When I was 4, I got an ear infection or strep throat or some other relatively minor infection, and my parents gave me some sort of Sulfa-based antibiotic. That was a really bad idea, because it turns out I am crazy allergic to that, and I basically turned into a tiny red Frankenstein with crazy multi-level bumps all over. I itched like I have never experienced since in three decades, and my grandma did two things that helped me out immensely. One was to let me sleep with a bag of frozen peas under my feet. I think it might have just been so weird that it made me feel better. The other was to buy an Atari 2600. The next two weeks consisted almost entirely of me getting slowly better and watching Pitfall Harry die repeatedly at the hands of three crocodiles that were as hungry as they were stationary.
I have always been a console gamer, from that get-well Atari and the Colecovision to the great wars between Sega and Nintendo, up to the big players in the game today. The last 5 years have been very strange from this perspective. You see, the Internet (as it is wont to do) showed up and ruined everything. (It also made some stuff better, but it is much more interesting to complain in italics.)
Business Is A Game, Right?
This past generation of consoles brought us DRM, which (coupled with increasingly ubiquitous nationwide high-speed internet) finally made downloading games without visiting a store a reality. The coming of Hulu and Netflix also meant we were starting to use our consoles for more than just games. Microsoft in particular has touted its console as a one-device entertainment system, and appears to be doubling down on this strategy for the XBox One (or “XBone”, my new favorite console nickname ever).
It is not hard to see why. Gamers are a finicky and vociferous lot, and it costs a really large amount of money to make a AAA title that will likely be forgotten within a matter of months. Adopting a strategy where everyone is giving them money (including gamers) by delivering properties that already exist makes a lot of sense from a business standpoint. Two seconds on any gaming-related forum anywhere on this topic will show you what gamers think of this. (Hint: most of it rhymes with “truck”.)
I’m of two minds on the new breed of consoles.
I am surprised to find I am actually interested in the media-consumption aspects of consoles of late, most likely because of the brain damage involved in becoming a father. Playing cool games is awesome. Being able to find and play something on TV with as little difficulty as possible because oh god make the screaming stop is a survival skill. Finding a random crappy movie to watch and not worrying about if the DVR caught Game of Thrones are also nice bonuses. I like the whole media thing because I use it, daily, even in parts of my day I wouldn’t consider “free time”.
Gypsies, Tramps, And Thieves
That being said, the blood of a gamer still runs bright green within my veins, and I do not care for much of what I see with this current crop.
Starting with last generation’s Wii console, Nintendo went all in on a cool new control gimmick and slick design and didn’t beef up their new hardware like Microsoft and Sony. They decided not to take part in the arms race. It paid off enormously, and the lower price made a very large percentage of Wii’s wind up under a lot of Christmas trees in 2006. I was extremely surprised to see Nintendo utilizing the same gambit again with the Wii U. Again, there was a shiny new kind of controller, and they have finally reached parity with the other consoles (of the last generation). Regardless of the cause, the results this time aren’t as rosy as the last: Wii U sales are falling far short of projections.
Microsoft appears to be following the same strategy with the XBone. Its specs are much better than the Wii U and worse than the PS4, but it has all sorts of enhanced trickery based around being a giant super media computer that controls all your stuff via voice commands through the Kinect. Unlike the Wii U, though, Microsoft has a plan that involves getting lots of money from an extremely wide user base (even wider than Wii
Sports Bowling!). Infuriatingly, one of the features of the new XBone also appears to be making it impossible to borrow or rent games freely. I wouldn’t have played a third of the NES and SNES titles I did as a kid if I had to buy each one. (They will, at least, let you give your copy to someone for free. Once.) This drives me berserk. It’s also pretty expensive too, at $500. This does not help. As the rotten cherry on top of an already infuriating sundae, it will not play the massive mountain of XBox Live Arcade games I’ve been accumulating. I liked the 360 the best of the last gen. This makes me an extraordinarily unhappy dude.
Sony appears to be posturing itself with the PS4 as “the gamer’s console” and even “developer friendly“, which as a gamer makes me happy (because I am easily manipulated by marketing). It too has “entertainment hub” capabilities (which doesn’t surprise me, as the entire last generation of consoles did too). Bless their giant evil corporate hearts, they appear to be sticking to the time honored plan of putting out something bigger, faster, and shinier and hoping the public notices and buys it. Well, that and they’re undercutting the XBone’s price by a hundred bucks. It was the other way around last gen. This is really weird.
Elusive Prince, Complicated White Horse
There is an alternative available to all this, both gaming and Netflixation, in the PC arena. The cost tends to be a bit more, but you get a lot better performance and a lot more options (well, except those games that are exclusive to a particular console). Steam is wonderful, although I have never been able to figure out why everyone hates it when consoles have DRM but loves Steam (which basically got the whole mass-market cloud-based DRM gaming thing to life years before the consoles did). PC’s have been sporting HDMI ports on graphics cards for some time now, Netflix and Hulu have been around longer on PC’s than on consoles, and Steam even has a “Big Box” feature that is designed to make using it on a TV in your living room a pleasant experience.
I don’t think PC gaming, as it is now, will ever really take off with the same market reach as consoles for the same reasons it always hasn’t. It’s more expensive, and it’s too complicated for your grandma to go to Wal-Mart and buy the thing you wanted for your birthday. There are pre-built machines, even ones that will match the current gen consoles at their price range, but finding a good one takes expertise and research. That being said, I’ve heard strange Internets Rumors that Steam is eventually planning to release their own PC-based console. As much as I would dearly love to see a wildcard upend everything and bring on a golden age of gaming nirvana, it’s worth remembering that the PC market seems to be inching towards a walled-garden full of DRM as well. Just look at Windows 8 and its Windows Store.
I really don’t know what I’m going to do come Christmas. Looking at these underpowered consoled makes me want to hook my PC to my TV, connect an Xbox controller, and pretend I have magically turbocharged my consoles somehow. I can buy a pretty nice gaming rig for the combined cost of the XBone and PS4 and the various indie bundles alone will keep us happy for years on a shoestring budget.
It will probably come down to whatever games look the most fun for me and my family to play together. After all this is said and done, that’s what matters. I could give a pixellated crap about specs if I blew up some aliens with my kid and watched True Blood with my wife and we all had a good night. Until then, I will try to calm my wallet, which is panicking like a turkey on the second week of November. It’s hard to sit down.