Console war arms race — hurting or helping the consumer?

Infendo

Console warsThis console war is truly a slippery slope. On the one hand, people often welcome sharp new graphics and processing speeds with open arms, because we humans absolutely love getting to that next plateau and fulfilling our manifest destiny wherever it may take us. On the other, we have our wallets; those mangy, leather bound bifolded containers of cash that we oft stick on our back pockets, or, if we be girls, in our purses or bags or wristlets.

Seems hardly fair: horsepower and technological advancement versus a dead cow? No contest. Right? RIGHT?!

But wait. Console prices are higher than ever these days, and more often than ever before console manufacturers are asking us to just trust them and make the long term investment. Well, that was the case if you bought in last November (or earlier). Today, however, we see price cuts, and bundles and tiered SKU’s — oh my!

We consumers aren’t the only ones dealing with the wallet versus power issue. The developers have encountered the same phenomenon, and we’re starting to see the consequences. Wait, strike that, games shot up to $60 last year — we have already seen one of the consequences. But the other ones, less noticeable yet just as potent, are beginning to bubble to the surface as if the industry was bobbing on some big, blue colored ocean.

Those other obstacles on the slippery slope? Development costs. Development team sizes. Corporate bureaucracy guiding the mission statement of developer houses so that they take as few risks as possible. Respecting the bottom line, unfortunately, has taken precedence over respecting video games as an art form (and that’s a story for another day, of course: how we video game types protest the lack of respect from media types like Roger Ebert, while at the same time we remain silent about buying the same schlock year after year for higher prices — thereby reinforcing the money over art mentality with publishers. Irony can be an art form too, right?). At first, these developers embraced horsepower and bling post haste. It will be interesting to see if they continue on the same path in a year’s time when they realize that — after a $20 million budget (plus marketing costs) — it’s a lot harder to make your money back. Once upon a time a game that sold 5 to 10 million copies was a success. In today’s market, you might not make your money back, so there’s more risk. More risk means fewer titles and less creativity. There’s no magic potion to dispel that dynamic — it’s how everything works.

So, we revisit the post headline, which was actually taken from an Advanced Media Network column by Josh Valone. The column looks at the strategies of all three video game giants today, and asks us all what we have sacrificed by embracing this horse race. It examines what, if anything, is gained by selling us bloated expensive systems at a loss. And they are bloated, no doubt about it. And I’m not talking all those unecessary and often unused multimedia features either — I’m talking strictly hardware specs. Don’t believe me? Then ask yourself — has any system in the last 10 years ever been “maxed out” in terms of its potential? Quick answer: It hasn’t, because there’s always a new system coming out on the horizon to supersede it and begin the entire dynamic all over again (the original Xbox didn’t even make it five years in the “age of five year console cycles”).

AVM:

We certainly need reasonable hardware improvement to drive the artistic side of our pastime, but if that aspect is overemphasized as is the case right now, it dramatically limits innovative concepts because of fiscal responsibilities. With smaller advancements in hardware, the risk-factor for publishers decreases dramatically and everyone benefits as a result. It is not in our best interest to have a handful of epic titles every five years when we could instead enjoy dozens of them if we resolved to sacrifice a smidgen of technology in the process. It’s a classic case of doing what is necessary to have your cake and eat it too. The industry has gotten so wrapped up in baking this cake that they haven’t quite figured out how to manage eating it.

The AVM article is also full of its share of holes (takes one to know one, right?), but the initial question remains the perfect one for this day and age in video gaming. Modest gains or macho man syndrome? Which do you see having the bets effect on gaming today?

[Muchos gracias, Fes!]