Over the last half decade, I have heard a lot of rumblings within the games criticism community surrounding the idea of a one console future. On the surface these discussions usually posit that video games are unique as a medium in having competing proprietary standards that run for up to a decade with media exclusivity, without at any point one of those solutions becoming standardised. The solution usually posed is a one console future, a world where anyone can manufacture video games for a standard video game media format. No more exclusives, every game comes to every game box.
While I think the posed discussion is interesting, I think all too often a huge amount of the discussion is somewhat swept under the rug. What actually sets video games apart as a medium? Will those differences settle down over the coming decades? What pros and cons would such a potential system have for consumers? What role would timing have in the success of such a solution?
Strap yourself in folks, I’m about to try and answer a lot of pretty huge questions. Let’s kick off with what separates video games from movies when it comes to standardised physical media formats for home or personal consumption.
Movies as a medium are incredibly easily scalable. Movie producers can create their movie on cutting edge hardware, scale it to display on multiple playback formats and not have to worry about which format is adopted as a hardware standard. This means movies as a medium can be created by creators with minimal thought placed on home playback solutions.
While video playback standards have always seen competition over new hardware standards, the nature of film means these battles usually happen before the average consumer feels the need to upgrade their setup, meaning that most consumers can essentially enter a one hardware setup standard without having to worry about competition. Just because a new movie comes out on bluray and HD-DVD doesn’t mean it can’t be scaled down for a DVD release too. The same goes for VHS owners while DVD and Laserdisc fought things out.
While movies have generations of hardware competition, because such a relatively small number of consumers feel pressured to adopt early, by the time the mass market moves on they generally have a single hardware format future to move to. Anything released that is exclusive to one half of the new standard wars is also probably going to get released on the past generation, so there’s no pressure on movie fans to buy into both standards in order to experience the new piece of media. You’ll still get the same movie in all regards, besides possibly raw resolution, audio clarity and stability.
Now, this is definitely pretty different to the current state of the video game industry. Due to the fact video games have to be processed in real time, it is far harder to produce high end products, then scale down the experience to past generations of media standard without cutting content. While a movie is likely to only see a drop in resolution, in order to port down a high end video game you’ll likely have to strip out physics simulations, particle effects, volume of content, rendering distances and whole features.
The speed at which video game technology is evolving and the speed with which new tech prices drop means that consumer affordable leaps in high end production come around every couple of years. Every time this happens, creators are able to create notably more impressive pieces of art, and the lack of scalability encourages consumers to buy into that new generation while it’s still in heavy competition with itself.
This race to adopt early ultimately leads hardware manufacturers to monetising the creation of exclusive content. Video game consoles are released before they’re truly at a consumer friendly price point, with operating margins for manufacturers as a result becoming so slim that high sales volumes are needed to remain profitable. Meet the current video game industry, a place full of pieces of media that are tied exclusively to certain manufacturers hardware standards.
The resulting fragmentation of media across multiple formats doesn’t help video games grow as a medium. Consumers, future critics and future creators on a budget are locked out of experiencing all the releases the medium has to offer due to the somewhat prohibitively high cost every five years or so required to keep being able to purchase new releases. We don’t even have a cinema release analogue where someone can experience the media without owning the hardware for a higher fee.
So, let’s get this out the way, I don’t think the idea of a one format or single console future is going to be viable for a LONG time. In order to be both viable for the industry, and advantageous to consumers, we need several criteria to be met. We need to hit a tech ceiling, perhaps the passing of the uncanny valley or similar, where video game technology has reached a stable peak that lasts as long as the average movie format lifespan.
More than that perhaps, we also need to reach an era where high performance hardware is affordable enough that scalability of media doesn’t detract from the core experience. We need to reach a point where resolution drops and audio bit rate drops are still a part of generational gaps, but where low end hardware is strong enough to run those experiences without cutting any features that noticeably alter the experience.
That era of video game development is right now very hypothetical, and a very long way from being a reality.
Still, just because a viable one console future is still decades from being feasible on a technical level, let’s take some time to look at the possible pros and cons of a hypothetical one console future in a world where video game technology has hit its admittedly high tech upgrade speed plateau.
The benefits to consumers of a one console future are pretty easy to imagine. All consumers would have equal access to video game releases regardless of who manufactured the box they purchased. Price competition and quality competition would shift from pushing hardware limits to polishing the hardware generation we had at hand, improving the quality of what we have rather than chasing a moving tech ceiling.
Perhaps most importantly for the medium, we would have less of a race to new hardware, which would allow creators to focus on the art of game creation rather than constantly learning new tech standards. It’s a widely accepted fact that toward the end of a gaming hardware generation, games made for a single hardware standard tend to hit a higher overall quality and a level of critical reception. Having a long term hardware standard means developers can get comfortable with a hardware setup and then just focus on making the best possible product in a known development environment.
As great as all that may sound, there are some serious drawbacks and questions to consider regarding the move to a one format future for video games. On paper, moving to a one console future would reduce competition to push the medium as far as it can go technically. While I’m positing a future where we have hit a video games technological plateau, it’s still worth keeping in mind this reduction to pure technical competition.
A hypothetical one console future would also likely need to agree on a single accepted set of controller format standards. Sure you can have your own brands of controllers and remap controls, but we would need an agreed number of buttons, style of sticks and other standardised elements. Of the three console manufactures currently this would stand to harm Nintendo the most, as their attempts to innovate with control schemes have genuinely been one of the driving forces of video game innovation over the last decade. That is something a standardised single format future would harm.
Lastly, we have to consider how PC as a gaming format would fit into this equation. Perhaps this one console format future would require these mass produced boxes to much more closely match PC systems in architecture so that all video games could essentially be developed for PC. You can have different strengths of box, but they should all play a scaled version of all software.
Wait a second, it feels like I’m describing Steam Boxes. Hmmm, could Steam Boxes possibly be a couple of decades ahead of their time as the blueprint for a one console future? I’m not sure, but it’s an interesting thought.
Lastly, it’s worth considering how portable and mobile games would fit into this discussion. Do we have to reach a point where console and handheld games can be scaled between those two formats? In many ways this sounds like the rumours of Nintendo’s upcoming NX being a hybrid console and handheld. Again, interesting food for thought and discussion.
While the concept of a one console or one format future is at least a couple of decades away from being viable, I think it’s definitely worth us starting to discuss the possibilities. Is this something we want? Is it even viable? I think yes on both counts eventually. Still, we need to start discussing how we would get around the currently unanswered questions.