Or, how consoles grew up and got day jobs.
Since the 1994 debut of the Playstation, Sony releases a new version of their flagship gaming platform roughly once every 6 years. The Playstation 2 was released in 2000, and the blu-ray powered PS3 was released in 2006. The recently unveiled PS4 is due holiday season 2013, about 7 years after the still-relevant PS3. Unlike their cartridge-powered competitors like Nintendo, The Sony Playstation and other disc-delivered home gaming consoles have always done a little bit more than just play games.
Although the original Sony Playstation had horrid in-game load times absent in the cartridge gaming world, it could do something the others could not: play music CDs. For a gaming console this was hardly worth the trade, but this is when gaming consoles first started to develop noteworthy differences in total home entertainment utility. Of course, in 1994 you probably knew more folks with musical doorbells than musical phones, and gaming consoles were still primarily just that: for games.
Leap forward a generation of consoles, and the Sony could also play DVD movies. Marginally useful when a lot of home videos were still VHS, it still showed a growing divide between their console and the competition, a division that was also increasingly evident in the types of game developers attracted to a specific gaming console, and the age of each console’s target audience. Sony commanded a larger portion of the mature gaming audience. Nintendo, for a long time the face of family-safe games and games designed for younger children, steered clear of games with mature content until an awkward, ineffective about-face in 2001 featuring an adult-rated game about a heavy drinking squirrel with strong suggestive content. Eyebrow-raising failures aside, Nintendo survives to maintain its core brand and lead its ahead-of-its-time gameboy innovation to command a lion’s share of the handheld gaming market today.
Around the same time, Microsoft decides to get a piece of the pie with the XBOX gaming console, going from zero to awesome in an instant with genre-defining titles like Halo. By 2006, Sony and Microsoft pull ahead of Nintendo with local hard drives and native High-Definition Video support, each betting on opposing players in the blu-ray vs HD DVD war. Both the XBox 360 and PS3 supported additional features like “why do I need a camera SD slot in a gaming console” or “who would use a game console to surf the internet”, but the features remained and grew to include social media integration, youtube, streaming home video on demand (RIP, Blockbuster) and most importantly, the ability to play with friends over the internet. Yet, these were still just gaming consoles, right?
Nintendo bets against it. Boldly racing away from anything that resembles high-definition video, it debuts the Wii, with balance-board and gyroscope outfitted controllers that turned gaming into personal home fitness, dance-along gaming, and a whole new generation of immersive entertainment. It may have missed the giant demographic bullseye that had become FPS-obsessed, but it succeeded in other ways. In addition to its celebrated, kid-friendly core titles like Mario, Zelda, Metroid and Donkey Kong, the Wii today is also used to help the elderly maintain coordination and as treatment for degenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease. Sony and Microsoft each follow in suit with motion tracking add-on devices for similar gaming experiences, like the Microsoft Kinect, which requires no handheld device at all to play.
Despite growing to be educational and physical therapy tools and home entertainment powerhouses, a recent CNN article suggests “console gaming is dying“, citing a four year decline in the market, emergent mobile gaming, and other economic factors. If true, lead game pioneers aren’t letting us see them sweat. Activision-Blizzard is wagering the opposite, launching their historically PC/Mac-only Diablo series on the PlayStation 3 and 4 later this year. The PS4 supports the new 4K HD video output most homes don’t event have yet, and next-gen blu-ray native support. No word yet on the competing offering from Microsoft, tentatively called the Xbox 720, but both are likely to feature highly social online gaming experiences along with the next generation of on-demand, streaming “cloud” gaming.
In the last year, we have seen Microsoft’s Windows 8 desktop and tablet OS evolve to look more like gesture-friendly home gaming consoles – almost exactly like the Xbox 360 – instead of the other way around. We’ve also seen tighter integration between our smartphones and tablets with the home gaming consoles. For systems like the Xbox 360 that are already more powerful than most cable “tivo” boxes for movies and tv, I’d say the PS4 and Xbox 720 are poised to take more (not less) of the non-gaming streaming content, potentially biting into the immovable broadcast giants themselves. Oh wait, I’ve watched all of my pay-per-view cable events on Xbox Live… not to mention the Mars Rover landing. If my internet provider were on the list, I could get ESPN Sports on it too. Microsoft points out that 40% or more of Xbox Live traffic is non-gaming today.
They may not brew coffee, do dishes, fetch beer or make very good toast (I strongly recommend against it, no matter how hot your unit gets), but they certainly do way more than just games and have risen to be the hardest working component of our home TV, movie and entertainment setups.
I believe the reports of console gaming’s death are greatly exaggerated.
Below are some clips from the PS4 announcement trailer showing off the next gen graphics.