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The Console Wars Are Over

Wii U vs iPadIs another round of the Console Wars just beginning with the launch of the Wii U, or is it already all over for the home consoles?

Not long ago, I suggested this current round of home game console releases could be the final round of the long-running Console Wars. To be honest, I'm not sure why I wrote that – but it wasn't that I thought there would be no more dedicated games machines being made. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that what made the whole concept of a Console War meaningful was that multiple companies were producing dedicated games hardware to directly compete for the money of game players.

But in fact, the idea that the home consoles could be treated in isolation has been tenuous for a while now – the idea that the DS, being a handheld machine, didn't count for the Console Wars – despite having been only a whisker away from being the best-selling console of all time for over a year – is absurd when viewed economically since the DS absolutely was vying for the same pool of money as the home consoles. All that blocked their inclusion in that battlefield conceptually was the gamer hobbyist image that I have a games machine at home and a handheld for when I travel. But this isn't a description of how most household's make spending decisions about game technology. Viewed economically, the Console War was always an ideological image fostered by the games industry (and perpetuated by gamers) that gave a cosy sense of importance to dedicated games hardware.

However, dedicated games hardware is no longer the core revenue generator for games, and hasn't been since World of Warcraft showed just how much more money games-as-service could rake in. The home consoles are still very much profitable - but it strains the imagination to suggest they compete in isolation from all the other ways people can now play games. What distinguished the home consoles more than anything was the fact they were played on the household TV. But this venerable device is no longer the de facto entertainment hub, since a tablet or laptop – hell, even a cellphone – is just as capable of delivering the media the TV always used to have a corner on. TV sales are falling, only by about 8% at the moment, but there is already a sense that the domination of the TV as an entertainment device has been challenged at the very least.

What threatens the TV is the same thing that threatens the games consoles and, for that matter, the ebook reader: the tablet computer. More specifically, Apple's all conquering iPad tablet. You only have to look at the design of the new Wii U to know who Nintendo view as their biggest rival: Apple are hurting Nintendo most in the mobile space, but make no mistake, when the mass market for games can get their play on a device they already own, expect dedicated device sales to suffer. To give this story some key numbers, Nintendo's Wii – putatively the winner of the last round of the Console Wars – sold 97 million units over 6 years. Apple's iPad has sold 84 million units in just 2.5 years, and about three quarters of those people use their iPad to play games. Need more evidence that this is an issue? Even though many iPad owners also own an ebook reader, they tend to read books on their iPad. When you're already using one device for so much, you just don't need dedicated equipment as much.

None of this is to say that the home consoles have nothing to offer – for the gamer hobbyists, both online gaming services like Microsoft's Xbox Live and high dimensionally controllers (e.g. twin sticks) are indispensable. Trouble is, the economics of the home console always depended upon crossing over into a wider market, where these factors are less decisive. And platform licensors like Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo can no longer count on swankier graphics to make a difference as except to the trained eye of a diehard gamer the differences in quality have become quite marginal.

Gamers will persist in seeing the Console Wars as ongoing because they will face a genuine choice over where to spend their money. But many will no longer really be choosing between different hardwares: they will be choosing between different service providers like Xbox Live  and, possibly, different controllers. What's going to really raise the stakes is the gradual adoption of Smart TVs that bring the multirole functionality concept into the living room's electrical centrepiece. You can bet that Microsoft and Sony will be targeting these for their game services, and thus weakening the value proposition for any dedicated devices even further.

The notion of a Console War depends upon the need for dedicated devices that directly compete for the same pool of money. But it's already the case that the only part of the home consoles that is unique to them is the controller, which is the cheapest part of the whole deal. Ship a Smart TV with a twin sticks gamepad and a one month trial of a cloud gaming service and see what happens... Even if no-one tries to bite that apple, the idea that Apple isn't already taking a bite out of the console market is absurd.

The Console Wars are already over. The wider competition over games revenue has already begun – and the home consoles are just one front in that 'war', one that must work harder than ever to maintain its viability.


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Moore's Law has not been kind to the console. Once upon a time, expensive dedicated hardware was essential in order to obtain any useful performance out of many games. These days, a multi-hundred MIPS processor costs cents in bulk and tens of gigaflops of GPU power costs little more - look at the economics of the Raspberry Pi for a fascinating example. Once you can embed something that's "good enough" for many users for many games as a tiny cost as part of a general-purpose device, whether that's a phone, tablet, TV or smart glasses, the economics change completely.

That's good news! Not having a console myself, I feel like I'm not really missing out any more :-)

So in the 1990's we saw the end of the arcade machine cabinet that was so popular in the 80's, as a result of competition with consoles and hardware accelerated computers that had reached the same level of quality. Now we are going to witness the end of the console as a result of other devices or ways of playing, formerly considered casual and inferior (also cheaper), catching up with the top end dedicated machines.
And because games are so expensive to produce, there can't be any possibility of a market for consoles if it does not encompass the majority of gamers. In other words, in a hardcore-only market, AAA titles cannot exist, which are the main reason one would want a console in the first place.

Peter: Indeed, this is part of the problem, the other being that the graphics long since passed the point where an average joe could care about further improvement - which I suppose can also be tied to Moore's Law. :)

Romain: I wouldn't be so sure that the core market can't continue to support the consoles economically - the key issue is (ironically) the controller. If no-one makes the controllers gamers like to use standard for an open platform then the big titles could continue be economically viable on consoles. But it is now *so marginal* for Sony and Microsoft to foot the bill of the expensive specialist kit that they must surely begin to consider other business models (and indeed, they obviously have as Xbox Live demonstrates).

And even if we move into a space where the division between home consoles and other devices has less meaning, the console may still be able to offer cost-effective or more reliable (Microsoft not withstanding!) entry points into the games market.

I don't think the home console is dead - it just isn't sensible to pretend that they are solely competing with one another. ;)

All the best!

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