A Few Thoughts on Next-Gen Consoles

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We’re seeing the peak of the current console generation. The franchises that have been the staple of the two heavy-hitters (360 & PS3) are either on their third (fourth) installments, or will be within the next year. Nintendo, meanwhile, finds its support in franchises that aren’t tied to stories that need an ending, and can be adapted to new hardware easily. While it’s true that this current run has a longer lifespan than previous generations – something that has only been extended by the additions of the Kinect and the Move – I think it’s time to start thinking about what kind of announcements we can be expecting as early as E3. I’ve decided to do a breakdown that examines what I think the “next big thing” will be.

1. The Idea
2. The Hardware
3. The Software
4. The Subscription Service

Finally, I’ll give what evidence – real and imaginary – I have as to how some of my predictions are already all but confirmed, as well as address some of the glaring problems with my concept.

The Idea

I’ll get straight to the point on this part.

• I think the first genuine next generation console will be completely downloading based.
• I don’t believe it will have any sort of disc-reader, and there won’t be hard copies of the games.
• Current subscribers to the older generation service will be able to move their profile over, along with any supported content.
• The initial games will also have versions available on the older console, and there will be support for cross-generation interaction.
• At launch, backwards compatibility will be limited to a few downloadable “classics.”

Just let that sink in.

Before you go into knee-jerk reaction mode, take a look at the current industry. Steam, or other services like it, have more or less eliminated the hard-copy side of PC gaming, something which was met with severe resistance at first. While it’s true that the same drawbacks still exist – no physical copy of the game to call your own, any nice paper manuals or art books, etc – these things have not kept some services from exploding over the past five years.

Current console-based online services already offer services that could be used as the groundwork for such a system: games on demand, downloadable expansions, older-generation classics with updated gameplay, etc.

Players have already been acclimated to the concept of an online profile that contains large amounts of their data, both on the front-end (XBL, PSN) and within the games themselves (all of a player’s advancement in any Call of Duty is stored on the servers).

There’s one more thing I’d like to get out of the way now: we’ve already hammered out one very specific point, which is that this would more than likely be a Microsoft console. The concept, as I see it at least, would need the specialization of a software company, and one that already had a solid foundation in online console services. To be blunt, I don’t think that PSN is worth the price – and it’s free. They have stepped up with some of the features of Playstation Plus – free games, discounted games – but in the long run I would not trust Sony to produce this sort of device and support it efficiently. Anyone who disagrees is more than welcome to Google “PSP Go” and then get back to me. The one big positive in their corner is the partnership with Steam, which would conceivably allow them to turn certain duties over to people who handle this kind of thing far, far more effectively.

You didn’t come here to listen to me whine about Sony, though; otherwise you would have clicked the link to my article “Why Sony Smells Bad and Is Icky Too.” You came to read an overly long list of bullet points about the future of console tech from someone who has never worked in the industry, and dang it, I’m going to oblige:

XBox720

The Hardware

  • No optical drive
  • 500 gig + hard drive
  • Required high-speed internet connection
  • Optional motion controls
  • Wireless peripherals
  • Support for at least eight players
  • Very portable

The Software

  • Three game categories: Full Retail, Arcade, Indie
  • Apps: Streaming video / music, full web browsing
  • Integration with other devices (computers, phones, tablets)
  • Eventual move to streaming of some game content
  • No disc manufacturing should mean lower starting prices
    • Older game prices will drop at more consistent rates after release
    • Games can be bundled and sold in series / developer sets
    • Greatest Hits / GOTY Editions will simply replace existing SKUs

The Subscription Service

Standard Features

  • Continue to store account on server and locally
  • Licenses stored on server, content stored locally
  • Unlimited downloads of content
  • Accounts on “Home” console will have unlimited access to local content
  • Direct monetary transactions (No more “points” or “wallets”)

Basic Account

  • Access to marketplace
  • Delayed access to certain demos / add-ons
  • Friends list
  • Chat ability
  • Limited cloud storage

Premium Account

  • Expanded cloud storage
  • Multiplayer access
  • Early content access
  • Free/ discounted items
  • Free/ discounted access to partnered services
  • Tiered loyalty pricing
  • Content rental
  • Content “lending” to friends’ accounts
  • Direct streaming of supported content
  • Family discount bundles

Evidence That I’m a Psychic Genius

Not to toot my horn, but I’ve been chipping away at this idea for a while, and with each passing day the industry does more and more things that support my theory. For triple-A titles, the time between retail launch and availability for downloading is getting shorter and shorter. More and more mid-range developers are turning to Arcade / PSN titles to generate revenue; some developers like Double Fine and Twisted Pixel have risen to prominence almost exclusively through downloadable titles. Going direct-download would eliminate manufacturing costs for publishers, which would theoretically mean lower prices and the potential for games that are a risky investment to see the light of day.

On the internet-connectivity front, while initial reaction to digital rights management (DRM) systems that require internet connection was harsh, it hasn’t stopped games that utilize them from being exceptionally successful. Nor has the need for internet slowed the progress of paid and free-to-play MMOs and strategy games. And while I have met a few people in passing who own consoles but have no internet, I can’t say I personally have any gamer friends who aren’t connected any time they play. The availability concerns of five years ago are almost a moot point, as the spread of fiber optic and advancements in broadband technology mean all but the most rural areas can get high-speed connections.

Reasons I’m a Drivel-Spewing Crackpot

While all of this hyper-connected-instant-download talk sounds fun, there are more than a few reasons this would never work. For starters, gaming is a retail industry, and you know when retail makes the most money: Holidays. You take away the ability of girlfriends, brothers, aunts, and parents to put games under a tree or in a birthday bag, and you can almost hear the slam of doors as studios shut down. Speaking of parents, they’re going to have to start learning how these systems work in case something goes wrong with one of the accounts; they’ll need to be familiar enough with the system to purchase games, at the very least. Games which will need to be paid for with a credit or debit card, or monetary value cards like the ones current sold for Steam and PSN.

Of course, those same parents – or even adult gamers – might be stymied from buying anything when they realize that maybe they should have listened to what the guy at GameStop Was saying about “internet only” something-or-other. I couldn’t even begin to give you an exact figure on how many systems / titles (PSP Go, MAG, Starcraft II, World of Warcraft) I sold to people who looked me in the eye and said they understood, only to try and return the items a few hours later.  Not to mention that even the most tech-savvy buyer is helpless in the face of a service outage; Comcast issues keeping you from playing online are one thing, but to have your console rendered completely unusable might be a deal breaker for consumers.

Photo courtesy techradar.com
Photo courtesy techradar.com

The Middle Ground

In all likelihood, this concept may be a little too radical for consoles that will conceivably be announced and launched this year. That being said, devices like Valve’s “Piston” and the Ouya are paving the way, and I do think we’ll see an increase in titles that have launch-day on demand availability. There might even be room in publishers’ plans for smaller projects that get used as test dummies for digital-only distribution; who knows, some games might even be offered on a direct-streaming service. We’ll also see an increase in cloud storage limits, and better streamlining when using one profile on multiple devices.

Whatever is (or isn’t) coming down the pipes, it’s definitely an exciting time to be a gamer. What are some of your hopes, fears, wants, needs, and dreams for the future of consoles?

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