Confession time: I am not that interested in the upcoming console war. The reason is that, when I look at what the proposed consoles are offering, I don’t see anything important to me that I cannot have already on a current-generation console.
Sure, I can have better graphics, but the graphics on current-generation consoles are amazing enough. Sure, I can potentially buy games more easily through more robust online stores, but I’m not really constrained by an inability to buy a game at a store, so what does an online store offer me? And while I am looking forward to crossplatform compatibility and being able to engage with certain games on the couch or on the bus, this is all possible on current-gen hardware. Why do I need a new console?
When I lie back and stare at the ceiling and try to imagine the experience that I think will typify the next generation of gaming, I see something completely different to what the next-generation consoles are offering.
I imagine that some time before the upcoming console generation ends, I will walk into my house and pick up a controller. The controller will detect that it has been moved and it will connect to my television and to the phone in my pocket. I will browse through the games that are on my phone (which is now my console) and I will select one and play it using my controller. Full HD and 7.1 audio will stream from my pocket to my television. And I won’t be playing Angry Birds for the iPhone 3G either, I’ll be playing GTAV.
Of course, because I presume the above will be possible within the next five years, a great many other things will also be a part of this next-gen ‘console’ experience. First, and most importantly, independent developers (by this I mean companies of developers, as well as individual ‘indie’ artists working in their basements) will have the same potential reach as the big publishers do. This has a potentially massive destabilising effect on the current publisher-developer model, but before we write off a dozen multibillion-dollar companies we need to consider the second major effect: all these publishers will be able to very cheaply and quickly convert their back catalogues to these new platforms.
When you consider that porting a PS2- or Xbox-era title to a theoretical 2015 smartphone could probably be tackled by a handful of developers in a number of months, and you consider the potential of a few million sales at a price point of $5–10, it becomes quickly apparent that it is a worthwhile investment.
How many millions of players who enjoyed Skyrim would be delighted to buy Morrowind for $4.99 and play it using a controller on their TV, streaming it from their phone? This, of course, would not preclude them from also playing it using emulated thumbsticks on the touchscreen while on the bus. All those nights you stayed up an extra hour fast-travelling between Balmora and Vivec (and that mudcrab merchant south of Suran) to sell all your loot at the best prices – forget it, you can do it on the bus now.
And Morrowind is just one game; there are a thousand games that could be profitably ported from earlier console generations and made to run on current (or near-future) phones. GTAIII already runs on phones from two years ago. All things being equal – and admittedly it is more complicated than that – GTAIV will likely be running on smartphones within a couple of years.
The point is that this is not just a pipe dream: there are massive incentives for both small developers and large publishers to embrace this next generation. The companies that make the phones are even more strongly incentivised to make this happen, because they will get 30 per cent of everything.
So when I lie back and stare at the ceiling and imagine the experience, it just seems totally inevitable. Everybody wants it from a gaming perspective, everybody needs it from a financial perspective, and the technology is rolling out and converging towards it rapidly. The biggest hurdle I see currently is that wireless HDMI is still not very good and might be several years out. But if this is the biggest hurdle, having to dock your phone with the TV in order to get a full HD experience is an incredibly minor compromise – in fact, even in a full wireless HDMI era, heat dissipation might remain enough of an issue that you wouldn’t want to keep your game console in your pocket anyway.
All of this is not to write off the next generation of consoles as a waste of time. I suspect the total conversion to the experience described above is going to take at least a full console cycle. Those who adopt the new consoles early will see the full benefits of what they have to offer. Those who abandon ship and embrace these ‘consoles of the future’ will undoubtedly have to deal with a lot of headaches – at least in the near term.
But the degree to which smartphones successfully usurp the console market over the next half decade will, I suspect, determine whether it will be worthwhile for console manufacturers to even attempt a next-next generation.