Thoughts on Consoles Becoming the Next Coin-Op

Over at The Escapist, the fine folks at Extra Credits have posted a video positing that that consoles are on the way out in the next few cycles, in favor of the phone and tablet computer platforms.  Have a watch then come on back and I’ll share my own thoughts on the matter.

It’s understandable, really, why it would seem that cloud gaming was the next logical step—but it isn’t.  Tablet computers and mobile phones are certainly almost powerful enough to run many games, tablet computers especially.  I would even estimate that in only a handful of years, we’ll see tablet computers start to rival their desktop and laptop counterparts in terms of sheer processing power.

That isn’t enough, though.  Many game genres, such as real-time strategy games, modern first-person shooters, and even racing games need a controller or keyboard and mouse.  For one thing, trying to use most common “gestures” on a Windows-based tablet or the purported ones on Apple’s tablet will end up with your fingers flying than trying to play four concertos at once.  At quadruple-speed.

The set-up as it stands just doesn’t easily—if at all—lend itself to games much more complex than are already available.  Sure, there are well-received games for the iPad like Bastards, but it along with most other popular first-person shooter games on the iPad are running on the Doom engine, which is, in gaming terms, positively ancient.  The most recent version was released sixteen years ago.  Look at the games running off of that engine—they’re not very complex, they don’t look all that great, and their stories are next to non-existent.

There are other games that are innovative, that really see what’s possible with the medium—but right now, what’s possible isn’t what we’re getting on our consoles and desktops/laptops.

Another issue I have with that Extra Credits commentary is that there is an incredibly large modding community—Mod D.B. is one of the largest, but certainly nowhere near the only one.  A quick search in Google will reveal plenty of places to start looking, especially if you add in the name of your favorite game to the search terms.

Modding isn’t about cheating, either.  Most of the time, mods are fun, created by gamers who love the game and want to make something that others can enjoy as well.  Being a huge fan of the old show, one of my favorites is the Knight Rider mod for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which also has its own site here.  It also seems to be on an extended hiatus, but even the comparably small amount that’s been accomplished so far is astounding.  You’ll find that sort of thing for many games—mods that fundamentally affect the game, but only to make it more fun.  That would be utterly lost if developers indeed started focusing on the phone and tablet platforms.

Yet another issue with “cloud gaming” is one no one seems to mention—bandwidth isn’t free.  Many web sites stay free, even ones you can download games from, but someone in your household is still paying the I.S.P. money to let you connect to the Internet.  Consoles and desktops/laptops don’t have an inherent dependency on the Internet for their games (unless you use a digital distribution service like Steam, but digital distribution is a topic for another time).  By running software locally, consoles and desktops/laptops can be completely disconnected from the Internet and it doesn’t matter.

With the growing loss of ‘net neutrality (which itself means that more and more service providers are deciding what content you have access to and how much bandwidth you can have to use it, for whatever reason) constant low-latency network connections will become increasingly difficult—which is the exact thing “cloud gaming” pretty much requires if it aims to give you an experience on par with current console and desktop/laptop gaming.  Running software locally means you never have to deal with bandwidth spikes and lags, I.S.P. price fluctuations don’t affect your gaming, bandwidth caps are irrelevant, and whatever else.

Another issue I have with that video is it seems like Extra Credits are equating ability with desirability, without realize there’s a trade off between experience and convenience.  Tablets and phones do a lot of things—just none of them all that well (except make phone calls, and that’s gone in the other direction into over-complication).  Sure, browsing the Internet from your phone or iPad is okay in a pinch, but a dedicated item like a desktop/laptop computer is still better, it still offers you more options and a better experience.

Yet another issue is one of gamer mentality.  Even the younger gaming generation now grew up—or is growing up—with controllers and the style of thinking they require.  Even if every single one of the aforementioned points were addressed to where tablet and phone gaming were equal to console and desktop/laptop gaming, it would still require a rather drastic mentality shift.  It’s similar to taking a life-long console gamer and handing them their favorite game on a computer, or vice-versa—only the shift from current gaming to tablet and phone gaming would be even more difficult of a hurdle to overcome.

Part of it is that so many things gamers are used to are, as yet impossible on the proposed platforms.  Many games deal with not only what buttons are pressed—but how much pressure is applied to them.  As far as I’m aware, pressure isn’t something that’s been addressed in the phone/tablet world.  Tactile responsiveness in general is barely being addressed, with the most common application being limited visual and aural cues—you press a “button” and something clicks or buzzes, and there might be an animation of the “button” being depressed, but that’s an animation.  It’s not the same as the feel of pressing a button just so far in.

Ultimately, the phone and tablet platforms just aren’t viable enough to be focused on financially.  We certainly won’t see such a thing in a few game console cycles—at best, we’ll see it in a few generations of gamers, but even that might be too optimistic.  Between the technology just not being there and the gamer mentality required too dissimilar to the current average, it just won’t happen.  Maybe it should, maybe it shouldn’t—but it won’t.


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