The Upcoming Playstation 4: Can Consoles Survive?

The Duel Shock 4, the Playstation 4's new controller.
The Dual Shock 4, the Playstation 4’s new controller.

The title is deliberately provoking.  Consoles are probably not going to go away in this current generation and will be kicking around for a while but I will say that the golden age of consoles is probably over.  Without a radical transformation of the business model the console bosses (Nintendo, Microsoft & Sony) cannot continue to exist in their current form.

The Playstation 4 reveal last night went pretty much as expected.  The limited hardware that was shown was attractive, the early demos of games were beautiful and there was some potential for some innovative games coming from Jonathan Blow and Media Molecule.

The Witness by Jonathan Blow

Playstation 4 Games Reel

Here are some quick criticisms.  Some widespread, some personal.

  • They didn’t show the console – Are they not ready?
  • There were no female presenters – Really guys, really?
  • No pricing information or launch dates.
  • Games were pretty, but just looked like updated versions of the same FPS game play we have been doing for the last 10 years.
  • Some of the presenters seemed to poke at each other a bit, it was a little unprofessional

I’ve seen a lot of these presentations and in general they are pretty cringe worthy, especially when they are heavily scripted.  Nintendo is terrible at this, while their presentations have high production values the people themselves feel like a bad infomercial.  Sony’s was a bit better, but probably at the cost of the individuals presenters not coordinating enough with each other.  e.g. One presenter boasted about the number of model polygons while the next presenter made a big point about why that no longer mattered.  My livetweets of the presentation can be read here, in reverse order.  Playstation 2013 Live tweet session by Serious Play  You can also watch the presentation in its entirety here:

Here is where I am concerned.  The way that people use game consoles seem to have outgrown the consoles themselves.  I think it is apparent that I am a devoted video game fan, yet I probably use my game consoles for video gaming less than 50% of the time.  Other times I am engaged in more passive activities like watching movies of videos with my wife and children.  The console companies have this data and still the push hard on first person shooters that are getting more and more mediocre as time goes on, redundant game play with a higher resolutions and sharper textures.  The long term audience for these games are narrow and will continue to shrink over time.  Sony seems to have acknowledged this a little with attempting to create a unified gaming experience across console, portable and smartphone but there were so few details that I am not sure if I take them seriously.

You average consumer does not have the budget to spend $300 to $600 every few years on a new console with a intangible benefit other than having a shiny new toy.  Consoles will either need to last seven to ten years or figure out a way to be upgradable.  If they do then the line between a personal computer and gaming console will become blurred and we will end up with a branding issue.   Even more shocking is the announcement that as of right now Playstation 3 games and any games that you purchased digitally on the console will not be compatible.  Sony pushed you to invest money in the console and unless something changes that money is as good as gone.

Keep making people spend money without a significant entertainment return and they will continue to move to options like Facebook, smartphones or your competitors.  You can play games and watch movies on any of these devices and in a lot of cases you can do more.  This is a solvable problem but I am unsure if the will exists to do anything about it.  Initiatives like the Steam Box and the Ouya console  are already creeping in to the sacred space of the living room.  How will Sony compete with equally compelling experiences at half the cost?

Prototype Steam Box
Prototype Steam Box
The Ouya Console
The Ouya Console

People like to play and play consists of more than blowing things up and shooting bad guys.  I will admit that making an alien explode into jelly is amusing, but it can’t satisfy the entertainment needs of everyone or even for an individual 100% of the time.   Sony at the cost of some near term profits needs to invest in developers who are doing new and interesting things that capture new audiences.  There is no shortage of these companies, but Sony isn’t really taking advantage of them.

I believe pretty strongly in the value of a sitting on your couch, holding a controller (or standing up and waving your arms in the case of motion control) gaming experience.  there is a lot of fun to be had.  The direction consoles seem to be heading in is taking away some of that fun and I will be very sad to see it go or become less because Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft has forgotten what it is like to sit on that couch and just have fun.