I don’t see how anyone is going to “own” the next generation of gaming. The upcoming cycle will be a system shock to the industry, and while it won’t mark the end of any established platform, I see it shifting the industry out of its console-centric mindset.
If the recent Consumer Electronics Show was any indication, Valve — in conjunction with a handful of PC makers — will try to disrupt the console market in 2014. Modular computer maker Xi3 will likely be the first out of the gate with the Piston later this year. Valve will follow with its own fabled “Steam Box,” named after the company’s popular Steam game distribution platform, in early 2014. Both units have the same goal: to make PC gaming easy and accessible on the television. Of the two, whatever “official” machine Valve produces will be more successful with pure gamers, but two things give me pause.
Above: Steam’s Big Picture
First, Steam Box will be Linux-based out of the box, not exactly an operating system that supports a robust gaming library — even on the Steam service itself. Valve co-founder Gabe Newell has said that users are welcome to install Windows on the machine if they like. But given his cooling attitude toward Windows as an OS for gaming, I wonder if the company will be pushing Linux versions of future games from this point on in preparation for Steam Box. I also wonder whether it will adopt Linux for Steam’s huge backlog of games, which would be a major draw for any potential buyer. I’d hate to think that Valve would leave it up to the consumer to configure a dual boot for Windows and Linux because that will probably scare off buyers new to a PC gaming setup.
Second, I question how pricing will work out. Xi3′s “Piston” — essentially its version of a Steam Box — could start at a fairly steep price point of $999, which is quite a shock if it’s looking to woo console buyers who’ve never paid more than $600 for a new console. Valve may introduce a version of its own Steam Box at a reduced price, but I think the trade-off will be reduced “upgradability,” which is often a draw for PC gaming. At too low a price point, Steam Box is simply going to become another console with locked-in hardware. Since Microsoft and Sony seem to be planning announcements for their next-gen consoles before the Electronic Entertainment Expo, I think E3 will be Valve’s show this year if it chooses that venue to discuss the Steam Box. It’s important that it announce hardware prices and a concrete launch date then because I suspect it’s going to be an either/or decision for most gamers on whether they’ll choose either a PlayStation 4/Xbox 720 or a Steam Box. If they choose one of the former consoles in late 2013, that could make for a slow start for Steam Box if it launches in early 2014.
Nintendo has already delivered its answer to next-gen, going for innovation on the Wii U with its unique-screened GamePad controller. It’s HD gaming about six years after it became the industry standard, but Nintendo will find an audience with those faithful to its brands and may work its magic once again on the more casual audience it roped in with the Wii. If Nintendo’s eShop stays friendly to independent game developers, I could see it becoming a well-known platform in the vein of Steam for smaller titles. That, and Nintendo’s own stable of franchises (including a healthy backlog on the new Wii U Virtual Console) will give the console solid footing in the marketplace even if the Wii U doesn’t land every triple-A release available on competing platforms.
Sony needs to rebuild some credibility going into this next generation. The company seemed to have a lot of gall entering this one — introducing the original PlayStation 3 models at astronomical prices of $499 and $599 and assuming players would pay for it because it’s a PlayStation. While it looked like the most powerful of the current-gen consoles on paper, imagine the surprise when most multiplatform games ran better on the Xbox 360 because it was easier to develop for. Having a month-long security breach in the online network in 2011 was no confidence-builder, either.
Sony has been all over the map with how it wants to approach gaming. From the PlayStation Move to crossplay with the PS Vita, it hasn’t really delivered a knockout punch anywhere. I see some promise in the fact that Sony says it will develop the next PlayStation without using its own proprietary technology. Hopefully, that will make the next console easier to develop for and result in more consistent quality across games on the system.
I don’t see Sony having a proprietary medium to hinge to its next console the way it did the previous two generations with the DVD and Blu-ray discs. Sony has announced it is developing a multichannel online network for streaming video content. Last year, it also bought online game streaming service Gaikai. I would imagine both products will find their way on to Sony’s next gaming machine. Hit the right price point and give gamers a more humble attitude, and the PlayStation could bounce back nicely — especially since the platform has as many exclusive quality franchises as Nintendo does.
Microsoft seems to know what it wants to do with the next-generation Xbox. Whether that resonates with the consumer is unclear, but its plans seem nothing short of transforming the way you interact with entertainment in your living room. Xbox is heading into the next generation with the strongest online gaming community, Xbox Live. It’s also successfully transformed that marketplace from strictly a gamer’s paradise into something more appealing for people who want a platform for movies, music, and other streaming content in one box.
I see Microsoft getting smarter with how it integrates its Kinect peripheral into the gaming experience. Even though Kinect started life as an answer to the Nintendo Wii’s motion controls, it had little use for gamers who were content to sit still while playing. I personally have only experienced two things while trying to play on the Kinect with my kids: boredom and pain. The next-gen Kinect seems to be on track to register more subtle player movements — not the mention the fact that Microsoft might have plans for it to project images out into your living room.
Microsoft could stand to develop a few new in-house intellectual properties as it’s been riding the Halo horse for a very long time now. I do think we’re going to see some unique stuff from the Xbox outside of games. I expect the console will be a hub for exclusive programs and streaming entertainment options. I haven’t been to Microsoft headquarters myself, but I’d wager a guess the phrase “total entertainment package” has been thrown around in a few staff meetings.
Regardless of the console, this next generation could see the end of a constant stream of on-disc $59.99 releases and a move toward a series of shorter, cheaper downloadable entries. Telltale’s 2012 adventure game The Walking Dead was well received by the gaming public and was broken into five episodes that released throughout the year. I don’t see why this wouldn’t be a viable distribution model for most if not all games on the Sony’s and Microsoft’s platforms. My guess is that Nintendo will avoid this strategy at least with first-party games largely because it can get people to pay full price for a new Mario or Zelda, no problem. If you’re moving to one of the PC platforms mentioned above, I’m not sure you’ll have any choice but to opt for download distribution. These upcoming machines appear to be missing a disc drive.
Given all this, it’s difficult for me as a gamer to know where my preferences are ultimately going to fall in this next generation. For the first time, I can possibly see myself skipping out on console gaming if the Steam Box selection is compelling enough. Consoles, however, are no longer simply gaming devices, and in an era where I get more and more of my content through Internet streaming, a platform like Sony’s or Microsoft’s has to be a consideration as well. And no matter how much some would like to, you can’t discount Nintendo on anything in the games industry.
The video game market might be more fragmented than ever a few years from now, but that might not be a bad thing. Developers will want to make their games available on as many platforms as possible, and the smaller download market for games might make buying content easier and cheaper than it was in previous generations. It will be a tall order for any one company to dominate the evolving landscape from here on out.