I have never been big into PC gaming, strictly due to the costs to buy a decent system, and then the costs to maintain/update the hardware to keep current with what developers come out with. When you buy a console like an Xbox or PlayStation you just know that the games that come out for it will simply “work” when you put them in. In America at least, consoles are the ultimate consumer device for gamers because it’s an instant-gratification with minimal initial investment. PCs take a bit more knowledge to get going. Do you have the right hardware? Are your drivers up-to-date? For me, the games I’d really want to play on PC would require a high-end system and so it immediately becomes a dream instead of a reality.
Put yourself into the shoes of a game developer. You’re investing millions of dollars into a project with the end result of making a profit and getting recognition from the gaming community so that there’s demand for you to produce a sequel. Developing for a console allows the developer and know exactly how their game will run and be played, but you have distribution challenges. Developing for PC requires a separate team of people working to ensure it’s compatible with different operating systems, graphics cards, RAM quantities, Direct X versions, etc, but you have more flexibility with distribution methods such as Valve’s very popular, “Steam” service. The challenge with PC gaming is the more requirements a consumer has to meet to play a game, the smaller your overall market penetration becomes. This is why console versions of games, like Call of Duty, have historically sold better against their PC counterparts.
Now we’re on the dawn of Valve’s supposed “Steam Box” and recently announced Xi3’s “Piston”. They’re gaming PC’s, but are designed to be a TV companion in your living room, allow you to utilize services like Steam, and make it easier to upgrade the components later. Sounds awesome, right? Well, the problem with Piston, for example, is that the price of the unit is as much, if not more, than a top-end gaming PC can be built for ($999 for base model). You’re paying for convenience and small form-factor, but is this the concept that is going to close the gap of Console vs. PC?? Probably not at those prices.
Who is the audience with Piston and Steam Box? It can’t be hardcore PC-gamers, because they already have the hardware. Is it the console and casual gamer crowd? The only way I can see it working is if 1.) The prices are extremely competitive to Xbox, PlayStation, and WiiU, and 2.) There is no requirement to upgrade the hardware later to play games.
Let’s time travel back to 1998. Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation are battling for video game supremacy. Each system has their strengths and weaknesses, but the Nintendo 64 had an idea that was pretty bold for the time. It was called “The Expansion Pack” and it confused and upset a lot of consumers. The idea was interesting; have a piece of the hardware that was easily upgradable at a later-date to support higher-end games. It was bridging the gap between traditional consoles and PCs in a very simple manner. The Expansion Pack doubled the RAM of the Nintendo 64 by adding a whopping 4mb. Yes, you read that right, 4 megabits. The problem was that to play some of the newest, hottest games, you were required to buy and install the Expansion Pack.
Here are a couple examples of how market-penetration shrinks when you require hardware upgrades, regardless of how big a game is. Remember “Goldeneye” for Nintendo 64? Well it sold 8 million copies and created unbelievable demand for another game like it from the developer, Rare. Fast forward a few years later to the release of “Perfect Dark”, the unofficial sequel to Goldeneye, and by all standards, a much better game with everything from graphics to multiplayer improved. Perfect Dark sold 2.5 million copies. Remember Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? That game sold 7.6 million copies. Again, a console-defining game that created unbelievable demand for a sequel. Fast forward a few years to Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask which ended up selling 3.6 million copies. Something both had in common? They required the Expansion Pack to play part, or all of the game. The more requirements you make the consumer meet, the faster your market shrinks. Oh and by the way, do you think Perfect Dark and Majora’s Mask cost more or less to develop? Food for thought…
Now I know what you’re saying. “That was over a decade ago!” and that is exactly my point. A decade ago, consumers were spending money on gaming much differently than they are today, and with less competition. There are too many other options in 2013 for consumers to buy and play than spending $999 on a tiny-PC. Look at how much kids want iPads over a Nintendo 3DS or PlayStation Vita. Times are changing, and consumers are becoming pickier with their spending because there are so many choices.
I am excited to see how close the next-gen Xbox and PlayStation will be to current high-end PCs, and what their strategies are for staying relevant over the next 5-8 years in a much faster-changing technology-driven world. I highly doubt that Microsoft will announce that the new Xbox will have upgradable components like these new living room-PCs. As a consumer, I’d rather spend my money on something I don’t have to worry about upgrading, or paying a thousand dollars initially for, just to play video games on, even if the technology becomes outdated faster than a PC-centric system would. BUT, I bet we will see revamped marketplaces from Sony and Microsoft to compete with services like Steam. That’s where the money and innovation will be, and allow indie developers to have success.
I’m very curious to see how much Steam Box ends up costing because at the end of the day that will determine success to the gaming community that doesn’t already have the hardware. It’s a tough sell against the juggernauts of Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft, especially in a year that we’re expecting a new Xbox and PlayStation. Unless Valve comes out with something that hasn’t already been rumored, speculated, or discussed, I don’t think that Steam Box will revolutionize gaming in 2013, just simply offer an alternative to the community that wants mid-to-high-end gaming PC’s.