Will 2017 mark the Return of the Console Wars?
The mobile market is getting crowded to the point of ridiculousness. According to Pocketgamer, last year 500 games per day were published on the App Store alone. 500 games. Per day. Every day. There are more than 750,000 games available on the App Store at the moment, the vast majority of which are F2P. No wonder indie developers have started to move over (or back to) PC, especially since Steam is allowing almost anybody to publish games on their platform… which has by now also become a major problem. Last year, more than 4,000 games were released on Steam — that’s 40% of all games ever released on the platform!
Don’t worry though, this isn’t yet another blog post about the Indiepocalypse. Indie game development isn’t doomed, but it certainly didn’t get any easier last year. So maybe it’s worth looking beyond the established indie platforms mobile and PC and at what’s happening in the console world. And boy, is it an interesting time to take a look! 2017 is going to be the most exciting year for gaming hardware in a very long time as two of the three major console manufacturers are presenting their shiny new hardware to the industry and the public:
Nintendo struck first, with its “Switch” console, which was released in early March. Once again, the company isn’t following the competition in their war for more processing power, focusing instead on new ways to play games. “Switch”, as the console is aptly called, is allowing players to freely move from stationary to mobile gaming, turning a regular controller into one that works for two people and even bringing back good old local console-to-console multiplayer.
And it’s off to a great start: Nintendo confirmed that the Switch is so far their fastest-selling console in the Americas, and global sales are well over 1.5 million just a couple of weeks after launch… and with the attachment rate of its strongest launch title, “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” at an impressive 90%. That 90% attachment rate is indicative of the greatest threat for Nintendo’s Switch: as original as their hardware surely is, its success will depend heavily on the line-up. Not just the Day One line-up, but the line-up for the foreseeable future. Not just their own line-up, but their third-party support. Nintendo has a history of firmly relying on their (arguably very strong) own brands and neglecting the upside third-party products bring to any console. If they manage to give the third-party developers and publishers the love and support they lacked previously in addition to their own huge IPs, Switch will have a bright future. And by “third-party developers” I don’t just mean the usual, AAA-producing suspects, but also indie developers. Nintendo hasn’t unveiled an indie developer program (yet), but the fact that Switch supports the Unreal Engine is at least a step in the right direction.
Microsoft, on the other hand, seems to be relying on their well-known strengths. Their new console, currently called “Project Scorpio” will launch at the end of the year and is going to be the most powerful console ever. Its specs are certainly impressive: 8 CPU cores, 6 teraflops of graphical processing power and 320GB/s memory bandwidth, true 4K gaming capabilities and full backward compatibility with Xbox One. To put this into perspective, the Xbox One has “only” 1.3 teraflops and 200GB/s of memory bandwidth at best. That makes Scorpio a whopping 4.5 times more powerful than its predecessor! That said, superior tech simply isn’t enough (remember Dreamcast?!); while every console Microsoft released has had great tech specs, so far they failed to entice the Asian market almost entirely and still struggle in large parts of Europe. Scorpio is promising to be more than just a much more powerful Xbox One though, one of the key elements for this being what Microsoft calls “Project Helix”. The gist of it is that they are streamlining the game development process for the Windows 10 store by providing dev kits that allow developers to mimic environments of Xbox One, Project Scorpio and PC. With PC gaming being as popular as ever, bringing PC and console gaming closer together is certainly a smart move — the Xbox app that’s already available for Windows 10 is just a tiny glimpse into what will be possible in the very near future.
And as far as indie devs go, Microsoft is also pulling no punches. Their ID@Xbox program has supported indie developers for a few years now and developing for Xbox One has become pretty straightforward thanks to UWP and has resulted in fantastic games like Binding of Isaac, Castle Crashers, Inside and Guacamelee, to name just a few. Finally, thinking about the other recent hardware developments from Microsoft, Surface and HoloLens, and it’s not hard to imagine that Scorpio will indeed be a”beast”, as it’s already being called internally in Redmond. Is this enough to crack the Asian market? I doubt it, but it should give Microsoft a much better chance to catch up to Sony in the highly contested European market.
Speaking of Sony, they’re the only ones who haven’t announced new hardware… and they’re the only one who can afford not to. PlayStation 4 is going from strength to strength, selling an incredible 6.2 million units in the last six weeks of 2016 alone, bringing the total installed base to 53.4 million in just three years. In comparison, more than 80 million PlayStation 3s were sold, but it took 10 years to achieve this. Sony didn’t give indie devs the strongest support back in the PlayStation 3 days, but this has changed dramatically with the launch of PlayStation 4. This year alone saw the release of a number of indie gems, with The Witness, Firewatch and Unravel leading the pack. And while the recently released PlayStation Pro isn’t as powerful as Scorpio will be, it’s available now and already offers an improved gaming experience compared to the regular PlayStation — which will be plenty enough for a large number of gamers. And while console exclusives have been a bit on the decline recently, new entries from beloved franchises such as God of War, Uncharted, The Last of Us and Final Fantasy as well as interesting new exclusives like Horizon Zero Dawn, Days Gone, Death Stranding or Detroit: Become Human will certainly keep fans connected to the platform.
So while the so-called “console war” has gotten a bit stale in recent years, this will definitely change in 2017. I for one am excited about the fresh breeze Switch and Scorpio will bring and looking forward to new opportunities for game developers, both AAA and indie. How about you?