Since the PS4 was announced, we’ve seen countless developers tout how wonderful it is that next-gen consoles are basically just powerful gaming PCs. Sure, this makes them much easier to develop for, but is mimicking the PC ecosystem really the path to the future of console technology? Is homogenizing the core gaming industry the best way to give gamers a better experience? I’m not so sure.
First, let’s take a look at what we know so far about next-gen consoles, starting with the PS4. At Sony’s PS4 announcement event, one of the major pillars of their new philosophy to console design was making things simple yet elegant. They wanted to give developers the tools to facilitate game design and distribution. Apparently, they’ve succeeded. Ubisoft Montreal CEO Yannis Mallet expressed his feelings about the console not too long ago, explaining that developing for the PS4 is actually “a really pleasant surprise.” According to Mallet, the PS4’s architecture is vastly different from that of all previous PlayStation consoles. Whereas previously, teams would need someone who understood Japanese just to read the support and coding documentation for the PlayStations of yesteryear, the PS4 is a welcome change of functionality and accessibility. For Ubisoft in particular, they felt they were taking a gamble by choosing to develop upcoming projects such as Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag on high-end PCs; knowing how difficult it usually is to transition the project over onto consoles. Now, with the PS4, Mallet believes it was the right decision because of very strong similarities in architecture, making development between the two platforms virtually seamless.
Epic Games and Avalanche Studios have equally shared their enthusiasm for the PS4, albeit for different reasons than Ubisoft. These two developers are infatuated by the PS4’s power in particular, going so far as to say that the console will “out-power most PCs for years to come,” in the case of Avalanche Studios CTO and co-founder Linus Blomberg. To compliment the console further, Epic Games VP Mark Rein believes the PS4 is “a really perfect gaming PC.” These studios believe that putting all this high-end PC gaming technology into a console, without being weighed down by classic PC problems like managing background tasks and addressable memory space, creates an environment where developers can optimize performance and really take advantage of all that raw power. If these remarks are to be believed, by simply mimicking the design of high-end PCs, the next-gen console infrastructure is the pinnacle of evolution for consoles. A near-perfect development platform has at long last been achieved.
For Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid and upcoming PS4 timed-exclusive The Witness, there’s yet another feature to love about the PS4: Content sharing, a feature which Blow says the console has been built around. He sees a future where integrated content sharing changes the landscape of console gaming; taking advantage of the growing obsession consumers within our industry have with livecasting and live-stream commentary. Sony’s latest console contains a chip that allows the system to continuously record and store about two-minutes’ worth of gameplay footage at all times without compromising any hardware resources. We’ve also seen that, like the Wii U, the PS4 will create a social network of sorts for each specific game, which players can access at any time to find things like gameplay videos, tips, strategies, or otherwise instantly communicate with gamers currently playing the same game. Heck, while the feature may not be available at launch, Sony’s even shown off the ability to jump into another player’s game and take control of particularly difficult gameplay segments for anyone who needs just a little bit of help progressing. (Can you say, Trials of Archimedes?)
Alright, so let’s recap. PC-like architecture making it incredibly easy to develop across all next-gen platforms? Check. Immensely powerful gaming rig dedicated to optimizing performance? Check. Instant social connectivity and integrated content sharing? Check. Sounds impressive. Frankly, it almost sounds like magic. But, as any avid Once Upon a Time viewer will tell you, magic always comes at a cost. (Unless they’re too busy repeating the phrase, “I will find you. I will always find you.” But I digress.) So aside from the obvious cost to our wallets, what other downsides could stem from conforming to PC development standards. For a close look at everything that could possibly go wrong, let’s talk about the rumored features of the Next Xbox.
Obviously, when Microsoft finally decides to announce their next-gen console, presumably next month, all of these “features” may not be included; but for the sake of discussion let’s assume the absolute worst. We’ve all heard the numerous reports that the Next Xbox (Nextbox?) will require a functioning Kinect as well as an always-on internet connection. The console may even require games to be played off of the hard drive, requiring a one-time installation of a retail disc before playing exclusively off of internal memory, as perhaps a means of combating piracy while simultaneously preventing used game sales. But hey, at least Kinect 2.0 can detect eye movement and pause your Netflix show every time you look away from the screen. The Next Xbox might even be able to “interact with your cable box.” (It’s not as dirty as it sounds.) This feature is rumored to be an upgraded, more refined attempt of what Google TV has done with cable box connectivity.
So taking the good with the bad, we have a similar PC architecture that prevents used games from working and combats piracy by instituting always-on DRM. We have a powerful high-end rig that optimizes performance, which it does by requiring that we install games to the hard drive even if we don’t want to buy digital games and rely on “the cloud.” Finally, we have instant social connectivity and content sharing, further “enhanced” by the ability to use the console as a cable box that requires a voice and gesture-controlled camera be watching your every move. High cost indeed, and all that’s without the rumored $500 price tag.
I’d say that’s enough prefacing for one editorial, so it’s high time I made my point. My point is, for reasons that are obvious, and some that are more subtle, I don’t think gaming consoles turning into high-end PCs is a good thing. The obvious reasons are the ones I’ve mentioned above: DRM, too much focus on social integration and applications, and a push to digital, cloud-based gaming. Even if the Next Xbox doesn’t require an always-on connection itself, you can bet companies like EA are chomping at the bit to apply DRM to console gaming for all the same reasons they believe it works on PC. It might seem convenient being able to watch Netflix by just turning on an Xbox 360 and then using Kinect to pause and play, but that doesn’t mean I want Microsoft to raise the price of Xbox Live so that I can (not) use it as a cable box, or watch sports, or instant message people on FaceBook, or live-stream over Twitch. If I wanted to watch something on Twitch, or Netflix, or any other application these consoles are providing, I’ve got at least a dozen alternative devices that offer the exact same functionality.
As for the more subtle reasons, there are a few that explain why making the shift to PC-style gaming will hurt the console experience. But let me first ask you some questions: What’s the difference between PC gaming and console gaming? Considering we’re so divided as a community, splitting ourselves into the PC crowd and console crowd, before further subdividing ourselves as hardcores, casuals, Xbox 360 fanboys, or PS3 fanboys, and anything else you can think of, there has to be a difference, right? Is the only reason we’re different from one another technical specifications? There’s got to be more to it then that. My theory is that the PC crowd is, for lack of a better word, traditional. How do you play PC games? With a mouse and keyboard, right? Of course you do, because, aside from plugging in an Xbox 360 or similar controller, how else could you play a PC game? There’s no second-screen functionality. There’s no gesture control. There aren’t any accelerometers or gyroscopes, no AR cards or peripherals. PC games are built for two styles: Keyboard and mouse and standard controllers. Do you see where I’m going with this?
If we let developers get comfortable developing games on PCs and straight porting them over to consoles, we’re potentially stifling creativity. Homogenizing high-end gaming can only result in unified gameplay mechanics, because why add anything new when it’s so easy to cross-develop on all platforms? If you thought Nintendo was hard-pressed to convince third-parties to support their consoles before, just wait until the PS4 and Next Xbox leave the console mentality behind and start hanging with the PC gang. Feelings about Nintendo’s next-gen console or their treatment of loyal fans aside, there’s no denying they are always trying to innovate. I’m not saying that console games will automatically stop innovating simply because their specs match high-end PCs, but think of it this way: The PS3 and Xbox 360 were basically the same console, feature wise. With few exceptions, they both have all the same features, applications, and functionality. So, how did the two companies differentiate themselves? (Aside from obvious first-party titles.) By paying for things like timed-exclusive DLC for Call of Duty and Battlefield, or by offering different in-game incentives like character skins in Batman: Arkham City. They set themselves apart by making fans of one console lose out on content designed specifically for the other. We, the consumers, are the only ones who got screwed; while Microsoft and Sony made very few sacrifices to set themselves apart. Now, with PCs, the PS4, and the Next Xbox all being basically the same device featuring the same multi-entertainment functionality, how can all these gaming machines separate themselves? Put too many skittles in your mouth, and they all just taste the same. Design consoles so that they just share the same functionality as PCs, and they all start looking the same. There has to be something that sets these devices apart, and that individuality has to be tethered to gaming, not streaming services or apps. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, Sony will take advantage of the PS4 and PS Vita cross-play functionality and Microsoft will find a way to make Smart Screen relevant; but simply adding second screens won’t be enough. Even if Nintendo doesn’t have eleventy-bazillion gigawhos of GOAT, at least the Wii U supports unique 5-player multiplayer and features unique mechanics that can only be seen on their console.
What’s my solution to this, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. My gaming console should have one primary function: Playing incredible console games. If Microsoft and Sony want to add all these other applications as secondary, complimentary luxuries, be my guest. But the moment I’m paying extra for access to features I don’t want, we’ve got a problem. Sony has yet to comment on the pricing model for the PS4’s online service, but there’s not a chance in this world Microsoft will get up on stage and tell us Xbox Live will allow online gaming for free; so you can rest assured your Xbox Gold subscription will force you to pay for at least a handful of features that never get used. At the end of the day, these consoles will have to come up with unique first-party titles that are so incredible they merit spending hundreds of dollars on a new console just to play. Otherwise, they’re just too similar to justify purchasing both. And if you already own a high-end PC, I mean why even bother owning a console at all? You’re already set.
I love pretty graphics and desperately want smarter AI and faster load times as much as the next guy, but not to the point where it compromises innovation. If next-gen consoles are just high-end PCs, they better also offer something that only a console experience can provide. Whether that’s creating cross-functionality with other devices designed by Sony and Microsoft, coming out with fun, and functional peripherals, or creating amazing first-party titles, something needs to separate these consoles from both themselves and the PC space. I’m so glad this coming generation is so much easier for developers to design games with, because their jobs just got a lot harder.
What do you folks think? Are you glad next-gen consoles offer less fragmentation between platforms? Or would you rather consoles try and separate themselves from PCs? Do all these like-minded devices make you more appreciative of the Wii U’s unique mechanics? Share your thoughts in the comments below.