This week marks the beginning of E3, the largest video game tradeshow of the year. As usual, well be seeing the largest publishers pitch their newest and most expensive projects to gamers and investors alike. This is also a special E3, as it marks the start of a new generation of console gaming (regardless of how much Nintendo would protest). The launch of a new PlayStation and Xbox always grabs the attention of both gamers and the general public. However, this time is different. This time well be seeing an event that provides a bell weather not just for the fortunes of two massive companies gaming divisions, but also for the future of consumer rights in owning and consuming media and the ramifications it has for the preservation of art for future generations.
The future of console gaming is as blurry as this PlayStation 4.
The Tech Story
On the face of it, E3s PlayStation 4 and Xbox One events are going to be extremely exciting. Every gamer knows what to expect with new gaming hardware. We know well see new ways of interacting with games that take a massive fidelity leap over what weve been used to for the past half a decade, as we see with every console generation. The bundled Kinect and improved PlayStation Eye are promising. They make the promise of button-less, Minority Report-style interaction that much more palpable. They are going to acclimate the public to a new form of navigating content, and that technology is going to swiftly become more ubiquitous in the other devices that we use, both at home and at work.
Sure, the first few games arent going to be massive leaps over the previous generation. After all, most gamers are still going to be using the previous generations consoles for at least the next few years, so making Xbox One and PlayStation 4 exclusive games just doesnt make much sense for most companies. However, with Microsofts promise of 15 exclusive titles and Sonys pedigree of premium quality content for its own platforms, gamers are sure to be enchanted by the possibilities provided by the horsepower of these new platforms.
If that was the whole story, we gamers would be satisfied. New and better games are always welcome. Unfortunately, the bigger story is what news ISNT going to be given a huge presence on the show floor.
The Used Games Conundrum
The rumblings have been heard for over a year. Hints at changes that few would find appealing if ever implemented. Rumors that Microsofts new platform would limit the sale of used games and require an internet connection. On Xbox Ones launch day, much of these fears were confirmed. All games would now have to be installed to your Xboxs hard drive and the game would be registered to your account, effectively adopting much of the PCs modus operandi when it comes to games and other software. The resulting PR campaign was seen as a disaster by nearly all who witnessed it. Different executives gave different answers on how this strange new system would affect the way we buy, play, lend, trade, and sell our games. After several weeks, Microsoft managed to clarify most of its policy. The results arent pretty.
On the other hand, the Xbox One is clearly defined and gamers dont like what they see.
Games would have to be registered to an Xbox Live account and Xbox One console. Somehow, they could be shared with up to ten people on the same console, presumably family members who use the same Xbox. The Xbox would have to check every 24 hours whether the games registered were not in use on another console. Lending a game to a friend IS permitted, but that friends Xbox would have to check every HOUR to see if anyone else has activated the same game. You can sell your game back to a retailer, but that retailer would have to be officially registered with Microsoft. Different publishers would have the ability to affect how much and how a game changes hands.
If that doesnt clear things up for you, then youre not part of the minority. The reaction to this policy has been completely negative. Gamers are worried about their ability to pay for next generation games, as many have relied on their ability to borrow from friends and get credit from retailers to purchase more games. The internet requirement might seem trivial to many of us gifted with consistent broadband availability, but it is troubling for another reason that Ill visit later.
So, now everyones looking at Sony. Does the PlayStation 4 have such restrictions in place as well? Hopefully E3 shall clear things up. The two ways that this can go down for the two console manufacturers, assuming no about-face by Microsoft?
Sony announces much less stringent policies for the PlayStation 4
Lets assume no requirement for an internet connection to play games. Sony loudly trumpets their less draconian policy at their E3 conference, prompting great cheers from the theater audience and gamers around the planet. Investors see the positive outpouring on the internet and start piling onto Sony stock. The hardcore gamers who lead each console generation in buying new, expensive hardware (marketing 101s early adopters, in other words) buy the PlayStation 4 in droves. The Xbox One is on the ropes, being seen as a less capable console and unable to appeal to a wider audience due to all of the negative press and commentary by the more hardcore. The Wii U gets a boost as it is the most consumer-friendly of the three.
The entire generation looks to be set for a reversal of the Big Threes fortunes, with Sony on top, Nintendo gaining momentum, and Microsoft flailing and desperately attempting to refocus its console efforts.
Sony quietly announces the same online requirements
While its difficult to say exactly which of the Xbox Ones requirements draw the most ire, a PlayStation 4 that adopts many of the same policies would not be met with open arms. While it would be easy to say that Nintendo would benefit from all of this and shoot to the top in terms of respect, it would be beneficial to take a more holistic view of the industry.
Console sales are down. Console game sales are down. The entire traditional gaming industry has been waiting for the launch of a new generation to jumpstart sales. But what if both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One crash out of the gate? Massive publishers like EA and Activision have bets on the success of these platforms baked into their investments and stock price. They are all assuming the same gamers are going to buy these new consoles and these new games. But gamers are an impatient bunch. If they see better pastures, theyll abandon what theyre used to for cheaper experiences on other platforms. All of us have a PC and/or some kind of mobile device, so our access to quality gaming experiences isnt exactly dependent on owning the newest video game console.
The worst case scenario sees dismal sales for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The Wii U picks up, but only because of the loyalty of Nintendo fans and availability of new quality Nintendo games. Owners of consoles buy less and less games on traditional platforms as the rate of graphical and gameplay enhancement has essentially stalled. More and more people migrate to PC, Steam, iOS, Android and a host of other platforms that games are available on. Layoffs occur at the giant publishers as they find themselves without stable revenue. Gaming loses its unified voice and the support net that funds massive projects that raise its profile disappears. While some may argue this might benefit indie development, no entertainment industry has done well when its big guns were silenced.
Would we see another Destiny-scale project if console gaming loses its luster?
Of course, the worst case scenario is never likely to happen. But imagine a gaming industry crippled by anemic sales of these new consoles. It could happen, and it could change the industry forever. Instead of a Big Three providing a loudspeaker for gamings status as a legitimate entertainment industry, we get a large number of small players that fight for the scraps or domination by a big few that take all of the profits. If anythings guaranteed, its that this E3 could signal a massive shift for the gaming industry and the end of traditional gaming, for better or for worse.
As for me, Ill be playing The Last of Us this week and ignoring its chillingly relevant title.
Stay tuned for Post-E3 reactions and my thoughts on what Microsofts (and maybe Sonys) new requirements would mean for societys treatment of gaming as an art form and the preservation of that art for future generations.
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