The Clone Wars: PS4 & The One-Console Future

ps4_cube_trailer

“We realize people do not care about the size of these boxes, they hide them anyway. So we made a cube.”
– The Verge’s Ross Miller (from a live recap immediately following Sony’s Playstation 4 announcement)

Miller may have been playing the role of a Sony executive in the above joke, and maybe Sony executives have actually said something like it behind closed doors. Either way, they’d both be right.

We don’t often associate the word “computer” with the word “easy”, as easy as “a cube” makes it sound. Companies like Apple, Google, and even Microsoft now are spending most of their marketing and design budgets trying to remedy this stigma (and sometimes go too far). Meanwhile, boxes that were built to be more straightforward (video game consoles, for example) have been doing the opposite, spending the past decade-and-a-half adding features that first appeared on traditional computers: disc-based drives, the internet, buddy lists, digital markets, social networks, YouTube, etc.

Every other hardware developer may be going in the opposite direction of their competitors, but their compasses will eventually lead them all to the same place.

I remember when a game was solely about the thing that came in the box. It wasn’t about DLC, it wasn’t about losing the element of surprise to clearly defined achievements, and it sure as hell wasn’t about logging into an account to do it all. By chasing trends that gamers are hip to, console gaming is as much about what’s inside the box as what it has access to. Sony’s recent promises of the Playstation 4 streaming downloads and user-broadcasted play-sessions all but confirm this, and it already feels easy to forget that the former trend was one set by Blizzard Entertainment years ago with World of Warcraft. Similar to the Sony’s of the industry, Blizzard has collected their properties and customers under one service-based banner (in Blizzard’s case, Battle.net), but Blizzard didn’t need a proprietary piece of hardware to do this.

Don’t forget smart phones, which arguably bypassed both developmental phases by virtue of their designs, being able to perform day-to-day tasks in a web connected environment while also having the market & power to access & run games — all without an old-fashioned publishing deal. Ironically, the  main barriers mobile devices are having to overcome are ones that consoles and PC’s already have: reliable control inputs, high-end graphics and battery life. We might not be racing towards the completely unified one-console future that has been occasionally been professed, but we may receive a slightly twisted version of it if the above trends have anything to say about it.

Let’s not take “one-console” too literally, though. It’s more the idea that these ecosystems will have few significant differences, besides their outer appearance (which seems to be less of a sticking point these days, as Sony didn’t even show their new box at its worldwide announcement), that seems so close. Perhaps there won’t be one console under one banner with one ring to rule them all, but patents aside, the “one console future” is arriving conceptually, if not physically. They’re essentially clones of one another.

kaz_hirai_ces

A list of features defining this past generation:

  • Digital Marketplaces
  • User Accounts
  • Friend Lists
  • Achievements
  • Mobile Connectivity/Second-Screen Sharing
  • HD Output
  • Apps (for video streaming, etc.)
  • Motion Controls
  • External Cameras

In the era of the PS2/XBox/Gamecube, consoles had much more distinct differences between one another: number of controller inputs, internet connectivity in general, graphical prowess, disc format, and even controller design. Although Nintendo’s new tablet infused WiiU Gamepad smacked with the word “innovative” again, it’s Nintendo taking a page out of their own book. The Gamecube’s connectivity experiments with the Gameboy Advance were stilted, but in retrospect they were proofs of a concept. Who knows, maybe they read wisely into Sony’s agenda too with cross-device support. Say what you will, the WiiU’s controller is a tablet that remotely accesses your TV with a dynamic interface, just as most any mobile device now can. This sort of luxury is also becoming the expectation rather than the exception.

I get that console makers are providing a platform, but alternate platforms that perform the very similar tasks technically exist on most modern computers. Any operating system is a platform. With this in mind, the question no longer is, “What’s the difference between each console?”. It’s “What’s the difference between what’s in my pocket, on my desk, and on my TV stand?”

I believe we will eventually reach a point where the differences are twofold: form of input (what’s the controller like?), and which network has the majority of your friends on it. Steam’s Big Picture Mode nudges PC Gaming much closer to the living room, which has 4.8 million concurrent users online as I edit this post. For me personally, there is no other gaming network that has more of my friends on it nor is as rich of an experience than Steam. The sales are incredible bargains, which makes building a library or gifting for any occasion even more appealing — and if I wanted, I could engage with all of this from my phone with Steam’s mobile app. Games exclusive to specific consoles are still common, but even the biggest exclusive franchises have a long history of eventually reaching wider platforms (Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, and Final Fantasy all use to be Sony exclusive).With all these attractive interconnected computers and services available, why do gamers need a “console” anymore?

steam

When high-end computers were too complicated & expensive and phones were only for calls, consoles had a cozier time marketing themselves. But people play differently today. They download games on the go and want to see them on their other devices. They log in to user accounts and track their progress, or talk with friends doing something similar. They do all of this on the web, almost all of which is instant, often free and works in tandem with the things we use on a more common basis than consoles. So how have consoles reacted? By doing more of what the web is doing.

Companies like Valve have realized the buy-in for any ecosystem is high, and that you have to emotionally engage the prospective user early. Give them a free game, so they can feel the entire user experience without any barrier to entry. Give access to games they’ve bought in the past, and provide new depth to them with features like sharing screenshots or blowing them up on your TV with Big Picture Mode. We don’t move into a new house if we can’t take our personal belongings with us. Bare walls make sense when we imagine our favorite artwork and photos on them, or our favorite game console sitting in the perfect lounge area.

Just the other week, EA announced they’d be making a way for its customers to have one user account across every platform. I’m a designer at a company that specializes in developing loyalty programs, and it’s no mystery that this is just a fancy way to put it. As you can see, every big gaming company is slowly creating membership programs now for their humongous brands, and part of me thinks they wouldn’t have if their users weren’t participating enough to make it profitable.

Sony is onto something genuine with the live video broadcasting feature. It’s taking all those emergent experiences gamers socialize about and building it right into the console. Great, but some depth is missed already. Can I broadcast any of those old classics I cherish and replay? Retro games more than any other have resurfaced in the form of speedruns, especially thanks to live-streaming services. Sony could potentially participate in events such as fundraising marathons of games like Final Fantasy VII, all the while promoting PSN’s services. But alas, I’ll have to rebuy all my physical PSone games in digital form if I wanted to do that myself, instead of using the serial number to get a discount or voucher for my unwavering loyalty to the original Crash Bandicoot series.

The infrastructure to give the gaming culture some much desired tools is still positioning itself, but who will they be available to? Who needs them most? If console manufacturers want to be different, perhaps take independent game developers for a smoother ride. Why not offer developer licenses and robust wiki documentation? Why not plug in their streaming services to let developers broadcast live demos to get feedback, or watch people play their game remotely and take notes about their play test session? What if the share button could let you also share updates and patches with your audience? What if you could Tweet about a test session or beta codes, where people could participate without having to download a thing? Sony demonstrated that it has the potential and the technology to do this with the PS4, but they’re applying it all in ways we’d mostly expect. Maybe Sony will surprise us at GDC or E3, but until such pipe-dreams are met, I think you’ll continue to see most indie developers try to get their games funded and launched without the restrictions that are inherent to consoles. They’ll do it on a “computer”.

Right now we’re seeing each console maker play their own brand of catch up with each other, and with the idea that a brand experience should be uniform, but I have a hard time calling that innovation. The one play that the next generation of consoles has yet to aggressively adopt, and needs to if they want to be relevant in the next 4-5 years, is supporting more open development. Sony may be baselining every developer with a super fast computer that’s easier to develop for, but they don’t have the combined efforts of crowd-sourcing services and easily accessible software development kits like Steam Greenlight, Ouya, and app stores have all focused their attention on. It’s platforms like those that are truly keeping the one-console future from actually happening.

One of Kevin Cornell's Illustrations for A List Apart

(Illustration by Kevin Cornell for A List Apart)

What was compelling to me about the PS4 reveal was how apparent it made the new arms race between consoles to be. It’s not about graphics, nor motions controls. It’s about being more like the web.

Aside from certain file types not rendering on certain devices, we can still log into our Dropbox accounts, our Google apps, and then see that history traced across everything on our desks at work, at home or waiting to board a plane, and that’s really valuable to a lot people. Game consoles have been proprietary for so long that it has started to catch up with them. Can they afford to build social audiences from scratch when everyone in their target audience already sticks to a handful of proven ones? What makes the web potent is how very open it is by its nature. Kickstarter has no doubt been influential in the indie games movement, but only because it happened on the web as we recognize it today.

What the web is doing great is being a platform for discovery, experimenting, and feedback. This is innovation in a different sense, in a social sense. It’s taking tools we already have, such as powerful web-browsers and HTML5, and using them to accomplish new kinds of goals. Sure, we can argue that innovation is streaming game-data on major consoles for the first time, but streaming itself was the real innovation and it’s been around for awhile. We can argue it’s in cloud based architecture, but “clouds” are just a fluffy word for  “remote servers”, which have been around as long as the internet has. So, what is really being innovated here, besides for presentation?

Every few weeks I feel like I see another developer go off to start a new smaller studio, or a big studio being shut down because development costs are out of control. AAA games probably aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but more flexible models like free-to-play and economic indie titles are what’s being made by some of the most creatively hungry developers. When spending so much time creating an interconnected ecosystem and the hardware to run it, not inviting its users to generate its content more freely has me questioning if “The Big 3” really get it. The rusty doors of the video game industry are being pried open by a new generation of developers, and there is nothing too sacred about what goes in “a box”.

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