Plastic Software, or the Beginning of the End of the Console Wars

Since the 70s, videogames have largely been played on consoles. While PCs and arcade cabinets still remain viable options for getting your game on to this day, the public imagination sees videogames relegated to their own plastic boxes tucked away under media centers and TV cabinets. With Ataris, Colecovisions, Nintendos, Segas, Playstations and Xboxes, part of the appeal of the videogame console was its ability to plug it and play it with no expertise or extended set up. Compare that to a PC where settings need to be tweaked, drivers installed, and on occasion despite the users best and sincerest efforts, nothing will get that game to run on the computer.

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When videogame consoles began to appear in the marketplace, the idea of a personal computer didn’t make sense. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs were working as engineers for Atari as a way to get some capital before founding their own company. However, over the past thirty years, computers have becoming increasingly more reliable, to the point that the idea of plugging in a computer and playing games on it doesn’t seem too far fetched.

So what then do videogame consoles have to offer the average consumer in 2017?

Well, that depends on what you are buying. The biggest competitor in the field of three  is the Playstation 4 which has sold over 50 million systems. Behind them by half is the Xbox One with around 23 million systems sold. Coming up the rear is Nintendo’s Wii U at about 14 million. That being said, each of these consoles is staring at a face lift or an upright replacement.

So, why spend a large chunk of money on a console when a PC can be upgraded gradually while still being able to play any game of your choice? I think its productive to return to Wozniak and Jobs.

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More than just selling computers (or selling a lifestyle as Apple’s ad people seem to push these days), Apple was about pairing the hardware with bespoke software. While any computer could calculate, play media, and help you access the internet, only an Apple ran like an Apple. The software that came with the machine stood in stark contrast to the bundled Windows OS’s that came out around the same time.

Beyond the convenience factor, the PS4 and the XBO have little to offer the average consumer. They are essentially interchangeable, with the differences in titles available, online features, and accessories varying so slightly that most gamers would need to consult a list to enummerate the differences. Essentially,  the PS4 and XBO are two very similar pieces of software housed in a plastic frame. The fact that a PS4 and XBO (and a Wii U) are simply game-focused computers in a world where computers are capable of games, multimedia editing, global communication, and more, the traiditonal games consoles are forced to advertise more and more and create false distinctions between their product and their competitors.

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There is, however, the odd duck of Nintendo. They seem to be the only one of the big three console manufacturers aware of and concerned by the growing similarities between game consoles and PCs. Nintendo’s newest console to be released in March 2017, the Switch, has aims to move beyond being plastic software. With innovative controls, the portability of a phone, and the power of a modest computer when plugged in to the TV, Nintendo has differentiated its product from the PC.

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It will be interesting to see how Sony and Microsoft respond. Will they continue their arms race and seek to put their gaming consoles technical prowess on par with PCs or will they go the route of Nintendo and try to blur the line between toy and computer.

Only time will tell.

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