The Future of Video Games

The more I hear about the Xbox One, the more baffling the whole thing is. I say that as someone who was a huge fan of the original Xbox and pretty happy with the 360. At a time when PC gamers simultaneously dread the violence that Steam sales do to their bank accounts and adore the amount of games they get out of it, when the iOS app store is ludicrously large, free-to-play games are a major force in gaming, and the 3DS is hugely popular, we have the new Xbox going off on its own tangent that’s more expensive and laden with more unnecessary limitations than any other platform.

The big thing with Xbox One is the sheer ridiculousness of the DRM on it. It needs to connect to Microsoft’s servers once ever 24 hours to function at all, and while there are a lot of people for whom that’s not that big of a deal, the list of people for whom it is a problem is not small. From what I’ve heard games like Halo and Call of Duty are pretty big with members of the U.S. military, and oddly enough places like Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t known for having great broadband. There are also countries in Europe that Microsoft isn’t supporting initially ( which may in fact be illegal by EU law ), so that there are people who could literally walk to a place where their game machine wouldn’t work. That’s on top of the limitations placed on lending and reselling games ( which Sony smartly and rightly mocked ). While it seems pretty clear that games that come on discs are on the way out, we’re not there yet. While people are still buying games on discs–and for the Xbox One paying $60 for them, possibly even more–they’re going to feel like they ought to be able to sell them off or let a friend borrow them. People don’t mind not being able to lend games on Steam, but then Steam makes it easy to buy and give away 4 licenses for a game, often for less than the cost of one new Xbox 360 game.

Cost is another big thing. Although Sony’s doing better than Microsoft, neither seems all that interested in a non-premium market. The PS4 is going to debut at $399, and the Xbox One at $499. To get the full benefit of the new Xbox you’re also going to need an HDTV, a broadband internet connection, and probably a subscription to the console maker’s online service too. If you were to start from scratch and buy everything you need to play on Xbox One, you could easily spend over $1,000, possibly $2,000 or more. And on top of that, the tradition of screwing over European gamers price-wise isn’t even slowing down, with the number of Euros in the price being the same as the number of dollars in the American price. There’s not much that Xbox One doesn’t lose out to price-wise, except maybe a really ridiculous gaming PC rig. And that’s before we talk about Kinect. Setting aside all the Big Brother references the Xbox One version has inspired, whoever designed it was just very optimistic about the sizes of people’s homes. I have one friend who lives in a house where rearranging the furniture could just about make room for a Kinect, but he has three roommates to live in that house. I have a brother-in-law who has on occasion made six figures, and there’s just no way it would work in his current house.

For a while now it’s seemed like video games are diverging, splitting off into two separate approaches. There’s the AAA-driven stuff from the likes of Microsoft, Sony, Square-Enix, Bugie, Rockstar, Activision, Ubisoft, etc., and then there’s the non-blockbuster stuff, ranging from more niche titles for expensive consoles all the way to the guy making homebrew Atari games. There are some really great games you can get for cheap or even for free through a variety of venues, and there are games that fit a wider variety of people and lifestyles besides the guy who can park in front of his HDTV for several hours on a regular basis. There’s a lot of overlap between the two kinds of video gaming of course, and along pretty much every axis possible. While there undoubtedly is a mainstream audience that sticks to big-budget AAA titles, gamers as a whole have made stuff like Xbox Live Arcade and Steam plenty successful, and that’s before we talk about games that are able to reach out to people who aren’t hardcore gamers. The internet and other new technology has democratized a lot of technology, and just as it’s become at least as easy to get a Jonathan Coulton album as music from a major label, it’s become far easier for indie video game designers to make something polished and fun and get it out to people. [1]

Under the circumstances, I have no idea what to make of Microsoft seemingly aspiring to make its game console more like the major record labels and less like all the stuff that’s looking like it’ll be the future of music. I’m tempted to check to see if any executives from SCEA have moved over to the Xbox team, because Xbox One is producing the kind of tone-deaf statements that used to be the purview of Sony execs pushing the PS3. [2]

I started playing video games… actually with the family’s Commodore Vic20, but I started seriously playing on the NES [3] . For a while I would come home from school, start up Super Mario Bros. , and go into a sort of trance and then come out of it to find it was dark and my thumbs hurt. But I think it was when I was playing on the original PlayStation and Sega Saturn (and then the Dreamcast, plus a bit of Neo Geo Pocket Color) that my video gaming was most distinctly mine . I was a huge Japanophile, big on JRPGs and fighting games, and totally obsessed with certain puzzle games (most notably Bust-A-Move a.k.a. Puzzle Bobble ). I ended up owning a bunch of games that were niche if not outright obscure (for example, I had the PS1 version of Touki Denshou Angel Eyes ). There’s a certain gamer archetype that I fit, but I’m pretty far removed from the mainstream, especially in the U.S. I prefer games that are a solitary experience, I’m not impressed by “realistic” graphics (I still think Phantasy Star Online is far better to look at that Gears of War ), I’m not terribly interested in DLC or achievements [4]

All of that helps explain why when I took it into my head to buy a handheld system to play on the bus I ended up getting a new PSP for $95 at Target. It’s a system that got a lot of love from Japanese developers, and it doesn’t hurt that a lot of those games are available for cheap (though retail stores where you can walk in and buy them are few and far between now). It also came just before the whole game industry when totally crazy with DLC and achievements, while being new enough that it nonetheless has an online store available. I get my cheesy JRPGs and whatnot, ready to take anywhere I go, without breaking the bank.

Today I went to a hole in the wall used game shop (actually it’s in the basement of a computer store) to look for PSP games. GameStop does used games in a way that’s kind of terrible for everyone concerned (including but not limited to their own employees), while most retailers have little if anything for any game systems not in active production, so most any store that steps away from that is welcome. This place (“GameShop”) seems to be doing pretty well for what it is, and has a ton of different things available. I picked up a copy of Lumines II , and I also saw a little kid there with his dad buying an Atari 2600 and some cartridges. I really do hope that that moment represents some slice of the future of video games. If it is, I think the future’s going to be pretty great all told.


[1] There’s also the possibility of cheaper hardware that does more. Although the Ouya looks to be having some serious issues, the fact remains that the mere idea of a cheap Android-powered console got 63,000 people to open their wallets. When either Ouya gets itself together or someone properly pulls off what they were attempting, it could be something pretty big.

[2] “So good you’ll want to get a second job to pay for it” and such.

[3] I can’t remember the exact year, but the guy I bought my NES from was nice enough to show me his brand new Super Famicom and hoooooly crap I just felt this huge tidal-wave of 8/16-bit nostalgia.

[4] Though for the Xbox Live Arcade version of Lumines I did end up getting basically everything offered of both. Lumines remains the only 360 game where I got ALL of the achievements, and the “Single Lap Quarter Million” one was pretty brutal.

One comment

  1. Serdar says:

    To my mind, it’s pretty simple: Microsoft sees this as a media box with some gaming sprinkled on top of it. I don’t think that attitude will serve them well as gaming spreads to a wider segment of the population, though.

Leave a Reply