Nintendo Owns The Console Market
If gaming via the cloud is truly the future then so be it, but it’s important to remember how far in the future that might prove to be. Rumours about new consoles began to surface a little more than a year after the start of the current generation, but Nintendo is about to end the wait with the imminent unveiling of Project Cafe. One day we might all be playing through a server farm in some far-flung country, with hardware upgrades dictated by the needs of the designers and the industry rather than the need to sell a box. But that day isn’t today. Right now, it’s not a question of ‘if?’ the boxes are coming, but ‘when?’
Nevertheless, it’s clear that the looming console generation will be very different from the last. Traditionally, Nintendo’s supposed launch plans would rightly be regarded as a provocation to its competitors: here’s mine, now show me yours. Not anymore. We may see new consoles from all three platform holders by 2013, but Project Cafe won’t be the reason why. Sony seems dedicated to realising the PlayStation 3’s 10-year potential, and Microsoft didn’t launch Kinect on a whim. The appropriate response to Nintendo’s new console isn’t to launch your own, but to go after their lapsed customers with reasonably-priced existing hardware, offering them the HD experience the Wii never could.
Studios as diverse as Bungie (Halo) and Avalanche (Just Cause 2) have admitted to developing their latest projects with a potential next generation platform in mind, but reading into such a vague statement would be folly. Recently, a handful of job postings left many certain that a new Xbox was incoming, when in truth the positions suggested that the hardware was still early in its development. The Xbox 360 is enjoying a period of huge growth, and Microsoft will be almost entirely focused on sustaining that for as long as possible. If Microsoft had its druthers, the next round of systems would wait until physical media was no longer an issue.
According to Crytek’s Cevat Yerli, current PC technology is about a generation ahead of consoles, but most designers don’t seem to mind. Indeed, many designers are vehemently opposed to the idea. “At this point I have no desire as a developer and zero desire as a gamer to see the next generation come out,” said Ken Levine on the Irrational Games podcast, and he’s just one voice among many. High end game development is far too expensive already, and triple-A talent is migrating to the mobile and social spaces in droves as a result. For most designers, the current consoles are powerful enough.
Most publishers echo these sentiments. “It would be horrible,” exclaimed THQ’s Danny Bilson to Eurogamer. “It still costs us a fortune to make games on this platform. If they’re going to up the scale, up the art, up the content, I don’t know how to make that and sell it to anybody for under $100 a game… Who wants to do that? It’s bad for everybody. Stability of technology allows for the fruition and the growth of creative… We still have guys trying to squeeze it to do cooler stuff, but it puts the weight of the mission under creative.”
The idea that sticking with hardware allows artists and technicians to be more creative is beguiling, but it could be at the expense of originality. Ubisoft’s Yves Guillemot recently told MCV that it wasn’t attractive for publishers to launch new IP so far into a console generation. It sounds convincing, but that risk-aversion is largely created by the enormous amounts of money it costs to make a blockbuster game. New consoles mean new IP, but they may also mean an even tougher existence for second and third string publishers.
So who, exactly, is the new console generation for? Games like Portal 2 and L.A. Noire prove that the Xbox 360 can still offer the innovative and the sublime, so is it really for the gamers? Talented independent developers have been toppling like dominoes, while the survivors are being consumed by publishers or shooting meaningful glances at Facebook, so is it really for the talent?
The fact is that the market is too evenly split among the platform holders for any to consider dropping out of the race altogether. If we have one console, the others will be along just as soon as their manufacturers believe they are losing market share, but no company spends billions of dollars on hardware unless its critical to their survival. No, the only companies that seem to be hurrying the transition along are Epic and its ilk, who license engines and middleware across all platforms and devices. As Epic’s jaw-dropping GDC Unreal Engine demo proved, the future is coming, whether we like it or not.
“The whole gaming industry’s been sort of reluctant about a next generation of consoles, but Epic – and the rest of the tech business – have other plans,” explained Mark Rein. “If the next game consoles can’t do this, well, Apple increased their iPad by nine times today… The whole idea behind this is to tell the hardware manufacturers that this is what you should be doing down the road.”