I’ve been playing the next-generation video game consoles and talking to people who have bought them. For the first couple of weeks, everyone was pretty excited about the flood of new content that came with them. Each had 22 launch titles, more than the usual allotment at a console debut. Ostensibly, that meant there was something for everyone.
But just a short time into this cycle, I’m already hearing some grumbling from consumers that they’re bored.
The Microsoft Xbox One, which debuted Nov. 22, and the Sony PlayStation 4, which hit stores on Nov. 15, are the first new living room game machines from those companies in at least seven years. So how could users be tired of them already? Maybe they bought their favorite console and a couple of games and blazed through the single-player campaigns, which last maybe 10 hours. Now what are they going to do? It seems like we all have limited attention spans these days. And that’s creating a headwind for the consoles.
It’s not time to panic for the console industry. It certainly looks like demand is stronger than ever, based on the sales reports from the console makers and retailers. The new games boxes are scratching that seven-year itch, and they are selling above their retail prices on eBay. It’s getting hard to find them in stores, and they’re going to be scarce until after the holidays.
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But then we’ll see a lull. The console makers will try to catch up with demand by keeping the manufacturing going. But when the gift-giving stops in January, we’ll have a better picture of the ongoing demand. John Riccitiello, former CEO of Electronic Arts, predicted at our GamesBeat 2013 conference a month ago that, based on his own research into stats such as preorder levels, these new consoles would sell more units in the first five months than they did last time in the first 14 months. That is a very optimistic view.
I suspect that such a pickup in demand is quite possible, given the kind of consumer enthusiasm we have seen for the coolest tech gadgets in recent years. But the upgrade cycle depends on having strong content. And that’s where this console generation is weak. If you look back in the past, most console launches haven’t had killer games available at launch. With the Xbox 360 (18 titles at launch), the big game was Call of Duty 2. For the PlayStation 3 (14 titles at launch), it was Resistance: Fall of Man. The original Xbox had a blockbuster with Halo: Combat Evolved. The Nintendo Wii had Wii Sports.
It’s not kosher for game fans to say they’re bored with games. The admission comes hard. And then comes the opprobrium. Mark Pincus, chairman of Zynga, said he was bored with games, and then everybody piled in on him, saying he shouldn’t be running a game company. I’m not trying to insult gamers by dismissing games that other people find to be fun. But I do wish that there was more innovation in the next-generation titles.
When Ubisoft postponed its innovative new Watch Dogs game, I was heartbroken. That game looked like it was highly original and was going to provide a great experience on both the current-generation systems and the next-generation consoles.
In advance of the console launches, I was interested in the exclusives such as Knack and Killzone: Shadow Fall on the PlayStation 4. But both Sony games received weak reviews. Knack got 55 out of 100 on Metacritic, the review score aggregator, and Killzone: Shadow Fall got a rating of 74. Resogun, a downloadable action shooter game, has generated some excitement, but it’s rated only at an average of 83. Halo, by contrast, was rated 97 out of 100.
On the Xbox One, the situation isn’t much better. Forza Motorsport, the racing game, came in at 81. Dead Rising 3, a third-party game from Capcom, was rated 78. I liked Ryse: Son of Rome, the flagship game on the Xbox One. But other critics blasted it and rated it 60 on Metacritic.
Ryse was originally supposed to be a title that exploited Microsoft’s second-generation Kinect motion-sensing system. Microsoft built a lot of fidelity into that system for the Xbox One. But short of some exercise and dance games, there isn’t a killer app for Kinect. That’s sad, since Microsoft put a Kinect system into every console, raising the cost by an average $75 per machine. Kinect is why the Xbox One costs $100 more than the PS4. But it has no awesome games.
Players may very well have a different view than the critics. But nobody is going to play 22 games this season. They’re going to play a few games at most during the holidays. If they’re like me, they’ll play a few games all the way through and then look for more of the same. I played Ryse: Son of Rome, Call of Duty: Ghosts, and Battlefield 4. Now I’m wondering what I really want to play next. Whatever it is, it’s probably not going to be a game that is rated 90 or more. They just aren’t there.
With just 22 titles available on each of the next-generation consoles, the best option might very well be a current-generation game for one of the older consoles. Sony has a big game coming in that respect with Gran Turismo 6 on the PlayStation 3, while Microsoft has World of Tanks for the Xbox 360.
I suppose it’s not so bad for the game industry if we play current generation games and next-generation games during the holidays. But it is a letdown. We don’t have a killer app on a console that is viable. Nintendo came through with the 93-rated Super Mario 3D World for the Wii U. But I have a feeling that’s not going to move the needle much for the Wii U, which has sold poorly in the past year.
And that brings me to multiplayer …
Multiplayer is going to be important in carrying this generation of game consoles forward — it’s what’s supposed to entertain us when we get bored. I’m putting some hours into playing both Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4 on multiplayer. But Ghosts is a disappointment to me compared to last year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops II. And while Battlefield offers a better experience, it crashed on me a couple of times in an evening on the Xbox One. And others have reported problems with online play.
I know. Poor me. This is a first world problem. Compared to past launches, this generation has a lot of decent titles available, and I should appreciate this abundance. But I’ve become harder to please. It seems like I am whining because I don’t have enough ways to entertain myself.
Actually, I do. I see some very interesting new technologies coming down the road, and they’re not for the consoles. The reason that it is dangerous for the consoles to bore consumers is that the mobile game industry is coming on strong. Just before Dec. 20, we’ll see a spate of new mobile game launches that will take advantage of all the holiday gifts under the tree: smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets. On Nov. 21, one of the remarkable new mobile games debuted: Clumsy Ninja from NaturalMotion. After a decade of research into artificial intelligence, NaturalMotion launched the game with the cute sentient character, who reacts to you. The free-to-play game got 10 million downloads in its first seven days.
My point isn’t that this game will stem demand for consoles. It is that we are in a nanosecond entertainment economy. Our propensity to get bored is higher. Our attention span is shorter. The consoles play out over a very long time. But they have more competition for entertainment time than they’ve ever had. Smartphones and tablets are wonderful at stealing our time. Titles like Clumsy Ninja are potentially disruptive. And new tech such as Oculus VR’s virtual reality goggles could steal the show.
I see some possibility of rescue for the next-generation consoles with titles like Respawn’s Titanfall and Bungie’s Destiny coming. But they’re not here yet, and a lot can happen between now and when those games debut in 2014. I really hope to hear soon about the next wave of next-generation games. I know it’s coming. But I’m one of those consumers who just doesn’t want to wait.