The 1990s. The Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive. The Game Boy and the Gamegear (or the Atari Lynx, if you like).
If you were one of the millions of people that owned one of former pair and one of the latter pair then congratulations, you still fit the bill of the traditional gamer who console manufacturers continue to target to this day.
You may scoff at the industry’s dependence on this ownership model but don’t forget that it has been hugely successful. And very recently too. 2008 was the video games industry’s most successful ever period.
Grand Theft Auto IV, BioShock, Metal Gear Solid 4, Fallout 3, Fable II, Rez HD, Left 4 Dead, Dead Space, COD: World at War, Far Cry 2, Civilization Revolution, Spore… The Xbox 360, Wii and DS were selling by the bucket load and PS3 was asserting its credibility. We felt like nothing could touch us.
Fast forward to 2013 and the industry is barely recognisable. Xbox 360 and PS3 sales continue to drop, the Wii feels like a distant memory. The 3DS, at least, threatens to achieve success although we must all accept that it will never, ever reach the heights of the DS. Our two newest platforms, Vita and Wii U, are struggling to get off the ground.
People have started playing games on their phones. And the games on their phones are getting pretty amazing. People are also playing games in a browser on their PC. For free! Discs are in rapid decline and folk are increasingly happy to get their software down their phone line.
Much of the industry is hopping on the spot like a school kid trying not to wee itself in anticipation of what we believe to be reasonably imminent hardware reveals from Sony and Microsoft.
But we really have to ask ourselves – are PS4 and Xbox 720 the answer to the questions being asked by the games market in 2013? You can reasonably argue that the dedicated handheld console market is dead. Perhaps the time has come when you can say the same about home consoles too.
Now, I’m not going to argue that any of the hardware we’ve seen announced at CES over the last couple of days (be it the Piston, Razer’s Edge, Shield or Valve’s own Steam Box) will emerge as a market-leading alternative to whatever Sony or Microsoft has to offer.
But the idea of a PC/Linux based market shared by a number of different machines? Yeah, I could see that usurping the status quo. Basically, the ecosystem – and why not the Steam ecosystem? – IS the new platform. The importance of the hardware used to access and consume this is distilled.
A lot of the misconceptions about PC gaming are severely out of date. Anyone who uses Steam will attest to its user-friendliness. It’s a wonderful system that almost entirely eliminates the stereotypical nasty’s that plagued PC gaming for years.
If you get a Steam Box and buy a game off Steam, it will work. End of. If Valve can achieve that statement, then it has a serious shot at disrupting the entire console model.
Steam offers so many advantages over consoles that’ it’s hard to know where to begin. The range of software is colossal. Triple-A hits and obscure indie titles sit happily side-by-side. And the frequent sales make a mockery of the lacklustre discounts offered on current console networks.
Yes, many of us already have our PCs hooked up to our TVs and play PC games on the sofa. The arrival of Big Picture mode, however, marks the beginning of a process that will make the PC’s transition from under the desk to under the TV feel wholly natural. And importantly, very user-friendly.
The idea of consoles falling out of favour may seem hard to accept to a generation such as myself that has grown up with the model. But all good things must come to an end.
Consoles and the walled gardens that platform holder build around them look increasingly redundant in an age where people are beginning to expect to be able to consume all their media on a dwindling number of devices. At one time motion control was sold to us as the reason to persevere with consoles but that lie has been well and truly rumbled.
Consumers are accustomed to channelling a wide variety of their media usage through their mobile phones, be it social networks, shopping, movies or music. And games have in the last few years very much been drawn into this group. For many there’s simply no need for a portable console when they already have a great one in their pocket.
As increasing numbers of people play games on their PC (be it social games on Facebook or competitive MMOs on browsers) their acceptance that gaming should be reserved for that 300 box under the TV is also being weakened.
The best shot PS4 and Xbox 720 have is decent, strong first party software. Certainly I’d hate to have missed out on the amazing first party offerings on PS3 in recent years and a similar showing on PS4 could force me down a similar path. But that’s a fine line to be treading. Publishing is an unpredictable business and both companies will have to absolutely nail it to stand a chance.
The industry was shocked and annoyed when Sony and Microsoft ditched their plans to reveal their next machines in 2012. That came at the cost of a shocking time on the High Street and the worst Christmas for games in a long, long time. But could their delay actually come at a far larger cost – the death of consoles themselves?
Dear me, 2013 is going to be fascinating.