Console Gaming in 2013 and Beyond: The End?

Xbox One:  the next best thing or bringer of doom?

Xbox One: the next best thing or bringer of doom?

Video game technology has come a long way since I first picked up a Nintendo controller.  In a way, it kind of blows my mind that kids today get to experience Skyrim or Red Dead Redemption as their introduction to gaming.  I often wonder if these kids can even go back and play Super Mario Bros. 3 or Duck Tales and find any enjoyment there.  And really, the leaps in technology have come quickly.  When measured strictly in terms of visual quality, it expanded slow in the 80’s before exploding in the 90’s as we experienced the move from the 16 bit era to the 32/64 bit era.  That was probably the biggest jump in terms of visual quality though going from the Playstation to the Playstation 2 was also a pretty big deal.  It would seem such advances are now behind us.  While it is undoubted that the current, and soon to be expiring, consoles look better than what came before, it’s a little more subtle.  What has been shown so far for the upcoming Playstation 4 and Xbox One has certainly looked good, but I can’t imagine there are several gamers plugged into these big reveal conferences wetting themselves over what the next generation of console games will look like.

As time moves on, console developers have needed to separate the past from the future with something other than graphics.  These developers have sought to advance gaming in other ways, such as through new controller configurations or a better online experience.  Other advances have sought to integrate the console into the living room better with Blu Ray drives and television viewing features.  This is all well and good as, for the most part, if gamers wanted to ignore these tack-on features they could, but all that may be changing.

I refuse to believe there are people out there who don't enjoy controlling a bouncy Scrooge McDuck.

I refuse to believe there are people out there who don’t enjoy controlling a bouncy Scrooge McDuck.

Microsoft has seemingly never been afraid to push something onto consumers even if they don’t want it.  They first stirred the pot by including a hard drive on the first Xbox paving the way for mandatory game installs.  No longer could playing a game be as simple as inserting the disc into the system and picking up a controller.  There was also the broadband only requirement for Xbox Live, and the charge for a Live account, that got many gamers all upset, but not upset enough to boycott the console.  The Xbox 360 has been a best-seller outside of Japan, so if Microsoft temporarily irked its audience it apparently wasn’t enough to turn them away.  This is marketing in the internet age.  Just about every news outlet allows its readers to sound off in comments at the conclusion of an article and it seems like 90% of these comments are always negative, but rarely do they seem to carry any weight.

Microsoft (and possibly Sony) appear ready to test the gaming community once more with the recently announced Xbox One, which is set to go on sale later this year.  After a confusing debut, Microsoft has recently clarified a few things about its console that currently has the internet up in arms.  Gaming is about to get more complicated and Microsoft has positioned itself, for now, as the villain in this regard.  While the Xbox One will certainly include things that will no doubt advance the quality of gaming, it’s presently overshadowed by all of the things that figure to drag the gaming experience down.

Lets first start with the always online thing.  Always online games, which require a dedicated internet connection in order to play, are fast becoming one of the more hated games of this era.  The always online thing used to apply only to online-only games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft, but has recently snuck into single-player games as well.  Blizzard included this feature in Diablo III, and EA recently did the same for the latest edition of Sim City.  Disaster ensued when the servers couldn’t handle the volume of gamers rendering these games unplayable at times.  Sim City was a particular disaster and if we’re lucky it has soured publishers from forcing this upon the gaming community for the time being.  I don’t think it’s gone though, and the Xbox One promises to make it possible for future games to include this by requiring the console to go online once every 24 hours.  What happens if your Xbox One is unable to connect to the internet after 24 hours?  Simply put, it ceases to function as a game console even though that’s its primary function!  This figures to have the greatest impact on soldiers serving overseas and on the younger crowd.  I know as a kid I’d make trips to Grandma’s with my trusty console in tow.  If I was subjected to that now I’d be shit outta luck if Grandma didn’t have a broadband connection.  Microsoft says its console needs to go online once a day because a big part of how the console functions requires access to a cloud network.  That may be true, but it’s more likely they just want to better manage what is being played on the console, which brings us to the next subject that’s really ticking people off.

Used games, or sharing games, figures to be a thing of the past.  Or at least, a less convenient way to play games.  The new cloud function will allow gamers to install games on their Xbox and then play them from any other Xbox One in the world provided they are able to log into the network.  That’s pretty cool, but it’s also a security feature and an attack on consumer rights.  This feature will also prevent games from being installed on more than one Xbox One at a time.  Since apparently the actual disc won’t be required to play the game, it does make sense that a security feature needed to be added to prevent people from buying one copy and then installing it on several machines.  The easiest way to combat that though, and one PC Gaming has been making use of since CDs became the accepted form of game distribution, was to require the CD also be inserted into the device to play the game.  No one was asking for this to change, but Microsoft decided to do it for probably a multitude of reasons.  By slowly fading out the disc-based gaming experience, it could help push the industry to a digital only distribution model which would be a cost-saver for publishers.  It also all but ends the used gaming market.

Remember FuncoLand?  Not the place to go for a good deal.  Just like GameStop!

Remember FuncoLand? Not the place to go for a good deal. Just like GameStop!

The war on used games is something unique to the video game industry.  Second-hand items have always been readily available ranging from small items like CDs or books to big-ticket items like cars and even homes.  It has been established since the birth of our economy that once a consumer buys something they own it and are free to give it away, loan it, or sell it.  If I sell my car today to my neighbor, the manufacturer of that car gets nothing.  If I sell my home the builder who originally built it gets no cut of the sale proceeds.  It’s a model that’s been around forever and few industries complain about it, except game publishers.  It’s a relatively new complaint as well, as games have been getting passed around and re-sold for as long as they’ve been around.  Commercially, it was limited to pawn shops and small electronics dealers before becoming an accepted business model for larger retailers.  I remember Toys R’ Us launching a buy-back program in the 90’s followed by the expansion of FuncoLand which sold only used merchandise.  That store was eventually purchased by GameStop, along with Electronics Boutique, and the used game market was suddenly huge.  Now publishers are getting a real look at how much money is in the used games market, and not in their pockets.  The creation of online achievements for these games also gives them a quick snapshot of how many unique individuals have played their games allowing them to cross-check that number with the number of new copies sold.  Add in auction sites like eBay and now gamers have potential buyers readily available around the globe.

The fallacy in all of this though is that game publishers and developers choose to look at used game sales as lost revenue, when in actuality it was revenue that was probably never available to them in the first place.  A used game at GameStop is often times only a few bucks cheaper than a new copy.  While I’m sure there are people who will choose to save an extra dollar in any given situation, the vast majority will just get a new copy.  Most used game purchases, mine included, are of older titles no longer available in new condition or of games that the consumer would have never purchased anyways for one reason or another.  I do not buy many used games, but the last one I did purchase was Heavy Rain.  I only purchased it because it was cheap and I was really on the fence about whether or not I would like it.  I wasn’t willing to risk 60 dollars when it came out to find out, but at 20 I was.  I ended up enjoying the game a lot and the creators will actually benefit from that when I purchase their next game.  I wouldn’t have done so had I never experienced Heavy Rain though.

Instead of choosing to combat the used games market in a proactive way, it would seem Microsoft is just looking to restrict it as much as possible.  There are still terms to be worked out, but according to Microsoft’s Phil Harrison, simply borrowing a game from a friend and inserting it into your Xbox One will cost you the full MSRP to play it.  They’ve backed off on that slightly by suggesting you’ll be able to loan a game once, but that’s still absurd.  Microsoft has also decided to put the possibility of a used games charge onto the publishers as they try to wash their hands clean of the whole mess.  My expectation is that publishers will negotiate with GameStop, and possibly other big retailers like Amazon, a kick-back for all of their used games sales.  How much is anyone’s guess and what this does to the private market is also up in the air.  The always online thing also raises the question of how many of these games will even be playable in 10-15 years.  I have almost all of my old consoles still hooked up in my house and enjoy going back to them from time to time.  That may not be possible for nostalgic Xbox One owners in the future.

It's all about the money, baby!

It’s all about the money, baby!

What irritates me most about this new attack on used games is just how lazy it is.  It used to be that games came in a cardboard box with a fully-illustrated, full-color manual along with some posters and stuff.  Now they often come with no inserts, unless it’s an ad for a new game, in a generic case.  Back in the 90’s, when buying a used game often times it was just the game which affected the decision of whether or not to go used or go new.  Cost-cutting measures have made used games practically identical to new ones.  Publishers should be focused on enhancing the experience of buying a game new, not trying to restrict people from buying it used.  EA got a lot of backlash for it, but I have never had a problem with giving consumers who chose to buy a game new additional content, as long as the used version was still playable.  This meant EA would charge a fee for enabling the online component of some of their games for those who bought them new.  As long as the online portion wasn’t necessary for completing the game, I was fine with this.  They’ve actually done away with the practice siting consumer response, but now I’m wondering if they stopped because they were aware of how used games would function on consoles going forward.

I should point out, this post has focused on Microsoft’s new machine and made them out to be the bad guy, but it’s entirely possible (if not likely) that Sony’s Playstation 4 will be the same.  While the whole cloud integration thing, or lack there of, may give Sony’s machine more freedom I fully expect publishers to more or less force Sony to adopt Microsoft’s business model for used games.  As someone who rarely buys or sells used games, I shouldn’t really be concerned.  As a consumer though, I’m outraged and I wonder if this is where I jump off the video game bandwagon.  Both consoles figure to include features I could not care less about such as gesture and voice commands, but if my game-playing experience is compromised in any way then that’s a big concern.  It remains to be seen how second-hand gaming changes, but one thing is for sure, and that’s the future of gaming is more uncertain now than it has been since the crash of the 1980’s.  As consumers, as gamers, we’ll be forced to make a difficult decision on how far we go to support our hobby and an industry we’ve all benefited from.  It won’t be easy, but if these terms being dished out for the upcoming consoles are something you’re not comfortable with then the only way to fight back is with your wallet.  I’m already ruling out a purchase of an Xbox One, an admittedly easy decision for me as I never even owned a 360.  The ball is now in Sony’s court, and next week’s E3 figures to be a real game-changer.  Will Sony step up and do the right thing and maintain the status quo as it concerns consumer rights, or take the easy way out and follow the Microsoft model?

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