Monday 24 June 2013

SOOG: The Eighth Generation

Time to finish what I started, with PlayStations and Xboxes and exciting original content. Maybe.

Recently I found myself at odds with the legendary ShadowMan over the fate of the fledgling Xbox One. To me, the very existence of this console represented an attack on gaming as a whole, but to Shadsy it marked a very different calling - evolution, convenience, matching interfaces, the needed aggregation of living room technology, and so on. And then Shadsy ate some human hearts and I dropped sarin canisters on civilians... though I might be remembering that wrong.

It was a time of great worry and stress, coming off the back of several days and weeks of widespread Microsoft rejection. The internet was queueing up to sleep with Sony and Japanese console dominance from November was expected. To me the situation was more than justified - PR failings made the Xbox One largely unmarketable, and the world had quite rightly taken upon itself to highlight these pressing concerns at every given stage.

The Xbox One had many concerning focal points - the license vs. ownership approach to products (and by extension, used gaming, borrowing and access for multiple users), the demands for internet connections, the watchful eyes of Kinect, the inferior specifications, the aesthetics, the price and of course the name. For all the good the Xbox One claimed to do, it was, by its very nature, a very divisive system - it divided Squirrels and Shadsys - and I was all set to make a big fuss about it... until Microsoft had the sense to U-turn. Now the attack on gaming has become an attack on my blogging plans, with post value decreasing by the day. But I'll continue all the same, because I'm unpredictable and crazy.

At one point things looked pretty bleak - used gaming had been under threat from the start of the year and Microsoft's plan to destroy livelihoods was far from encouraging. Things of course improved when Sony made their move at E3, and the Xbox One was subsequently exploited by the internet for being one of the worst retail products in human history. Now we're in a state of indifference - in an attempt to block offensive levels of stupidity and ignorance, we've settled for what is arguably mediocrity, and the fight to keep things analogue is delayed for a few more months.

Of course the real question is how you could have ever found the Xbox One new and tasty. It's something I'm struggling to answer, but there are certainly ways to explain some of this noise away. The Xbox One's view on television will likely benefit the US market, and some of the console's games could be considered attractive should you belong to their target audience. Popular platforms such as Steam are a thing, and although these services don't really appeal to me, emulating the works of Valve isn't a terrible idea. It could have gone down well... it just didn't.

It's clear that video game publishers are pressing for an ever closer union between consoles and PCs, which for many will be a good thing. The lines separating the two are already blurred, and I fully expect greater convergence in the future (likely in the form of a cloud-based streaming service). But the situation is not straightforward - many such as myself are happy to maintain the distinction, as the philosophies behind PC and console gaming can differ quite considerably. Ploughing ahead to unify the two (as a PC gaming-inspired service) suggests a failure to understand the console market, or a conscious decision to destroy it for whatever ill-informed reasons.

"Console technology" has indeed become a redundant phrase - an Xbox 360 for example is already a bespoke PCs reliant on internet access, but the understanding of software has, for the most part, not changed. "Installation" should be a dirty word on consoles - the very purpose of putting software on a disc is to avoid the chore of digital file management and the inherent awkwardness of PC gaming. The process is simplified to how you organise your non-restrictive physical shelf - compact discs are not a challenging and time consuming form of media (at least, not in this current age of often-slow download speeds), they can be distributed among friends with great ease and be preserved for the test of time. And as much as this industry tries to push for innovation and change, there's really no demand for their replacement amongst consumers.

Although having said that, high capacity SD cards would be better. Nobody has invested millions to address disc scratching - a valid gaming concern for twenty years or more. Loading times are apparently a fact of life too - it's all a bit senseless to me!

One thing is no doubt certain - vast parts of the Xbox One library will one day vanish due to their digital-only nature. Enjoying older books, films and television is not a taboo subject nor is it actively discouraged by big business, so we can reluctantly put more faith in iTunes and Netflix should we see fit. In video games however, this is simply not the case - there are already numerous recorded cases of servers being cut to save money, and this often takes perfectly playable video games down in the process. It's a risk you take when investing in the likes of Phantasy Star Online (if the title wasn't obvious), but to brick single-player experiences on the grounds that anti-piracy authentication has failed? It's a worry. Chances are you won't be able to play Forza 5 in ten years time, though you'll struggle a great deal more to explain why.

Many choose to avoid an entirely digital future for very sensible reasons, such as frequent travellers and those housed in internet black spots. DVDs and Blu-Rays are still an option to support those needs, and are actively consumed not just for the reasons stated above, but for the pride in owning physical products. Retail livelihoods also depend on boxed copies of games, and the existence of competition keeps product prices in check. A refusal to acknowledge differing habits while pursuing an agenda is never going to go down well with me - you might not be able to please everyone, but for £429 it's considered basic courtesy to try.

On the other side of the fence we have the PlayStation 4, a far from spectacular machine (we're quick to forget that) which achieves victory by merely standing still. This, along with Nintendo's continuing struggle for relevance leads to a sorry state of affairs for fans of hardware rivalry - though a de facto gaming standard is beneficial (and to some extent, a given), it's tedious when uninspired predictability is allowed to triumph.

Strictly speaking the PlayStation 4 isn't a bad machine, but it's still a hard one to advertise to the masses. Yes we have upgrades in technology - more polygons, better textures, higher resolutions and frame rates, but so far the games play much the same as always and their design is not dictated by these factors. Furthermore, in a market increasingly dominated by smaller, lower budget releases, the added horsepower may be negligible. Despite the stupid comments, Minecraft won't benefit from eighth generation console technology, and the increased production costs for triple-A developers means more risk and by extension, more compromises in software. We could be set for an even less varied, sequel-driven future than at present, so I hope you like looking down gun sights!

Structurally the PS4 console is largely the same as the PS3 - a dual analogue controller and a set of shooters on discs offering a similar set of services to its forefathers. 1080p, 60FPS gaming was a promise made back in 2005 - the eight year delivery time is perhaps a concern in itself and in many cases, we may be set to miss it once more. And again there is an erosion into the console way of life - more downloading and installing, less emphasis on physical media and a flurry of awkward social aspects with limited long-term value.

I'm not sure I need the ability to record gameplay footage - I was hoping for a more competitive pricing structure for software and an attempted breakdown of old stereotypes, indirectly opening up the market and forcing more variation amongst its produce. The priorities seem misplaced - used gaming wouldn't be a thing if games were actually affordable.

Nevertheless the PlayStation 4 can be seen as the console to unite the world, appeasing developers and consumers alike regardless of geography. I find it interesting as a product, but there are caveats - like the PlayStation 2, it is almost a system to support out of necessity, not of admiration - a political vote to send a signal to Microsoft that their plans weren't okay, and that recovery takes more than simply dropping a policy in the short-term. Because you can bet that a digital-only future is still on the table - the question is whether we can beat its later forms..

Lastly we have Nintendo, a company which has failed to put forward a competitive eighth generation machine and is increasingly reliant on the distant past. People with eyes will note its lacklustre E3 lineup of rehashes, some falling below expected graphical standards while appeasing few outside of the system's most hardcore supporters. Though the 3DS is surviving against all expectations, Wii U sales figures are abysmal, their recent announcements doing very little to reverse the downward trend. It's a system losing retail support and reversing years of gains - highly unusual to have two awkward failures on our hands.

I have no desire to write a running commentary on the Wii U's performance, but long term readers of Blog Squirrel will be happy to know that my predictions six months ago were very much on the mark (with one exception - there's nothing to play in the latter half of 2013 either!). I have of course come across my fair share of Nintendo enthusiasts, staining items of clothing at the thought of Mega Man in Smash Bros., but when most of Nintendo's E3 offerings neglect the GamePad entirely, you have to question what they're celebrating. It's not the graphics, it's the gameplay... except it's not the gameplay either and if it was... the gameplay is identical to what you've played already. Why must we invest in an extra console to play Donkey Kong Country Returns again - surely a third-party future is inevitable.

There are of course still many questions still to be answered about the upcoming console generation, most notably the impact of smartphones and tablets, and whether the ideas of Microsoft will seep through into this business at a later date. Some of it also harks back to the fundamentals - how is it the eighth generation of consoles if we can't adequately define generations two and three? And of course there's the very pressing concern - when's this Dreamcast 2 coming out!? It's twelve years late!

A one console future is a new concept for me so it will be interesting to see how it pans out, but please forgive me if I don't find this upcoming "console war" that riviting. As for this blog... it's not going anywhere, but it's perhaps best not to expect regular updates either.

1 comment:

  1. This is an inetersting comparison and contrast that you have drawn between different gaming consoles. I also agree that Xbox may not be able to compete with other gaming consoles due to its digital nature.