I originally posted this back in February on another site. I’m reposting this here today, and I’ll be doing a follow-up posts on the looming twilight of the consoles in the future.
It’s hard not to see Sony’s “launch” of the PS3 last Wednesday night as the kind of panicked press conference the dinosaurs might have held when they first saw a deadly meteor streaking across the sky. “We’d like to remind you that we’re still the biggest creatures in the world, and that we plan to keep on being big for the foreseeable future!” But in the world of technology catastrophic events happen to established businesses every single day, (taxis, film, and telephones being only a few) and even a million years later, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
Bluster, bravado, and sheer size managed to let Sony keep up in the last generation. But putting your raw panic on display in a hastily created event that provided no hint of price, product design, or even final specs, speaks not just to a failure of leadership and vision, but a sense of outright terror in a rapidly changing marketplace.
The last time there were major game consoles released George Bush was president and real-estate was a great investment that was never going to fail. The world of 2006 was one before Facebook, before apps, and even before the iPhone. And while this console generation has lasted longer than any of the ones that came before it, the need to upgrade has left Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo in a very difficult position.
Although our TVs are bigger and better than they ever were, it’s no longer just graphics that push the cutting edge forward. After the lackluster Wii U launch last christmas, it’s clear that game consoles no longer have an innate ability to punch through into the mainstream through a display of sheer technological power the way they did only half a decade ago.
Meanwhile, Apple is relentlessly upgrading the graphic capabilities of the iPad, most recently doubling the graphic output two times in a little less than a year. It won’t be long before the devices in our pockets have reached the level of the current generation of consoles. Can Sony really expect their $400 box to still feel cutting edge in three years, or five?
Our televisions have become a hub for an almost bewildering number of devices capable of pushing content to our big flat screens, including apps on the TV itself. It’s no longer just the quality of the content, but our relationship to the devices we use that matters. Tech-savvy users clearly want more for their money than just a graphic upgrade, especially if the box is stranded in the living room, while everything else travels around the house.
These new boxes offer nothing that you can’t get from hooking a properly configured PC directly to your set. Meanwhile the social “features” (Facebook! Streaming! Buttons on the controller!) seem like exactly the kind of thing that a corporate executive would suggest adding after chatting with his thirteen-year-old son for an hour or two.
It’s also probable that yesterday’s fiasco spooked the big game developers. Especially in light of the brutal year they had in 2012. A new generation of consoles means massive investments by game companies as they gear up to provide games that take full advantage of the new technologies. But this time there’s no guarantee that those investments will pay off. What was once a sure thing for companies like EA are now loaded with risks.
And the big game makers aren’t the only ones who are looking for greener pastures. Making games for Sony is expensive, no matter how they try to spin it, and despite the tiny cracks in the door, Sony still hasn’t made something that can provide a platform for the sheer amount of inventiveness coming from current crop of independent developers. Tthe imminent arrival of cheap cross-development game platforms like Ouya, and Steambox will only accelerate the problem.
It’s likely that they console makers will still be able to satisfy the rabid hardcore, but it’s equally hard to imagine them reaching out to new players in a world saturated with cheap mobile devices and amazing games that no longer rely solely on wow-factor to penetrate the public consciousness. To put it another way, does anybody really believe that the next Angry Birds will come out of the PS4?
Developers make the experiences, and once it’s no longer cool or cutting-edge to play the latest and greatest on the PS4, what exactly will the consumers be buying?
During the last generation Sony offered Blu-Ray to sweeten the deal, but there’s nothing that exciting happening in a world where Netflix is streaming everywhere. The world of 2013 is a marketplace filled with far more competition for interactive entertainment and consumers have far less money to spend.
Half a decade ago it took a tremendous amount of technology, marketing savvy, and capital to create an entertainment platform that could capture our attention. Now the fight is no longer just over pixels, it’s over hearts, minds, and eyeballs.
Sony can still get the media to show up, but like the boy who cried wolf, every press conference that fails to impress will simply mean that fewer and fewer people (both buyers and bloggers) will show up on launch day. And once the meteor lands the best thing a big dinosaur makes for is a good meal for the creatures that survive.