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Is the "Console" Concept Dead?

Posted by mos6507, 23 October 2017 · 199 views

I've actually felt for a LONG time that consoles as anything Generation-X would classify as such are an obsolete concept.  It's not that hardware is dead, but consoles are dead.  Technically speaking the current XBox and Playstation are consoles, but are they really?  They're both x86 boxes with PC-derived graphics hardware are they not?  Plus, most games are built using authoring environments like Unreal or Unity, which can often compile be directly ported out to different platforms.  Nintendo has effectively ceded the AAA market in favor of mobile-ish hardware.  So that's kinda where we are now.  AAA console games are basically just PC games for very specific hardware.  They're network enabled and they have local storage just like PCs.  And mobile is, well, smart-phone games.
 
So...we're kinda done here, right?  If there ever is a PS5 or an XBox-n it will just continue to be the equivalent of Valve's Steambox.  Just take a snapshot of what's state of the art in x86 and ram it into a console, done and done.  On mobile you've got your usual system on a chip ARM stuff.  Done and done.
 
I guess the reason I'm thinking about this is because of the Ataribox thing...
 
I think, mentally, us Generation-X still sort of fetishize the IDEA of a console, a proprietary device that used to play ROM cartridges, something that you had to write 100% custom code to drive, had custom ICs in it, etc....  I just think that ship sailed a looooong time ago.
 
I just find it sad that whatever comprises the corporate entity known as Atari is continuing to try to revive something that is in any way shape or form a "console" the way we used to think of them, when everyone knows under that pretty case it will be nothing more than stock hardware of the sort that's already in cell phones, tablets, and set-top boxes.
 
The only thing that matters now...is software.  Platform isn't as important as software, and software (if it's AAA) is EXPEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEENSIVE!
 
Grand Theft Auto V supposedly costs 137 million dollars.
 
Destiny?  Over 140.
 
When gamers think of what a "relevant" game is, they think of these things, the blockbusters.  Little classic game style things, little flappy bird things, they're a whole other niche.
 
So if you own the Atari name, and you know making a game that "matters" costs over 100 million dollars, what are you to do?
 
Well, apparently, you don't have a lot of options, hence Sega is withering away, and Nintendo is becoming a retro brand, and Atari probably can't hope to make much money other than cheap merch and the continued licensing of its properties for use in emulators ad nauseum.
 
I guess this is why I don't really play games much at all anymore.  The idea of what a game is even has changed to the point where I don't even recognize it.  The last game I put any time into was Star Trek Online.  I do have a soft spot for MMORPGs but they are too big of a time-sink for me and I don't like all of the instancing that breaks the immersion.
 
But I was just kind of thinking of this whole thing, 20 years from when I did my documentary on Atari, and where I could have seen all this going.  I guess it hasn't turned out THAT different from my predictions.  Even back then people were starting to hook up keyboards and ethernet jacks to things like Sega Saturns.  
 

 
Back then I was working for a startup company that was all about "digital convergence".  And I guess this is what that world looks like.
 
 
 
 






A big part of me wants consoles to exist forever -- they've been a thing since 1972 and I would hate to lose the concept. I guess though, like you said, they have become redundant and are no longer "consoles". I think the reason is because powerful PC architecture has become cheap enough to replace them. In a way, consoles were an avenue to make video games affordable, when computers were thousands of dollars and only used for "serious business".

 

I dunno though.

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I think it's a factor of the complexity.  Back in the early days it was possible for smaller companies to design their own ICs.  Even the original ARM chip was made by a small company in the UK.  But as the transistor count went up it just became impossible for even seemingly big companies like Nintendo and Sega to keep up with what was going on.

 

So the funny thing is they say the PC is dead but effectively the PC has won.  It's just that the definition of the PC has changed.  Desktop sales have gone down but a lot of people are just using older machines longer.  But consoles can be construed as PCs insofar as they have all the basic guts of a PC, despite being closed (or semi-closed) platforms.

 

What as the last real proprietary innovation?  The PS3 cell processor?  Developers hated it.

 

So now all chip development has really been consolidated down to five sources, Intel, AMD, ARM group, ATI, and nVidia.  Everything else is just licensed off of that.

 

And then you have software...unless you are at the size of a Microsoft or Activision-Blizzard how can you afford to make a AAA title?  It's become the new Hollywood.

 

As huge as Atari was back in the day, the actual overhead of coding out a game like Space Invaders was miniscule comapred to today, and that's even including all of the logic analyzers and minicomputer cross compilers and what not that they needed.  But today, filling out a game, just the art assets, is like producing assets for a greenscreen-heavy movie like Avatar.

 

Then you have the engines that sit in the middle, which I think are a good thing, but at the same time have led to a certain sameness in the finished product.

 

So it's just kind of...over.

 

I am also noticing that retro gamers are sort of becoming the equivalent of our parents who might have wound up collecting old jukeboxes.  I think something like building a MAME cabinet is like owning an old Wurlitzer was when we were just starting to buy CDs in the 80s.

 

These old games that wind up on retro packs are sort of like an old Bing Crosby christmas tape in a gas station.

 

At one point I used to think the commercial emulation scene would eventually dry up but it will just keep circulating in more and more of a marginalized fashion, like old movies from the 1930s in the bargain DVD bin at Wal-Mart.

 

I really was surprised to see a Flashback 8 in the back of a Walgreens recently.  This stuff is out there but it's becoming more and more of a selective niche and the last stop is gonna always wind up being emulation.

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I am also noticing that retro gamers are sort of becoming the equivalent of our parents who might have wound up collecting old jukeboxes.  I think something like building a MAME cabinet is like owning an old Wurlitzer was when we were just starting to buy CDs in the 80s.

 

Oh. Oh God.

I've turned into my father.

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A mame cab is definitely old school. A mame bartop or stb is newschool.

 

As far as consoles go? I don't think I'll be buying any anytime soon. I'll sooner build a new PC and fill it with emulators and still have thousands of GB left over for things like X-Plane, and Orbiter, and SpaceEngine.

 

Consoles are too "fixed function" and not versatile enough in how content is managed. At the least it doesn't appeal to me all that much.

 

Cartridges and 1 game per piece of physical medium is really really outdated. Just think how cool it is to have the entire VCS game library stored in the space the size of a single Retina Display pixel.

 

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As far as the console concept being dead? Maybe not. Maybe it can still serve a niche. Serve as introductory material or for people who are looking for that form of simplicity explicitly.

 

It is also important to remember that consoles were a vehicle, a means to an end. They served the purpose of packing a modular computer in an attractive bit of furniture for the living room.

 

A way to make manifest a consumer friendly way of changing the program in what would otherwise be a fixed function computer.

 

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Today the existing hardware infrastructure is vast, millions and billions of very capable devices are out there. We don't need more consoles. We do things differently today. And this hardware can do graphics in high-enough a resolution that it can have many subtle flavors and styles of graphics.

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The console concept has certainly evolved (not nessecarily for the better), but I don't think it's truly dead. For me, its always been a software issue. No PC can claim to run all PC games, certain ones won't work or won't work well depending on what's under the hood. Same thing with a lot of mobile games- no Android device can run all things labeled 'android apps', for example.

 

For now, if it's a PS4 game, any PS4 will play it. It may look nicer on a Pro, but everything runs on every PS4. Same with Xbox one X when it comes out. The day a game hits that requires a Pro or an X is the day the console truly dies.

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I think the idea of a "console" as a custom-built, proprietary piece of hardware is certainly dead. Financially, they just don't make sense for the manufacturers. But the concept of a console as a stand-alone, pre-built, ready-to-go consumer device will hang around as long as there are consumers who want to play AAA games without having to build their own gaming PC. From a typical consumer standpoint, a console is still good value for money. That said, I bought a PS3 several years ago, and only use it as a Blu-ray player now. I haven't bought any games since shortly after I bought it, and I have zero interest in buying a PS4. That was likely the last one I'll buy.

 

I'm much more of a casual gamer. I don't have the time to get lost in big time-sucking titles. Apart from emulation or my 2600, the only gaming I do now is the occasional game on my iPad or AppleTV. The smaller, independent titles are the most interesting to me of the current crop, because they take risks that the large studios can't. And I don't have to fork over $50+ to play them. There are plenty of good titles in the genres I enjoy in the mobile arena, without having to dive into the ecosystem of a console. Good enough, is good enough.

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Whether a games platform lives or dies depends on whether it can build and maintain what I call the "virtuous cycle".  Developers want to create games for platforms where there are a large number of consumers who are likley to buy the game.  Consumers buy game platforms which have games they want to buy and play.  The more people who have the platform, the more developers are likely to create games for that platform and the more games for the platform, the more consumers are likely to buy into the platform.

 

However, the mobile platforms, cross platform development and freemium pricing models has broken this idea.  People no longer have to buy into a gaming platform because they already bought into it for other reasons.  Freemium pricing models also drop the cost to consumers to play games, although developers suffer because more people playing doesn't mean more people paying.

 

Consoles largely can't compete in this space.  Why pay hundreds of dollars for a console instead of using the mobile device you already have?  Why pay $60 for a game when there's a huge library of "free to play" games?

 

Consoles can only compete by offering complex, big-screen games which mobile can't, i.e. competing with PC gaming.  And as HoshiChiri notes, the one advantage consoles have over PCs is uniformity.  Consumers can buy games knowing they will work and developers can develop for a single target.  Developers also like that consoles are more locked down than PCs, which helps prevent privacy and cheating.

 

Unfortunately, developing those complex, big-screen games has a very high up-front cost, which puts it out of reach of a lot of developers and increases the downside if a game doesn't sell well.  Without enough developers creating possible system sellers, consumers aren't going to buy the consoles, and the "virtuous circle" collapses.

 

Maybe consoles will become like iPhones - periodically Sony and Microsoft will release the next generation of the Playstation and XBox, like the PS4Pro and XBox One S&X, which maintains backwards & forwards software compatibility while providing more CPU & GPU power for games to tap into and graphics improvements like 4K & HDR.

 

Or maybe consoles will move to the cloud, e.g. OnLive style gaming.

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Latency is a problem for shmups and platformers. Been tried already.

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Awesome Video Game Data 2017

 

Based on the data, I'd say console still has life for a couple more years.  As long as there's money to be made, consoles will still exist.

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