Television vs. Video Games. Fight!


“In the red corner weighting in at 110lbs is the TV, undisputed champion of the sitting room since 1954, the darling of countless billions who have succumbed to its simple soporific charms. In the blue corner, the nimble upstart, the Video Game console, weighing in at 8lbs, rocking thumbs since the late 70s, but claiming their first world crown in 1985. The object of parental dismay ever since, and a font of moral panics. TV has been repeatedly bested by the youngster over the years but now is the time for TV to fight back! …”

This fight is far from over and the title bout takes place each year in January in Las Vegas at CES. Las Vegas is more than gin soaked gamblers, lamenting their losses in gaudy palaces of deceit. It’s the battle arena for global consumer electronics giants to fire salvos at each other. Each device is slimmer, faster and more innovative than the next. Want a 4mm thin TV? You got it. A fridge that can chill a can of coke in five minutes flat? Waterproof Smartphone. No problem.

CES is significant as its there that SMART TV is publicly racing ahead. Adoption is yet to reach a tipping point, but the migration is clearly apparent and for the console manufacturers, SMART TV is a spectre that cannot be ignored. App Stores on the device allied with intuitive inputs, motion control, gesture control and voice recognition are all present in the latest TVs. The ‘Killer App’ of Kinect just got pulled into the host, Kinect and the 360 now look like a counterintuitive double act. They’re starting to resemble clutter in the early stages of obsolescence.

It used to be the case that a games console provided entertainment that the TV could not, this hegemony went unchecked for decades as screen manufacturers stood idly by watching Nintendo, SEGA and Sony make a killing, delivering visceral content through adopted hosts. By the time the Xbox came along the stranglehold was vice like and the need for a console to deliver games was unassailable. They were untouchable.

The Wii arrived. Dragging with it new input methods and consumers, who were the exact intersect of the TV/Gaming audience. The lines became blurred primarily as the consumers (primarily) didn’t care which device was delivering the experience. The Wii UI aped TV channels, and recalled an aged CRT screen. The shark had been jumped. The console was invisible. Then the single most seismic event ever to hit gaming came along. The equivalent of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. The App Store.

In hindsight the Wii’s achievements will be all but forgotten, seen as an anomaly, an old model based on hackneyed technology allied with unique ideas.  The App Store opened the wallets of the non gaming ABC1 audience. The iPhone was a trojan horse, silver bullet and a vial of poison all wrapped into one. The games industry is still reeling from its impact. Its clear many will never get up from the suckerpunch.

The App Store explosion legitimized short form content delivery to the mainstream, and awakened every device manufacturer, to the fact they would to become a digital storefront. Many wastefully spent billions in an effort to mimic Apple, few succeeded. In 2012, It’s all about the audience. Samsung and LG command huge global audiences, engaging with them daily. They provide the warm blanket, the reassuring voice and the window on the world. TV is second only to the mobile phone as the ultimate ‘personal’ device. People love TV. Watch as they place them on walls, pushing family portraits to one side. Placed on an altar for the worship of false prophets.

TV as a concept crushes the Video Game a billion times. Video Games are niche. TV is Simon Cowell. TV is a huge metal fist in a velvet glove, the host will defeat the parasite, and the content will migrate into the TV. The consumer has ceased to care. Fanboys are a niche that are no longer the target of the console manufacturers attention.  The irony is that the console manufacturers are driving convergence, with motion control and the drive to turn Xbox LIVE into a ‘entertainment destination’, thereby quickening the infection. The 360 has mutated from a core gaming platform to a set-top box in an aim to capture the lapsed Wii audience. The problem? This audience has already made the jump to mobile and tablet, and they’re not coming back.

To the console manufacturers who think this won’t happen, I have one word. Kodak.

Video Games consoles are laid on the canvas bleary eyed, as the referee stands over them counting …

< … 7, 8, 9 … Its time to throw in the towel … >


How GameLine foreshadowed Xbox LIVE [by Twenty Years]

Meet the GameLine

In 1983, the prospect of downloads to consoles was unthinkable to many.

Bjorn  Borg had just retired from Tennis, the last episode of M*A*S*H had just aired and most importantly the NES launched. In hindsight it feels like the dark ages.  In 1983 GameLine appeared. GameLine looked like an oversized Atari 2600 cartridge, and was a dial-up modem that could download games to your console. In 1983 the Atari 2600 was six years old, only a  year earlier the ‘Darth Vader‘ iteration had come to market. For the record, this was a nickname.

"Xbox LIVE, I am your father!"

The prospect of downloading games at that point was effectively ‘science fiction’. The English nation was still wrestling with loading games onto the ZX Spectrum from cassette, downloading may as well have been alien technology, and effectively was. Alien tech it appeared was everywhere, as in 1979, Kane Kramer invented the first digital music player, in 1981 he filed his UK patent application. The early 80s was clearly tin foil hats and Mel Gibson all the way. However it wasn’t until 1996 that Audio Highway made the first commercially available MP3 player in 1996. Apple wouldn’t crash the party until 2001. Xbox LIVE wouldn’t be launched until 2002.

So why did it take so long from inception to marketplace success? In simplest terms the infrastructure simply wasn’t there, from a technological and cultural perspective. Dial up connections in 1983 were the preserve of scientists, nerds and maths teachers. The rudimentary wonders of the 2600 were enough visual shock and awe  for a generation. The high street was still king and the internet was ‘never going to take off’. GameLine typifies an inherently disruptive technology that would pave the way for those following it. The challenges GameLine faced are still evident for services like Onlive today, publishers were inherently suspicious of GameLine meaning that many top-tier game never appeared on the service, none of the key third parties at the time supported the service (such as Atari, Activision, Coleco, Mattel, and Parker Brothers).

GameLine went bust in 1983, but key members of the team became integral to the success of AOL. Whilst it didn’t have the connected gameplay features of LIVE, that honour would fall to the Dreamcast in 2001, it did introduce online leaderboards. Almost two decades later Xbox LIVE supported by a global corporation finally nailed the proposition and infrastructure. Relatively speaking, the global Xbox LIVE remains small (35 Million current members), but indicates that the experiments made thirty years ago were entirely on target. R.I.P GameLine.



PSN, Where Are You?

We are now 17 days into the PSN outage of 2011. Five years ago this would have been inconsequential, in 2011 its damaging Sony’s reputation, annoying consumers and stonewalling revenue to developers and publishers. Sony have their back to the wall.

Litigation and allegation point in one direction then bait and switch in another. The progenitor of this failure is fundamentally irrelevant, the fact that it’s been seen as unthinkable by many, and covered in the mainstream press is another.

Consoles must be connected, when they aren’t they cease to breathe.

Sony immediately were under siege. organisational inertia struck to the core and they froze. Consumers asked ‘what was going on?’ but Sony fell silent. They immediately faced heavy criticism, and the inertia stilted the corporations reaction time. There are two main reasons that consumers felt aggrieved.  They felt Sony had failed to deliver a service that they had learnt to become dependent upon, that underpinned their social graph. Consumers were also stunned that a trusted brand had left themselves open to the industrial scale theft of personal data. Whilst the ingenuity and complexity of the attack on Sony was still not entirely understood, consumers were afraid.

The fact is clear that Sony should have fessed up to consumers as soon as the shockwave hit. Allegations stand that Sony had known for six days before alerting consumers. This is unthinkable, and underscoring the billion dollar sucker punch about to hit Sony as part of a package of free content, upgraded systems and insurance policies. To date Howard Stringer has offered to insure US-based PSN users for a million dollars each. The perks of litigious culture writ large. X360 owns North America, Sony should look EMEA-wards to get their house in order.

The establishment of a platform is a multi billion dollar endeavour, that has crippled many, and blindsided a few. Nintendo established a huge platform but dropped the ball on the online provision of service. Microsoft nailed the Xbox LIVE service (ten years old in 2012) with occasional hiccups such as the service falling over during Christmas 2008, this was not an entire system failure however, just intermittent outages across parts of the service. To placate animosity Undertow (800MSP)  was given away to everyone on the service . This is a world away from the hemorrhaging of content that will leech value from PSN in the month of May 2011.

The eyes of the gaming nation are on Sony. They have been very publicly bested, and lay on the canvas bloodied and bruised. Will PSN ever recover from the fear of attack again. Platitudes and assurances of online security will take time to win people over. Microsoft made a public misstep due to RROD, which was down to a design flaw, and it still haunts the platform to this day.

The billion dollar war chests needed to pull PSN from the brink and rescue the 360 from hardware failures show the brutality of platform holding. Will the future in the cloud placate these worries? will connected consoles forever be compromised? Only time will tell.

Your move Sony, make the right one.

Can the 3DS save the QR code?

Time was when it was all about hipster geeks at SXSW on iPhones. Not the 3GS, not iPhone 4. The original ‘great leap forward’. In June 2007 this was a second coming of the mobile device. A collective technological rapture created exaltation, until the iterative Apple machine started to grind like a Ford production line in the early 1900’s. The 3GS quickly took away the lustre from the handheld gaming market as iOS started to gnaw into unfamiliar territory for Apple. The DS had made the touchscreen commonplace in 2004 but lacked the widespread reach of a telecommunications device and didn’t manage to squirm into the mainstream in the same way. It sat, ghettoized as a games device, a child’s plaything.  Despite a three-year head start the iOS handhelds (iPhone and iPod Touch) and DS iterations have about the same installed base. Around 150 million worldwide.

Ten years earlier (in 1994) Denso-Wave had created the QR code. A visual hyperlink that fitted perfectly as a call to action in a duncical mobile landscape.Adoption was rapid and wide-reaching in Japan and South Korea. The West was ambivalent. The barriers to widespread QR adoption in the West are:

  • Lack of installation of QR readers in mobile devices. Many OEM refuse to hard bake QR readers into handsets, indeed many are shipped ‘vanilla’ to retailers (stripped of additions).
  • Consumers are dispassionate and mobile web adoption whilst increasing with smart phone installation has been steady but unexplosive.
  • Brands have been reticent to adopt due to a thudding understanding of the transformative power of the mobile web.
  • Finally they look awful and ruin creative. In a society where they are commonplace they fit into the visual nomenclature in a landscape devoid of QR codes they pique interest, which gives way to apathy and lack of effectiveness.

As a direct response tool they work, but brand managers don’t always understand that.

But, all of a sudden the hipster are trading QR codes online. A flurry of Pokemania has made QR codes hip. The scanning mechanic is being widely praised and a tech almost twenty years old is suddenly fresh and new for an audience who generally had let QR codes pass them by. Nintendo‘s adoption of QR codes is commonsense and logical in the 3DS, for them it feels like a late adoption of such a familiar mechanic. Suddenly the Mii feels relevant again, collectible, engaging and fun.

Now , see how long the hipster geeks keep this going.

Concept: Why the Video Games Industry needs Ubiquity

In the 25 years between 1983 and 2008 the CD player became ubiquitous.

In 1985 the CD player was  “ … transforming the way people listen to music. With their sweet sound, easy operation and virtually indestructible disks, they represent a technological leap beyond records and tapes.” Time magazine described it as the “ … fastest selling machine in home-electronics history”.The reason for the CDs success was simple, the sound quality was an improvement on both vinyl and tape and they were robust. CD players were the must have item of the 1980’s. CD sales increased in the mid to late 80s and sold well in the early 90’s. The first portable CD player, the Discman, appeared in 1983. The first CD player, manufactured by Pioneer, for the use in the car appeared in 1984. The CD was first used as a CD-Rom in 1985.

Whilst the CD had a great strength in its ubiquity, it also caused problems. CDs were not region specific, even with copy protection encryption they were able to be copied, and the commonness of the product meant they started to be perceived as a commodity instead of a vessel for art.

Every CD player in the world could play a properly authored CD (whilst burnt CDs can cause problems), and this meant that not only was the price of the format forced down, but the cost of the technology continued to fall. In 2011, an entry level CD player is £20 or less. This meant that the format was completely interchangeable between multiple devices and there were no problems playing a CD on players from different manufacturers.

In the video games industry the situation is quite different. There have always been competing manufacturers; in 2011 there are 3 main manufacturers of Home Consoles: Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, but there have never been an opportunity to play Nintendo games on a Sony or Microsoft device and vice versa. Whilst games may appear on different systems, they are not portable across manufacturers, these releases are multi-platform.

The platform with the most commonly shared architecture is the Personal Computer (PC). Most PCs share the same operating system (most commonly Windows), and the main differences come from the internal components. In most cases a game is limited in its reach by the system requirements, namely a new game may require elements that older PCS do not have to run. PC development has been incremental, but rapid, since their introduction in 1981 by IBM and less specifically bound by the Generations cycle that exists in console gaming.

But what if ubiquity was the goal? As Chaplin and Ruby (2005) comment:

“Ubiquity is what the [games] industry has been after for years, and ubiquity seems to be what it is finally getting. One study, from investment analysts at Deutsche Bank Alex. Brown, has just concluded that the potential market for video games had grown from 20 million people in 1980 to 96 million in 2001 and is now growing exponentially—106 million people in 2005 and onward, as every baby born takes to the videogame habit.”

This was suggested by J Allard in 2003:

What I’d like to see us do as an industry is create more standardisation… Before television was standardised, there was no television. Before video was standardised, there was only Beta. Beta only had limited success, but it was technically superior and was a profitable business – but it didn’t have ubiquitous content, and you didn’t have it in every consumer’s hands, and it was price prohibitive. Today gaming has a lot in common with what BETA had yesterday. DVD, CD, television and radio are all ubiquitous – how do we make gaming ubiquitous too? I think it’s through standardisation

Quote: Ronald Reagan on Young People

I recently learned something quite interesting about video games. Many young people have developed incredible hand, eye, and brain coordination in playing these games. The air force believes these kids will be our outstanding pilots should they fly our jets.