Saturday, February 14, 2009

the other stuff your game console does

let's not fight anymore okay Since, oh, say, the advent of the original Playstation, game consoles have been doing more. Once extremely specialized machines dedicated to a single task, game machines have been diversifying their portfolios, adding more skills to their resumes. I am personifying things too much I think. Game machines have multitasked more and more as time has gone on, with varying degrees of success. Who wants to spend their Saturday morning reading about it? You do!

In the mid 90s, Sony and others made a lot of noise about moving games from stodgy old cartridges to slick, cheap ubiquitous CDs. These new grey boxes could now play the same CDs that famous artists like Hootie and the Blowfish and “Weird” Al Yankovic used for their iconic and influential music! It was exciting times for gamers. Actually, I didn’t really know anyone to use their Playstation as a CD player, since CD players were already everywhere and by the end of the decade people had discovered what MP3s were.


My point is that stuff like this opened the door for the expanded multimedia features of today’s consoles! Maybe I should pick something more relevant. Flash forward to 2000ish, when the dinosaur that was the VHS tape had just been struck by the giant asteroid that was the DVD. Enter Sony’s Playstation 2, the only game console last generation to feature a DVD player built-in to every unit. At its launch price of $299, it was a solid investment for gamers and home theater buffs alike – it could play the hot new moving picture discs, the latest three-dimensional videoed games, and your old boring Playstation crap! It was one box that could potentially replace three, and people liked it a lot.

A recent Xbox 360 update has placed that system in a similarly enviable position – Microsoft wants in on the ground floor of this whole streaming Internet video thing, and I’ve got to say that their integration of Netflix into the system was a masterful stroke. With a fast Internet connection and a little luck, Netflix subscribers (and people who date Netflix subscribers who don’t own their own Xboxes) can stream video from the frustratingly tiny amount of material available in their digital library. So far this week I have watched Ratatouille and most of 30 Rock, and I have to say I am pretty impressed. The first console to implement a slick Hulu plugin is going to put even more pressure on traditional cable TV to step it up a bit.

Of course, most every console these days has integrated some amount of extra media features. Most of them will play MP3s or view photos from a memory card or something like that, and they all do okay. That’s actually the problem with these consoles when it comes to media capability – they are jack-of-all-trades but master of none, which is admirable in a person but not so admirable in an appliance. Imagine if your toaster only made toast really half-assedly, but it was also sort of a shitty MP3 player. That’s what it’s like trying to play music on any given game console – it lacks the intuitiveness of an iPod or even a Zune. Transferring music to my PSP is annoying at best, and then once I’ve got music on the thing I have to deal with something that’s just a little too big knocking around in my pocket, and I can’t find any of the buttons on the thing by touch. Music is thrown together in one big alphabetized mass without regard for artist or album. Turning Shuffle mode on requires about sixteen button presses more than it should. Converting video to play on the device is a hellish ordeal, requiring the installation of software that I don’t quite trust not to wreck my computer.

How to end this disjointed, rambling post? Let’s try to make an overarching point – for better or worse, consoles are doing more stuff now, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. Even the successes of DVD and Netflix integration aren’t perfect – for consoles to really take market and mindshare away from dedicated video and audio players, someone needs to use their whole ass when implementing the features. My PSP has to be just as slick and easy to use as an iPod if it’s ever going to take Apple’s place in my pocket, and before I even considered moving my voluminous MP3 collection over to my 360, it’d have to develop a media frontend a hell of a lot more usable than the one it has now. If they integrated the media features in right from the start when designing the next generation of consoles and put just as much time and money into the media features as the gaming features, maybe game systems really will start taking the place of the dedicated boxes underneath our TV sets.