Wednesday, 8 February 2012

PS4, Xbox 720 aren't the Next Generation - Your TV is

If consoles forget what they're for, they'll be passed up, reckons Gaikai's David Perry

Making consoles is a thankless task, for one simple reason: they don't actually generate any profits until they are past it and in need of replacement.

It's a bit like those third-world countries that still have production lines churning out faithful reconstructions of 1970s Hillman Hunters or Morris Oxfords. No less a personage than Sony's Andrew House admitted as much when he was interviewed at the PlayStation Vita's Japanese launch.

Hence the adamant denials from Sony and Microsoft execs that they won't showcase the replacements for the PS3 and Xbox 360 at this year's E3. At least Nintendo continues to do its own thing - in the past, it found a novel solution to the problem by launching a string of consoles that were past it and in need of replacement before they even went on sale.

But with the forthcoming generation of consoles, even Nintendo has to an extent joined the arms race - the Wii U will at least be more powerful than the Xbox 360 and PS3, so will be able to run cross-platform blockbusters previously beyond the steam-powered graphics processing capabilities of the Wii and its predecessors.

So, all the more reason for Sony and Microsoft to steal Nintendo's thunder at E3 - when it fleshes out the Wii U's bare bones - by offering at least a tantalising taste of the next-next generation.

Sony and Microsoft's next-next-generation consoles will surface soon enough: their devkits are out there, and no matter how draconian their non-disclosure agreements may be, details will inevitably leak out, and both companies would, of course, be incandescent if that happened without their careful stage-management.

So with a proper three-way console arms race about to break out, how will it pan out, and will the Wii U, PS4 and Xbox 720 constitute the last crop of consoles as we know them - as many commentators are suggesting?

Beware the multimedia creep

David Perry, head honcho of cloud gaming company Gaikai and a seasoned development veteran, highlights a problem that increasingly afflicts even the current generation of consoles, and will only, surely, get worse in the future. He argues that consoles are no longer consoles:

"For me, the definition of a console is a gaming device for the mass market. They plug in a cartridge, they flick a switch and a game appears on the screen." Anyone who downloaded last year's Xbox Dash update, or got suckered into buying a Kinect only to realise it's great for all manner of things, none of which involve actually playing games, will be tempted to admit a hollow laugh.

Perry continues: "In America, for $129, Best Buy will now come to your house and help you install your PlayStation 3. We have got away from that original idea of "It just works" into this thing of maintaining and running, creating accounts on it. I think they're going to stop calling them consoles and they'll start calling them something else - media something or entertainment something."

Perry, of course, has a vested interest - Gaikai facilitates proper, hardcore gaming which makes no demands on whatever hardware it runs on, because it arrives via the cloud. But it's difficult to argue with what he perceives as the next threat to the consoles:

"The digital TVs are also including all of that media stuff. I think the mistake that the console companies are making is not a mistake of their choice - it's the evolution they have to go through."

"But if they enter the market as media hubs, there are tons already on sale - the TiVos, Boxees, Rokus and everything else - and all they're doing is entering their space, and the one thing they're bringing with them is games. The problem is, they are $500." As opposed to $90 to $100.

Your next console: a TV

What is Perry's solution to the creeping multimedia-isation of consoles? "The thing is, the cloud gaming stuff is running off much more expensive hardware than what Sony will ever be able to put in its box. It's a bit like the arcade days, when the arcade machines were $10,000 and you were paying for your time on them."

"Once the other media hubs can have games - and I don't mean Checkers, but things like Call of Duty - the public will get confused. With that in mind, who is able to make a TV? Sony is already making them, so it will have to take all that stuff into its TVs."

"So: my prediction is that Microsoft will have to make a TV. What choice do they have? There have been lots of reports that Apple has bought out a large LCD panel-making company. It's pretty obvious that they're on the trail too."

Sadly, Perry passed up an opportunity for extra mischief by suggesting that Microsoft could brand that TV as the Zune and, of course, self-interest underpins his words: Gaikai recently signed a deal to embed its technology in LG's televisions. But he's right to highlight the dangers with which console manufacturers flirt when they forget what consoles are supposed to be.

Microsoft seems particularly bad at that: you often get the impression that it forgets a world exists beyond America. As evinced by the impossibility of getting far enough away from a Kinect in order for it to work in the average-sized British living room, or its refusal to countenance that, unlike Americans, Brits already paying a subscription for Xbox Live might be reluctant to add subscriptions for Netflix, LOVEFiLM and their ilk.

At least Sony doesn't extract a subscription for the PSN; nor has it redesigned the XMB in order to push games to the back. And the half-hearted nature of Nintendo's attempts to add non-gaming services to the Wii could actually end up working in the company's favour.

So, the next generation of consoles need to be presented as consoles - not media whatevers or entertainment whatevers. Otherwise they will be ignored in favour of Web-enabled TVs. Whoever embraces that concept most enthusiastically may just end up winning.


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