Do we really want or need a new console generation?

This week marks E3 2013, one of the year’s biggest gaming conferences, which included more information about what we can expect to see from the industry in the next year-or-so. With all of this going on, I thought I would sound off about some of these announcements and ask quite an important question: do we really want or need a new console generation?

Gaming: The Next Generation

Well, we have now seen both the Playstation 4 and the XBOX One, and we have some idea about how much these big black monoliths are going to cost. Surprisingly, the PS4 is actually going to be cheaper than the X-bone, but it will still sell for around £350. There are some quite good looking games being shown off for these consoles, but most of the media attention is focussed on other issues.

Again, bizarrely, the PS4 seems to have come out on top. Despite not actually showing us the console during their reveal a few months ago, the PS4 hasn’t had to deal with a lot of the issues surrounding the X-bone, such as the pervy Kinect camera always watching, the apparent need to be always online and the atrocious handling of sharing and pre-owned games (which I’ve ranted about before). Neither console, however, is backwards-compatible with current gen games, meaning you can’t trade your console in and keep all your games, which is what many gamers would probably want to do.

Its probably worth mentioning the Wii U at this point, if only to correct a common misconception. Many call it ‘the first of the new generation’, but its barely in the last generation, it was just incredibly late to the party. It also doesn’t have any decent games other than ports and is slowly dying. So, moving on…

So, the console war is shaping up to be similar to the last round: bigger, more powerful hardware with shinier games and more extra features tagged on. This has worked well in the past, with both Sony and Microsoft building up a loyal fan-base and securing exclusive games… the problem is, I’m not sure that’s going to work this time round. I just don’t think that the traditional console war is as relevant any more. Let me explain…

The Problem

The problem is simple: gaming has changed. Things like the Wii and Mobile Games mean that more people are playing games and the most popular games are now simple games like Angry Birds, Farmville and Wii Sports. Mothers and Grandmothers are playing games now. There has also been a rise in pretentious gamers, who believe that all Triple-A games are soulless and only play indie games. Lots of hipster gamers are also springing up, who think that 8-bit sound and graphics somehow beats HD. More polygons and particles don’t seem to matter to the gaming population as much as they used to.

There is another issue, of course, which is that we’re in the midst of a global recession. Not as many consumers will be willing to shell out £400+ for the consoles (and potentially up to £65 for the new games) because they simply cannot afford it. It should also be pointed out that it will take a lot more time and money for developers to make higher-definition games, which could lead to expensive and potentially damaging results.

The Competition

I see another potential problem, however: there is a big shadow on the horizon in the form of some alternative options that are currently in development. There is the Ouya console, which will cost only £100, runs android and will feature lots of cheap or free-to-play games. Then there is the SteamBox, developed by Valve (makers of Steam, Half-life, Portal and seen by many as the saviours of PC gaming). Admittedly, it is not clear how powerful or expensive the SteamBox will be, but you will be potentially able to transfer all the games in your Steam library and play them on it via your TV using a controller and Steam’s new Big Picture feature, which is sure to appeal to a lot of players.

Both of these consoles are potentially more affordable for consumers, more indie developer friendly and generally cheaper to develop for. They may not be as powerful as the ‘Next Gen’ monoliths, but, as I’ve already discussed, I don’t think gamers are as fussed about graphics and power as they have been in the past. Give them access to lots cheap, fun games (including re-releases from publishers’ back catalogues) and they might flock away from the expensive, non-backwards-compatible big boys.

Final Thoughts

I don’t think the big consoles will fail completely. There are probably enough blindly loyal fan-boys (and brain-dead Call of Duty fans who will want their dose of mindless, racist violence) that will buy them, regardless of how good the games or the actual consoles are, to keep them afloat.

However, I will personally be keeping a safe distance from the X-bone and PS4 until the release of the Ouya and SteamBox, as I feel there is a real possibility that the newcomers could become more popular and more profitable for developers and the consoles’ creators. It is, admittedly unlikely, but there is the potential for these underdogs to, if not kill off the monoliths, then certainly to at least give them some decent competition…