Wednesday, October 1, 2008

News for 10/1/08: The Welch Interview and the Death of Consoles

This week's news post comes from an exceedingly interesting, yet frustratingly brief interview with John Welch, the CEO of PlayFirst. As the head of a company focused on "casual" gaming, Welch provides some unique views on the future of video games. Jorge and I had a very long conversation about this article, mostly because Welch touches on so many hot buttons for old crotchety gamers like ourselves. This excerpt is only a small portion of what we talked about, and I am certain that the issues raised in the course of our conversation will show up in future posts. Again, feel free to check the article out yourself and add your two cents in the comments.

Scott: Interesting article this week, an interview with John Welch, CEO of PlayFirst, of "Cooking Dash" fame. In it, he speculates on the death of consoles!

Jorge: First off, I was really surprised to see this article at all. From what I've been hearing, there has been more talk about the death of pc-gaming than the death of consoles. Just the idea sounds ludicrous.

Scott: As we both know, the death of pc gaming has always been proclaimed, and has always been nonsense. He has an interesting quote about his approach to the market: "We’re really attacking or going after the ‘gamerification’ of the mass market. If you have the whole gamer industry, that’s a segment, and you’ve got everybody else, which is a bigger segment. So our approach is getting those people to become gamers."

Jorge: It's not one or the other as I see it. If more people become gamers, this should theoretically fuel the console market, not make is obsolete.

Scott: I kind of agree with his sentiment here, as long as it doesn't mean the end of deep, complex games.

Jorge: Crappy flash games have some consumers, but how many people can that hold? These are two different markets here. Is he imagining that soon everyone will play simple games and therefore not needed consoles as devices through which they can play the more complex games?

Welch is articulating the fear of the "hardcore" gamer, the source of all the discussion about the pros and cons of a growing casual gamer market. That is, casual gamers will be such a large part of the videogame market that they will fundamentally change how videogames are played. He creates the type of games that would succeed in that market, so its something he's looking forward to and wants to happen.

Scott: So essentially, gamers and non-gamers should meet halfway?

Jorge: In his opinion, yes. For him, halfway means giving up our emphasis on hardware in favor of more "casual" software that makes things like powerful consoles obsolete.

Scott: I agree that "hardcore" folks need to be open to letting newcomers ease in with a gradual learning curve, but I think that "casual" folks need to be open to exploring deeper and more complex games.

Jorge: I certainly believe they can live side by side. You already see that with some gamers who don't touch a certain genre.

Scott: His idea that "hardcore" games will be a niche market is a little threatening to those of us who never play DinerDash.

Jorge: Exactly. As a console gamer, I don't like what he has to say at all. But I also think he's flat wrong regardless of my bias. Which I think is becoming a trend in these news posts.

Scott: Well, let's talk about his comments about where the consoles themselves are going. He says: "I think the biggest proof point in the death of consoles in my thesis is the Wii...The technology could be adapted to run on your average set top box, at least in the next generation of set top boxes. How much would it cost to integrate Wii-like technology into a set top box, if anything even needs to be specialized? What we really need are more standards around the input devices."

Jorge: First, I don't even know what a set top box is. Do I have a set top box? Is my xbox a set top box? It's definitely a box. That much is clear.

Scott: Exactly, a "set-top-box" is a just a three word term for a console. It is a device that exists outside your TV that plays games.

Jorge: He is imagining a console then, that fulfills other functions of your entertainment set-up. DVD playing, downloadable movies and tv shows, Blue-ray capabilities, which the existing consoles are already addressing. He just doesn't want to call them consoles and he believes there will be just one producer with no incentive to increase the technological capabilities of their product.

Scott: It seems like he's saying that, since a large chunk of gamers are casual (which in his mind means that that they don't want the best graphics and technology) the hardware doesn't matter anymore.

Jorge: That claim that we have no more need of advancing technology has been made over and over again over the years and has been proven wrong time and time again. If we can improve the hardware, we will. If for no other reason that it makes a stale product more marketable and gives you an advantage over others in the market.

Scott: True, more horsepower doesn't automatically provide new experiences, but it can definitely allow for new experiences. Today's consoles offer innovativegameplay that is also technically advanced in one easy-to-use package. Consoles can provide both fun and technically advanced games in a cheap and relatively hassle free way in comparison to the PC.

Jorge: Which is exactly the tech race that PC gaming suffers from and why consoles make up a solid chunk of the market. It's simply easier for gamers and developers to agree on the hardware of an existing console that is already being marketed.

Scott: And I think that arms race turns off the casual gamer. The beauty of the console is that, like you said, you'll know all the games will work right out of the box without any cumbersome install.

Scott: Because the Wii presented a set piece of hardware that never changes and needs almost zero user maintenance, people are free to focus on the games. They are drawn in by casual titles and are automatically provided with the tools they need to go further if they so choose. You might buy a Wii for WiiSports, but then get into Mario Kart, and then Zelda, and then you're magically seen as a "hardcore" gamer.

Jorge: I don't think Mr. Welch here appreciates the innovation that specifically comes out of consoles as a launching point for developers to use the specs to their advantage to create a new and innovative titles. And this is particularly the case for independent game developers who use the consoles conveniently because they know they have a system that can play their creation with ease and that can market their content better than they could ever do on their own.

Scott: Braid, PixelJunk Eden, and Mega Man IX are all good examples of what you describe. Consoles give developers a set of parameters and the knowledge that anyone could play their games, not just those with a high-end system. For gamers, having a console allows them to go as deep as they want in terms of games: they can stick to simple, casual games, but they can also rest assured that if they want to get more serious, they have the opportunity to do so. Consoles have always been appealing to me because of their simplicity. They are an elegant solution to playing games: they are a machine completely dedicated to that task.

Jorge: I think its telling that Steam is one of the most popular PC gaming clients specifically because it is essentially setting up a virtual console. It provides easy access and easy playability of games that you know will run on your computer. Their success is due in no small part to the fact they are the only ones who are treating their client like a videogame console. Steam's got their market on lockdown.

Scott: So it seems our conclusion is that consoles provide the platform that incorporates Welch's audience with the more hardcore audience. I argue that, if anything, consoles detract from his audience, since they allow the casual player to move deeper into gaming.

Jorge: "Next Week's News: Diner Dash Highest Selling XBLA game."

Scott: The prospect chills me to the bone.


  1. "Exactly, a "set-top-box" is a just a three word term for a console."

    I don't know whether it is similar over there in the US, but here in Australia a set-top-box is the thing that allows us to receive digital free to air channels (instead of analogue which is being phased out) and also HD only channels if the box is a HD one (which like, 90% are). Some TVs come with these built in, others don't.

    I'm no hardware expert though so for all I know, it could just be a rename for what you guys have over there or something. *shrug

    Just thought I'd bring it up, anyway.

  2. It sounds like the term "set-top-box" is as nebulous in the Downunder-verse as it is for us Stateside. :-)

    Basically, I've heard people call pretty much anything that exists outside the tv a set-top-box, which makes Welch's use of the term quite vague, to say the least.