Do We Need Next-Gen Consoles?
All the trends suggest that dedicated home game consoles are on the way out
The game console is becoming obsolete. It’s a controversial statement, I know. But let’s step back from the truckload of hype surrounding the imminent launches of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. Let’s explore this question more seriously: consoles have been around a long time. Where are they going, and are they becoming redundant?
Many of us won’t forget the wonderful moment we acquired our first game console. Whether it was sitting nestled under a Christmas tree, or whether you were old enough to purchase it from a store yourself, few things in life can compare to that moment when you first unbox your brand new machine. It wasn’t just about accessing the games; it was about the ritual of unboxing the thing, plugging it in, and firing it up for the first time.
But times are changing. People’s needs and desires are shifting. In particular, free time is becoming more and more limited by the day. Technology is responding to our shifting habits, too, in an effort to better fit in with our daily routines. It’s worth remembering that way back in the ’90s and ’00s, most gaming experiences were delivered either through a dedicated console or a PC. Sure, you could also pick up a Game Boy — but it could never match a home console experience in terms of fidelity. The full fat experience always demanded that you plonk yourself down in front of a TV or monitor for a period of time.
But technology marched forward. Smart phones drove a lot of the change. And it can be argued that smart phones, as a product category, represented the single-largest expansion of the gaming market since its inception. In fact, smart phones account for more than 45% of the video game market share. And if that number doesn’t surprise you, consider that at least one-third of the entire world’s population has played or downloaded a game on a mobile device of some kind.
Of course, dedicated game consoles are still highly poopular. The PlayStation 4 is one of the highest-selling consoles of all time. But the trends aren’t in favour of consoles. According to the Entertainment Software Association’s (ESA) recent survey “2020 Essential Facts About The Video Game Industry”, women of all age groups and men aged between 55 and 64 prefer to play games on their phone. Consoles seemed to be the gaming medium of choice for men aged 18–54. Sure, it’s still a sizeable demographic, but the stats speak to a far broader market that increasingly prefers to experience games in different contexts.
There are other data points that are relevant here. For example, there’s this chart from the Statista Research Department from 2016. It shows that according to data gathered from video game companies around the world, only 29% of their customers prefer to play on console. This compares to a whopping 76% who play on mobile devices.
These numbers should surprise exactly no one. Mobile devices have increasingly become a necessity in the modern world — not the luxury they once were. They offer the broadest possible range of functionality, having subsumed a range of devices or products over time (from everything to physical calendars and diaries to dedicated music players). Consoles, despite offering additional entertainment options (like Netflix and YouTube), still remain a largely gaming-exclusive affair. In addition, smart phone technology is rapidly advancing year-on-year; so much so that the latest smart phones are now able to compete with — and sometimes even surpass — the most advanced dedicated handheld gaming machines. From a raw game fidelity standpoint, smart phones are already starting to shadow what we see on home consoles. The gap will only grow smaller in the coming years.
And as the technological gap shrinks, developer opportunities expand. Sure, many popular smart phone games are more akin to Candy Crush or Angry Birds. They are, by definition, super-quick pick-up-and-play experiences that can be enjoyed for only a few minutes at a time. But we’re seeing more and more examples of larger, deeper, richer game experiences arriving on mobile devices as well. It’s not inconceivable that we’ll soon see the latest triple-A experiences from Naughty Dog, CD Projekt Red, or Rockstar launching on certain mobile devices as well as console and PC.
The existence of the Nintendo Switch is a good example of what this could look like. More and more developers are porting the latest games to the platform, albeit with some limitations. There is also the emergence of services like Google Stadia and Microsoft’s xCloud, which promise to completely circumvent the hardware limitations by directly streaming ultra high fidelity experiences to even the smallest mobile devices.
The big question seems to be whether or not all of these advancements and market trends are sending us hurtling towards a post-console future. Will the mere idea of a dedicated box sitting under the TV become a thing of the past? Will it become so easy to experience games in a more ubiquitous way (on potentially any screen), that the focus will shift to games and services and entirely away from dedicated boxes?
Microsoft already seem to have a clear view on this, given their approach to a more iterative upgrade cycle for the Xbox (consider the Xbox One X, Xbox Series S, and Xbox Series X), as well as the increasingly-rapid move towards an Xbox “ecosystem” rather than a single, dedicated piece of hardware. If Google Stadia is on one end of the spectrum, then PS5 and Switch are on the opposite end, with Microsoft having a bet both ways somewhere in the middle.
Whatever happens, the next few years are going to be fascinating. If we revisit this topic in five years’ time, we may find ourselves looking at a completely different gaming landscape.