Technology... is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other. ~C.P. Snow, New York Times, 15 March 1971

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Future of Game Consoles

Original Nintendo.  Image
from TOFURIOUS blog,
originally from  Jen May blog.
I'm not a huge console video game player.  I played on the original Nintendo at friends' houses as a kid, and we had a Commodor with paddles and a few games we got at a garage sale growing up, but most games I played were on computers, our TRS Color Computer and Tandy 1000, and later my 286, the first computer that was mine, which is still out in the garage somewhere.

Gaming consoles have come a long way since my childhood as have all technology.  My wife owns a Sega Genesis, a Play Station, a Play Station 2, an XBox, and an XBox360.  I did end up buying a Wii for myself, the first game system that actually appealed to me enough to buy.  There has been many advances since the original Nintendo and earlier systems.

Cartridges have become disks.

Playing Kinect on XBox360.
Image from Indyposted.
Paddles and joy sticks gave way to the two-button controllers of the Nintendo.  Two button controllers have grown to many buttons with triggers and bumpers as well.  four-way control pads became thumb sticks, basically mini joy sticks.  Wired have given way to wireless.  With the Wii, Nintendo introduced controllers that used motion, not just buttons and thumb sticks.  Floor pads for dancing, and boards for balance related things have introduced exercise to gaming.  With Kinect, Microsoft has introduced using your body as the controller.  There are guitars, drums, guns, swords, all types of different "controllers" to allow different types of interactions with games.

The games with no ability to save gave way to memory cards, where you could save a game to continue it later, or even play it at a friend's house.  Memory cards lead to internal hard drives like a computer.

The original stand alone consoles added networking so more people could play than one console could support.  Networking led to online gaming, allowing you to play with people around the world and download content and even games.

Newer consoles can play DVD or Blu-Ray movies and disks, and online gaming has led to streaming video on consoles, as well as social networking like Facebook.  Video game consoles are continuously evolving as technology, innovation, ideas, and demand allow.  The modern video game console is approaching being the combination of a video game console, a computer, and a multimedia centre.  Anything that can be displayed may one day be on gaming consoles.

In LiveJournal, the following question was asked:

Do you think video games will still be popular in 15 years? How do you think they'll change?
I see no chance of them losing popularity unless there is a crash of capitalism.  Like many other things involved in technology, part of the draw is escapism, like I talked about in an earlier post.  Video games will change, but as long as there's a market for them, they will still exist and still be popular.

But how will they change in the next fifteen years?  I can't see that far ahead.  Innovations in technology have been consistently accelerating for the last hundred years or so (actually, since the dawn of time, but it's only been recently that it's reached a speed to notice the acceleration) and that trend will probably continue in the next fifteen years.  Will VR (Virtual Reality) finally become the norm?  Will holographic projections for true 3D gaming be the trend?  Something else no one has imagined?  I don't know.  But I do know much will changed in that time.

The next few years are easier to predict.  I see video gaming moving in a specific direction which I'll describe below.  Nothing earth shattering here.  Many other people probably see the same trends, the same direction.  But here's my take on the near future of video gaming.

The first direction I see video gaming going is toward downloads and subscription-based games.  Americans tend to want want the want now, not to wait for it.  Sure I can drive across town and look to see if a store has a game I want to play and rent it or buy it if they do, and order it, either from the store or somewhere online like Amazon if they don't.  But most people would rather not have to wait.  Already, you can download online content like songs or outfits on Guitar Hero or Rock Band, outfits and items for your XBox avatar, arcade games like Worms or Raskulls, or console games from old systems like Super Mario Brothers 1, 2, and 3.  Some games allow you to download a second game or expansion if you pre-ordered them.  Many games have downloadable demos where you can play part of the game without having to pay for it, to see if you like it.

I think the industry will lean toward all games being available for download or streaming.  You see this trend in books with the advent of eReaders like Kindle and Nook, and with book readers on tablets, computers, and even cell phones.  Already, Borders has had to shut down a number of stores across the country because of the loss of revenue because of these devices.  There was fear that Amazon would put all the local bookstores out of business because people would order all their books online.  This didn't happen.  It goes back to the "I want it now!" attitude I mentioned above.  If I want to read a book and I have a choice of going across town and buying it for more, or ordering it online for less but having to wait a few days to a week to get it, I'm probably going to buy it locally.  The Kindle and Nook have done what straight Amazon could not.  When you want the book, you buy it and you have it in a minute, where you are.  No drive across town, no waiting for shipping.  You also see this with music, with the growth of online retailers like Apple's iTunes, and the decline of physical media.  People can buy just the song they want or the entire album without going to a store or waiting for shipping.  They can listen to a preview (like the game demos) to see if they like it before they purchase it.  And they don't need to rip it to their computer to load it on iPods and Zunes and other players.

At least for a while, I think games will still be available on disk.  Some people, like my wife and my friend John, like having something physical.  This also the reason printed books won't go away anytime soon.  But I think the industry will lean toward downloadable games, and that the market will grow for them.  The small games like arcade games and games from older systems have already been a hit.  People like being able to browse through a list of games and choose one to play, without having to leave their couch or chair.  You also see this trend with other programs, on computers.  Many programs are available for download only now.  Even big programs that many stores carry like Microsoft Office and the Adobe Suite are available for download.  You can go to their site and download the full product.  You have a trial period to try it out, then you have to register it, basically paying for it, but it's discounted because there's no packaging, no media, no printed material, no third party, no shipping.

The no packaging is another thing I think will drive downloadable items, whether books, games, programs, music, or movies.  One of the growing trends in America today is being "green", environment conscious living. Electronic media downloaded off the Internet uses less nature resources and creates less waste than packaged products.  I think this point will be one the industries will begin to push, playing off the guilt that the environmental organizations and the environmental industry has worked so hard to build.

Of course, the real reason they will push it is money.  Electronic downloadable products cost less.  You create it once and set it up for people to download.  No continuous manufacturing and shipping costs.  A data center full of servers is cheaper to run than a manufacturing plant that always needs raw materials.  One customer costs the same thing to provide for as six million, presuming your infrastructure will support it.  Every copy is almost pure profit after the initial investment, while with physical products, each copy has a cost associated with it.

The other money related reason is spontaneity.  If I have to wait until I have time, drive across town, look for the product, take it up and check out, and pay for it, I have lots of time to think about the purchase and maybe decide not to make it.  Also, physically doing so makes the purchase more tangible, more real.  Some people prefer this tangibility because the purchase seems more real like you're getting more for you money.  You bring something tangible home that is yours, while something electronic is more abstract, the same reason some people turn away from religion.  But for other people, that tangibility is the thing that makes them less likely to spend the money, also because it's more real.  But online, it's just a click of a button, much more chance of a snap decision.

The other side of the download trend is streaming.  Basically, the game would exist on the server, but would run on the console.  It wouldn't take up any disk space like the current downloadable games do, and it would be available wherever you log in, not just on your personal console.  With traditional games, if you go to a friend's house and want to play a game you own but they don't, you have to bring your disk with you.  This works fine.  But this isn't possible with downloaded games the way they work currently.  You pay for it and download it to your specific console.  Anyone on your console can play it, but you have no way to take it to someone else's house.  This is by design with downloadable games.  If you could download it to any console from your account and it worked for anyone on that console, you could buy it and download it, then go to a friend's house and download it there.  Then you go home and you can play it on your system and they can play it on their system at the same time, even though they didn't buy it.  The alternative paradigm is streaming games.

We've seen streaming in many other settings.  Internet radio has been doing streaming for years.  You connect to a website and either use a program or a plugin to play the streaming radio station on your computer or cell phone.  Video is also being done this way.  YouTube is a good example that's been around for a while.  A video can be embedded in a website and anyone can watch it on their computer.  More recently, Netflix introduced streaming, first on computers, and then on consoles.  You can connect to Netflix on your computer, WiiXBox360, or Play Station 3 and watch movies or television shows.  Streaming already exists with video games on computers.  There are many online games that you don't download.  One example is Evony, a medieval strategy war game I play.  I believe streamed games are coming to the console very soon.

With a steaming game, the game you bought would be tied to your online account, not to your console.  The disadvantage of this is that you would have to be connected to the Internet and logged on as that account to play the game.  With a physical media or download game, you don't have to be online to play, and any account can play the game.  The other disadvantage is if your ISP (Internet Service Provider) puts a bandwidth limit on you, playing the game uses bandwidth.  With a downloaded game, you use the bandwidth one time, then can disconnect unless you're playing against people online.  The advantage is that you can play the game anywhere.  While you can do this with a physical disk, downloaded games don't give you this luxury.

Another direction I see video games going is subscription-based games.  We already see this in the computer world.  Products like Microsoft Office allow you a subscription to the software.  You pay a per use, per day, per month, per year, or whatever, fee to use the software.  Depending on the terms, there are obvious advantages.  If you only need the software for a one time project, it's much better to spend a small amount of money to use it one time or for a short period than to spend hundreds of dollars to buy software you'll never use again.  For long term use, one advantage is new releases.  With a subscription, when a new version comes out, you don't have to pay for it, that's part of the subscription.

Movie rental stores like Blockbuster and Hastings have allowed the renting of games for years.  Many gamers beat games in a few days and a lot of games don't have much to do once you've beat them.  Renting the game is cheaper than buying it if you aren't going to play the game after a few days.  Also, until you play the game, you may not know if you want to buy the game.  Rentals gives you a chance to try it before you buy it.

But not everyone is done with a game in a few days.  It gets expensive to rent a video game for a month.  It's cheaper to buy the game, then sell it back for a small amount when you're done with it.  And many people do this.  One solution is to use a service like Gamefly.  Before streaming, Netflix made a name for itself with DVDs.  You pay a monthly fee and get a certain number of disks at a time.  You can keep them as long as you want and then send them back and get more.  If you watch a lot of movies, this is much cheaper than renting each movie.  Also, with Netflix, there are no late fees.  Gamefly took this idea and applied it to video games.

The disadvantage of services like NetflixBlockbuster, and Gamefly is you're limited to a certain number at a time, and you have to wait for the mail.  Once again, the "Give it to me now!" issue.  Netflix solved these issues by providing the streaming of movies I talked about above.  You want to watch a movie right now?  Stream it.  It's included in your monthly fee.  But games are different.  With a movie, you watch it once through in an hour or two (or longer for longer movies) and you're done.  A game could go for days or weeks if you're just playing through the storyline.  If you're playing some of the competitive or online elements, it's not over unless you get bored or move on to something else, as in games like Soul Caliber, Mortal Kombat, and Halo.  This doesn't work from a one time use model like Netflix or Microsoft Office.  Wouldn't it be nice to pay for a month of use for a game, rather than paying full price for a game you may never use again once you finish?

Subscription-based gaming is a solution to this.  You pay to use it for the amount of time you want, then don't worry about it when you're done.  No disk to sell back, no late fees.  And if it is combined with streaming, you can play your game wherever you want to.

The last direction I see video consoles going towards, which goes along with streaming and subscriptions, is toward cloud technology.  Companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are focusing on cloud technology in the computer world right now.  For instance, if you use the Google Chrome browser like I do, you can sync your settings to the cloud, to Google's servers.  You log into another computer, open Chrome, and log into Google Sync.  You get your plugins and applications, you get your settings and saved passwords, you get your bookmarks and history.  Another example is on my Kindle, I highlight something in a book or write a note about what I'm reading.  On a web browser, I go to their site and I can read my bookmarks, highlights, and notes, and can cut and paste them to somewhere else.  Also, my books are part of the cloud.  I get a new Kindle or want to read the book on my computer or phone.  I go to the archive and there's my book.  I download it and open it and all my bookmarks, highlights, and notes are there.  Cloud is the newest buzz word and trend in online computing.  Google's vision, as well as many others is for a day when everything is in the cloud and you can use any devise and any platform to access your stuff and run your programs.  The future is web based consoles and devises with as little as possible locally.

I see the cloud moving to consoles.  A bit of it is already there.  You can save snapshots on the Microsoft servers from your XBox360 and download them from a web browser.  Your game points are also already there.  I think in an update soon or in the next version of the consoles, this will be expanded.  Your saved games will be on the servers so you can load them at a friend's house.  Your subscription games and streamed games would of course be connected to your account and part of the cloud.  You snapshots and recorded game clips would be there.  All these things and many more would be available wherever you log in.  The obvious advantage is the portability, but also consider what this means if your system dies.  If you're gaming console breaks down like all electronics do eventually, or if you have a hard drive failure, you could lose everything.  With the cloud, it's all still there.  I foresee a sync system where all your content is synced to you system so you can use it offline, and synced to the server whenever you connect to the Internet.

All these elements I talked about I see as merging into one, the future of gaming consoles.

Bethany Kennedy
IT Professional

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