Opinion: Why The Console Wars Are Over Before They’ve Even Begun

with 8 Comments
· Reading Time: 5 minutes

So the console wars have started up again, and early impressions suggest that Sony have launched an unstoppable Blitzkrieg against Microsoft (or perhaps Microsoft just stood on their own landmines).

But here’s the thing: while both companies are keen to stress that they’re pioneering the next-gen – it actually looks like they’ve both missed the bus.  They’re just updating their 8-year-old hardware to match the current-gen PC market. Meanwhile, the software is barely evolving at all (apart, of course, from graphical fidelity – which looks great on the front of magazines and the back of boxes). So where’s the real next generation for gaming?

The Generation They’re Selling You

You’d have to say that Sony’s vision is closest to a generational leap in gaming’s genealogy. They look to have a policy which puts the consumer first, while creating an ecosystem which thrives on creativity and experimentation. Yet their PS4 looks very much like a slightly shinier version of the PS3 – with some of the traits of a PC added in. Microsoft, on the other hand, appear to be creating a cynical, exploitative model which is all about controlling revenue streams and customer bases. They might well create a paradigm-shift in the way we buy and share games, but it’s a change strongly skewed in the vendor’s favour, not the consumer’s.

Apart from a different payment and content delivery model, both of these next-gen offerings look pretty similar to the current gen. The boxes are basically the same. The controllers are the same. The hardware is a little faster, but it’s hard to see that power pushing new gameplay mechanics and patterns. Indeed, E3 saw a pretty typical games line-up of sequels, prequels and reboots.

It’s not just the games that are lacking. Most of the new technology these consoles are embracing has been available on the PC for years. Digital distribution and licensing? Steam. DRM free gaming? Good Old Games. Persistent gaming, always-on requirements and virtual IDs? Battle.net. Huger user bases, micro-transactions and persistent game worlds? Ten years of MMOs. Look at all the announcements made recently for the next console generation and tell me three genuine, game-changing innovations that actually benefit the player. There’s a comments thread below – seriously, please, help me out here.

So where’s the innovation in gaming? Where do we look to find a platform in which gaming as a hobby, industry and art form can actually evolve?

The Real Next-Gen

Here’s your answer: the PC. In particular, it’s the thriving indie and modding scenes which will drive genuine innovation in content distribution, gameplay and social interactions. Independent developers pursue change not because they think they’ll earn money out of it; but because they think people want it. Indie gaming puts the art first and the revenue second. As it happens (and Sony have probably noticed this), that usually guarantees a loyal community, solid sales figures, and realistic ambitions.

What we really need for the next generation of gaming is innovation in design, control, interaction and competition. We don’t want next-gen gaming to be about shopping. We don’t want it to be about how powerful the box is. We want it to be about gaming! Experiencing! Emoting! And that’s where the indie scene steps in. Indie development is redefining what it is to be a game (That Dragon, Cancer). It’s constantly dreaming up with new combinations of gameplay (Cannonbrawl, Braid). It’s innovating visually (rather than graphically) with striking art styles (see Limbo, Shelter, Frozen Synapse), and even innovating in the way that stories are being told (Bastion, Gone Home, Uplink).

Keep watching and you’ll see innovation in social interaction, in dynamic dialog, in AI, music integration and control schemes. Indies are even changing the way games are made: early-access alphas let you play a game early in development and see it change, maybe influence its design (a model which is paying dividends for the likes of Prison Architect). Steam Greenlight (not to mention Kickstarter, Indiegogo) lets the public have a stronger say in which games get built, adding a layer of democracy to the industry. Games are becoming less of a black-box product – buy it, play it, return it – but an evolving service, a reflection of the communities needs and desires, a regularly changing space for tactical, social and even emotional simulation. While publishers and platforms will force changes on audiences with a “take it or leave it” attitude, the indie community can test, tease and tweak new models more diplomatically.

Gameplay and development aren’t the only next-gen innovations. While the PS4 and Xbox One are offering up a reasonably powerful current-gen PC platform, there are serious hardware changes coming. There are two devices which will potentially change the way we play games forever: biometrics (sensors which takes feedback like heart-rate, perspiration, breathing rate, and so on from game controllers/peripherals), as pioneered by Valve; and Oculus Rift, the best answer yet to the myth of virtual reality and complete immersion in a game world. You can bet your nelly that these technologies, if they arrive in practical form, will have maximum impact on the PC space.

Why PC vs. Console No Longer Matters

Sony and Microsoft can do battle all they like. And they might each land pretty big markets, with Microsoft in particular looking to control the family, casual, AAA (i.e., super-mainstream) demographics which have risen so quickly in the last ten years. But that’s not next-gen – anymore than 3D, or a new franchise like The Hangover, represent a generational change for cinema. No-one’s denying the sales figures of Call of Duty and Fifa, but no-one’s calling them next-gen gaming, either.

If anything, I worry that the new platforms are stepping away from so-called core gamer demographic, that the market is getting too broad and the soul is being sucked out of it. Games are being polarised into lo-fi indie hits and AAA billion-selling blockbusters. What about the innovative, experimental or often just plain-fun titles which sit somewhere between those extremes ? Hopefully as indie development grows more advanced and more ambitious, it will pick up some of the slack that big publishers are no longer willing to pick up.

The big players are fighting over market shares and title exclusivity. They’re fighting over the living room and consumer rights. But their duel has little or nothing to do with a generation leap in the way we play and consume games. For that, watch what happens in the PC space over the next three years. It’s not a case of cyclical development where one box is replaced with another, but a gradual evolution in which expectations, standards and experiences change. PC gamers will be deep in the next-gen in a year’s time without even realising it, and it’ll be independent developers they’ll thank for it.