It’s easy to forget how different the technological landscape was when the Xbox 360 launched in 2005. YouTube had just come out of beta. Netflix still dealt exclusively with physical media. Valve was just beginning to court external publishers for Steam. Facebook had fewer than 10 million users (they now have over a billion). There was no Reddit, no Tumblr, no Kickstarter, no Twitter, no iPhone, and no iPad. In short, when the current generation of game consoles began, the products and services that mediate hundreds of millions of people’s experiences with technology either did not exist or were still small potatoes.
The perceived perils of launching a new console today, after all of those changes, are well documented. What has me excited coming out of E3 is that all three manufacturers have different and interesting approaches.
Microsoft’s strategy is the logical conclusion of their experience with Xbox Live, where the usage of entertainment apps like Netflix grew until they surpassed the multiplayer service in popularity. Now Microsoft is betting that the future is in multi-use boxes that offer a variety of media options, not in gaming-focused consoles. Their framing of that strategy could have been better, as could their reassurances about the system’s DRM, though I suspect the PR hit was largely localized to the gaming community. Personally, I’m more curious about what those “restrictions” mean for developers—what possibilities emerge when every player is guaranteed to have a broadband connection and a high-resolution Kinect?
Sony, meanwhile, is doubling down on games of all shapes and sizes, and has positioned itself as the consumer-friendly choice. Given the vibrancy of the indie community over the last few years, this seems like an equally valid approach to me; it was heartening to see all of those developers on stage during the keynote. (Who could have predicted that a console pitch would ever include a game like Octodad: Dadliest Catch?) There is still some risk, in that we may indeed find that gaming-focused consoles can’t survive anymore, but I think the wide-ranging developer support will be enough to make it work. Given that, I expect to see a lot of PC+PS4 releases in the near future.
Nintendo, as ever, is doing its own thing. The Wii U has had a bit of a rough year, offering few of the blockbuster first-party titles that have traditionally been the company’s bread and butter. Many of those games are on their way now, though, and they look as solid as ever (now in HD, and at sixty frames per second!). Nintendo may not be attracting a lot of third-party support, but they make up for it by developing some of the best games in the world; I think they have every reason to be hopeful for a 3DS-like reversal of fortune once their fanbase gets on board. I’m hoping for more weird experiments with the touchscreen controller and asymmetrical multiplayer design as well.
With any luck, all three of these strategies will pay off, and we’ll end up with a wider variety of games to enjoy.