Will this be the Last Generation of Video Game Consoles?

Video Game Console
Analysts and gaming insiders alike dispute the current state of console gaming. With Playstation 4 and Xbox One both officially unveiled and on the horizon, and Wii U, Vita and 3DS already out for a full year, everyone seems to be excited for the coming holidays.

However, all this excitement can't escape the criticism of naysayers, who point to the success of gaming on smartphones and tablets as heralding the doom of the consoles. These critics are hard to get around; many of them have worked in the gaming industry for decades and were themselves instrumental in getting the current generation off the ground. However, just how much do these arguments hold water? Where are the critics coming from, and how much of what they say is speculative or well founded?

First, we have to understand what has happened with mobile gaming. Since Apple announced the iPhone, and heralded an app store model on their devices, the way the world consumes software has never been the same. Games on mobile (smartphones and tablets) are designed from the ground up to be different than console or PC games. Controls are different: most games make use of the touch screen, although some also utilize the accelerometer for limited motion controls.

The most popular games are mass-market, enticing Apple/Android fans with cutesy graphics and simple rules. However, with more powerful ARM chips more enterprising devs have sought to match what AAAs come up with on current gen consoles graphics and performance wise, and they arguably come very close, albeit in smaller screens. In app purchases and monetization models are an integral part of these games, and in fact part of the design process itself. Most dangerously, most of these games are dirt cheap, or freemium. The latest smartphones may be more expensive than current generation consoles, but once you get them gaming itself is dirt cheap.

To the credit of the mobile gaming market, it has expanded the gaming industry in general, and brought in new opportunities for employment, and even innovation, in what was rapidly becoming a stagnating industry. Many veteran game designers have abandoned their console ambitions, some even coming out of retirement, to play, experiment, and profit in this new area.

However, the assertion that mobile gaming will kill consoles, is based on some faulty assumptions. As explained in a prior article, it has led to console companies like Sony and Nintendo competing to get indie developers on their platforms. It's also hard to ignore that the numbers for mobile gaming (in terms of downloads, company profits, etc) has been rising while numbers on the console side (retail purchases, company financial year reports) have been dropping. I think the error here is in directly connecting the two when they can be perfectly isolated incidents. While some developers try to match console games in style and graphics, overall they just target completely different niches. It would be perfectly reasonable to expect mobile gaming to eventually reach a saturation point and slow its growth, and eventually take its place as the third pillar of the industry, alongside console and PC gaming.

In parallel to this common argument, however, is another narrative that's been growing since the rise of Gaikai and OnLive a few years back. Cloud gaming makes promises for a video gaming future that will see the big three console companies abandon consoles and physical retail of their own volition, in exchange for leveraging the power of the cloud. Gaikai and OnLive, in their limited capacity, have proven that using the cloud to stream games itself is no longer a pipe dream. Not only were they able to prove that the technology was there to make it all possible, they proved that there was a market for this service.

However, in their own ways, Gaikai and OnLive themselves also demonstrated why cloud gaming as a whole was not yet tenable. Although cloud gaming was made a reality for areas in the United States that had the online infrastructure required it, this remains a small part of the country in general. OnLive went through a particularly rough 2012 as the company was hit with massive layoffs. News that the company had closed completely was greatly exaggerated, however, allegations of mismanagement and long term unprofitability hurt its public image. When it finally reemerged this year, the service was smaller in scale and perhaps not so ambitious.

In spite of all this, Sony and Microsoft seem to have invested in cloud computing for their upcoming consoles. Sony purchased OnLive's smaller, but technically proficient rival Gaikai, and revealed cloud gaming applications for the Playstation 4 would include allowing you to start playing games even as you were still downloading and installing them. Microsoft appears to be more ambitious, as they explain how Xbox One games will be fully optimized with the help of its very profitable online servers. Calculations that will be relegated to the cloud, even for games which were bought physically, include background details, such as trees and streaming water. Microsoft claims they have 300,000 servers at their disposal to use for the Xbox One. This claim that has been disputed by game developer Jonathan Blow, but its one that is hard to disprove or substantiate.

Whatever the case, Sony and Microsoft have already placed half their foot at the door of cloud gaming. Nintendo, notorious for adopting technologies late for their consoles, has only recently indicated their interest in cloud gaming. Reports state that they are already placing their newly established N.E.R.D. (Nintendo European Research and Development) Team to work at possible cloud applications for the Wii U.

On the other hand, the outcry against the Xbox One that forced Microsoft to take back their entire used games policy implies gamers may not want to abandon retail so soon. Perhaps a market for both online and physical gaming may be able to coexist.

Seeing that arguments for the end of console gaming still stand on shaky ground, we may yet see a ninth generation of gaming consoles after the one that we are anticipating for now.

Written By: Ryan P., Philippines (A Gamer)

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Edited by: Rajesh Bihani ( Find me on Google+ )

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