As we head into E3, next-gen consoles look to distract you from how badly they've taken your rights. Don't be fooled.
By James Pinnell on June 5, 2013 at 1:02 pm
I don’t know about you guys, but I’m pretty damn sick of being told that convenience and freedom are no longer allowed to exist together in this industry.
The ridiculous non-events that constituted the launches of the PS4 and the Xbox One have been fantastic, and free, marketing tools — for HP, Dell, Asus, Gigabyte, MSI and the rest of the industry that feeds personal computers. For the last few weeks especially, more and more people have been increasingly upset with the options that are on offer; The Wii U is a complete and total flop with a non-existent library of titles, an appalling online system and a lack of developer support. The PS4 is a bit of an enigma wrapped in a mystery, with a bunch of games and half the hardware on display, while the more unappealing decisions around DRM yet to be decided or announced. But Microsoft took the trump card last week with one of the worst console launches in history.
There’s a term in politics known as “taking out the trash”. Governments will choose a day where the public generally isn’t listening, such as Christmas Eve or Easter, to quietly announce bad news or unveil a budget deficit. The idea is loosely based around deflection — those who do see the trick probably won’t make enough noise to alert the masses. Developers of consoles used to do the same thing, leaving their big launches to show off glossy games, hardware and fun, dribbling the bad elements in stacks of boring press releases over the next few weeks. People might notice the crap being shoveled under their noses, but they’re still high enough on the positive parts to ignore the bad bits.
What the Xbox team did wrong was attempt to focus eyes on something they thought, somehow, would blow everyone away: television. But they also forgot to talk about games. So once the shiny black box veneer wore off, there was nothing positive left to focus on — only what was missing, or what had been removed. Such as the right to control almost anything to do with the machine. You couldn’t trade games with your friends anymore, without a penalty. You couldn’t import cheaper titles from other regions. The much-vaunted TV features wouldn’t be made available for months. You still have to pay for multiplayer. There’s still ads on the dashboard. It has to be online, (nearly) all of the time. Nothing you’d purchased could be transferred. What was the point?
Let’s not pretend that the PS4 gets off scot-free here either. There are still rumours floating around involving a stack of similar functionality restrictions, especially around DRM, regions and used game restrictions. However, it’s less likely these will be announced at E3, as Sony would have probably learned by now how important it is to control and hide that message. So gamers are left between a s**t sandwich and a wet one. Sure, the wet one is edible, but do you really want it? Is it worth paying hundreds of dollars, accepting a loss of freedom over what media you choose and how you purchase it, especially as the market hardens due to software refusing to depreciate in value thanks to the death of used game trading.
It sounds like a bit of a cliche, but this is the argument that PC gamers have been making for years. Not only do you have enormous choice over what machine you have (pre or post built), what OS you run (Windows, Linux or OSX) and how things work (8, 16 or 32gb of RAM?), but you aren’t dictated how your titles are used. Sure, there’s DRM around, but it isn’t anywhere near as restrictive and in a lot of cases optional — DRM-free gaming is making a huge comeback, especially in the indie scene. You can choose from hundreds of marketplaces in order to purchase software, support independent developers directly and participate in the development process yourself. The cost of upgrading machines has dropped astronomically, making it extraordinarily affordable to match, or exceed, the graphical prowess of consoles after a few years. Innovations in Mini-ITX machines has halved size requirements without removing performance, and UI improvements have made TV functionality much simpler and innovative. You don’t have to pay for the privilege to play your game online.
PCs aren’t perfect, and in a lot of ways consoles still make the process easier, but every single year there are new barriers added. It used to be the pitfalls of installing and managing software that gave consoles the advantage, but playing a game on Steam, Origin, GOG or Desura is rarely more than a few clicks away. Nowadays, purchasing console software on slow, convoluted and messy marketplaces, putting up with dreadfully slow updates and dealing with ridiculous wallets and points have destroyed the advantage of traditional console play. Not only that, but there are fewer online avenues to purchase console content digitally, and in some cases only one — which hardens competition and kills price comparisons. When was the last time Sony, Nintendo or Microsoft sold hundreds of 1st and 3rd party titles for 50-75% off? Both consoles also plan to make game installs mandatory.
Picture via Art of Jin.
It’s no longer about providing the best gaming experience anymore. It’s about locking in the player, stripping their rights as consumers and forcing them to sit and play within a cage. By caving into publishers and retailers, and making short-term, seemingly profitable deals with sports, music and movie companies, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo are attempting to cement their futures in “entertainment” rather than gaming. But people don’t want vertical providers for their content. When they buy an Xbox, they want to play the gaming experience crafted by that hardware developer. Not the exclusive NFL highlights or the ability to search Bing while watching Star Trek 2 in HD.
Many other commentators have noted that in order to redeem themselves even slightly, Microsoft need to announce the most incredible games ever at E3 — but it may well be that the horse has already bolted. The Xbox team knew, well and truly, what they wanted to push on that reveal, and none of it was what the marketplace actually wanted. This has happened before: Sega thought people wanted boatloads of addons, peripherals and gadgets over great software. It ended up almost killing them. Nintendo made an enormous loss thanks to their changing focus towards hardware. In fact, if there ever was a platform designed for “core” gamers who just want great experiences at a reasonable price, it was the PC. It always has been, and at least for the near future, probably always will be.
I’m pretty sure there’s a pair of marketing VPs sitting somewhere at Alienware and Razer, smiling to themselves right now.