Is this the end of consoles as we know them?

The general reaction to the PS4 announcement here at the tech2 office is that of disappointment. Many of my colleagues own the PS3 and, being hardware geeks, they quite love the idea of a bespoke Cell processor lurking under the bonnet. However, the recently announced PlayStation successor's shift to the x86 architecture comes as stark contrast to its legacy of pushing the hardware envelope. Saying that the PlayStation loyalists are underwhelmed would be an understatement. The geeks here rue the fact that the PS3 successor seems to be nothing more than an upper mid-end PC that clearly doesn't deserve the PS4 moniker.

The sentiment here seems pessimistic; with some even going so far as to calling this the last generation of traditional consoles as we know it. But is that really the case, or is this just post-announcement paranoia? I believe it's premature to predict the end of consoles, whereas my colleague Shunal plays the devil’s advocate. I guess there's no better way to tell than for us to duke it out and let the argument take its natural course.

Nachiket: Sony's strategy harks to a genuine need to scale down budgets in the video game industry, considering how a typical AAA game can cost anywhere between $40 to even $100 million. Despite pumping dollars on the wrong side of a billion, almost all video game majors such as Ubisoft, EA and Activision are have been surviving on razor-thin profit margins falling well under the 5 percent mark. These numbers portend a grim future, especially in the wake of Hollywood VFX player Rhythm & Hues filing for bankruptcy despite an Oscar win. This is a perfect example illustrating the perils of an industry (VFX, in this case) operating on ridiculously low margins. There’s a real chance that the video game industry head down the same route. At any rate, it is not uncommon to hear about prominent video game studios shutting shop with an alarming regularity as well.


The PS4 may seem underwhelming spec wise, but the PS2 prevailed despite being the slowest


Under such circumstances, it's prudent of Sony and Microsoft (rumoured to incorporate AMD chipset as well) to ship consoles with similar architectures. Such hardware parity not only makes life easier for game developers, but also brings down development costs while providing consumers with uniform experience across platforms. This also translates into more games across platforms, which can only be good for gamers, video game developers, platform owners and the industry as a whole. This underlying theme of austerity may seem like a step back from the PS3's naked display of untapped power, but its prudence is apparent considering the disturbing trend of diminishing returns for the additional millions being pumped into the video game industry.

Shunal: It can be argued that this manner of downsizing seems more like a damage control measure than an actual step towards the future of consoles. The future then looks bleak in the wake of the current market where gamers have been spending their lunch monies on $600 smartphones—all quad-core monstrosities complemented by competent GPUs to boot. The inevitable failure of the PS Vita aptly illustrates the thinning line between a hand-held console and an omnipotent smartphone with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink versatility. Just like multi-megapixel smartphones have made point-and-shoot cameras redundant, the contemporary gamer doesn't see the logic in buying a separate hand-held console.

The advent of OUYA and similar Android-powered consoles running games off the Google Play Store points to this confluence of hardcore controller-based and touch-based casual gaming. Once again, there's a wide disparity in the way this development is interpreted. This can be viewed as the beginning of the end of hardcore gaming as we know it, with a major push towards all things casual.

Nachiket: Let’s just say that if jumping to conclusions were an Olympic sport, you’d be our best shot at a gold medal. Jokes aside, the proliferation of casual gaming only points towards an emergence of a new demographic—one that can exist alongside the traditional gamepad and keyboard/mouse crowd. I believe you have gotten it all wrong. It’s naive to believe that long-standing PC and console gamers have surrendered their controllers/mice for touchscreens overnight.

Looks like everyone's warming up to the Vita

Hand-helds such as Vita may have conceded defeat to smartphones, but consoles have nothing to worry about


Until now, only the geekiest would spend obscene amounts of money on dedicated PC hardware/consoles mandatory for gaming. Gaming, therefore, was a hobby restricted to a niche. However, in the last few years, powerful smartphones have become fashionable status symbols being lapped up en masse by geeks and non-geeks alike. The multi-core CPU and GPUs powering contemporary phones have finally given ordinary people access to sophisticated video games. What we are looking at here is a widening of the consumer base, which doesn't necessarily translate into cannibalisation of traditional console model.

At any rate, someone who's grown up gaming with these traditional input solutions is highly unlikely to drop his mainstream console and embrace a smartphone just like that.

Shunal: You simply have to take a look at the Wii to see how casual games can cannibalise the sales of more traditional hardcore games. One of the highest selling games for that system was Wii Fit, which made the money that hardcore games—such as No More Heroes and MadWorld—generated from the console seem like chump change. And while you are right about someone raised on a traditional gaming platform being a very unlikely candidate to opt for touch controls, you have to keep in mind that at the moment, more people have a smartphone than a console. The majority is definitely on the side of touch controls, as crappy as they may be at the moment.

Nachiket: Wrong! No More Heroes and MadWorld were both Wii titles or, more importantly, ultra violent beat ‘em ups developed for a platform that’s primarily targeted at children. It’s a no brainer that these games didn’t do as well as similar games created for PS3 and Xbox 360—platforms with a viable audience for the genre.
Casual games are popular because your average working class gets his gaming fix during the daily commute. These non-gamers aren’t amenable to the idea of sitting down in the living room/study for hours on end in front of a screen. The games created for this purpose therefore have to incorporate a brand of oversimplification and gratification that generally puts off most hardcore gamers. My point is that while casual games cater to a wider demographic, a traditional gamer can and will continue to spend Rs 2,000-3,000 on AAA PC/console games. Just because there’s a boom in the casual mobile gaming market shouldn’t necessarily translate into a slowdown in the traditional gaming industry.

Shunal: It’s not just portable platforms where casual games are popular. Take for instance, Angry Birds for the PlayStation 3. Back in 2011, the game managed to become one of the highest selling PSN titles ever.

Nachiket: Well, what can I possibly say to that, apart from the fact that I’m going to torch my PS3 as soon as I reach home tonight.

Shunal: do that. But let’s face it; oversimplification and instant gratification isn’t just present in casual games. Take a look at any FPS game these days, with their aim-down-sight based slow gameplay and regenerating health. The Call of Duty (COD) franchise’s entire gameplay revolves around giving you big numbers on the screen and constant unlocks to keep you hooked.

Temple Run 2 is a fresher look at the popular game

Games such as Temple Run 2 do not appeal to hardcore gamers seeking deeper gameplay


More people have access to a smartphone or tablet, rather than a gaming-grade PC or console. People don’t even want to carry a dedicated gaming device anymore, as is evidenced by disappointing sales of the PlayStation Vita and the Nintendo 3DS. While the PS Vita doesn’t have many strong titles to begin with, the 3DS has a rather strong library. As unpleasant as it sounds, hardcore gamers are the minority here, and most people want instant gratification with simplistic gameplay.

Nachiket: You seem to have confused the exact semantics and context of the word oversimplification used in my prior reply. Yes, COD’s brand of gameplay is indeed a significant simplification over its traditional genre counterparts, but it still isn’t indicative of the sort of dumbing down required for successful mobile games. While COD is easy, it still retains the basic gameplay mechanics and length of a traditional FPS game.

On the other hand, games on smartphones call for a much more profound and fundamental simplification. Why do you think games such as Angry Birds and Temple Run are more popular when compared to, say, a Rage (iOS) or N.O.V.A? In short, smartphone users want games they can play with a single hand while sipping coffee or holding the grab-rail in a train compartment. There’s a clear difference between a dumbed down console game and a typical mobile game whose gameplay and length has been condensed enough to be played in short bursts of a few minutes.

I’ll agree with the decline of hand-held consoles because they are in direct conflict with smartphones and cater to a smaller section of hardcore gamers. That still doesn’t mean the death of consoles and gaming PCs. I believe those who want a comprehensive gaming experience will continue to patronise these platforms. More importantly, these gamers are the only ones who’ll be willing to put Rs 2,000-3,000 down for a quality AAA experience. This is something that cannot be said for a smartphone game.

Overpriced DLC in da house

Mainstream console franchises such as Call of Duty still post record-breaking sales


In Conclusion
Despite the fact that hand-held games have, more or less, conceded defeat to smartphones, mainstream games aren’t going anywhere. At least not for the next console generation. Let’s not forget that contemporary Call of Duty games and the Battlefield series have generated record-breaking revenues. The truth is that hardcore gamers are ready and willing to put their money on quality AAA games, and the audience is large enough to be profitable despite production budgets touching, and sometimes exceeding, the $100 million mark.

Smartphones are powerful enough today and they will keep getting better hardware muscle, but that still won’t change the way casual gamers prefer consuming games on the go. This is something that will fundamentally be different from the way hardcore gamers enjoy their video games. In all likeliness, these two demographics will continue to exist, even though the rate of growth will not be similar. It’s convenient to be controversial and predict the death of the console era, but the industry is too large and deep entrenched to just fade away like that. I mean, if it survived The Great Video Game Crash of 1983, I don’t see why it can’t stave off some healthy competition from mobile phones.

The same argument was raised decades ago with the advent of the Television Set. People had predicted that the boob tube would destroy the very concept and institution of watching movies in a cinema. We all know where we stand on that today.

Published Date: Mar 01, 2013 07:42 pm | Updated Date: Mar 01, 2013 07:42 pm