There’re two trends in video-gaming I’ve noticed lately: First, a shift towards more peripherals and consoles taking over more functions of computers—a development confirmed by the latest E3.

One of the first companies to successfully introduce accessory-enhanced games into the mainstream was Sony with its Singstar and Buzz franchises.

Then there was the final breakthrough: Guitar Hero, first just being bundled with a plastic guitar, later even with a drum set. This step was a huge risk: Bemani games were pretty much relegated to a niche existence in the West, no one knew if people were willing to spend significantly more on a game with a toy guitar, and the competition for scarce retail space was intense.

The risk, however, paid off: People loved the new interfaces, which allowed them to immerse themselves in the gaming experience deeper than before. Dreams of a rock star career were easier to pursue with a plastic axe than with a joypad.

Apart from appealing to people who never might have played video games before, another advantage is obvious: Games can be pirated, peripherals can’t. You want to play your Pirate Bay Rock Band with a controller? Sure, bore yourself to death.

We had also better get used to the thought of these new interfaces. Kids these days often play their first games on the Wii. As this generation grows up, it won’t understand why it can’t control FPSs in a similar, active way. The couch will be deserted, that’s for sure.

But then again, a second trend might keep people right there: Increasingly, consoles take over the functions of computers.

Think about the Xbox, for example; it was basically introduced because Microsoft wanted to carry the dominance it had in the office environment over into your living room, a space which at that stage was mostly in the hands of the PlayStation.

Soon you’ll be able to access your Facebook profile with it, update your Twitter status and listen to Last.fm. These are very significant developments. Microsoft might have won, we just haven’t realized it yet.

This Offworld piece makes some very good points:

“The announcement that I thought was missed was the opening of the Xbox Live Dashboard interface to the internet,” [industry analyst Michael] Pachter told Gamasutra. “Later this year, Microsoft will allow members to access last.fm and to select music, to access Netflix and instantly watch films/TV shows, to access Facebook and interact with other friends, and to access Twitter and post/read tweets.”

Pachter argues that the gaming media entirely missed the significance of this announcement, which puts the 360 firmly in the same territory as Apple’s AppleTV, only with a library of awesome games. With so many 360s already installed around the world, MS have a good chance to become the default choice for web media on your TV.

The author adds:

If the 360 does start to support all these things (there’s no confirmation as to whether Last.FM will be able to run in the background as a soundtrack to your games), it’ll become the kind of gaming machine that I want to spend my time with for more reasons than just because it has some games that my PC doesn’t.

It will become a device that has more of the networked infrastructure, and more of the media tweaks and toys that I take for granted as part of my desktop computer.

The thing is: This development does not only apply to stationary consoles: Just think of the iPhone and its growing success as a gaming device. People play on it because they always take it with them and it combines pretty much everything you can ask for: wifi, email, surfing the net, games, etc. Before my iPod Touch was stolen (donations welcome!), I totally neglected my DS, simply for the fact that the iPod combined all my entertainment needs.

The PSP is taking the same direction; its new incarnation, the PSP Go, will come with an app shop (albeit without a touch screen).

When thinking about these developments, keep in mind the falling price of the 360. As the Offworld piece points out:

Rather than having to release a new console, the 360 just gets cheaper, and makes more sense, to more people, because it does something that it didn’t do before: Guitar Hero, Last.FM, Twitter, motion-tracking control… A spiralling feature list, a net that gets bigger and drags in more people.

The Xbox indeed develops back to its PC heritage and becomes increasingly flexible. It fulfils a PC’s functions, but with the convenience of a console. Sony does have a lot of competition on their hands, and yet they don’t seem to do much about it. In view of the PS3′s impressive hardware architecture, it’s difficult to say if they are able to lower its price, but that would be a first step in the right direction.

All this doesn’t even take into account the effect of cloud computing. Maybe the 360 will be the last console you ever buy, because the rest will be done in the cloud. Not only would this apply to applications but also to gaming.

This demands the questions: Will one platform be obsolete one day? What will happen to the PC? Surely it won’t disappear, but it will suffer. Eventually you might simply end up with another Microsoft product.

What do you think? Are consoles the future of computing?

-Jens

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