Thursday, May 30, 2013

Convenience, Creation, and the New Consoles

This week my PopMatters column is aout Microfost and Sony's new console announcements. Specifically, why they were both so focused on luxury features and so lacking in actual video game content.

It was largely inspired by Jorge, who pointed out that the console makers seem to be trying to manufacture use cases as opposed to addressing existing ones. I agree: it's hard to argue that tying your cable subscription box to your console or being able to shave a few seconds off standby mode are going to be the things that revolutionize games. So why the big focus on these things?

My hypothesis is that there is really nothing else for Sony and Microsoft to focus on. Third party publishers make the biggest blockbusters and independent developers make the most avant garde games. Putting Nintendo aside for a moment, the most interesting games generally aren't coming out of first-party development, so there really isn't much for the manufacturers to show at this point. On the technological side, until the next big interface shift (think control pads to analog sticks) or the next big programming shift (2D sprites to 3D models), we'll just be iterating and improving on existing technical paradigms. Advances in textures and particle effects are neat, but they're only surface level improvements.

Microsoft and Sony are transitioning into more traditional platform keepers: both presentations were focused on things that facilitated playing games and interacting with other media rather than creating the games themselves. Convenience features like voice commands, streaming services, and multitasking improve the ancillary aspects of playing games, which is what the two companies want. Convenience keeps people plugged in and buying games.

Finally, I'll be interested to see how quickly seemingly gimmicky features become standard. Sure we don't "need" voice search, but we also don't "need" wireless controllers. However, if a console came out today with wired controllers, we'd laugh them off the market. As the amount of data we sift through on our consoles gets larger, we'll need faster ways of navigating. Telling my console to search for and then launch a specific game would definitely be faster and more intuitive than the status quo.

In any case, don't take this as an apology for lackluster efforts or corporate money grabs; it's just a possible theory. Microsoft and Sony focused on the cross-media convenience because they didn't really have much else to focus on.

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