The Words Don’t Serve the Paper: Are Consoles Running Out of Steam?

PS4-WiiU-X1 Controllers

Last week, in an interview with Edge magazine, Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami said, “We only need one console. Why do I have to make two versions of a game? And when Xbox One was first announced it had lower specs than PS4, but now they’re almost identical.” Considering the idea of a “console war” has been with the industry since the “bit war” days, and Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo have gone to great lengths to distinguish themselves from and disparage their opponents, it’s kind of a bold statement to make. And, perhaps predictably, the comments on the Edge article, as well as on sites like IGN and The Sixth Axis, are filled with polite and less-than-polite disagreement with Mikami.

Sifting through the usual back-and-forth over which console is truly the most powerful, some comments have decided to actually address what Mikami is talking about and the one comment I’ve seen the most frequently goes something like this, “Having one console, as Mikami proposes, would be bad for the industry. Competition between companies forces them to provide the best product to the consumer.” The gist of the argument being that the competition between Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo (although Nintendo mostly operates, for good or ill, as if they live in a universe outside of our own) ensures that the consumer gets the best product. But is the current business model for video games consoles healthy for developers, consumers, and games?

Many people found the Ryse Twitter account's casual attitude toward crunch time an alarming sign for the conditions of developers in the industry.

Many people found the Ryse Twitter account’s casual attitude toward crunch time an alarming sign for the conditions of developers in the industry.

I think it’s important to note that Mikami’s statements about the two upcoming next-gen consoles are made from the point-of-view of a developer within the industry, not the typical gamer. Clearly, Mikami’s concern is the stress and pressure that having two nearly identical, but separate, consoles to develop for puts on developers. In the same article, Keiji Inafune, the designer of Mega Man and creator of Dead Rising, sheds a little more light on the issue: “If you get down to the tiny details then maybe each is better at one thing than the other, but it doesn’t really impact the way you make a game. It’s not like PS4 or Xbox One are particularly hard to develop for. Quite the opposite: you can make whatever you want on either one, and that should be enough for anyone.” The problem isn’t figuring out how to port a game to the PS4 or Xbox One, it’s having to do it at all that Mikami has a problem with. Ridiculous budgets, unrealistic sales expectations, and, as recently demonstrated by the “#RyseFacts” mini-controversy, developers being overworked to meet deadlines are all problems in developing a AAA game, and having to deal with two consoles, despite being nearly identical, only compounds those problems.

In his Zero Punctuation: “E3 2013” video, Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw closes with a list of reasons why the forthcoming console market deserves all the ridicule he heaps on it, but one in particular stood out to me: “. . . The flagrantly anti-consumer culture of artificial exclusivity that has created a world in which games are expected to support consoles, in which artwork exists to serve the medium on which artwork is presented, as if the words of a great novel exist to serve paper. . . .”

This is how Yahtzee sees the Entertainment Electronic Expo.

This is how Yahtzee sees the Entertainment Electronic Expo.

Yahtzee’s argument is twofold: one, exclusives hurt consumers; and, two, console manufacturers using games to sell their consoles puts the “paper” before the “words”, so to speak. It’s not hard to see why exclusives hurt consumers. While the aforementioned internet comments would argue that exclusives increase the competition between consoles, it does mean that if a gamer wants to have certain experiences then they would need to buy more than one console. Not only does this require the consumer to shell out upwards of $500 two times to get certain experiences, but it also places an inordinate amount of industry (read: publishers, developers, press, and gamers of all types) focus on consoles and not games. If video games are a form of art then certainly there’s something backwards here. I mean, how much should the hardware actually matter besides whether or not it runs the game? The “console wars” are a by-product of this unnecessary shift of focus, where what you play the game on is made just as important as the game itself.

So what is the solution? I’m not sure I have one. I think an argument could be made to model the console space after the PC market, where all PC games can run on all PCs no matter the manufacturer of the hardware (that is of course if you have hardware capable of running it). Companies could produce lines of consoles with varying degrees in hardware specs and price. Only play 2D indie games and platformers? Buy the third tier PlayStation or Xbox for just a few hundred dollars. Want to play the latest big budget game to see just how real those explosions can look? Buy the first tier console for more than a thousand dollars. Manufacturers could give the consumers options while still maintaining the convenience that serves as the console market’s biggest draw. On top of that, competition between console manufacturers would still remain as companies try to give consumers the best hardware for the lowest prices.

I’m not sure exactly how a company like Nintendo would fit in because of their recent interest in new control devices, and getting rid of exclusives seems impossible without some outside force demanding it. Changing the entire console market isn’t exactly realistic and my idea probably has more than a few flaws in it, but, hey, I’m not a console executive. I’m just some guy who loves video games and I don’t want the paper to become more important than the words or the writers.

– Cam

Check out Blackman’N Robin and my blog every Tuesday for more stuff, and follow me on Twitter, @cam_wade37.


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