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Commiserations to the Console
“The Home Console is dead!” – Probably Neitzche.
As long as home consoles have existed, they have been booked into palliative care. Despite the fact that analysts, pundits, and in some cases, fans (especially you there on PC), corporates waiting for an opportunity to re-distribute demand, have been hovering over the lumbering corpse of console firmware since its inception, the console defies expectation, and to be fair, logic, in its endurance. To the purely Apollonian rationalist, it’s difficult to look at the PC, the iPhone, the unperturbed march of AI and VR into the territory of the console and see how the paltry, pallid, sickly-looking Wii U or 3DS could hold out, even this long.
First in the way of critique, it was the fact that video games were so specialized and attracted a tiny target audience of 12-19 year old boys (contravened by the simple logic that all notable growth industries start out highly specialized and grow in scope). Then it was the takeover of the handheld; why would people be limited to sitting in their houses when they could have Mario on the Go? (Obvious technical difficulties aside, not lacking gravitas and veracity). And more recently, ‘the iPhone will be the death of the console’ or ‘the console, in its plasticine box state will become abstracted and therefore cease to exist’. How does one answer such a cruel attack on the Wii U or Xbox?
The defense is manifold.
The knee-jerk riposte to an assertion of console mutability is console exclusivity. Especially for Nintendo, but certainly for the less prodigious, yet inexorably memorable franchises at Microsoft and Playstation, the iconography of a buoyant plumber swinging a 9 iron with infallible mustache volume and admirable optimism, or a Stoic, gruff super-soldier shoehorned into what can only be an uncomfortable sartorial appendage, blowing away hoards of incompetent, timorous, orange triangles with legs is all that’s needed to ensure console sales.But, you could say, why will consoles not go the way of Kinect or the Power Glove, hand in hand to obsolescence? We’ve seen the emergence of a perennial epigram for console gaming: ‘Hardware Innovation does not Equate Software Sales’. You could argue that Kinect was a jaunty, fun kind of gimmick, as good, if not better than the prodigality of the Wii U and Wii hardware that have been (in the last 6 months at least for the Wii U) on top of the industry.
To you, exasperated developers at Microsoft, I have this to say.
Without iconic characters and narratives endorsed and vicariously embellished by a loyal, vocal and responsive fan base, your gimmick won’t sell. A great idea won’t save bland, no-name titles. It’s widely accepted that good software and fan endorsed franchises are enough to rescue even the most forsaken firmware.
Take the Wii U.
Almost a complete flop at launch, with the vicissitudes of ambitious technology finding little pragmatism, and a woefully abbreviated list of launch titles – almost totally barren of fan favorites – Nintendo closed in roughly seventy-four million dollars of debt for the last quarter of 2013. Without condemning the hardware to failure and exile, Nintendo closed the three months ending September 2014 in 224 million dollars of net profit. The catalyst of this heroic renascence? Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. Exclusivity sells. Despite Nintendo being in a notoriously shaky marriage with Third Party developers and having a long line of divorcees, the exodus notably including one of Nintendo’s greatest supporters carrying over from the Wii, Ubisoft. Likewise, the persistent existence of titles, though less iconic, like Destiny, Halo 3 and The Last of Us, the fact they are nearly all exclusive to console gives an indication of a broader security for the much abused whirring, glowing box in your living room.
Providing your definition of home console is relatively esemplastic, and incorporates the possible relocation of the actual grey/white/black box in temporal space to another room or perhaps back to the company of origin, an acceptance of VR and AI as both being ostensibly indigenous to the grammar of the ‘home console’ (never forget everyone’s favorite robotically-operated buddy!), the console looks unlikely to reach extinction as long as corporations maintain their obstinately territorial grip on franchises, exclusivity and controller in hand gameplay. A critic singing praises at the birth of innovative VR or AI to supervene the home console will not be a eulogist of the trusty plastic box of wires for a long time yet. R.O.B simply won’t let it happen.
And beside the pedantic technicalities of economic security through exclusivity and the resilience of the ‘console’ definition to shifts in hardware paradigm, there is the raw, visceral experience in the home console that can’t go unmentioned. What will happen to the jam-packed couches of fiercely, or secretly, competitive friends digging elbows into the most proximate member of multiplayer axis? What will happen to the temper tantrums over blue shells and screen hackers? There is something about sitting in a bean bag, on a couch, on a bed, on the floor with a few rowdy friends to relive the thrill of Goldeneye or Smash Bros, the raucous laughter at Captain Falcon’s camp cravat and the debates about which console is better – whether or not Samus would kick Master Chief to the curb or visa versa, (we all know Samus would win) and the one guy in the corner like ‘well Snake’s pretty cool too yo’ that can’t be supplanted by a flat, universal gaming experience. It’s the competition that keeps the industry going, and at the risk of sounding a Dionysian capitalist, it’s the competition and lurid contrast of androgynous elf man and adorable plush toy, of zombie hoard against rabbit hoard, that will propagate for console gaming the necessary momentum and vitality to propel it into the future. With territorial characters and territorial controller fanatics comes the territory of the console.
I hold the unpopular view that the console will continue, boat against the current, defying the logic of PC gamers decrying console exclusives, well into the next generation of planet hopping plumbers, quadruple barrelled shotguns and heart-wrenching robotic renditions of ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’.