How soon is too soon to declare something a crisis?
Over the weekend, Natasha Lomas of TechCrunch wrote an article provocatively titled “The Console Market Is In Crisis.” In it, she cited some NPD statistics about how all video game consoles (current gen, last gen and handhelds) sold in North America in January compared to hardware sales from January 2007, which she picked because it was the first January after both the Xbox 360 and PS3 were available. Since the Xbox 360 preceded the PS3 to the market by a full year, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but it’s close.
To back up her conclusion about the troubled state of console gaming, Lomas pointed to multiple factors: the rise of mobile gaming gobbling up the casual crowd, a general increase in the number of devices competing for gamers’ attention, the relative lack of raw power of the eighth-gen consoles compared to high-end gaming PCs, and the ever more hit-driven, risk averse development cycle for AAA console titles.
I agree with her on some of those points. The one that stands out to me the most because of its obviousness is that the casual gamers who made the Wii such a phenomenon have definitely migrated to mobile games, and they aren’t coming back. There’s no compelling reason for them to buy a machine dedicated to playing games when the games that cater to them are so prominent on devices they already own.
So if Lomas’ crisis is defined as an overall contraction of the console market, meaning whether or not the eighth generation consoles can sell as many units combined as their seventh-gen counterparts, then we already know the answer. Thanks to the ridiculously high bar set by the Wii and the mostly indifferent reaction to the Wii U, a contraction is in the bag. The PS4 and Xbox One will never sell enough to match their counterparts and make up for the Wii-Wii U deficit.
But that’s really only a problem for one industry player, and that’s Nintendo. The company has released a machine that just hasn’t proved popular so far. Despite some general sadness that would sweep through the gaming community if Nintendo gave up on hardware, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if it happened. In fact Sony and Microsoft would see it as a positive to have one less competitor.
To me, it’s much more relevant to limit an examination of the health of console gaming to just the PS4 and Xbox One, since both machines are evolutions of what came before instead of attempted paradigm shifters like the Wii/Wii U. That means trying to figure out whether they will end up combining to reach the roughly 163 million units sold by the PS3 and Xbox 360, and the truth is that it’s way too early to predict.
Whether you find the early sales numbers of the PS4 and Xbox One encouraging or worrying, they really don’t tell us much. Consoles aren’t like box office receipts from movies — there’s no way of looking at the “opening weekend” take and figuring out how it will all end up. Some consoles take a while to find their legs, and a big part of that is because they’re ultimately only as popular as the games you play on them.
Even now, when consoles can do so much more than just play games, even after Microsoft (justifiably if not too successfully) tried making the Xbox One about the other stuff it can do, it comes back to the games. It’s an especially powerful idea as we sit on the eve of the Titanfall release, something many people expect to be this machine’s “Halo moment” that elevates it to must-have status.
Understand that I don’t expect Titanfall to be some kind of digital messiah, no matter how breathless some of the beta coverage has been. I doubt many people are going to part with $500 for an Xbox One just to play it (especially PC gamers, who are getting their own version), but I do think people who weren’t early adopters may decide this is the time to upgrade from the 360. Anecdotally, I know some folks doing exactly that on Tuesday.
And this is just one game, the first tentpole release of the eighth generation. It might have more importance than some others because the Xbox One is trailing the PS4 so far and because Titanfall is a new IP instead of an established franchise. If it’s a monster hit, it might help alleviate the big publishers’ reluctance to feed us things other than sequels and reboots.
In any case, more games are on the way, and any one of them could be a watershed moment for these consoles. Maybe it will be Watch Dogs, or Destiny, or something that isn’t even on our radar right now. Only after we can evaluate the impact of more games developed specifically for the PS4 and Xbox One can we even begin to decide if consoles are in trouble.
It’s hard to be patient in any technology-based field, as there’s a constant need to keep looking forward. If that means snap judgments on what’s going on right now, so be it, and that tendency is probably worst in gamers. We declare things successes or failures at ludicrous speed and rush on to the next thing.
Yet we’re going to have to wait and see when it comes to the PS4 and Xbox One. It’s entirely conceivable that Lomas is correct and that the maelstrom of forces swirling around the eighth generation could send the console gaming segment of the industry into a downward slide from which it won’t recover. It’s just impossible to make even an educated guess about that right now.
Let’s all take a deep breath, play some games and forget about the word ‘crisis’ for about two years. Maybe by then we’ll know if we need to reexamine our beliefs about these boxes we’ve loved for so long.