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Competition for Consoles

Sony and Microsoft are going to have to adapt to a new world of content delivery and business models if they want to remain on top of the video game pile, and it may not be enough.

There is an axiom, sitting in the minds of everyone involved in the world of modern technology that involves computers or even consumer entertainment technology at all. And it is that nothing moves faster in business than the modern tech sector.

To wit: Software and digital content can, and now does, zip around the world as night instantaneously as physics allows. A small game created by single person can, and has, gone from being released to server crushingly popular in as little as a single day; and the ever more competitive consumer hardware market is starting to reflect this.

Every year we get a new latest and greatest phone, a new slate of, err..., slates. And every other sector of consumer technology is trying to latch on to this notion that we are creating new and better technology at an ever accelerating rate.

This should come as little surprise, the best way to describe this phenomena simply (and in a video game related manner) is the way "turns" relate to "years" in the game series Civilization. Each turn you take in the Civ games gives you the same available actions as each other, but as the game progresses the in game "date" advances less and less as the game goes on. In other words, more and more is done in less time as civilization and technology as advanced throughout history; and the point of all this is that this trend hasn't stopped.
 
So where does this leave the video game console?

With the need to advance their current business models, which are quite tightly controlled and costly to enter, especially in the case of Microsoft. Currently the big M charges $40,000 just for running a patch for an existing 360 game through approval. This has to change.

The world where every game that came out was at a price parity of $60 and the only developers worth courting were the ones that could afford marketing campaigns and retail distribution of discs sitting plastic boxes has gone by the wayside. In its place is world where a myriad of business and distribution models exist alongside each other, each with their own huge success stories.

Sony, Microsoft, and even Nintendo need to take heed. Not only do all three need to embrace digital distribution, but they need to embrace the advantages such distribution brings. Opening up their virtual stores to as many developers as possible seems like an almost necessary step. If anyone can submit an app or game to the iOS app store for a paltry sum a year why can't something similar happen with game consoles?

Games are also, to use popular parlance, transforming into a "service" of varying ranges depending on the type of game. Lords Management (League of Legends et. al.) type games rely on regular updates all the time for continued user play (and potential profit), as do any number of other titles. Whether the business model is "freemium" or free or even just regular DLC, the need to eliminate the high cost and long wait time for updates to be deployed on consoles is paramount to supporting both these already established types of games and allowing potentially new business models to come along.

One such potential is use created content. Of limited use in such Sony first party titles as Little Big Planet and Infamous 2, the potential is much greater still. One example is that of "Z Day" a user created mod for the rather older game ARMA 2 that helped propel it right back onto the top of the Steam charts. Or even titles such as Bethesda's Elderscrolls series, a quite popular series for mod creation.

Or best yet, remember that the ideal for video games ranges into something like Star Trek's Holodeck. A system in which almost anyone with a little imagination could quickly create their own fully realized virtual worlds. Anything that takes us closer to a future that holds such can easily be seen as going in the right direction. Which takes us nicely into...

A Distinct Lack of Vision in the Games Industry

A new type of business has popped up, supporting new types of players and making a ton of money. Surely, this is the way of the future and every video game will now be exactly like this new genre or business model or whatever. Or, to make a pop culture reference "All this has happened before, and will happen again..." And so getting around the oblivious calls for the future being all social, or freemium, or some such, we are still faced with a video games industry entirely unsure of itself.

But I would say there is indeed a clear way ahead. As you see, there is a large world of people out their not being served by much of today's video game industry. If you want evidence of this take a look at the practically bereft action RPG genre, which previous to this year was almost barren of competition by triple A studios. By standard practices this would be an indication that the genre was dead, and best left to small time developers hoping to grab a niche audience.

Yet with the launch of Diablo 3 and astounding 6.3 million copies have been sold in less than two weeks, with that number likely to climb. And all of it (so far) on the PC, considered by large publishers something of a "secondary" market to the big console players, one can't help but wonder if the standard practices mentioned above are really all they're cracked up to be.

So, if a game in a "genre" no other big publisher has noticed, on a platform seen as unpopular for triple A titles has sold more than most publishers even hope their latest console blockbuster might sell, I think its safe to conclude there's money to be made that simply isn't by current large publishers.

Not that I would sell short the current trend of Blockbusters as the big sellers of video games either. Mass Effect 3 and Max Payne 3 have each done extremely well this year, in a time when the overall sales of video games has shrunk year over year. No, big blockbuster video games aren't going anywhere. In fact I'd support their expansion and any support the next generation of consoles can give such titles. IF the year after year box office gold of not totally thematically different movie titles is any indication, there's a very large audience for big set peices and production values that's not going anywhere anytime soon.

So what does the future of hold for video games?

Simply that we need to get more types of games out to more people. Singleplayer games aren't going anywhere, nor are hardcore multiplayer games, nor blockbusters, simplistic "social" games, MMO's, or etc. In short, not only is nothing dead, but in all likelihood those genres and styles of games that are not popular for experienced developers may well become so yet again.

The phenomena of Kickstarter lead games, experienced developers quitting large companies to form their own startups, and other so called "disruptive" trends aren't going anywhere. And the result right now is that the most common platform is the one that is benefiting the most. Which right now means the PC and Windows. Recent Kickstarted game "Republique" was almost dead in the water; initially an IOS exclusive a necessary concession to cross the finish line for their funding was promising a PC version as well.

But not everyone has a PC with Windows anymore, and Microsoft's tightening grip over who gets to deploy for their OS and how (See Windows 8) means it will be even less friendly than ever as a ubuquitous and easy to deploy for platform. And while consoles can do everything from opening up their platforms to Microsoft's recent ploy of subsidizing its 360 with a Live subscription, the truth is that competition for video gaming platforms is higher than ever, and it's only going to increase.

Ever more ubiquitous and exponentially more powerful mobile devices have already earned billions for those casual game developers that have been skilled and lucky enough to make it big; and series like Epic/Chair's "Infinity Blade" show that more hardcore like titles are also viable on such platforms. And while most are restricted to a small screen for now, multiple connection technologies, especially wireless, may soon allow games on your new iphone to be displayed at full HD resolutions on your 50" TV without any nigh any trouble nor set up whatsoever.

But that is just one possibility. With companies investigating everything from blockbuster 3D games in your browser to the same such games computed "in the cloud" the only thing that's certain is that it's highly unlikely that the big console makers are ever going to dominate video game profits to the degree they reached in the middle of this generation. Everything from Valve's wearable computer experiments to the possibility of something like the next Apple TV getting some sort of video game controller is on the horizon.

Fortunately for developers and consumers alike, all of this is very much good news for them. 

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