresh new ideas. I don’t know about you, but in this age of user funded projects like Kickstarter and hardware-independent cloud gaming services, I expect there to be more freedom for developers and not less. The truth is that developers are feeling more limited by the platforms they develop for than ever before; which is very wrong.
It’s not hard to guess why Sony and Microsoft might be delaying releasing their new systems. The process is typically very costly, with companies standing to lose a large amount of money in the early days of a console’s release due to hardware manufacturing costs. It can take them years to see significant profit margins, which is something that Sony may be anxious about at the moment due to their recent financial difficulties and a poor start for the PlayStation Vita. When the gloves come off though and one of the two announces their plans, you can expect things to get ugly fast. Until then, they both seem content to just sit back and let the money roll in from their old platforms.
There may be another reason behind why Sony and Microsoft are delaying their announcement of a new console. It’s a hard idea to swallow, I know, but perhaps it’s a business model that’s losing its attractiveness for investors. I’m not saying that affordable gaming hardware won’t be around five or six years from now, but it may be the case that more open ended platforms like the Ooya end up winning out.
This idea of open platforms is cropping up in other places too. Valve’s Gabe Newell has gone on record over his dislike of Windows 8’s closed PC gaming market, and has even revealed that Valve are planning on entering the hardware space themselves. Couple this competition with the growing cost of developing triple A titles and you have a recipe for disaster. The idea of Sony or Microsoft dropping out of the console race seven years ago might have seemed preposterous, but it seems less so now. Just look at Sega and Atari before them. If the money isn’t there, then even they might call it a day.
But, it’s not all doom and gloom. The fact is that there are more people playing video games now than ever before. Microsoft and Sony dominating the market and stifling the development of new IPs may be putting some people off, but far more people are being turned on to gaming’s possibilities through the growing number of competitive online and casual markets.
The introduction of a new Sony or Microsoft console could well grab the attention of disenchanted developers again, and it would probably result in more development houses cropping up to replace those that have dissolved. But even if consoles disappeared entirely, the show would go on. There will always be a large market for hardcore experiences and cheap affordable hardware. The only difference is that we may end up getting our fixes through different methods like open platfroms or cloud gaming. Who knows? Perhaps a good shake up of the established order is exactly the catalyst needed for a renaissance of quality games’ design. Or, perhaps Sony and Microsoft will come up with hardware that rejuvenates the stagnating market. All I know is that something needs to change, and fast.