Forget the console wars, the real battle is to stay relevant

When I was a child, we waited every month for glossy magazines to arrive in the mail, fat with cartoonish images of posturing characters and the kind of adverts designed to appeal to kids who longed for radical skateboards and neon sunglasses. These were our only windows into the world of games. We brought them to school, raw and dog-eared as touchstones often are, and scribbled pen circles around the things we longed for based only on tiny blurbs.

Back then, console wars were mostly about ideals and sentiment, and to a lesser extent, our half-informed babble about the tech specs we barely understood. Our young hands and eyes were prizes in a noisy competition for attention and admiration, mascots in shades looming large in our imaginary arenas. You chose a hero, an aesthetic, and then you had a hardware platform to which you could swear ultimate fealty.

It’s a different world today. My kid cousin watches YouTube on her iPhone, looking for videos where cool teen boys share Minecraft tips. Kids just a little younger than she is have never played with a traditional controller.

The business factors that complicate this impending console generation in ways never before seen have been fairly well trodden: our attention is fragmented across multiple devices, we’re used to accessing interactive entertainment cheaply and more quickly, and cloud technology will bring the PC into the living room, meaning the all-importance of designated hardware is harder to assure.

But the cultural shift is also interesting. Who is the audience for a game console today? Certainly, I want one, but this is my career – to what extent are other single 31-year-old women like me? And even I want one, where previously I might have wanted two.

Not long ago, I stopped into a major toy store here in New York City and was surprised by how thoroughly gaming has colonised the way children play. Yes, licences are everywhere: Angry Birds and Cut The Rope stuffed animals, Minecraft action figures, Sonic race tracks, and Halo and Gears playsets. Those latter two are particularly interesting – kids’ toy soldiers based on M-rated ‘core’ brands? Is the core gamer, then, a child dabbling in adult stuff, or adults not in a hurry to stop playing with toys?

It’s not just the obvious crossover of gaming brands into the world of children’s play. Even traditional dolls now have interactive components and virtual currency attached. There is CityVille Monopoly, a board game about currency, which comes with points you can exchange for virtual currency in the Facebook game. More small toys than I’ve ever seen are sold in ‘blind’ packs, systematising a collection element.

This bustling merchandising feels like a direct result of the touchscreen explosion, and the fact audiences increasingly get their fix of interactive entertainment across many smaller arenas. In the same toy store, videogames are sold on a literal lower level, where the crowds thin and grandparents ask sales staff whether they ought to buy a Wii U for their grandchild. Traditional game console software starts to feel like a dimmer and less radiant cousin, a clumsy relic next to what seems to be grabbing market share and attention now.

We always wanted a broader gaming audience. When the Wii sold to unprecedented new players, there was, for a while, the hope that eventually they’d ‘trade up’ from simple family games into the core market. But it doesn’t seem to have happened that way – the core market seems narrower, and so does the range of products it produces. Even many adults who’ve been traditional gamers for most of their lives seem to be getting bored.

To some extent, there is a core market that will always buy game hardware and big-name franchises. But numbers suggest it’s not enough to be viable, given the cost of creating in that arena. Yet if I had to take a guess, it’s adults who grew up as traditional gamers, and who now have their own families and purse-strings, who will determine the degree to which modern consoles are still relevant.

There is a grown-up core market that remains unaddressed: we buy the argument that there’s some degree of depth, complexity and immersion only attainable on consoles, yet we’re too old for the commercialised teen fantasies and fan-pandering that dominates the current market.

To thrive, consoles will need not only to keep up with the changing landscape, but to lead it. They’ll need games that push more than just technology boundaries, but that feel genuinely mature and relevant, that adults want to talk about at work, or play at social gatherings. Online spaces will have to feel modern and social, not like zones for playground mudslinging.

It’s developers, not console manufacturers, who will have to prove there’s a relevant role for game consoles in the landscape – and that it’s a mainstream role, since it’s not clear how much longer the economics of the industry are sustainable by continuing to focus on a dated idea of the ‘core’.  The business of games has changed immensely since the console wars we remember, but it’s important we account for how much the culture has changed, too.

Illustration: Marsh Davies