Hyperbolic speculation is the norm when it comes to the introduction of a new video game console generation. Read the pundits, and it’s clear that each iteration of Nintendo’s game system will be the one that “changes the way we understand games,” and every console war will be someone’s last. While I normally try to distance myself from such far reaching claims, it’s hard to ignore the gravity of this upcoming console generation and its potential to shape the future gaming landscape.
The introduction of a new console generation used to be a hard reset for the gaming industry. The old titles and experiences were thrown out for new games and awe-inspiring graphical upgrades. From Sony to Nintendo to Sega (rest in peace), the scales of power shifted rapidly with the gaming giants jostling every few year for their place at the top.
That was the old gaming world. It was the world where games were purchased in brick and mortar stores and played exclusively on consoles. Look back eight years and see how things have changed; smartphones are now a viable gaming platform, online integration is expected, and some games are even free to play. With online communities and digital content extending beyond the lifespan of consoles, the “hard reset” no longer exists and line between console generations is becoming blurred.
While some gamers still prefer to play alone, the last eight years have been a testament to the importance of online gaming. The Xbox 360 and the PS3 helped to bring online gaming mainstream, but since then the experience has become much more than a simple means to play; it’s a social endeavor. With each system offering its own respective communities, players have forged identities, collecting achievements and connecting with friends.
For the first time ever in a new console cycle, there is an experience that extends beyond the life of the console itself. In today’s online gaming world “who you play with” is becoming just as important as “what you play” or “what you play on.”
Microsoft and Sony understand this, and will likely include the option for users to import their old accounts onto the new generation of systems. This means that gamers will be able to continue their online experience seamlessly into the next generation, and more importantly they have added incentives to stick with the same brands going forward.
Adding to customer incentives is the potential carryover of games with the industry’s push towards digital content. Native backwards compatibility has existed in the past, but due to hardware restrictions (often a result of evolving/changing chip architectures) the catalog of playable games has been limited. Streaming digital content on the on the other hand could help manufactures offer a far wider breadth of older titles on future systems.
Streaming digital content would allow consoles to bypass the difficulties associated with emulating old content. OnLive first demonstrated the viability of online streaming, but due to the enormous overhead that comes with streaming games the company eventually went belly up. However, despite the costs and difficulties associated with online streaming, Sony (which acquired the online streaming company GaiKai in 2012) appears to ready to take on the challenge.
In Sony’s recent PlayStation 4 press conference, the company announced its lofty goals of online streaming with the PlayStation Cloud. Unfortunately details about the new cloud system where scarce; but the company did say that it aims to allow users to access their content through a plethora of devices, and it hopes to offer content extending as far back to the original PlayStation.
How exactly this cloud will work, and what kind of price structure will follow it remains to be seen; but the introduction of Sony’s new cloud systems does allude to the fact that the future of the games industry will revolve around interconnectivity. And you can bet that others will quickly pick up the banner. With competitors like Valve already offering a freely moving catalog of games with its Steam client on the PC, the consoles need to catch up.
With the industry continuing to stress the importance of digital distribution and online gaming, the carryover from console generations is increasing greatly, making it much easier for companies to entice consumers to stay loyal in the future.
The window for these companies to solidify their install bases is shrinking rapidly, and likely whoever gains ground this generation, will have a much easier time holding it in the future.