The PC is Dead. Long Live the Console!
Matt posted in The Industry on April 20th, 2007
It’s interesting that several people are spelling the death of the console because consoles are becoming more and more like PCs. Recently, John Romero said, “My prediction is that the game console in the vein of the PS3 and Xbox 360 is going to either undergo a massive rethink or go away altogether. The hardcore gamers are going to either be playing on their PCs or a new PC-like platform that sits in the living room but still serves the whole house over Wi-Fi, even the video signal.”
John Romero’s lost some credibility since nothing he’s worked on since Id has turned out well, but Blizzard’s VP, Itzik Ben Bassat, said the following: “The PC is becoming an entertainment hub – you use it to watch videos and TV, play games, listen to music… With wireless, you can send your content from your PC to anywhere in the house, to your TV, something I already do. You can play PC on your TV because it’s an LCD screen. Consoles are becoming sophisticated PCs which sit in the living room. We’ll have to see how all this develops. Maybe in five years you won’t need a console because you’ll have one PC which delivers content all over your house.”
Finally, Paul Steed said in a recent interview that “The future of gaming is really mobile games and PC games. There’s more computers in the world, there’s more cell phones in the world than there are consoles and that’ll never change.”
They are right that consoles and PCs are starting to fill the same void. If you look at Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, there is very little difference between them and computers. They basically replace your PC for entertainment purposes. You can surf the web, watch movies, download TV shows, and play games on your big flat screen HDTV. Now, these developers are suggesting that the console will go away and the content will all come from the PC rather than the console basically transplanting the PC into the living room.
This is where I think they are wrong. These developers all come from a PC background, so they may have trouble imagining that the PC could be replaced. Firstly, I’m going to talk about why the desktop PC is becoming less and less important in homes. Then I will talk about why the console makes more sense in you living room than a PC (either located physically in that room or connected wirelessly). This should explain why I think the desktop PC at home will die and the console will emerge triumphant.
So, why is the desktop PC going to die? You’ll notice, I qualified that statement. The desktop PC at home will die. The desktop PC is always going to have a place at work, but at some point there, it may be replaced by thin clients. That’s another article for another time. In order to see why it’s going to die, we have to recognize what people use their desktop PCs for. Firstly, there is the communication aspect of it. This includes e-mail, messaging, surfing the web, etc. Then, there’s the entertainment aspect of it. This includes playing games, watching movies, TV, and browsing the internet. I’d say for at least 80% of PC users, that’s it. An astute reader will notice that consoles already do all the entertainment aspects of a home PC, and a cell phone does all the communication aspects of it. Presently, they might not do them as well, but that may change.
The real question is how are these devices going to replace the PC? I don’t think cell phones will replace the PC for all communication purposes immediately, but I think that over time, it will become the device of choice for communication. The main things it is lacking is a good text entry system (although the bluetooth projected keyboard is pretty awesome), and a big enough screen. The screens resolutions will increase over time, and perhaps they will come with a mini-HDMI port, connect to a TV/monitor wirelessly or have an internal projection system in the future. Communication is something important that people want to be able to do anywhere. Having all your e-mails with you wherever you go and being able to access and reply to them is a huge win. Often, someone e-mails me the time I’m supposed to meet them or location, and I completely forget, but I don’t have access to my home PC. E-mail is something that you really want to take with you wherever you go. Having all your contacts for e-mail, messenging and phoning all in one place is very convenient also.
The portable aspect of the phone is a big advantage of the mobile phone over the PC for communication purposes. But, the real question is why do I think the console will win over a PC in the living room? As all the quoted PC developers purport, the PC can live in the living room hooked up to the TV rather than a console. I think it’s reasonable to assume that the one that will win is the one that delivers a much better experience to the user. That is clearly the console. I’ll explain why.
Firstly, and most importantly is the price advantage. Console hardware is subsidized by the hardware manufacturers, which really make them more attractive to the budget minded consumer. The other main advantage is the plug and play aspect of them. You plug it into your TV, and boom! You can run everything you could possibly want. There is no installing software (besides the automatic updates), there’s no driver incompatibilities, games not running because of your system specs, and the applications are generally more stable because they only have to support very few hardware configurations. You don’t have to worry about virus protection on your console. There’s no defragmenting your hard disk.
Here’s a good example. When the very first Rainbow Six came out, I was excited about the game, so I downloaded the demo for PC. I installed the game, updated DirectX, got the latest drivers and all that, and was all set to go. I spent quite a while setting up all my attack routes, strategies, and weapon. Finally, as it was loading the actual level, and I anxiously awaiting the loading bar to finish, so I could enjoy my well laid plans, the game crashed. I was so fed up with it, I uninstalled the demo and never played again. Now, I program for a living. I’m not your average Joe consumer who doesn’t know what a driver is. If I don’t want to struggle to get a game to run on a PC, troubleshoot all the potential problems, then this platform is not ideal for the average Joe consumer. Console sales are increasing and gaining market share over PC games. Why would this trend miraculously reverse just because consoles share a lot of the same functionality? They share a lot of functionality, yes, but the consoles do it better and cheaper.
What can PCs do better than consoles? The real advantage to PCs are the input devices – mice and keyboards. Besides tradition, there’s no reason they HAVE to be PC exclusive, and more and more console games will use them. Xbox 360 as well as Playstation 3 work with USB keyboards out of the box for all their text entry. Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus as I mentioned previously works with the keyboard and mouse for Playstation 2. Unreal Tournament 2007 for Playstation 3 will work with a keyboard and mouse. I haven’t heard if the 360 version will support them or not, but they’d be silly not to. It would make sense for Shadowrun the first cross platform competitive game to include keyboard and mouse support on the 360 version, but I don’t think it does. Hopefully, they’ll patch it later to rectify this oversight.
Something that lends credence to my theory is that Apple, Microsoft and Sony are trying to get into these two new platforms for computing. Three huge companies, the two main competitors in the home PC platform and one of the biggest consumer electronic companies, and they are trying to get into these two spaces. I imagine this is because they see the writing on the wall and that these two areas is where the money will be in the future – not the desktop PC. Microsoft saw it before Apple since the Xbox and the PocketPC platform predate the iTV and the iPhone from Apple considerably. Sony may have had the vision of the entertainment PC first with the Playstation 2. The Xbox was apparently developed in reaction to the idea of this new Sony computing platform being in everyone’s home – without running Microsoft’s operating system on it. The PSP is trying to move into that area as well, but from the entertainment side of things. I think the communication mobile PC/phone device will be used for portable entertainment, but I would argue that’ll be the icing on the cake rather than the prime usage just because as Steed said, there are more phones in the world than gaming consoles. Certainly, the Playstation brand commands a larger market share than Sony Ericsson, so that makes sense for them.
I could reiterate my point in my typical fashion, but I think I’ve actually made my point without my usual verbosity. If you don’t believe me, numbers don’t lie. Here’s some graphs from the ESA: