The Console War Isn't About Gamers Anymore

And it isn't just about games.

The release of a new generation of video game consoles has traditionally meant the promise of new, previously impossible kinds of video games. The jump from 16- to 32- and 64-bit consoles made possible three-dimensional game worlds. The next generation made possible the expansion of these worlds to impressive scale and the furnishing of these worlds with outrageous amounts of detail (think about the difference between Mario 64 and Grand Theft Auto 3). And though the last jump, to the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, took some time, it ultimately enabled the painting of these worlds with staggeringly lifelike texture and cinematic quality (think about the difference between GTA 3 and GTA 4, or the Mass Effect series).

Now that the announcement of Microsoft's new system, the Xbox One, has come and gone, we know the contours of the next generation, the first in eight years. The new machines from Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony are wildly different, but they are all ostensibly game systems, and this may very well be the last time these three companies release new systems within a year of one another. In other words, this may be the last console generation, as such. And for the first time in their thirty-year history, game consoles are no longer about presenting new kinds of games to consumers.

That was most obvious on Tuesday, when Microsoft revealed its new consumer electronics device, and I hesitate to call the thing a game console, any more than I'd call a tricked-out PC a game console. It is an impressive device that does a lot of interesting things, and it looks like it belongs on a sideboard, and it is certainly a much more versatile and ambitious device than Sony's PlayStation 4. But, the very first thing that Microsoft decided to show about the Xbox One, their lead, the thing they were most proud of about their "game console", was the fact that you can verbally order it to watch television. The second thing, I believe, was that you can use your hands to make the display smaller. The third had to do with Skype.

Microsoft announced at the event that they had eight exclusive games in development for their new black rectangle, and that these would be announced in three weeks at E3, the gaming trade show in Los Angeles. Todd Holmdahl, a corporate vice president of hardware at Microsoft, told me on Tuesday that it was important to take the two events in aggregate, that there was simply so much information about the Xbox One to disseminate that it would have muddied the message to announce both the system and the games. That's a fair point, but also: what?. If you take the hundreds of journalists on hand for a game console announcement on an hour-long tour of the anechoic chambers and test labs in which the gesture-control sensor in your new device was honed, you're sending a message. If the most interactive game-thing that you demonstrate to the press is the new rumble strip in the triggers of your controller, you're sending a message. If the biggest news about actual games in your introductory press conference relates to the number of servers that can offload graphics processing to the cloud, you're sending a message.

The message is: The most important thing, the first thing, the defining thing about the Xbox One is the platform, not the games. Console manufacturers have always bragged about their new hardware, but always in the context of what it meant for games. This is new.

I want to be clear: this is not by definition good or bad, as some have written. But it is a change, and it does have obvious implications for the culture of console gaming. Of the half-dozen games Microsoft teased, three were FIFA (the best selling game in the world), Call of Duty (the best selling game in America) and Madden (the second best selling game in America). Millions of people play these games, and for Microsoft they represent a real, compelling route into the homes of the people who play them and the people who live with the people who play them. Indie games, prestige games, creative games, frankly, don't. In ten years, the percentage of games today for mainstream game consoles that were weird, or idiosyncratic, or not "IP" may seem well and truly strange. We may very well expect to control our televisions with gesture and have cable-cum-game boxes that can suggest programs or games to us based on our mood, deduced through our facial expressions and heart rate. But the place for novel kinds of games on a piece of technology that takes as its aim the American mainstream seems small indeed.

In the near term, gamers will look to Sony's new PlayStation as a beacon for traditional gaming. Sony certainly whistled the right notes to get this crowd's tail wagging at their February PS4 launch: ample support from the legacy Japanese houses, ample support for indie games, partnerships with Bungie and Blizzard. People are talking about PS4 as if it represents some kind of moral commitment to gamers by Sony. That's ridiculous. Gamers have been good to Sony in the past and Sony has made a short-term bet that they can still buoy an expensive consumer device. But let's be honest: almost no third party publisher in its right mind, short of an Olympus Mons of cash, would release a major title as an exclusive in 2013. The big third-party games that come out for PS4 are going to come out for or find their way to the Xbox One, and the indie games that come out for PS4 are going to come out on computer. And if it's a choice between two similarly priced devices, one of which offers more enticing features for the rest of the household, well. Also, let's not pretend that Sony showed off some kind of system-seller or revolutionary game in February. The most exciting thing they announced, to my mind (since we still don't know what the fucking thing looks like, a fact that grows more absurd by the day), was the potential of a streaming game Netflix through their acquisition of the cloud gaming service Gaikai. That's a compelling feature, but it certainly isn't a new kind of gaming.

Of course, there was one next-generation system that promised to change the way gamers play. And that system, the Wii U, is in the process of failing catastrophically. Its selling point, dual screens, is as unappealing to mainstream audiences as it is to core gamers, and its enhanced-TV functionality, in the absence of a consumer base, is irrelevant. That's why we saw Call of Duty and FIFA on Tuesday, and not whatever gamer-bait exclusives Microsoft may have up its sleeve. They represent a consumer base. By this logic, it's not "what can the Xbox One do for games", its "what can games do for the Xbox One". That's also why the outrage over backwards compatibility and required connectivity is basically a tempest in a teapot. The proportion of game-playing consumers who would make a buying decision based on these factors alone is a tiny fraction of the group of people Microsoft wants to reach.

And that's also why Holmdahl, the corporate VP, seemed unconcerned when I asked him on Tuesday if non-gamers would be willing to shell out hundreds of dollars for the Xbox One, if Microsoft had limited themselves by making the Xbox One a Blu-Ray game-disc based system at all.

"A lot of people play games," he told me. And he's right. But there are only a few games a lot of people play, and they are the ones that console gamers should get used to playing.