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If Michael Pachter, N’Gai Croal, and some random dude with sunglasses are good representatives, it seems that the impending console race between Sony and Microsoft will result in tepid, uncertain, and predictable machines which struggle to cope with an extremely agile and innovative digital market. Retail prices can’t go above $400, development costs for a game are ruining the business, and yet nobody will want to buy a new machine if it doesn’t soar above the current hardware and include cutting-edge technology. Where does that leave us?
A mere five or six years ago the jump to “high definition” was trivialized because of the expensiveness of HDTVs, as well as the unstoppable appeal of the cheap, dominating PlayStation 2. The timing of the current console race was premature, it seemed, but in the end it helped drive down the cost of high-definition displays and made Blu Ray the standard for HD movies, among other things. Today, the question of how to innovate is burning hot, and yet nobody seems to have answers.
Of course micro-transactions, digital marketplaces, and the internet in general are being hailed as the future by people who use the internet (big surprise!), with many declaring that physical media will die and the PC will be left as king — but this is stupid. Visions of an online world where fast, safe, and affordable internet can replace retail and physical media is just as unrealistic as a vision of the future where everybody gets clean water and three meals a day. Retail is important, physical media is logical, and the real problem has nothing to do with these things to begin with.
The real problem is the unwillingness to alter what it means to be a console.
This will need some explanation. Allow me to go into more detail as I give my own vision for what could and should be done with the currently upcoming generation of consoles, but would more likely have to wait for the generation after that; after a massive failure forces the industry to re-think its model, perhaps. Either way, it’s just food for thought, so take it for what it is and mull it over.
USB + installation replace discs and reading
Rather than using discs, I predict (and hope for) a shift to something like a USB 3.0 media. Games would still be shipped in packages, plugged into the system, and then either played straight off of the USB or installed quickly onto the large hard drive. Judging by top-rate PC games, which are already far ahead of consoles, reading off a disc is a primitive and senseless way to play “next generation” games.
Assuming that USB technology has room to improve, it would be best to have something beyond 3.0 that would deliver data transfer fast enough to bypass the need for installation, but a very fast installation would be acceptable by gamers if the difference it made was truly worthwhile. With all of these points, you have to keep in mind the absolutely necessity of worthwhile software to match; otherwise there’s no point in making a new console in the first place.
One important aspect of this machine would be the fact that its hard drive would be Solid State Drive, noticeably faster than traditional Hard Drives, and making the installation idea more appealing. SSD is the future of computer storage, and although its currently quite expensive, the PlayStation 4 (or 5) would be just the thing to drive down cost.
Personal computer type of OS
This one is obvious. The reason why people are willing to spend so much to have a great PC is because they use it for everything, feel attached to it, and allows them to be productive in ways that a multimedia device doesn’t; browsing, office suites, and the endless possibilities of installing programs makes it worth the cost. For this system, however, it might suffice to create a more user-driven experience, getting rid of the simple cross media bar and actually enabling users to organize, access and personalize their functions and data. A simplified PC experience, standardized across millions of units, is already what Android and other OS’ are doing, and it will be crucial for the next wave of consoles to recognize the importance of a strong, robust and open-ended OS.
Future consoles need to make the PC experience simpler, quicker and more entertaining. The PS3 and Xbox 360 emphasized multimedia initially, but with the astronomic rise of browser games, Flash games, and other apps, its clear that the OS of any machine will benefit from being compatible and open to new things. Sony is supposedly less strict about what developers are allowed to do on their system, needs to open the floodgates and let the creativity flow in; control doesn’t ensure greatness.
Allowing Linux was a good step, but Google’s Android would be a better fit for Sony. I believe Sony should hire or collaborate with OS developers in order to make their own alternative, and stop trying to revolve everything around basic multimedia management. Sony might be allergic to that kind of software development right now, but it would be a good time for them to partner up, because the firmware for the PS3 has been severely cutting the potential for the system short since it first came out; the PS Vita looks like it will finally add some basic features people have been asking for, but it’s painfully obvious that being a multimedia company focused around cameras, music, and movies isn’t going to be enough in the future. Apps are here to stay, and any system that can’t handle it is going to feel barren and dry by comparison.
The new PlayStation Store
This is where things would get revolutionary for the industry, if I had my way.
I believe that one of the biggest problems in the videogame industry is a disconnect between what gamers actually want, and what developers think gamers want. Spending tens of millions of dollars on “blockbuster titles” that don’t end up making profit is killing entire companies, and why should this be? Obviously they just don’t know what we want. The PlayStation Store has the potential to bridge that gap in a big way.
You may know about Kickstarter, which allows artists to pitch their idea for a project, set a funding goal, and reward those who funded them according to how much financial support they give. It’s designed to help creators get funding without having to go through the hassle of finding producers, sponsors, or self-funding. Two major projects I’m aware of are the Mojang documentary andKris and Scott’s Scott and Kris Show, but there are thousands of projects and millions of dollars being generated every week, proving that it works well. It’s the biggest funding platform for artists in the world.
Imagine logging on to the new PlayStation Store, checking out the “developer projects” section, and found that Kojima Productions was proposing to create Snatcher 2. Exciting news, don’t you think? The page would say that, if they reached their $10 million worth of pre-orders within 5 weeks, they would fund the rest of the project themselves, ship a copy to everybody who placed a pre-order when it was released, and then make the game available for sale to everyone like normal. To whet our appetites they release a short demo of the game for free, allowing to you see first-hand what the game would be like, along with concept art, interviews with Kojima and staff, and (like Kickstarter) special offers for those who choose to fund more than the minimum requirement; basically a special edition of the game. With a proven track record, a solid game demo, and hundreds of thousands of fans checking out the page, do you think they could reach their goal?
If even 200,000 people were willing to pre-order the game at $35 a pop (a reasonably cheap estimate for a full game, but this is to make a point,) and if 50,000 were willing to pre-order the special edition for $60 each, you would have your $10m goal. More likely than not, millions of people would be willing to pre-order the game after playing the free demo (assuming its a great demo, obviously) and the project would get funded within a single day. The chance to directly interact with developers, leave feedback, ask questions, and “vote with your dollars” would erase the problem of multimillion dollar flops in a matter of months. It’s also important to note that, unlike the projects funded through Kickstarter, for major developers it wouldn’t even be about the funding: it would be about gauging the true interest of the consumers, and the chance to pitch ideas to them directly. Marvel vs Capcom 3 was only developed because Capcom saw how far beyond their expectations the digital sales of MVC2 were; to hundreds of thousands of gamers it was obvious that there was demand, but to Capcom it was a great big surprise. Now they’re releasing Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 and discovering that the interest in the game was bigger than they ever imagined. The formula is proven, the technology is available, and the benefits are immense. The assumption that players would not be willing to pay for a game that hasn’t been developed is stupid, since millions of gamers buy new games based on little more than their first impressions and the company’s track record anyway. Bridging this gap would allow stockholders, boards of directors, and corporate executives see the proof of what people want, fast-tracking development of hot projects and putting an end to projects that don’t meet their pre-order goals.
As development costs continue to rocket upwards, the stakes are higher than ever, and if the next generation of games really does raise them higher, the risk of failure becomes paralyzing to anyone in the business. Predictable, “safe” sequels are the last resort of major companies who don’t want to bet the farm on new intellectual property, which, ironically, turns jaded gamers more toward indie developers and smaller games, where innovation can actually thrive. This problem is shaping the whole industry as we know it, and the new PlayStation Store would single-handedly create a relationship between the actual artists who make games, and the gamers who support them.
[Note: I’m not suggesting the store would be the sole method for funding games at all, it would be a voluntary thing for developers and, like Kickstarter, would only take anybody’s money if they managed to reach their goal. The funding/pre-order aspect has a deadline, and if it doesn’t reach the goal before the deadline, nobody’s money is taken.]
Payment and subscription model
Everybody knows that gamers don’t like to pay more than $400 for a new console no matter how good it looks, and yet a new machine has to push technology forward if it wants to gain interest — something that can’t be done at $400 a machine. I don’t think this is necessary, because I don’t think consoles should be sold like children’s toys anyway. We’re still using a business model for when the target audience was 8-year-olds begging for a Christmas present, not college-age people with credit cards. If you want to release an $800 system, let people pay it off on a monthly plan like they do with their phones.
I know it might seem like a tricky proposition considering that people a) don’t like being stuck in contracts, and b) have enough credit trouble as it is, but I also know that “core gamers” are among the most enthusiastic and spend-crazy demographics in the world and could make it work if the software was there to match –which it would need to be for the next generation of games to be worth the price anyway. The payment plan would double as a subscription to a new (highly improved and supported) PSN, including updates and patches to the new OS, access and discounts to the new PlayStation Store I detailed above, and free content in other forms; it would truly soften the blow. The real key, however, would be the low initial cost. Considering how powerful and innovative the system would be, buying it off the shelf for $150 would be a dream come true, and the commitment to a $10 a month subscription for ~5 years (with the option of paying it off earlier of course) would be an easy pill to swallow. Millions of gamers have been subscribing to the Xbox Live service for $50 a year despite the terrible value, and still got away with bumping the price up last November. Need I mention World of Warcraft, Steam’s sales, or the other countless ways that gamers shell out money for their pastime every month? A monstrous new console for $150 would guarantee five million sales within the first week.
I don’t think consoles need to be cheap, and I don’t think that they should compromise; I think that they have reached a point where they can afford to follow the example of smartphones. I don’t know about how subsidizing works or what kind of retail complications there would be, but I know it could be done. Online registration with some kind of proof of subscription voucher to show at retail? Specially licensed retail partnerships? I’m sure there’s plenty of options if they were dedicated, and they certainly should be. The PlayStation brand name, and the ability to lead and dominate, is invaluable if its handled correctly.
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