Come 2030.

Gaming itself is changing, and the ways in which this nascent industry is evolving are many. The future of gaming is multifaceted, uncertain, and even frightening.

First let us take stock of the three current spheres of gaming, PC, Console and Arcade.

Arcades are where gaming started, but are now largely relegated to gimmicks and unique control interfaces to continue functioning. The fall of the Arcade can be traced to the onset of home portable gaming. PCs were the harbinger, but it was console gaming that stole the masses away from the coin glutted cabinets of the Arcade. While Arcades maintained graphical dominance even into the fourth generation of consoles, the convenience, cheaper cost, and portability of consoles and eventually PCs as well overwhelmed the graphical edge of arcades. Shipping a new machine to arcades was more difficult than releasing a new video game to retailers. Today all Arcades can offer is a unique experience.

PCs today are relegated to a few niche genres and casual, browser-based games. PC gaming was to the Arcades as television is to movies, similar but overall an experience of lesser quality. This situation was turned on its head by the third generation of consoles, with gamers spending in excess to build PCs capable of graphics equivalent to or beyond what was affordable in arcade. This subculture of gaming riggers continues to this day, and still acts as the driving force behind hardware advances. Still, most PCs aren't built for such intense processing, and many people aren't interested in giving their children a reason to compete for time on the PC.

Consoles currently dominate the gaming industry. Consoles are the youngest sphere of gaming, created out of a desire for Arcade quality gaming at home. This feat wasn't possible on PCs back when the first Atari was released. PCs eventually were able to, but Consoles were far cheaper and matched Arcades. These factors continue to push the dominance of Consoles, even as the lines between them and PCs are blurred. Getting cheap, convenient quality is a hard bargain to pass up.

This is where we stand today. The detail is present because it gives some sense of from where and how the industry has traveled thus far. This is important in considering where gaming is going.

First, Console gaming is dying. This seems a drastic statement, but the situation is as I have stated. In two decades consoles as we know them will cease to be relevant. Consoles are already far diverged from the machines we saw in the 1980s. They are almost identical to PCs, save for their unique form factors and input devices. In a surprisingly short amount of time Consoles will be little more than prefabricated gaming PCs much like Alienware makes now. Proprietary installations will likely continue for some time, but it's only a matter of time before the homogenization of features and hardware begins to defeat the purpose of separate machines.

Second, there will obviously be a resurgence of PC gaming, though PCs as well will have changed. As consoles become more PC-like and the industry transitions back, demands will come for consistent, stable hardware on which PC gaming can be supported. All current Console makers will surreptitiously transform their consoles into gaming PCs, attempting to become the standard. Eventually one, or more likely Alienware, will emerge as the basic standard, with the others being only tangentially supported.

Third, a new sphere of gaming is fast emerging. While gameboys and the like have been around for years, only those with more than a passing interest would purchase them. Now, however, everyone has a phone or portable device capable of playing game, whether they initially intended to use it for that purpose or not. This sphere will dominate the casual market, and even introduce new genres possible only such a widely mobile and ubiquitous platform. Kids will catch Pokemon not by moving a virtual character around a virtual environment, but by walking to school, to the cafeteria, running around the yard and more.

Fourth, the future of Arcades will depend on future technology. In order to survive, Arcades need a new technology that is too expensive for home use. They might attempt to cache in on mobile gaming, acting as hot spots for events and special rewards. Failing a new technology, Arcades in the US will become an antiquity, something novel but no longer critical to the industry. They will continue to have relevance in Japan, but that will also diminish without a significant, unique hook.

Most importantly, by the time all this has come to pass a point will have been reached where additional graphical power is largely irrelevant. A difference will remain, but it will be largely unnecessary for story-experiencing purposes. Gaming will experience it's own "impressionist" movement, moving away from photo-realism and graphical superiority to more creative and interesting uses of computational power. Corporations, however, will act to squelch or ignore such titles initially as they will continue to trust in the staple genres and styles.

See you in 20 years.


360 Trooper said...

I don't think that consoles will merge with PCs so completely. Anecdotally I know of many gamers who prefer consoles a more affordable alternative, so unless gaming PCs can compete in terms of price people will still prefer consoles. Though it is true that the consoles themselves are little more than dedicated gaming PCs, it is ultimately cheaper for me to play a game like Mass Effect or Gears of War on an XBox 360 than on the PC due to the costs of a PC capable of running the game properly. So unless PC hardware sees a dramatic drop in price, I'd suspect that it may be the other way around. While console hardware will become more like PCs, the price difference between a next-gen console and a comparable PC might continue to relegate PC gaming to a niche market of hardcore gamers. The two will become more intertwined, but unless the price of a gaming PC comes down drastically it may be consoles that absorb the PC gaming market, not the other way around.

Scott said...

This is a really interesting post. I definitely agree that the console market may be at its plateau now, with only downhill ahead. The PC market still confuses me, though. How important is the digital download market (I know its the only way I participate now, but what about others?)

Handheld gaming is definitely the most stable in the 5-10 year future, but it may be due to better gaming capable phones than gaming specific hardware.

Matoushin said...

To address the first post, this isn't really a case of one absorbing the other, but both melding together into something else entirely. I chose to describe it as I did because the end result is inherently more PC-like than anything else.

Basically, the only reason we still call them consoles now is tradition and their proprietary nature, the latter of which won't be able to continue indefinitely.

For the second comment, digital download will be the primary delivery method for games in the future, even for blockbuster titles. It's too convenient, easy, and cost-effective compared to physical media, even if the lack of a hard backup gives people like me the willies. Despite my misgivings, at least half of my major gaming purchases this year have been through digital download. If we exclude consoles, I bought all but one PC game this year through digital download, and that one hard copy PC title was purchased from an online store.

Regarding mobile gaming, I foresee significant problems for Nintendo in the future because of the iPhone. By 2030 everyone's cellphones will be iPhone clones and perfectly capable of gaming. There will need to be a very compelling reason for purchasing a completely separate handheld device, and the novelty of the DS doesn't seem sufficient. More powerful gaming also seems insufficient, as handhelds are primarily used for sporadic gaming experiences like Tetris.

If handhelds survive, it won't be as the general platform they are now, but as specific tie-ins to social gaming experiences. That is, you'd buy a fifty dollar device that allows you to catch pokemon in the real world, generating them based on your geographic location.

360 Trooper said...

The one problem is that this assumes a standardization of hardware between consoles and PCs, which would likely drive down the prices of dedicated gaming PCs to something closer to comparable consoles. But this assumes such a standard is set. We don't even have standards for home computers, what with Macintosh and all. Perhaps a company (i.e. Alienware) could release a "console" which was effectively a PC, but at current prices I could get every system of the current generation and it would still be cheaper than 1 dedicated gaming PC. Retail price is the hurdle that must be crossed. That, and a standardized hardware model so I wouldn't have to worry about constantly upgrading my hardware and software developers wouldn't have to worry about how many people may have those upgrades. And I think I just described the concept of a game console.

I think you're approaching this too much from a tech perspective and not taking into account market forces. It's an issue of pricetags for people like me. A console is $300 and no hardware upgrades until the next console generation, whenever that is. A gaming PC is around $1200 (for the cheaper one), not including the cost of future hardware upgrades. And in terms of game quality the only difference is the keyboard interface (and how many people have USB setups so they can use console controllers anyway?). Maybe things will be different in 20 years, but that would require something we have not seen yet. Unless PC hardware prices nosedive, console tech may have plateaued and PC tech will continue to improve, but only the most hardcore gaming nerd will be willing to shell out the money for it.

Scott said...

Sounds like we pretty much agree on the portable gaming scape.

As for digital downloads - what are your misgivings? Just not having a physical copy? Personally, I've loved my Steam experience over the last 1.5 years, and look forward to continuing my PC gaming in the same manner.

Matoushin said...

Part of the issue here is that I'm using a far more technical definition of console. That is, consoles as they were originally designed and intended. Consoles were born because hardware dedicated purely to games was necessary in order for them to be viable, and were proprietary because the technology was in its infancy and everyone had a different idea of how to go about it. The platform not requiring constant upgrades wasn't a thought at the time because the concept of a constantly upgrading PC market didn't exist.

Consoles are no longer remotely like that. In fact, if you compare the design ethic of early consoles to what we have today, we don't have consoles at all. What we have are PCs with scaled back operating systems and non-standard hardware configurations optimized for gaming primarily. We may still call them consoles, but it's obvious that the term and concept no longer mean what they used to.

This homogenization has culminated in consoles with hard drives, internet connections, web browsing capabilities, chat functions, even movie streaming. More and more generalized functions are bleeding in, and the fundamental difference is fast becoming the lack of Windows or Mac OS X.

The point being here that even if the PC market "dies" and genres such as MMORPGs, FPSs and Space Sims take up their keyboards and mice and move to consoles, by the time that happens what constitutes a console will basically be a cheaper version of what Alienware currently sells, with a few token differences here and there. We may still call them consoles, but it'll be vestigial if anything.

I fully expect PC gaming hardware prices to drop as digital downloads push the concept of proprietary hardware away. I really don't see "console wars" as part of 2030 barring arcade-like gimmicks or RIAA-esque attempts to preserve an outdated sales model. The current high cost is because manufacturers have to dump the R&D costs on their new hardware, but as sales expectations increase they can spread that cost across more units and lower the price.

Moreover we'll be near to or at the point in 2030 where newer, shinier hardware is a moot point. It won't add anything to gaming, either because we haven't designed the Matrix yet or because we simply can't dedicate enough man hours to a single game to take advantage of further advances without pushing development times into the decades.

Matoushin said...

Regarding Steam, I have loved the experience as well. It's mostly the lack of a physical backup, and the potential for other companies to have dickish practices when they attempt their own services. If I don't have my own backup, I'm trusting that the company I buy these from remains stable enough that I never lose them to the company being taken over, or folding.

Not that disasters can't happen to physical copies.

Gaming PC said...

Some very interesting points made in the OP. To an extent, I agree. However to cover some of the points regarding the PC game market.

1 - Its still growing, and is doing so at about the same rate it always has. Its new people to the market that are going out and buying "consoles".

2 - We find a lot of customers move away from consoles. Simply because their console does not provide much of a challenge any more. Its seems playstation and Microsoft all want to pump out games my dog could play and have a shelf live of 5 minutes.

In twenty years time, I can see it being much the same it is now. PC based consoles, high end Gaming PCs, the odd arcade, and much more mobile gaming for phones. I do not believe mobile gaming will eat into the other markets, it just cant substitute a goof FPS, Sim, or any other decent title.