This is going to be a weird one. As we head into E3 2016, the console games industry is undergoing seismic shifts that will change its course radically and forever. But there’s a good chance the tip of this looming iceberg will barely break the glossy surface of the annual promotional whirligig in Los Angeles. If you’ll forgive the mixed metaphors, that’s one hell of an elephant in the room.
Or three elephants: three new games consoles from the three major players, all of them coming years before you would expect this hardware generation to draw to a natural close, and none of them quite like anything that has gone before.
Nintendo’s NX-it strategy
Nintendo has announced that its next console, codenamed NX and due for release as soon as March next year, won’t be appearing in LA. Its attempt to fill this conspicuous hole with a single game (the next Legend of Zelda) and a lot of Smash and Splatoon tournaments will be the most visible symptom of change happening behind the scenes at E3 this year, but it may also be the least significant for everyone else. Nintendo is a law unto itself these days, and to some extent an industry to itself. Wii U has been a failure, turning Nintendo’s home console play from disruption to irrelevance. 3DS has sold well, maintaining the firm’s iron grip on the dedicated handheld console market, but the declining relevance of that market in the face of smartphone gaming is impossible to hide.
I have a long-held rule: never underestimate Nintendo. A perennial outsider since the halcyon days of the NES and SNES faded, it has nevertheless consistently confounded its critics and bounced back with innovative hardware and brilliant games, batting away every prophecy of its doom or snigger at its apparent naivet. It has huge cash reserves, priceless properties that have lasted for generations, and, still, one of the very best game development teams on the planet.
Even so, it’s not hard to see NX as a last throw of the dice for Nintendo as a platform holder and hardware manufacturer. It’s boxed in, losing casual gamers to Apple, kids to Minecraft, gamers to Sony. The rumour is that NX will be a hybrid portable home system that synthesises Nintendo’s console and handheld businesses in a single unit, which makes sense but also sounds like a rearguard action – especially in the context of the company’s recent, dramatic swing from appealing to the broadest possible market with Brain Training and Wii Fit to selling figurines and exotic imports to its most dedicated fans.
More to the point, Nintendo has already begun working on its backup plan. It has started the painful process of becoming a third-party software developer with its push into mobile games. The release later this year of Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem games for smartphones – surely laying the groundwork for Mario and Zelda to follow – is just as significant as NX, if not more. It’s Nintendo acknowledging that its future might lie in making games for other people’s machines. (Those crucial games won’t be at E3 either.)
If this mobile push is a success – which is far from a given – then Nintendo will find itself in the unusual position of having managed a transition both PlayStation and Xbox have tried in the past, but struggled with. Two transitions, in fact: to the cutthroat world of smartphones, and beyond that, to the platform-agnostic tech present, where software doesn’t live on a particular piece of hardware – it lives everywhere.
Microsoft is talking loudest about this shift at the moment, although it’s having trouble getting its lines straight. The strategy behind Xbox’s link to Windows 10 seems clear until you hear a Microsoft exec talking about it, at which point it has a tendency to recede into a fog of doublespeak and bet-hedging. But it’s basically this: there’s no reason Xbox has to be restricted to that one box under your TV (especially when it’s not selling as well as hoped) and there’s no reason it can’t live on PCs as well (especially after Microsoft woke up one morning to discover it had ceded control of PC gaming entirely to Valve).
It’s a difficult move for the Xbox community to swallow; the implementation has so far been underwhelming; and it surely comes far too late to put a dent in Steam’s dominance on PC. But in the face of shrinking console market share and an increasingly fluid tech landscape – where people are used to taking their conversations, documents and TV shows seamlessly from one device to another – it has a strong component of good sense. Expect Microsoft to talk about it a lot on Monday, and all its major first-party games – Gears, Halo, the lot – to go cross-platform on Xbox One and PC forthwith.
Which brings us to the more powerful Xbox One – let’s call it Xbox 1.5 – that Kotaku has reported will arrive next year, possibly in partnership with the Oculus Rift VR headset. It’s a logical extension of the Windows 10 move: if you are freeing your games from a specific hardware configuration anyway, why not improve the hardware? In fact, there are signs that Xbox One was engineered for this from the beginning, with its Virtual Machine setup that theoretically allows easy forward and backward compatibility. Earlier this year, Xbox boss Phil Spencer all but confirmed this plan (later issuing a far from definitive backtrack).
The prospect of this machine is given extra spice and logical force by the current Xbox’s performance deficit to PS4 which, as slender as it is, has been so damaging to Microsoft’s plans. If Microsoft is going to stay in the console game, it needs it – and if it’s pluralising the Xbox platform anyway by putting it on Windows PCs with no fixed spec, it may as well.
So that’s Microsoft’s motivation. But what’s Sony’s?
PlayStation Neo realism
At this year’s Game Developers Conference, Kotaku broke the news that Sony was briefing developers and publishers on a more powerful “PlayStation 4K”, codenamed Neo. It soon emerged that this machine was a surprisingly imminent prospect, due later this year or early next. Yesterday, Sony confirmed the machine was real but would not be shown or discussed at E3 – which clears Microsoft to take a similar tack. Both companies are in an awkward spot: they could do with clearing up the leaks and taking control of the message, and would probably like to win headlines from each other, but the more they reveal about these superior consoles, the more damage they risk doing to sales of their current hardware. So both of them will be saying and showing as little as they possibly can.
As Martin wrote yesterday, the case for PlayStation 4K isn’t easy to make from a gamer’s perspective, and it’s not that clear from Sony’s either. Support for 4K TVs, which are getting more popular, is one consideration, but the benefits for games will be very marginal without an astronomic increase in processing power. Perhaps, like Xbox and Oculus, Sony has an eye on the burgeoning virtual reality scene and its hunger for graphical grunt, but PlayStation VR is surely designed to run fine on a vanilla PS4. (So we’ve been told again and again, anyway, and so we hope.)
More likely that Sony caught wind of Microsoft’s plans to introduce a mid-generational console upgrade and got drawn into an arms race with its rival. Given the overtly technical tenor of their competition this generation – frame for frame, pixel for pixel – that seems plausible.
But I believe this move has been a fait accompli for both players from long before the start of this generation.
The last console generation?
The console business is old-fashioned. With its monolithic hardware cycle – whereby platforms are scrapped, re-engineered and resold every five to ten years – it’s still walking to the rhythm which Nintendo, above all others, defined in that early-90s heyday. It is, fundamentally, a retail business. It’s about razors and razorblades, about licensing deals, about shipping boxes.
But over the last decade or so, since the launches of Xbox 360 and PS3, everything has changed. Digital distribution of entertainment and software has skyrocketed – led in games by Steam, which managed to make the notoriously arcane world of PC gaming user-friendly and seamless across a bewildering range of devices. At the same time, game makers started to complain of the onerous cost and diminishing returns of keeping up with huge step changes in platform. First Microsoft and then Sony opened subscription services on their consoles that rapidly became their steadiest sources of revenue. And both must have watched with envious astonishment as Apple, Samsung and other smartphone manufacturers convinced people to upgrade their expensive tech gadgets, not every five to ten years, but every two or three. The average consumer’s willingness to spend on upgrading technology increased so comprehensively over this period that when PS4 and Xbox One were released, they both outsold their respective predecessors at an incredible rate.
Phones and tablets, Apple’s in particular, also showed that it was possible to move to an upgrade culture without completely sacrificing the reliability and ease of use offered by a fixed platform. As long as strict rules were set for developers to ensure a window of software/hardware compatibility that was broad enough, and reliable enough, users would upgrade. They might grumble about it, but the phones would sell, the user experience would steadily improve, engagement with the software would deepen, and money would continue to flow.
These two consoles were always going to be the endgame; Xbox 360 and PS3 were always the last fixed platforms either manufacturer would make
In that context, the move to a post-generational console era seems inevitable and, in business terms, necessary. It’s definitely not without sacrifices – especially for console gamers, who must allow upgrade anxiety and peer pressure to creep onto their previously level playing fields, and who will ultimately end up spending more on hardware, more frequently. It’s a pain for developers too, who must accept the headaches involved in supporting and optimising for two – maybe, one day, three or more – variations of a single platform. It’s also worth pointing out that, if smartphones are indeed the model, that market is already showing the warning signs of slowing growth and innovation.
But if it’s not prepared to make these changes, the entire console sector risks making a dinosaur of itself. Publishers will grumble about keeping up with these complicated and relentless new arrangements, but they would grumble louder about another expensive leap into the unknown in five years’ time. There’s a chance they wouldn’t take it at all – something that must be at the back of Sony and Microsoft’s minds. I believe these two consoles were always going to be the endgame, and that Xbox 360 and PS3 were always the last fixed platforms either manufacturer was going to make.
E3 or not E3 – that is the question
How will developers handle this change? How much better will games really be on Xbox 1.5 and PS4K? How will tens of millions of early and not-so-early adopters feel about it? Will Sony and Microsoft convincingly frame the sales pitch for these machines? Where does NX fit into this – and how much appetite does Nintendo, the most traditional and retail-focused of the three businesses, have for this brave new world? The air in Los Angeles will be thick with these questions this week. But it seems that no meaningful answers to them will be forthcoming.
E3 itself is a marketplace: a giant, noisy trading floor, created and shaped around retail buyers as much as media or gamers themselves. It is the ultimate expression of the old-school console industry that is now on its way out. Its defining moments have always been new console reveals, so it’s shocking that three new consoles now look set to take their bows elsewhere.
It may be a simple matter of timing that none of the platform holders want to discuss their most important plans in this venue this year, but it may also be that it’s not the right venue any more. The show floor is increasingly a vestigial attachment to the publishers’ own livestreamed showcases, with less relevance and impact, and conspicuously lacking their most exciting content. And those showcases can be held anywhere, at any time. In short, E3 is going to have to adapt fast to this new console industry – this new, post-generational era.
Aren’t we all?