Thursday, June 2, 2011

The State of the Dedicated Gaming Machine

As my cohort Craig wrote about two days ago, E3 is nearly upon us, and two of the Big Three game hardware manufacturers will probably have Big News to drop on us about brand-new upcoming game consoles.

Sony will probably talk up its so-called Next Generation Portable (NGP), which wants to combat Nintendo's 3DS using bleeding-edge technology. The downside, of course, will be the device's as-of-yet-unannounced-but-altogether-likely-to-be-ridiculous price, which will probably be in the high-end iPod Touch/low-end Android tablet range (read: $300-$400).

Nintendo's next Wii is in the other corner, and like its predecessor it will look to win with a new control scheme rather than its ability to push polygons. That being said, it should at the very least close the technology gap between the Wii and the Xbox 360/PS3, making it that much easier for third-party developers to port their games to all three platforms.

The thing about these new consoles is that, well, they'd be more exciting if the gaming landscape looked the same as it did five years ago. Since the 2004 and 2006 releases of the original PSP and the Wii, respectively, the iPhone came out, and since then we've seen an explosion in phones and tablets powerful enough to elbow out dedicated gaming consoles.

In short, I don't envy any company trying to sell a dedicated gaming machine these days. Let's talk about it.

The smartphone, in the kitchen, with the candlestick

Let's start with the present: The most recently released dedicated gaming device, the 3DS, ain't selling. There are a quite a few reasons, the first of which being the fact that people don't really care that much about 3D, but Apple's iDevices are high up on that list, too. Android and iOS games often cater to the same casual gamer that the DS used to - substitute Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds for Brain Age, and you'll see a wave of new customers expanding the gaming market beyond the stereotypical male teenagers to whom it so often caters.

Part of the problem is that a modern smartphone (or tablet or what have you) isn't just good at gaming - buying a device that can play music and check email and make calls and play games means that you're carrying three fewer devices around with you while you travel, which is a basically unmatchable convenience, and they're doing it at about the same price to boot. To the cash-strapped and the practical, a $200 device that can do everything an iPhone can do is much more appealing than a $200 device that mostly plays video games.

Simpler all the time

Such is the sad state of the dedicated appliance - devices that do a lot of stuff pretty well are displacing machines made for a single purpose, and that's not a trend that's likely to go away.

Game consoles are making attempts at becoming multi-purpose machines - most of them feature streaming video through both Netflix and Hulu. The 3DS promises to bring 3D movies to a glasses-free small screen. The PS3 plays Blu-Ray discs. The Xbox 360 features integration with Windows Media Center, and there are plenty of other programs allow streaming audio and video. These are all things that are appreciated within their respective niches, but standalone DVD/Blu-Ray players can already stream audio and video today, and things like Google TV are bringing those features to the TV itself. The living room is on a path toward simplification.

The same can be said of the mobile space, where the iDevices and a wide array of Android phones provide casual (and, increasingly, graphics-driven, longer, and more traditional) games on the go. They're stealing the DS audience right out from under Nintendo, and there doesn't seem to be much the company can do other than watch and worry.

On Sony's end, the iPhone and its ilk pose a different sort of threat: The NGP obviously expects technology to be its trump card, and at the time of its release it will surely outgun anything available on the market. The problem is that console buyers (and console developers) typically won't tolerate a new hardware iteration more than every five or six years (not counting redesigned versions of the same basic box), while most smartphones and tablets get a healthy speed bump every year or so. The NGP will look awesome in 2011, but by 2013 it'll be matched by smartphones, and by the time it's up for another replacement it will look positively archaic.

What recourse?

The good thing for any of the Big Three is that any of them (Nintendo, in particular) would clean up as a software company. People already buy Nintendo's consoles just to play Nintendo's games, knowing full well how weak the third-party support is, and the company would sell a ridiculous amount of copies on a device with more reach than one of its consoles. Microsoft and Sony each have their own hot properties that would make a killing regardless of their platform. The idea that one game console is somehow innately better than another is a notion of the 90s, and you'd probably be surprised by how much loyalty to certain hardware actually equates to loyalty to certain software.

Hardware isn't where most people typically make money, anyway - the need to be cutting-edge at launch (see: NGP, PS3) often means that console sellers are taking losses for the first year or two, even if their console launches at the price of five hundred and ninety-nine US dollars. Nintendo is the only company of the three that typically sells their hardware at a profit, and that's typically because they stress innovative input devices over powerful hardware.

In fact, those innovative interfaces have driven adoption of gaming hardware this generation - both the Wii and Microsoft's Kinect have sold insane amounts of hardware based on controller technology rather than console technology. I can easily see a future where your Nintendos and your Sonys develop controllers instead of boxes - it used to be that you needed a dedicated box to get the hardware necessary to push polygons, but in an age where an iPad game's graphics can give a hi-def console's graphics a run for their money, silicon good enough for today's games could easily be integrated into just about any consumer electronics device.

Trying to predict what will happen in any tech market is difficult at best - there are many fads, lots of fluctuations, and tons of surprises - but it's hard not to see the dedicated video game console going into decline very soon if it hasn't already. It could be that Nintendo's next Wii will also be its last.