Can Console Gaming Survive?

The details on Sony’s latest generation video game system, the PlayStation 4, and its competitor, Microsoft’s new Xbox, haven’t been fully released. It is clear, however, from patent applications, to analyst speculation, that these new devices will shake up the way the public consumes games in much the same way consumption has changed in other media.

Sony hasn’t denied that gamers attempting to play pre-owned PS4 games will have to pay an additional fee. This suggests that the electronics giant is trying to move consumers away from aftermarket game sales and more towards digital distribution. Firing back, retailer GameStop says 60% of gamers it surveyed won’t buy a console that restricts used games. Is this a disaster in the making for hard-core gamers, or just a sign of the times?

Since the rise of the Internet there has been an industry-wide shift away from ownership of media towards access to media. iTunes, Netflix, Rdio, Hulu, and Spotify have large selections of content that users can access either permanently or on a month-to-month subscription basis. They offer support for multiple devices, a convenience factor that is unbeatable, and a peace of mind that, unlike with piracy, consumers are supporting content creators somewhere down the line. However, none of this is ownership.

Just to highlight what I mean, let’s look at a hypothetical example. Some inebriated fellow (no relation to your humble author), enthused after the Super Bowl performance, goes out and buys a Destiny’s Child retrospective. The following day, sober and with his wits again, our poor sap no longer finds the sultry tones of Beyoncé, Kelly, and Michelle appealing. What can he do? Unlike ten years ago when he would have purchased a CD, he can’t sell his album used, can’t share it with a friend who might actually like it, and certainly can’t get a refund.

Is this really such an unprecedented surprise? Since prehistoric times, for example, when our parents were growing up, people have gone to movies, concerts, and arcades and paid access for a limited amount of time with high quality entertainment. You can’t get a refund for a concert you disliked. Even within the home, many of our parents still pay large amounts of money to cable companies to access a list of TV channels every month, although that is slowly changing. On top of this, the whole idea of permanently owned consumer media – video games, vinyls, DVDs, you name it – is a more recent phenomenon.

What determines whether a service succeeds or fails is the quality of content and the convenience factor, not whether the user has ‘ownership’ of the content in a classical sense (although it factors in). Convenience is easy to solve; what quality content boils down to is exclusives and regional restrictions. Netflix has used some of its profits to fund the filming of a new season of Arrested Development and Kendrick Lamar’s breakout hit, Section.80, which was only available on iTunes.

On the other hand, regional restrictions have given many services unnecessary hassles. Want to watch the latest episode of Archer or Top Gear, you know, when it actually airs? Fat chance! Entire services like the aforementioned Spotify and Hulu haven’t even been able to come to Canada. This is an industry-wide problem. It really should have been solved by now.

Moving back to games, the videogame industry has been getting simultaneously more capital-intensive and creatively bankrupt. Like other media, games take veritable armies of staff and dependents to create. Unlike other media, with the demands of every successive generation of console, the hours of work required in making the average game increases massively. Every belt buckle, every scrap of newspaper floating in the wind, is there because somebody created it from scratch. Because of the level of costs involved, publishers go for safe bets – shooting games, sports games, etc. – that they know will deliver return on investment. I hope that increased funds will give impetus for more console-exclusive games, such as Mario and Halo, and that those exclusives will be more innovative (and fun!) game concepts like Angry Birds and Temple Run.

Will gamers be enticed into a new way of accessing their games? I don’t think gamers will mind; as long as the changes balance out the frustrations of losing out on traditional ownership with a selection and convenience factor unparalleled on other devices. Will the move be enough for videogame consoles to remain relevant in the face of a changing media market? This remains to be seen. These changes are expected – the remarkable survival of the PlayStation brand depends on it.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.

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