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The Console Degeneration

The bell tolls on the console war.

The time is drawing near for a new generation of consoles...isn’t it? As I’m sure many of you know, the generations would turn every five years or so, meaning that a new round should be expected around 2011.

However would it be a smart move for anyone to release a console at that time? I say no. I say that the current crop of consoles have more than enough features to carry us for the foreseeable future.

We are staring at the law of diminishing returns. If you look back at each console cycle, it was the screen shots and gameplay movies that fired up the public’s enthusiasm. The consoles could easily demonstrate their superiority over the hardware they were replacing. However, the current consoles are so advanced that a comparison with better hardware is difficult.

Take a look at a screenshot of any game that is both on PC and a Next gen console and you’d be hard pressed to see the difference. Even in motion, it’s a tough call. Back in 2003 for instance, a good gaming PC had the ability to display graphics unrivalled by the consoles of the time, but the march of progress has slowed.

In addition, just as the cost of development exploded with the current generation of consoles, a similar increase in effort would be required to make use of the power of a new console. Basically, to have something demonstrably better you need to have higher resolution art, which takes more money.

Have a look at the innovative games of recent history. Many of them are not graphical powerhouses. The ones that are look really good and you’re nitpicking to find the graphical faults. So, given all the cost of a new console and the challenge to gain market share, why would any of the current hardware manufacturers make a new one?

I believe there are several factors that are creating a perfect storm that will end console gaming as we know it. The factors are the aforementioned law of diminishing returns, the state of current technology, the state of the population, and the economics of gaming.

I covered the law of diminishing returns already, so let’s move to current technology. We’ve all heard about OnLive and their plan for cloud computing. This was followed by the news that Sony has snatched up the name PS Cloud. Regardless in your belief of its current feasibility, it is a valid solution for the near future.

Now, here is the question I pose. Hypothetically speaking why, if I am a company like Electronic Arts say, would I not host games on my own servers and circumvent OnLive altogether? Why not cloud-compute the games from EA’s own collection of servers? Server space can be rented from a host of resources and save EA from having to share the cost with anyone.

Or what if Wal-Mart decides to retail games by hosting them in exchange for a cut of the profits? Or what if you take on sponsored servers for cloud-computing? OnLive as a company may or may not survive, but Pandora’s Box is opened none the less.

With the Xbox 360 versus PS3 battle, the preference for first party games is really the only reason to choose one over the other. Sure, the fanboys will grumble about Xbox live versus PSN, but really the question is Halo vs. Gran Turismo.

I have both systems for that very reason. If either machine, or even the PSP, were to navigate to a corporate site they would be more than capable of being used to play games being streamed directly from publishers (MS could easily add a browser to the Xbox).

Now, have a look at the current state of television. With cable for instance, I am paying for channels I don’t want, that have shows I don’t want, simply to see the stuff I do want. Why would someone continue to pay for what they do not want if there is a better way for them to get what they do want? TV online is the way of the future.

With AppleTV, or Hulu, or (insert content source here) I can have more control over what I watch and when I watch it. As with the cloud computing idea, the limiting factor is the mechanism for delivery and the willingness of my provider rather than the availability of the content (for the record, I live in Canada and am currently under the terror regime known as Rogers).

The population is another key factor. Generation X is becoming middle aged and they are at line in the sand of people for whom technology is engrained in their life. This generation and all that follow are tech savvy and willing to move to a less complicated, more useful mechanism for accessing their entertainment.

I’m happy to say that as much as I love holding liner notes in my hand, from both CDs and the record collection I recently unloaded, I dislike having to store all that physical media. I don’t like to sell my old games, but sometimes they simply take up too much space. The same can be said for my movies. Digital media sure cleans things up.

That brings me to the economics of gaming and specifically the used game issue. I’ll go on record as saying that I do not believe used games are bad for the consumer. I will go on record as saying I think that the outlets are thieves for the amount of money they give to the former owner of said game compared to the amount they charge for its resale, but that’s another discussion. Publishers are keen to make sure that they see the greatest revenue from their product, obviously, and a purely digital future is the best way to ensure this. You can’t copy or sell a file you don’t have access to.

Given these factors, I feel the next console generation will not be a console at all but the end of the console war. It’s the Console Degeneration. If anything, the next big “console” will be software that provides the end user with access to television, movies, music, and games in a single simple form.

Much as Microsoft already has done with their updated dashboard. The hardware choice will most likely be dictated by whomever makes the decorative choices in your home since the only real limiting factor is how nice the hardware looks next to the TV.

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