E3 has gone through some awkward palpitations over the past few years. From a PAX-like sprawl of every possible gamer in the 2005 to 2008 era, to cut-down shell of itself over the past two years, returning to some strange hybrid sales festival in the current, cash-strapped, times, its convulsions this year took a strange turn in showing exactly how desperate the console market has become in its attempt to stay relevant in the new era of mobile gaming.
I have to ask an honest question, outside of Nintendo's "check out this cool thing" designs, why do we still have consoles? Normally I'm quick to criticize Nintendo's shennanigans, but to be honest, they may be going in the right direction to stay relevant. Both Intel's Sandy Bridge series and AMD's new CPU-GPU hybrids offer solid gaming performance, and it's only a matter of time before someone gets the bright idea to integrate set-top box design with some kind of hyper-modern take on an Android-like gaming platform.
If you don't see the Google-Activision partnership as an eventuality, or some similar mash-up of publishers cutting out the current console juggernauts, you're not looking at the writing on the wall. The high cost of developing modern 3D games has lead to serialization. Mass Effect 3, Gears of War 3, Drake 3, Call of Duty 2012, Eldar Scrolls 5, Old Republic MMO, et cetera. And the big money is ultimately in monetizing those franchises on a monthly basis - the map pack is to an FPS what a monthly fee is to an MMO. In the case of Call of Duty, they will even be switching to a monthly fee.
In terms of networks, both Google and Activision already run successful cloud and server applications. Activision has expressed interest in cutting Microsoft and Sony out of the Call of Duty picture. Microsoft and Sony don't actually develop the chips the games play on, much of the middleware and development tools are contracted out to third parties, so what function are they actually serving in the console marketplace?
Software companies are paying licensing fees to Sony and Microsoft just to get their games on the shelves, they pay licensing fees on add-on content, and none of the monthly fees of services like Xbox LIVE go back to them. Meanwhile the hardware continues to become increasingly outdated, and the security breaches on both Sony and Microsoft networks, alongside an increasing public confusion on what the next Xbox / Playstation will actually offer, and I have to ask: will there be another?
It's an odd line of thought to pursue. In an era where people declared PC gaming dead, the PC devs switched over to Androids, cell phones, STEAM and free to play games that, to be frank, represent the largest are of success in the gaming market. The single biggest threat to console gaming right now is the new PC market, the one that's held within Android devices and tablets, the one that has exploded in casual games and people who literally own their Xbox for the yearly Madden / Call of Duty influx. There are Facebook games that could IPO for the entire worth of the gaming divisions at Sony and Microsoft... so it's a strange world we live in.
What is the future of the console?
What, and when, do Sony and Microsoft offer their next platform?
How would Sony and Microsoft deal with Activision deciding to cut them out of the picture?
I'll be frank, while I'm excited by new games always, the announcements at E3 this year were predictable and showcased what we already know. Software is king. Console hardware has become irrelevant. Gadgets are Nintendo's market (increasingly the Apple of the console world), and Sony and Microsoft continue to be clueless as to their place in the market. Kinect and Move obviously didn't do what they intended, and essentially we now have a Sony "we're sorry we can't get our infrastructure together" excuse chain only to be topped by a Microsoft "what the hell is our market again?" confus-a-rama.
Is it really hard to see the Sony / Microsoft console being replaced by a generic box? Is it hard to see a home docking station for a tablet or google software / whoever-wants-to-manufacture-it box? Is it hard to see open source middleware tied to an apps market being slapped onto Intel / AMD standard design chips and saying "See ya existing console market, the software is the only thing that matters and your platforms have become irrelevant"?
I've been an advocate of platform-less gaming for years, and to be frank, this year's E3 showed just how irrelevant devices, outside of gadgets (Nintendo) have become. I love my 3DS, but it's getting destroyed by the tablet market. The Vita won't survive the tablet / mobile market, and everyone but Sony seems aware of that fact.
What do you think? Do you see a future for Sony and Microsoft, or will they continue to become increasingly irrelevant? Did this year's E3 give you hope, or prove just how out of touch they've become with the current market?