The longevity of a console

I am very passionate about Blend, there's no question there. But, I'm also a gamer... both board games and computer (PC/Console) games.I was having a conversation with a good friend yesterday, and the more I think about it, the more I just can't accept his argument. Please keep in mind that these are *MY* opinions, and don't reflect the opinions of Microsoft. Everything here is also based on publicly released and announced information, and has absolutely no information that isn't available to everyone else. I don't have some secret inside contact within XBox operations who's feeding me information... it's just the result of, what I thought, was a pretty interesting conversation.

So, the start of the conversation was about the XBox 360. Recently (I believe it was at E3), Microsoft said that they still see another good 5 years in the existing console, so there are no plans for another XBox until the 2014-2015 time frame.

My comment is that this is great. I would be ecstatic to have another five years in the hardware we've already bought. Besides, since we have two entertainment centers, we have TWO Xboxes, and I'm not in a huge hurry to replace them both.

This is where my friend (who I will call X) disagrees. His comment is that Microsoft should be persuing the enthusiast crowd more heavily. The PC Gaming crowd, which is getting more and more alienated, since more people are developing for consoles, are being forced to move to the consoles. Subsequently, they want the BEST graphics, the BEST sound, and everything like that. So, they're not going to want to move to a new console that's based on 3-4 year old technology.

X asserts that most 'serious' PC gamers upgrade their PC hardware on a once-a-year or once-every-two-year schedule. These gamers want a new console, so everything looks as good as it does on their $2000+ PCs, and if we want to entice them, which we certainly should, we need to make sure that our console is up to date with the biggest, strongest hardware to look it's absolute best.

This is where I disagree, for a handful of reasons...

1. The enthusiast crowd is an interesting crowd, but thanks to the advent of the Wii, a new crowd is getting into gaming. This is the crowd that likes casual games that they can pay $10-$15 for, pick up and play, and run with. The XBox 360 and the Live Arcade is VERY enticing to this crowd. We don't need new hardware to play games like Geometry Wars or Uno. The existing hardware is an excellent solution for these folks.

2. Microsoft loses money on every XBox they make, and recovers that money in accessories and gaming licenses. This is simply a fact. And, let's be honest, the 360 wasn't the smoothest launch ever (My wife is on her third XBox now, and I worry that this one won't last too long either). As time goes on, the amount MS loses on each box decreases as the cost of the parts goes down. Why would we reboot that loss amount when the current console still has life in it?

3. We are in an economy with the highest unemployment in a VERY long time. If, as a bread winner in a family, I had $400 to spend on our entertainment, would I rather buy a new console, and possibly not even have enough money for a game for said console, or would I use that $400 to buy about 6 new games? I firmly believe that the percentage of Americans, right now, who could go out to the store and drop $400 without having to think about it for a few minutes, is pretty low.

4. The console market is *NOT* a market that can keep up with computers. Period. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the XBox 360-II was announced. We'd end up sending out development kits to various studios, who would know the expected specs of the machine. Now, let's release the 360-II to the market 6 months later. How many of those initial games would really be worth playing? They may have started development sooner, but let's face it... the developers don't know the tricks to make the 360-II really sing the way they can with the 360 today. So, those first wave of games are going to be... meh. Now, let's release the 360-II to the market 2 years later instead of 6 months. Developers have time to make some better games, but now the hardware is 2 years old! The people who upgrade their PC on a once-every-two-years model are already talking about a console that's on par with their LAST generation.

5. And... let's take a look at games right now. How many games out there are people buying based on their graphics? Sure, good graphics are a good selling point, but I'm going to go back to an old argument here, that the technology is not what makes better games. It's game DESIGN. The 360 is plenty strong enough for sophisticated and in-depth games. Don't believe me, check out GTA or Resident Evil 5. Gears of War II has awesome graphics and might have pushed the console further then anyone else did, but everyone says that the gameplay and storyline were lackluster (Although, I enjoyed the daylights out of the game). Stop spending time trying to make the graphics look awesome, and make us a game that's fun, immersive and things like that. Case in point, I was reading an article on IGN about RPGs, and they said that the only RPG that's exclusive to the PS3 that's really worth getting excited about is Valkyria Chronicles. That's not a game that pushed their hardware too hard... from a technical standpoint, it didn't really do much that you couldn't have done on a PS2 or original XBox, aside from more Polygons. But, the GAMEPLAY was what drew you in. Which would you rather have... a pretty game or a good one?

So, considering all of this, and thinking about this from a strategic point... let's say you're the Microsoft exec in charge of making the call...

Do you invest in new technologies that extend the longevity of your console...
>> A console that many development houses are getting DAMNED good at coding against
>> A console that is currently dominating the market, without any strong competition (In my less then humble opinion, Sony is not really a competitor, and Nintendo is a different market segment)
>> A console that is having a lower and lower cost every day as the components get cheaper
>> A console with a damned impressive games library

Or, do you spend the time making a new console...
>> A new console that new developers are going to have to learn how to make it sing
>> A new hardware model, especially after you finally got your existing console working reliably (for the most part)
>> A console that will either require backward compatibility (more work), or not (reducing your game library, and piss off your faithful audience)
>> A console that will have technical capabilities that are at least one generation behind current PCs

To be honest, as I type this out, it almost becomes a shame that we have to rev our consoles every couple years. Because, every couple years, we have to start spending our development dollars on learning the new technology, and less dollars on good, sophisticated and immersive game play. I would argue that the BEST games come out a couple years after one console has come out, when developers know the box and focus on the game, but before the next console comes into play, when the developers stop thinking about this console and start looking ahead to the next.

Viva la 360...

Comments (1)
  1. I agree, I want you to stop all the crap until you create some maturity in your software and options. We are mostly adults playing Mature games on the 360 but you treat consol gamers like retards. Open up options and features, every game should have button configurable options. Open up Office Live to Xbox Live and allow word processing, connect hotmail to dashboard. We have 4 Xbox 360’s Media Center HDTV off Windows 7RC. We want no more lag, no more buffering for videos, no more fees for movies and music videos, monthly/yearly and thats it. Netflix style, gamefly style not blockbuster no one likes blockbuster!!!

    So many area’s need someone to just spend some time on. Add Application tab to Xbox Dashboard, why the hell is Photoshare program a game? No one can find it. XNA Connector isn’t a game. Add favorites tab to dashboard so I don’t have to spent time looking for everyday tasks and ideas.

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