Are Consoles Losing The Accessibility That Defined Them?

I’ve been meaning to talk about this here for a while but other subjects got in the way. If I haven’t said it on this blog, I think the main change that occurred in the experience of console gaming over the past hardware cycle is that it became more like PC gaming. That’s brought a lot of evolution to the table but I think it’s also starting to erode some of the reason people even buy consoles.

If you watch The Escapist’s Zero Punctuation, it has several times now called the PS4 and Xbox One essentially crappy PCs that are holding a handful of games hostage. Whatever you think of that description, I think it’s pretty valid to say they are more like PCs than ever, as were the PS3 and Xbox 360 when they hit the market. In my opinion this affects the foundation of the experience of consoles because they’re typically made for people who don’t play PC games. It’s not just consoles that changed though, PC gaming has also come from the other end and become a lot more accessible than it used to be. Just compare the process of buying and first starting up a game on a PC vs a console these days.

On both you have the choice of either getting a disc or downloading the full game, on both you have to spend several minutes installing the game, and then perhaps patch it before finally getting to play. And on both you’ll probably have to keep patching the game as updates are released as well as possible download additional content. Performing all these actions also feels about equally easy on consoles versus PC today (largely due to efforts on the PC side like Steam). If I’m not mistaken the only real difference from a software standpoint is on PC you still have to deal with the occasional driver problem and mess around with graphics settings.

Compare that to say, the 90’s. You’d buy a cartridge from the store, slam it into the machine, and turn the power on. This is a main reason why I still have an NES hooked up right now. It was easy to see a primary reason why people bought consoles because first time setup for a PC game involved installing disc, inputting a CD key, and trying to track down patches on third party websites. PC gaming was very obviously for power users. Now it’s not so clear. The only real obvious differences I see today are the obvious difference in hardware cost and the preference for controllers or keyboards (and PCs are so easy to connect to TVs these days).

Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, Nintendo has become the oasis in this situation. Recently Zero Punctuation expressed sympathy for Nintendo’s current woes, calling the Wii U “an actual game console.” You can still just put the disc into the Wii U or the card into the 3DS and play, barring patches and DLC on the Wii U side (they exist on the 3DS but are still rare).

By and large I think the recent advancements are necessary, but console manufacturers shouldn’t forget the whole purpose behind consoles.  They’re aimed at the audience that just wants to sit down in front of a TV and play games without worrying about how they work. Instead people on forums today complain about patches, installs, and DLC.

I think in some ways Nintendo has used the advancements of digital distribution and local storage to make things more accessible, not less. I can open my 3DS right now and immediately tap on the icon for Fire Emblem, Monster Hunter, or half a dozen Virtual Console games (the same is probably true of the PlayStation Vita). That of course doesn’t excuse Nintendo’s failings in other areas of digital. The PS4 and Xbox One have standby mode I hear, but I also hear those features aren’t completely ironed out. Meanwhile, the mobile gaming sector has hit the digital accessibility nail on the head, and as a result is siphoning the mass audience away from consoles. iOS and Android have made acquiring, installing, and using software easier than ever before.

To be fair, the PS4 and Xbox One are a notable leap from their predecessors in that category. Patches are automatic now, they try to have standby modes, and playing-while-downloading is a feature you still can’t find anywhere else. At the same time PC gaming is right there with them, and had to start much further away. There’s still some ground to cover, probably starting with getting standby mode working flawlessly on consoles (isn’t this something Nintendo’s working on?). A good goal is to reach where mobile devices are now: you hit the wakeup button, you hit the software you want to run, and go.

When it comes to making software shopping accessible to consumers Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo seem to face the most challenges. People have written what seems like volumes on Nintendo’s problems so I won’t go there. Sony and Microsoft are still hamstrung by retail which probably keeps them from aggressively promoting and improving their digital marketplaces, a problem PC and mobile don’t have, which is why getting software is becoming cheaper and easier on those platforms. Who knows how long that’s going to last.

I think ease of access is a real imperative issue for consoles right now. They’re under assault from a new, far more accessible alternative drawing away casual consumers on one end, and PC has become far less of a headache for power users on the other end. So far only the early adopters have bought the PS4 and Xbox One and we don’t know how quickly others will follow, though Xbox One January sales are already a huge drop-off from the holidays.

BULLETS:

  • All that said, as I type this there seem to be some good digital sales going on for consoles right now. Xbox Live is having a wide sale with some really good deals, and Rockstar is doing a PSN sale right now that shouldn’t be ignored.
  • But Call of Duty Ghosts is also free-to-play on Steam for this weekend and half-off to keep, so console digital distribution isn’t quite there yet.
  • Apparently the Viking apocalypse might be going on as you read this. http://t.co/pbHRcIjQf6
  • Kill Screen did an article about Barkley. shar.es/FsOY6
  • IGN has a pretty good article on Final Fantasy XIII’s (few) virtues.
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