The Blog

Apocalypse Next Gen - The Console War Gets Ugly

Rather than too many consoles hindering the development of future technologies and eating into profits, we're now faced with a situation where two behemoths, Sony and Microsoft, enjoy near total domination of the market.

It was recently announced that a games studio has tasked themselves with resolving one of the most enduring myths of video game lore: they're going to trawl the deserts of New Mexico in hope of finding the landfill that holds thousand of unsold copies of E.T. for the Atari 2600. Less of a King Tut's Tomb and more of an Al Capone's vault, they're not expecting to find a treasure trove. E.T. is almost universally regarded as one of the worst games in history, a series of indecipherable pixels and bleeps that resembled the beloved childhood film about as much as Mario Kart resembles Friday night rush hour on the M25.

That this excavation has coincided with the latest round of next-gen console wars is timely to say the least. E.T. was both emblematic and causal of the 1983 video game crash, when the combination of an over-saturated console market and a lack of control over publishing brought the booming industry to a juddering halt. Is this crash about to be repeated? No. But the gaming landscape could be about to undergo an upheaval of similarly seismic proportions.

Rather than too many consoles hindering the development of future technologies and eating into profits, we're now faced with a situation where two behemoths, Sony and Microsoft, enjoy near total domination of the market. Nintendo increasingly battles against the tide by trying to exploit ever-narrowing niches, and former juggernauts such as Atari and Sega are little more than second rate developers, desperately whoring out their dying franchises to anyone and everyone who'll take them.

Of course, game sales have never been higher. However, whilst these numbers dwarf those from previous generations (the current generation is responsible for gaming shedding its ubiquity with spotty teenagers sat in darkened rooms and entering the mainstream), they fail to reflect a less tangible loss. Just as with the advent of the blockbuster film in the 1970s, the money is now so big that the incentives to try something new or innovative are simply not worth it. The release pattern for the perennially popular Call of Duty series is indicative of an industry with profits on the brain; studios Infinity Ward and Treyarch alternate games, despite Infinity Ward's being frequently better received, in a classic case of profit margins (ensuring a new installment every year rather than every other) taking precedence over quality.

Online gaming has inadvertently created a sort of intense peer-pressure, where if you don't update your game and your friends do, you'll be left by the wayside, forced to plow a lone furrow online or stroll through increasingly short and irrelevant single player modes, meaning such short time frames between new games goes largely unpunished, no matter how much individual players may begrudge it.

And so we reach the latest generation of consoles. Nintendo's effort, the Wii U, was released not with a bang but a whimper, a far cry from their runaway success with the Wii. Whilst the cheap-and-cheerful reputation of the Wii was powered by its potential as a pick up and play party console, the Wii U appears to be one gimmick too far, with the hugely popular motion controller being replaced with a tablet-like controller that is both cumbersome and afflicted with poor battery life. The fact that the console was released with next to no major titles marked the end of a dramatic transformation for the Japanese company, from non-nonsense consoles with the emphasis on solid games to one with more than one eye on how they can again upset the odds.

Nintendo's woes are just the tip of the iceberg. With loyalists being forced to look elsewhere for a dedicated gaming system, they're forced into a choice between the old enemy, Sony's Playstation, and relatively new kid on the block, Microsoft's Xbox. The Xbox One has already come under some severe flack for Microsoft's emphasis on the system's capability as an all encompassing media player rather than a dedicated games console, particularly as many of the features showcased so far will be available exclusively to the American market.

However, these are mere gripes compared to the Xbox's bigger issues. Digital rights management, and consumer's rabid (and understandable) aversion to any form of restriction, were perfectly demonstrated with the firestorm that greeted Sim City's release earlier this year, and it appears that Microsoft have taken the universal revulsion at the Draconian measures placed on gamers as a reason to implement a similar system themselves. Microsoft's announcement of their highly restrictive anti-piracy software and the need for the system to connect to the internet once every 24-hours to function could not have come at a worse time, with revelations of the US government covertly collecting information on millions of citizens sending sales of George Orwell's 1984 rocketing. The Kinect, a motion and audio-sensing add on for the console has been transformed from a family-fun themed party accessory to a little Big Brother in the opinion of many.

With the Xbox dressed to the nines in non-gaming features, Sony have seized the initiative, doing the obvious thing and appealing to the gaming community increasingly disillusioned with consoles apparently designed to do everything but game. It's indicative of the astonishing backlash faced by Microsoft that Sony announcing their system allows friends to freely trade games and sell to any retailer you fancy - things that gamers have been doing unthinkingly since the first home systems came into existence - was greeted with a reaction befitting the discovery of fire or the invention of the wheel.

Sony have struck the first blow, and, if the overwhelming reaction of the gaming community remains once the dust has settled, it may well already prove to be a decisive one.