Are modern consoles slowly ditching games?

The Xbox One and PS4 will offer more power and features than ever, but, Aaron wonders, are these consoles forgetting about gamers' needs?

Now that the Xbox One has been revealed, and with the PS4 also, at least in part, known to us, which console is the more appealing to the gamer? Remember the gamer? We certainly do, but it doesn’t necessarily seem that they are that high on the agenda right now.

Yet both the Xbox and PlayStation devices started out life as one thing, and one thing only: a gaming console. No live TV, no movies on demand, no social networking, just games. That’s what we wanted them for, but is it what we want now?

Ever since the PS2 introduced its built-in DVD player, and the Dreamcast wowed us with its integrated modem, the home console has never been the same. As time has moved on, consoles have moved further and further away their central gaming focus, and more and more towards social media and general entertainment.

After seeing the Xbox One reveal, it’s become clear that this movement has taken yet another step away from a gaming focus. As much as Microsoft may beg to differ, gaming is not the prime focal point of the Xbox any more – this is evident from the lack of games in the Xbox One reveal. Instead, we got a major run down of the console’s new all-in-one multimedia abilities, and a whole lot of US sports-related gimmicks.

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The Xbox One can view TV (which isn’t something I’ve personally struggled with up to this point, to be honest), on demand movies, play music, use Skype, and can access the web and social media tools. Games were, in the case of the actual console reveal, more of an afterthought, something many gamers have venomously commented on already.

E3 will, of course, bring with it a ton of announcements for games, but the device itself is clearly much more than a games console, and Microsoft is keen to establish the Xbox One as the only thing you need in the home if you’re into anything fun and couch-based. 

This started in earnest with the 360. Whereas the original Xbox was, with no excuses, created to be a hardcore gaming device, the 360 changed this, and as its lifespan grew so did its functionality, with dash updates bringing TV channels, streaming movies, social media, chat, Internet and other additional functions. The Windows 8-style dash in many gamers’ opinion pushed games well out of the limelight.

The Xbox One looks set to continue this evolution, which isn’t a bad thing per se, but is the ‘core’ gaming community losing the battle against the casual and non-gaming customer? Is Microsoft in its ever-present hunger for market share ignoring the actual wants and needs of the fan base that made the platform so successful in the first place?

My answer? Yes, and no. Okay, that sounds just a little too much like playing it safe, but let me elaborate. I’m not a fan of the term ‘hardcore’, or even core gamer myself; it’s a pointless label for what is simply an enjoyable pastime. I like playing games, I get absorbed and involved in them, but ultimately, it’s a game, not an extreme sport where you risk life and limb. Unless you play games for money in tournaments, it’s all pretty sedate stuff (unless you’re a CoD rager – you know who you are). I also like and have watched countless movies. Does that make me a hardcore film fan? No, just a person who likes movies, no different from anyone else.

However, as a person who enjoys games, I find that modern gaming consoles, at least for me, come with a little too much baggage, baggage that I simply don’t use. If I want to watch TV, I’ll go and watch TV via Freeview or cable on the very same television I’m sat in front of (with no extra subscription). If I want to go online, use Facebook and the like, I’ll use my laptop or phone. If I want to chat to friends outside of a game, I’ll go to the pub. I certainly don’t need the stream of adverts and banners for pointless (to me) features cluttering my so-called gaming console. I just want to turn it on, slip in my chosen game and play. Simple.

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Nintendo, even in its seemingly indomitable determination to take the back seat when it comes to technology, has the right idea most of the time. Its consoles focus on games, be they casual or otherwise, with minimal in-your-face extra features. It makes true gaming consoles, not home entertainment hubs, even if the pointless gimmicks have tarnished the brand somewhat. 

Sony may have a lot to cover with the PS4 (which is already looking like the winner in the power stakes), but it’s already shown more of a focus on gaming thanks to the new, gamer-friendly controller design, and more interesting line up of titles. Of course, the unit still boasts a boatload of extra functions, which isn’t surprising as the PS3 was always billed as a home entertainment system, not just a game console, but for me, the PS4 is the more appealing games system for now.

Now, at the same time, I also see some benefit from extra features, and some users will, of course, make the most of them. Those without a PC will relish the ability to browse the internet and make use of social networking, and some love to use services like Netflix through their console, as it may be the only option available to them. Regardless of how niche a function may be in any device, there’s always someone who’ll use it. The question is, how necessary are they?

If you can afford a games console, these days you can get a fairly decent laptop for the same price, or even cheaper. If the internet is your selling point, why would you need a games console over the cheaper laptop?

If you’re a Facebook addict, let’s face it, you’re going to already have a PC, laptop or phone, so why use a console? Computer-based Facebook is much more reliable anyway, and more flexible. The same can also be said for Twitter and chat applications.

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Movies are certainly a more understandable addition to a console, but with Freeview and PC options so readily available, most will already have the option open to them, or already be paying a cable subscription.

In terms of technology, the PS3 initially made for an excellent choice, even for non-gamers, thanks to being the cheapest Blu-ray option around at the time. Now, however, Blu-ray players are far cheaper, so it’s not such a big deal, and the PS4 will be an excessive purchase for those who aren’t particularly into games. 

“But, I’m a gamer and I like movies, the Internet and all that stuff, so what’s wrong with that?” You may ask. Fair point, and indeed, there are many people who feel the same way, otherwise Sony and Microsoft wouldn’t spend so much time developing such systems. My point, however, is that this has come at the expense of pushing gaming out of the focus, technically eliminating the dedicated games console. Consoles are now media devices with game playing capabilities, which is a big leap from the consoles of only a few years earlier that were for the gamer, and no one else. And, it’s not really like you have any other, gaming only choices now, apart from the Wii U.

Including extras on a console is fine, but if you’re a gamer first and foremost, you’ll likely wish that manufacturers don’t lose track of the main point, and keep games central. And, there’s the question of price.

Ignoring inflation and the ways of the world’s crazy economy, you have to wonder how much more expensive consoles are now that they have so much more gumph packed in. Would the Xbox 360 have been cheaper if it only played games? Just as a new PC costs much more when supplied with a copy of Windows or Office, does a console bump up the price for its extra features?

If so, and you simply want a games machine, is this fair? Should there be a separate, gaming-only option? The 360 came in several SKUs, with the Core being the basic console, but this unit, though cheaper, actually alienated the core fan base by having no hard disk, meaning limited games and gaming content could be stored. Instead, should Microsoft have stripped out all but the gaming element of the unit and left the hard disk?

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Technologically speaking, this may or may not greatly affect the device itself, as social media and other elements didn’t really use any special hardware internally in the past, therefore meaning little savings if features were stripped out, but this possibly isn’t the case with Xbox One. 

The new unit has a three-pronged architecture, with one dedicated to games and another dedicated to apps and multimedia. Now, what if MS released a model that only encapsulated games, ditching all of the extra features gamers may not want, or already have in another form? This would create a true gaming console, one that focuses on the pastime and little else.

The answer to this is dilemma, as always, is money. A device that does everything will appeal to more people, thus leading to more sales and more profits. This is something MS simply can’t hide, and the reveal clearly demonstrated this. How many so-called core gamers do you know who watch tons of sport, play fantasy football and want to chat with others over Skype when they can do so playing Halo or CoD? Sure, they do exist, and I’m certainly no advocate of the stereotype, but it’s got to be a rare sight.

Then there’s the argument that a jack-of-all-trades is a master of none, and this could potentially be applied to consoles. A console that plays games and nothing else will be better at it, and probably easier to develop for, with less focus on gimmicky controllers and room-scanning cameras.

Personally, after a hard day’s work and possibly a session at the gym, I just want to get home, grab some food, a controller and slouch on my couch for some gaming relief. I don’t want to jump around the room, play on-rails chaff and shout at my Xbox (well, except when I’m losing), and in many ways, I feel consoles are losing this option. Trying to appeal to everyone is simply alienating the gamer. And surely the gamer should still be the most important part of the equation. Shouldn’t it?