Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Console Death Is Far, Far Away

It’s difficult to read through the stories on gaming news when the majority are about the business being in decline. Sales falling again for an 11th straight month. Consoles sales down by 25%. Even with the holiday season around the corner, prices are going to be slashed and that $59.99 game is no longer lucrative. To stay competitive in an ever-changing market, console gaming needs to adapt. However, to claim that console gaming is dying, like so many people are doing, seems premature when evidence is proving otherwise.
 
Everything in entertainment has a life cycle. From books, to theater, to television, everything has it’s peaks and valleys. Books became popular again with Harry Potter and the introduction of the eBook, after decades of wading in the water. Television hit its stride in the 90’s, but petered out by the time the internet took over. It’s still recovering and trying to play catch-up. Movies are in the same boat. Video games have held a high point for a good decade, and are now seeing the fall-off of their industry boom.

Console games are at that cycle where they need to change, adapt, and open up talent if they expect to survive. At least, that’s how I see it.

Games are becoming like 3D, which thank goodness is dying out again. 3D, or stereoscopy, has existed since the 1860’s via glasses that off-set the right and left image, so the brain has to fill in the missing pieces, thus giving the illusion of an image popping away from the screen.

3D was a big deal in the 1950’s, popularized by horror films and William Castle, who used other gimmicks such as placing buzzers in seats or pumping smells into a theater to get people more involved in the movie. 3D died out, and cropped up against briefly in the early 1970’s. And then it faded again, and jumped back up in the late 1980’s. Anyone remember the Michael Jackson experience at Universal Studios? Or the 3D Muppets? And then it died out again, and oh look! 3D popped up again in the late 2000’s.

Pet peeve: I hate that people call 3D a “new” trend. It’s not new. It’s over a century old and it never sticks around longer than a handful of years. I laugh at all of you that “upgraded” to a 3D television. I bet you feel silly now. Don’t you?

Video games in their young life have gone through that same cycle. When they first began in 1947, no one could have imagined what they would develop into. It wasn’t until we hit the 1970’s that it became a business. There was a minor crash in 1977 due to the flooding of Pong into the landscape. It picked back up again with Space Invaders. It happened again in 1983, believe to be the cause of over-saturation of the market with low quality products. Too many games that no one wanted to play. The market was cold for about 2 years, and picked up again by 1985. Since then, we’ve had a pretty steady stream from gaming. People seemed to have learned their lesson, but old habits do die hard.

The problem with 3D and why it’s not really sticking around, no matter how many times people try to reintroduce it, is that it’s still too much of a gimmick. People don’t see it applying to their reality in a way that makes sense. Its still “oh it’s fun to watch stuff popping out of the screen!” There is some new technology with the televisions and the glasses, but really that’s it. Even the 3DS was probably the best leap forward for innovation. 3D without the glasses? Score. But that’s it. They couldn’t properly integrate the concept into the games to make it a must have system. We want the system for the games, not the 3D.

Console games are hitting that point again in its life system. The market is over-saturated with expected and crappy products. Innovation is at a low. We’re not seeing anything new. It’s going to peter out. But it’ll be back again.

What will save consoles and games from stalling over the new few years will require them to break their current model. This is another problem unto itself. Ever see a company change their policies? It’s not easy and requires a lot of kicking and screaming. Most will die out before they realize that change is needed. Video game companies are no different. “We’re innovative but our heads are stuck up our ass. Yea!!!”

There are a couple of factors to be aware of when looking at how gaming companies can change their model.

First, and most obvious, is that social networking and game distribution for phones has completely taken over. People can get a game on their phone in just a few minutes for as low as $0.99 cents, or free even. It kills enough time that people can justify the spending of said $0.99 cents. They don’t have to buy the $399-$599 consoles, plus the extra controller, and the batteries, and the $59.99 game to play. They have their smart phone, which probably came cheap based on their rate plan. That’s all they need. That direct access to content has eliminated the need for extraneous product. Getting the game at a fraction of the time and cost is not only convenient, but appealing.

Which leads into the second issue, how to make the console more attractive. Now all three of the primary consoles, 360, PS3, and Wii, have been working to make the console a family unit. You can stream movies from Netflix, you can surf the internet, watch television, talk to your friends through Skype. Oh, and it plays video games. Xbox Live is showing that at least 40% of their users are going online for entertainment other then gaming.

The idea behind the console being a family system is fine. They are striving to make an entertainment unit so you don’t have to use your computer, phone, or other electronics. In doing so, gaming has become muddled. We’re seeing a lot of repeats of the same products. Nothing new or unique has appeared. Even with the developer tools Microsoft and Sony have been pushing, we’re getting more rehashes of classic games versus new product.

Issue the third: no new product.

Think about the last time you bought an original title. Go ahead. I’ll give you a few minutes.

This means a non-sequel. So anything from EA or Ubisoft is out of the question. That eliminates about 80% of your market in the U.S. right there.

Tricky isn’t it?

And if we’re not inundated by sequels, trilogies, and prequels, then it’s a copy/paste of the same game over and over again. How many Call of Duty clones are out there right now?
Too many to count. The last real innovative/original game I can think of is Flower, a PSN game. Something you have to have the system and download. When it comes to something you can purchase at a store, well, I couldn’t tell you to be honest. I’m sure there was one after Wii Sports, but I don’t remember.

We’re in an oversaturated market of copy/paste content. It’s not that all of the content is bad. A number of people see the merit of having so many Call of Duty games. And that’s fine. I personally think the franchise needs a complete overhaul. But when you can name off 14 Call of Duty clones without having to blink, something is wrong.  The market needs to be shaken up. People are starting to spend their money elsewhere on original content they can get on their phone. They don’t want to see more clones. They want something new.

And the 4th issue, no one likes paying $59.99 for a new game they may not like and only entertains you for 10 hours. Angry Birds, the free edition will guarantee you at least 20 hours of warding off boredom. Even the free-to-play model is becoming more lucrative of an option. 

People are more willing to start now for free, and pay for items later as they deem necessary. The Old Republic is going this route, falling in line with Lord of the Rings and other online MMO’s that have been raking it in after changing their subscription tactics. So what’s the benefit of a $59.99 game? Unless you’re a fan of the series, you don’t really know what you’re getting until you open the package. Apologies to the gaming magazines, but we can’t really take your word these days. We only know what we like, and we don’t really know until we play. I’d rather dump $5 on something that I may not like versus $59.99.

There will always be console gamers. I have been since I could hold a joystick. I’m not going to give up on them. However I have found myself not spending anywhere near as much on games as I have in the past. Every year there is the series of sports games (Madden, NCAA, NBA), first person shooters (if it’s not Call of Duty its Medal of Honor), and an RPG or two. We’re stuck. Gaming companies need to find ways to re-engage the audiences, provide new content, and not break our wallets.

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