Thursday, December 20, 2007

Consoles

I am not a console game player--why, when I have a fine PC?--but I have been impressed with the ideas behind the Wii. The other day I had my first chance to actually play the Wii, which strongly confirmed my point of view.

I need to tell a story about my "worst prediction ever". After the crash of video gaming in the early 80s, I supposed that there would never be another video game console comparable in popularity to the Atari 2600. Because cheap computers, particularly the Commodore 64, could do everything a console could do and lots more, at a similar price. Obviously I was wrong, as the first Nintendo machine revived the genre.

What happened? I underestimated the buying public's fear of computers. In particular, I think parents buying game machines for their kids feared having to cope with a keyboard machine. And we have since seen a long succession of consoles dominate home gaming.

Nowadays, we have expensive consoles that are computer wannabes, the PS3 and the XBox360. Both are "frozen" technology, when compared with PCs. I still don't know why anyone would want to bother with an expensive computer wannabe that cannot be upgraded practically, when you can play on a much more versatile PC. Yes, the game software often isn't available for a PC; but in my particular case, the games I like to play (strategy wargames) are made for the PC to begin with.

What we have in the Wii is a throwback to the days when consoles were simple family fun, when people played consoles yet were afraid to deal with "complicated" computers. The new controllers allow gameplay that you just cannot have on a PC (or competing console) at present. The entire "ambience" of the Wii is that it's a fun thing to do with other people, not alone. That it's a game machine, not a technology machine. That it's for the casual player, not the hardcore type. My recent exposure at a party for a game club, with four playing at once, confirmed every one of those impressions.

So if I were going to buy a console, it would be a Wii, not a computer wannabe. (Though I can see buying a PS3 for the Blu-Ray, I'm not sufficiently into high definition movies to bother--upconversion from a progressive scan DVD is fine with me.)

My experience with game development students is that most of them are very hard core. A major task for the instructor is to convince them that they are not typical, and that they cannot plan to make games only for the hard core. The growth in games, in my estimation, will be in casual games, the downloadable games for PCs and games on such services as Xbox Live. And in simulations. NOT in AAA list games that are prominent in Best Buy or Circuit City. The Wii is selling as fast as Nintendo can make them, much faster than the competing consoles. There's a big market there, and game students need to be aware of it.

4 comments:

Ian Schreiber said...

There's more to the success of consoles than technophobia.

First, if you compare the cost of a gaming PC with a console, the PC is still far more expensive. (Yes, you can buy a Pentium III 600MHz for the cost of a Wiimote nowadays, but I doubt it'll run Bioshock.) Heck, the cost of a high-end *graphics card* is comparable to that of a new console. Yes, you can upgrade your PC, but it's just as expensive as buying a next-gen console. I'm not seeing the cost savings here.

Second, there's control scheme. Mouse/keyboard is great for certain kinds of games (it was practically MADE for RTS and FPS), but for others a game pad with buttons and analog sticks just feels so much better. Yes, you can buy PS2-to-USB converters nowadays, but not all games support them, and these kinds of things weren't widely available until fairly recently.

Third is the social aspect of play. A PC is optimized for single-player, you right near the monitor. If you want to play with a friend, it's gonna be online. LAN parties are fun, but a pain to put together and they're kind of an unnatural hack around the limitations of the PC. Consoles, meanwhile, are optimized for living-room use. There's something to be said for the experience of sitting on a couch flanked by two or three friends, all playing on the same screen. It's like the difference between playing Hearts or Spades in person across a table, versus playing online -- sure, Microsoft Hearts is free and a deck of playing cards costs $3, but isn't the in-person experience worth it?

Lewis said...

Controllers are a difference because the PC versions of many games don't support some console controllers, though there was little difference in the days of Atari and Commodore.

While I have seen people playing 4 against 4 Halo on XBoxes, it seems to me that many people play their "high tech" PC wannabe consoles alone. It would be a worthwhile survey question for my next bunch of students (which may not be until fall). The "hard core" types (SGD students are usually this type) tend to go for PCs and PC wannabes, the casual gamers, I suspect, go for the Wii. Probably the casual gamers are more into the in-person social aspects of video game play than are the hard core.

As a board-card-gamer at heart, I think the social aspects are well worth it. When I have played video games in the past, it's always been strategy games against the computer.

Lew

Eric Hanuise said...

One key aspect is also the historical evolution of both mediums (computer/console).

Initially, consoles were 'pitched' to people as fast, accessible and easy fun Also they were single-use devices, designed only to play games.
Computers were pitched as general purpose machines, and until a few years ago were shipped with a programming language, user manual, and the expectation that the user would actually lean to program and produce code himself.

That made consoles a consumer device, and computers a producer device. This is a very important difference, as it bears obvious design consequences that still are apparent in today's devices.

Over time, and just as happened with wargames when computer-ran wargames appeared, the computer morphed into a consumer device. Programming/producing is now a specialist affair, and only a hardcore niche still does.

This is to be put in correlation with Jim Funnigan's wargames handbook - a must read. (http://www.hyw.com/Books/WargamesHandbook/Contents.htm)

So we have consoles, consumer devices that evolved in power and complexity to match the competition offered by computers, and computers, complex producer devices that morphed in simpler to use consumer devices.

Reverting consoles to simple, casual-gamind focused, devices plays their strengths in a field where the computers have a hard time competing because of their legacy of complexity.

This being said, while the consoles evolution is positive (start simple, grow complex, then distill the learnings of the complex phase and go back to basics, only better) the evolution seen in computers is not, and mimicks what happened with wargames : players do not code, nor create, so there is no grassroot buildup of creators. This makes for an ecosystem based on inbreeding (new games are either a better doom, a better dungeon keeper, or a better dune. Outside of these three fps/rpg/rts genres, the only new styles of gaming were copied from console innovations.) that inevitably bastardise the platform.

NB there are some niches that dement this of course, but very few.

eric hanuie said...

The Link got garbled it seems... maybe the line was too long.
http://www.hyw.com/ Books/WargamesHandbook/ Contents.htm
(remove spaces.)

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