Television vs. Video Games. Fight!

<BELL RINGS>

“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 … >

Are Video Games consoles globally irrelevant?

Some call it witchcraft I call it a calculator. These have been working overtime recently at Strategy Analytics as they concluded:

… you might be surprised to hear it; but Sony’s PlayStation 3 has passed Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in one key respect: the global active installed base of consoles … the global active installed base of PS3s reached 43.4M at the end of 2010. This exceeded the equivalent number of Xbox 360s by 43.9M. [Strategy Analytics] … estimate that the overtaking manoeuvre happened during December 2010 as the holiday season reached its peak.

At this point its worth triggering the Auto-Caveat-Creator™. If you look at the VG Chartz figures X360 is in the lead, based on ship figures and the greatest stumble in console history (The Red Ring Of Death) has dealt a heavy blow to the active installed base:

[Strategy Analytics] ownership models apply assumptions about device retirement life cycles to console sales data on a regional and global basis.

Strategy Analytics had been effectively tracking the Wii and predicted a peak mid 2011, that would be passed by PS3 in 2013 and Xbox 360 in 2014. Their method is robust. So what does this mean? All in there are about 175 million active consoles globally. The DS and handheld iOS platforms are currently tracking around 150 Million each.

Including handhelds: publishers, developers and interlopers are fighting for a slice of a 55o million global device pie, about 40% of the population of China. In this context, as a global phenomena, console penetration is slight. Global PC penetration currently estimated at 1.2 billion worldwide is dwarfed by the population of China, only global TV penetration outstrips it

The developed nations are housing coveted publishing powerhouses and platform holders, that are yet to admit PC gaming is dead and Game Consoles are irrelevant.

Bring on the 8th Generation.

The Billion Dollar Roll: How Tenpin changed the direction of video gaming forever

The rapid advancement of technology is often characterized by a simple theme. The desire to  communicate gave birth to the fax, mobile phones and the Internet. Video gaming has also had a common theme that has unified families, driven innovation in the arcades and ushered in the greatest step change of the current console generation: The widespread adoption of motion control. The unlikely lightning rod for this continual and unabated drive towards innovation has been the desire to replicate (as closely as possible) Ten Pin Bowling.

Video Game bowling is one of the most played video games genres in the history of the industry. This fact alone is astonishing. And also raises the question why? How is this even possible?

Bowling is cited as having its roots in Germany in 300 AD, with the first formalised rules coming into place in New York in 1895. Bowling for the Atari 2600 was released in 1978. A year later Midway released 4 Player Bowling Alley into the Arcades with a table-top cabinet that had two trackballs that looked and felt like bowling balls, the cabinet evoked the feel of the bowling halls with its wood effect veneers. In the years that followed there was a constant stream of Arcade and Home console iterations of the sport.

Ten Pin Deluxe (Bally Midway) hit the arcades in 1984 and was a shuffleboard bowling game integrating a puck and a monitor. It was also one of the greatest cabinets ever conceived with a faux wood lane and again attempted to replicate the motion of bowling in the best way possible at the time. These crude iterations were paving the way for intuitive motion based controls driven by the fact that bowling was hugely popular as a mainstream leisure activity that has an intuitive and familiar mechanic and a robust and enduring appeal. The formula was attempted over and over. The continued migration away from gimmick to video game simulation culminated in Alley Master (Cinematronics) which hit the arcades in 1986, complete with improved graphics but an ill-considered choice of stick input.

A decade later the next major innovation happened in the handheld space when Virtual Bowling made it on to the ill-fated Virtual Boy in 1995. Nester’s Funky Bowling followed it up in 1996. Through the 1990s iterations hit the PC, Playstation, Gameboy, Nintendo 64, SNES and Xbox in the 2000’s Bowling came onto mobile and iOS in the form of Midnight Bowling and PC browser-based oddities like Polar Bowling and Elf Bowling bemused rather than amused. Konami brought Simpsons bowling into the arcades in 2000, and rather than make a bold attempt to deliver the depth of lane found on the Virtual Boy Konami made the interaction more visceral by utilising a trackball.  Michael Jackson was such a fan he owned cabinet number 42145. Silver Strike Bowling revolutionised out of home trackball ten pin in 2004 and 2010 changed the game with a connected LIVE experience throughout the United States. Trackball Ten Pin had reached a high watermark that it looked impossible to surpass.

The definitive moment in the evolution of video game bowling came in 2006, 28 years after the release of bowling on the Atari 2600. Wii Bowling shipped with every Wii outside Japan. Globally the mainstream fell back in love with Video Game bowling. Wii Sports is the best-selling video game of all time which (at time of writing) had shipped around 76 million copies. 85-year-old John Bates is currently the Worlds Greatest Wii Bowling Player having bowled in excess of 2,850 perfect games. He pwns on Wii Bowling.

Kinect perfected the formula further, to a point where the experience delivered by Kinect Sports is rewarding, intuitive and great fun. The Nintendo Touch Generations dream had finally become a reality, sadly not on a Nintendo platform. Pwned. Finally it seems as if the abolition of the prop has defined the genre. This memo was clearly not received by CTA digital who smelt gold in them thar video gaming bowling hills and created peripherals across all three current gen machines.

Microsoft went all in with a marketing budget for Kinect of half a billion dollars. I can’t help but think this is because they knew they had the video game bowling crown in the bag.

Let’s hammer the pocket.

News Just In!

Cory Archangel has an installation called Beat The Champ running at the Barbican, London until 22nd May 2011. I can’t wait to see it. It’s an installation based on the sounds of Video Game Bowling

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The Beatles Killed The Dreamcast

Dreamcast

The 9th of September 2009 marked the 10th anniversary of the North American launch of the Dreamcast. A decade later it was the release date for The Beatles: Rock Band. These two events are both symbolic as they bookmark what has been one of the most turbulent periods in the history of entertainment media. Time feels like its accelerating with an exponential nature, the speed of progress. 1999 was a world away from today, the key evolutions in the online space were yet to come. Napster was launched in 1999 and closed down in 2001. Google came into being in 1996 and grew to its pre-eminent position throughout this period. Facebook wasn’t launched until 2004, with Twitter bringing up the rear in 2006. Throughout this period the music industry faced its biggest struggle as it wrestled with the colossus of peer to peer, and the digital tsunami it faced. The music industry emerged bloodied and bruised, and has never fully recovered. This context is relevant as in 1999 the Beatles back catalogue was considered to be so valuable that its inclusion in a video game, ‘a child’s toy’, would have been unthinkable. Therefore, something must have changed. Did video-games grow up or did the music industry wake up to its potential? Or was it somewhere in the middle?

The launch of the Dreamcast, represents a high water mark. The Dreamcast was a seminal moment in the history of both Sega and Video Game consoles themselves. So much was right with the Dreamcast, the device itself has an understated elegance, its dimensions were balanced, and it is arguably the best looking console in history. It had the might of Sega behind it, who had an unprecedented history of innovation and success. The previous generations of consoles had divided the video game nation and created a loyal and unflinching following. Whilst the winds of change were evident, namely the spectre of the Playstation, each and every Dreamcast owner was proud and excited about the potential of the system and the future for Sega. As history has proven this was to unravel over the next two years. The potential reasons for the Dreamcast’s demise have been eloquently and exhaustively discussed. At this point I can only contribute my own perspective. The Playstation represented the start of the erosion of the pursuit of video games as an innovative artform. The wildy inventive Chu Chu Rocket! came out soon after launch and Rez came out in 2001 on both Dreamcast and Playstation 2, although it’s natural home was the Dreamcast. Sega had a vision and  purity derived from the gameplay lessons learnt through the evolution from arcade to home console.

The Dreamcast redefined what a console meant by a single inclusion of the 33.6  kbps modem (in Europe), and the accompanying Dreamarena online service. Dreamarena was a dial up service created through a partnership between ICL, BT and various ISPs. Dreamarena closed in March 2003. Dreamarena was free and provided the blueprint for services like Xbox LIVE and PSN. The lessons learnt provided an insight to Microsoft and Sony at the expense of Sega. The online capabilities of the Dreamcast were at odds with the times where online PC gaming was nascent and seemed unthinkable on a console. Sega were aware of the risk and the inclusion of the modem in each Dreamcast cost them dearly:

“I forced [Sega] to put in modem functions. At that time, I had a lot of opposition that said it was ridiculous to stick in a modem that cost several thousand yen. But, I managed to get it my way” Isao Okawa, President of Sega

After Sega bowed out of the console arms race, it was left to Sony and Nintendo to slug it out, until the arrival of the Xbox in 2001. Sega had occupied a unique market space, as it had attributes of Nintendo and Sony, a unique combination of genre defining IP (Sonic) and hardcore gaming appeal. The video game industry owes a huge debt to Sega. As Sega moved across to become a developer/publisher the devotees rubbed their eyes in disbelief …“How could this have happened?”

In the years that followed the Games Industry grew, and fractured into a myriad of subdivisions, built around genre and target audience. In 2005 Red Octane released Guitar Hero. In 2007 EA/Harmonix/MTV Games released Rock Band. The material differences between the two, in 2009, are essentially irrelevant.  To date Rock Band has sold 13 million copies with a billion $ in total sales and in excess of 50 million track downloads. From the outside looking in, it appeared there had been a perfect synergy of games and music. This was far from the case.

The games and music industry were bumping heads as the music industry was still trying to attach the material values of a physical world to a digital landscape. Well documented digital hold outs began to emerge, AC/DC, Metallica and most famously the Beatles. The exact reasons for this are varied, be it a consideration that digital was devaluing music, a natural suspicion or blind fear and panic. In the realm of music games the music of the Beatles represented the ultimate goal. The digital hold outs began to fall … lured by a new audience and inevitable revenues as they were coaxed onto the gaming platforms. As the games hit the mainstream the pressure from band managers, record labels and publishers became so ferocious that no-one could resist. The Beatles were literally for sale.

For the games industry a band like the Beatles represents a gift. A huge and dedicated  fan-base with a history of repeatedly buying the countless re-issues that have been force-fed to the audience over the years. Stereo? Mono? Limited edition Miniature album packaging? Box sets?. The fan-base devoured them like a gluttonous beast, seemingly insatiable and ever thankful. George Lucas faces criticism for endlessly profiting from his audience, whereas the Beatles strangely have avoided this fate.

The Beatles also represent a route to the non-traditional gamer, or indeed for that matter the non-traditional music purchaser. Whether Beatles Rock Band is a good game or not is wholly irrelevant. It will sell, this is a given as the stars are aligned in such a way that the plaudits and sales figures are inevitable. Who is going to kill the goose that lays the golden egg? Not the games press, and certainly not the worldwide media who enjoy huge sales spikes everytime they put the Beatles on the cover.

You may think this churlish, of me as a killjoy who is standing in the way of the enjoyment of others. For me these events, separate by a turbulent decade illustrate the limitless potential of video games as a medium, ranged against the calculated creation of a product that is intended to break new markets, recycle IP, and perhaps even make enough money to soften the blow once the Beatles music falls out of copyright. Everything about Beatles Rock Band is recycled, The concept for the game, the music therein and perhaps even the plastic in the instruments. The Dreamcast represented a visionary company making and brave, ambitious and ultimately disastrous strategic move. However, without the Dreamcast the ecosystem that has allowed Rock Band to sell 50 million downloads would not exist.

If we try and re-engineer history to infer an aetiology in reverse, it could be argued that the drive towards commercialisation, sequelism and fundamentally mainstreamism were the seeds that were apparent at the very point of the Dreamcast’s collapse. Therefore it would seem that the very thing that has advanced the video games industry  as a whole was the exact thing that helped to eliminate the Dreamcast. The Dreamcast is a cautionary tale to the games industry, but in hindsight created the industry we have today.

The Dreamcast is dead. Long Live the Dreamcast.