TIME Video Games

4 Reasons Why Video Game Consoles Will Never Die

E3 Gaming And Technology Conference Begins In L.A.
Kevork Djansezian—Getty Images An Xbox One controller is used at the Microsoft Xbox booth during the Electronics Expo 2013 at the Los Angeles Convention Center on June 11, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.

It's not Game Over yet

By now, we know the “consoles are dead” narrative was overblown. The PS4 has sold tens of millions, the Xbox One isn’t far behind, and the Wii U has climbed from “disastrous” to only “mildly disappointing.”

Lately, however, consoles have become the ugly duckling of the video game world, less popular than the smartphone and less attractive than the all-powerful PC. They’re too expensive, too niche, and too geeky—or so the criticisms go.

But the console still has some long-term advantages that people tend to forget.

1. Reliable software quality, unlike the smartphone

Spend five minutes browsing the App Store or Google Play Store, and you’ll be overwhelmed by an avalanche of games, many of them garbage. For every smash hit (e.g. Angry Birds, Candy Crush), there are countless bug-ridden, unplayable imitators. Yes, the best-selling lists can at least highlight a few up-and-comers (ex: Trivia Crack, Crossy Road), but hundreds of other great games will end up buried beneath all the rubbish.

For developers, there’s far more incentive to game the system with in-app purchases and fake user reviews than to build something creative. After all, most of the good stuff gets lost in the crowd anyway—a consequence of mobile’s race-to-the-bottom, volume-beats-quality marketplace.

Compare that to the world of console gaming, where each platform has a stable, annual parade of triple-A titles, each of which are almost guaranteed to be hits, year after year. The PlayStation boasts exclusives like Uncharted, LitteBigPlanet, and the latest Metal Gear games. The Xbox brings Halo, Titanfall, and Forza. And then there’s Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, FIFA, Madden, and Elder Scrolls, series that owners of either console can trust to deliver, sequel after sequel. Nintendo offers a different lineup, but between Mario Kart, Smash Bros, Zelda, Pokemon and Donkey Kong, you’ve got a similar roster of predictably excellent games.

2. Accessibility, unlike the PC

Let’s face it: among serious gamers, the PC has rapidly become the best choice for gaming. A modern gaming PC will feature the best graphics of any system, and the whole gamut of software, from multi-million-dollar blockbusters to avant-garde indie experiments.

But getting the best out of PC gaming also means owning a pricey, powerful gaming PC, which is a tough sell for the general public. You’re looking at $1,000-2,000 just to get started—potentially over triple the price of a gaming console. Savvy PC owners will point out that the purchase pays off in the long run, especially considering PCs are more easily upgradable.

But how many everyday consumers will be willing to take that price hit up front? If the smartphone market has taught us anything, it’s that people prefer to spread their costs over several years, rather than pay everything right away.

In this way, the console market mirrors the smartphone model. Customers start by paying around $400 for the console (or phone) itself, then $40-60 for each additional game (or month of service). It’s a proven pricing scheme that consumers have accepted for decades.

Then you factor in user experience. From the day you buy a new console, every game will work as advertised. Compare that to the corresponding experience on a PC, where the specific graphics card and performance specifications of your machine will determine every aspect of the user experience. Video card outdated? Your brand new PC game will lurch along at low frame rates. Geeks might get a kick out of keeping their gaming rigs up to speed, but the rest of the market just wants to know that the latest Call of Duty will work straight out of the box.

3. Social appeal

It’s the most controversial point on the list, but an important one: consoles connect people—in person—better than any other gaming system. Yes, smartphones and PCs bring a greater volume of players together, and both deserve credit for the impressive gaming networks they’ve assembled. But when was the last time you physically visited a friends’ house to play Words With Friends? Or lugged your PC to a buddy’s place for drinks, cigars and a session of World of Warcraft? Only the console consistently brings people into the same room. If smartphones and PCs are social networks, the console is the digital equivalent of Monopoly or Risk—a 2015 version of board game night.

Some will say that such classic “couch multiplayer” is dying, and it’s true that far more people play Halo over the web than over a coffee table. But living room gaming still scratches a very human itch, one that will likely stick around—even in its reduced state—for decades to come.

4. Disappearing stigma

The final barrier for console gaming has been the stigma—that is, the sense that only teenage boys play console games. Sure, games like Cut the Rope (mobile) or The Sims 4 (PC) are casual and mainstream enough for anyone, but who—besides those male high schoolers—are actually settling in for three-hour rounds of FIFA on Xbox?

The answer: people of both genders and all ages. According to a 2014 study by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the average age for video game players in the US is 31 years, a number that’s been climbing for a decade. Today, 48% of game players are female. And we’re not just talking about smartphone game players. In the ESA’s study, 68% of respondents reported that they play games on a console, next to only 53% on a smartphone.

So the old teenage boy stigma is simply inaccurate. As each year passes, more and more people feel comfortable admitting to late-night sessions of Zelda and Assassin’s Creed. And that comfort will likely breed even more console gamers.

The Bottom Line

The console is here to stay, even if the future details remain a little murky. Will virtual reality finally break through? Will Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo still be the biggest players in 10 years time? Who knows. But the basic console recipe—consistent quality, a simple experience, social appeal, and societal approval—ensure that the medium will last. Just like with Mario, the game is never really over.

TIME Video Games

Rock Band 4 Exists and It’ll Be on PS4 and Xbox One This Year

The massive music game franchise is ready for a comeback tour

Prep your sweatbands, eyeliner and hair extensions: an official sequel to Rock Band will happen this year for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, says longtime series developer Harmonix.

Better still, the studio’s revamped, group-angled rock-a-thon—dubbed Rock Band 4 and due by this fall—will be backward-compatible with pretty much everything from prior installments, including all the songs (over 2,000), plastic faux-guitars, rubber drum kits and keytars you’ve doubtless sequestered away somewhere, you know, for precisely this moment.

The last band-focused Rock Band game happened five years ago in 2010 and sold well enough, but after years of market saturation (remember the deluge of Guitar Hero titles?), the thinking was that maybe folks needed a make-believe musical break. Harmonix released a one-off in the interim, a downloadable rhythm game for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 called Rock Band Blitz that eschewed special controllers for catchall gamepad-tapping. But the worry post-2010 was that maybe the phenom had passed.

And who knows, perhaps it has. Harmonix’s challenge, with scads of copies of earlier games and all their accessories still widely available, is convincing players Rock Band 4 is more than just the last band game they played with souped-up visuals and refurbished content. Out front, it sounds like the studio understands that concern.

Speaking to Harmonix’s past work, product manager Daniel Sussman puts it this way: “In retrospect, I think we innovated in a lot of areas that were not necessarily the right ones. We’re really trying very hard this time around to be very creative in ways that will impact everybody in the band.”

Two hitches. First, we have no idea what Sussman’s talking about, because Harmonix is only soft-announcing the new game today and avoiding specifics (probably to fend of copycats for as long as possible). All you’ll hear in the “behind the scenes” video above are a few fuzzy buzzphrases, like “evolution of the way that you play” and “now we’re very indie.”

And second, everything I typed about backward compatibility above? Scratch 2009’s masterful The Beatles: Rock Band, arguably the apotheosis of Rock Band-dom. According to Wired, that musical gold mine’s off the books for licensing reasons, at least for now.

TIME Video Games

The Best Thing to Happen to Xbox 360 Owners in Years

Xbox 360
Junko Kimura—Getty Images Visitors play with the XBOX 360 at the Microsoft booth during the Tokyo Game Show 2009 press and business day at Makuhari Messe on September 24, 2009 in Chiba, Japan.

Microsoft is introducing a preview program on Xbox 360

Microsoft is launching a preview program for Xbox 360 owners that allows users to test new features, a move that follows the success of the company’s Xbox One preview program.

Specially selected Xbox 360 owners will be invited to join the program through a message from Xbox Live, allowing them to sign up and enroll into the program. An initial update will add better network connectivity tests, The Verge reports.

Offering updates is a surprising move considering the age of Xbox 360, which was first released a decade ago.

Microsoft is also allowing Xbox 360 owners to build an Xbox One game library from their existing Xbox 360 console, encouraging users to switch to the latest iteration of the gaming system.

[The Verge]

TIME Video Games

Everybody Is Freaking Out About What Might Happen at 3PM Today

US-IT-CONSUMER ELECTRONICS SHOW-CES
ROBYN BECK—AFP/Getty Images Intel Corp. CEO Brian Krzanich (L) and Gabe Newell, co-founder of game-maker Valve, discuss Intel's role in Valve's gaming development, during Krzanich's keynote address at the 2014 International CES.

Third day of the third month at three pm...

Today may be an auspicious day—if Internet gamers have anything to say about it.

At the annual Game Developer’s conference, legendary game maker Valve is scheduled to talk about its future plans. Earlier, the company announced a new virtual reality headset in partnership with Taiwanese phone giant HTC, the Vive. But the timing of the company’s sessions—the third day of the third month—has some speculating (or at least hopeful) that a sequel to one of its most popular titles might be announced.

The most wished for announcement is likely Half-Life 3, the rumor follow up to 2004’s critically acclaimed and commercially blockbuster Half-Life 2. The title has reportedly been in development for more than a decade. But no one outside the company’s Bellevue, Washington-based headquarters knows for sure. Other possibilities include Portal 3, a sequel to the best-selling 2011 game Portal 2.

Expectations may have already boiled over, though. The company said it would be focusing on hardware this year. And the presentation scheduled is supposed to be focused on the use of physics in game. It isn’t slated to be helmed by Valve boss Gabe Newell. But a nerd can always dream.

TIME Gadgets

We Finally Know Who’s Making Valve’s Virtual-Reality Headset

The HTC Vive should be out by the end of the year

Gaming company Valve dropped the news last week that it’s working on a virtual-reality platform akin to the Oculus Rift, but it wasn’t clear who was making the system’s hardware. Now we know: HTC on Sunday announced the HTC Vive, a joint HTC-Valve virtual-reality headset that’s due out by the end of the year.

HTC says the Vive has the “most immersive experience of any VR package,” thanks to a full 360-degree field of vision and 90-frame-per-second video capabilities. The company is also working on wireless controllers for the headset, which, given the Valve partnership, will probably be marketed primarily as a gaming device—games like shooters are a natural fit for the VR experience, and the Vive will be compatible with Valve’s SteamVR virtual-reality platform.

Still, games won’t be the only offering on HTC and Valve’s Vive headset. HTC is partnering with several content providers, including HBO, Lionsgate and Google, for other virtual-reality content like movies.

It still isn’t clear how much the HTC Vive will cost or what content will be available on the platform upon launch. A developer’s edition is due out this spring.

TIME Video Games

This Is the Incredible Game President Underwood Is Obsessed With in House of Cards Season 3

It's called Monument Valley and it's pretty great

Francis Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s Machiavellian character on the Netflix series House of Cards, has always allowed himself a few good video games. These have tended toward the violent, first-person-shooter variety. But in Season 3, which became available on the streaming service on Friday, a beautiful, somewhat esoteric indie game for mobile devices becomes a minor plot point.

That game is Monument Valley, created by UsTwo. The title—available here for Android and here for iOS— was ranked one of TIME’s 10 best games of 2014. Here’s a description of the game by its designers, part of which Spacey alludes to in the show:

In Monument Valley you will manipulate impossible architecture and guide a silent princess through a beautiful world. Monument Valley is a surreal exploration through fantastical architecture and impossible geometry. Guide the silent princess Ida through mysterious monuments, uncovering hidden paths, unfolding optical illusions and outsmarting the enigmatic Crow People.

Or as TIME’s reviewer put it: “Monument Valley celebrates non-Euclidean geometry, beautifully bizarre architecture and the art of silent storytelling. Combine royalty with optical trickery, trajectory-fiddling with bonsai pruning, aesthetic contemplation with tactile interaction and you wind up with something like designer ustwo’s delightful, enigmatic puzzler.” Worth checking out, no matter where you are on the road to world domination.

TIME Video Games

Nimoy’s Greatest Performance Had Nothing to Do With Star Trek

Sega

'Seaman' did not become a blockbuster, but a cult hit

The world is eulogizing the great Leonard Nimoy after the 83-year-old actor passed away Friday. To be sure, the man best known as Spock in various incarnations of Star Trek had a long and varied career. People will be remember the ways in which he influenced, moved or made them laugh for weeks to come.

To me Nimoy’s greatest performance was in what, for most, will seem a minor footnote. In the late-1990s, he provided voice-over narration for one of the strangest, most wonderful experiments in video game history: Seaman. Released for Sega’s Dreamcast console, the Japanese game put a virtual pet in the care of players who were charged with feeding, nurturing and guiding its evolution from sea to land. You could talk to the creature through a microphone accessory plugged into the Dreamcast’s controller and, eventually, he would begin talking back. It was strange.

But also delightful. The game, which Nimoy welcomed you to every time you booted up with a joke or piece of advice, did what emerging (if flawed) technology does best, giving you a sense of what might be possible. A lot of the time it didn’t work correctly, or at all. (Voice-recognition was much less sophisticated, not to mention the lackluster processing power of Sega’s ill-fated console.) But the game was a kind of equation with wonder as the chief variable. And Nimoy’s voice lent the whole thing shape and credence, turning what might have been a trifling experiment into something pretty grand.

You can see gameplay and some of Nimoy’s work here.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: February 27

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Hollywood is less diverse than its audiences — and it might be hurting the bottom line.

By Austin Siegemund-Broka in the Hollywood Reporter

2. Facebook’s new suicide prevention tools finally get it right.

By Ashley Feinberg in Gizmodo

3. How will we understand the power of the bacteria in our bodies? Meet the crowdsourced American Gut project.

By American Gut

4. The road to artificial intelligence begins with computers mastering video games like a human being in the 80s.

By Rebecca Morelle at BBC News

5. Salting roads and plowing snow is inefficient and costly. A smart algorithm can save cities millions.

By Marcus Woo in Wired

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Video Games

The Surprising Reasons People Buy the PlayStation 4, Xbox One or Wii U

Sony Launches PlayStation 4 In Japan As Console Retakes U.S. Retail Lead Over Microsoft's Xbox One
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images The first customer to purchase the PlayStation 4 (PS4) video game console holds the box at the launch of the PS4 console at the Sony showroom in Tokyo, Japan, on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014.

New data offers a few head-scratching reasons why consumers buy

Infometrics guru Nielsen just published the results of an inquiry into why people are buying the latest game systems from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. The results are surprising in part.

Consider the following chart, which breaks the decision-making variables impacting each system into “factors” ranked by survey respondents:

Nielsen

The chart’s results are weirder than they appear at first. Take resolution, the number of horizontal by vertical lines output as video signal, and constitutive of the number of pixels onscreen. Several first-wave, multi-platform games ran at higher resolution on the PlayStation 4 than the Xbox One, owing, everyone in the media’s assumed based on anecdotal developer chitchat, to disparity between the two systems’ processing power.

The presumption is that slight visual differences shouldn’t matter, that you’re just being slavish to detail if you’re obsessed with subtle pixel differentiation. Yet there it is, the topmost reason for buyers of Sony’s console.

And what’s “Blu-ray Player” doing as PS4 factor number two? The Xbox One’s just as capable a Blu-ray system. Is this telling us something about a Microsoft messaging failure? Or wait—isn’t packaged media all but dead? Whether people are really watching scads of Blu-rays on their PS4s or this is just the psychological “want the option” factor is unclear.

“Game Library” is another head-scratcher. The Xbox One’s library is just as big and just as critically acclaimed as the PlayStation 4’s, while neither system offers native backward compatibility. Is this indication of a preference for the kinds of exclusives Sony’s system offers? And looking across the way at Nintendo, what’s the difference between “Game Library” (PS4) and “Exclusive Games/Content” (Wii U)?

I’m also a little confused about “Brand,” which tops the Xbox One’s factor column. Sony’s PlayStation-as-brand is, judging by platform sales across all systems, far better known than Microsoft’s Xbox—unless it’s more a Microsoft versus Sony (than PlayStation versus Xbox) thing.

And what does “Innovative Features” refer to? Xbox One Kinect, a peripheral the company yanked from the system before its first anniversary? SmartGlass integration? The bifurcated operating system (and Metro-styled interface)? Or the list of features the company wound up retracting in the wake of controversy over player privacy and digital rights management?

What this more likely confirms is that perception remains nine-tenths ownership.

TIME Video Games

This Computer Learned How to Totally Devastate You at Pong

Iowa Town Plans To Launch Video Game Hall of Fame And Museum
David Greedy—Getty Images A version of Pong is played on the orignial Magnovox Odyssey 200 during the launch party for the International Video Game Hall of Fame and Museum on August 13, 2009 in Ottumwa, Iowa.

And that's a huge development for artificial intelligence

Need a new gaming buddy? Just call DeepMind.

The artificial intelligence company, owned by Google, has developed an algorithm that can learn how to play almost 50 classic arcade games nearly from scratch, according to a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The system can learn titles from Pong to Space Invaders after getting the same instructions no matter which game it’s about to learn, a big improvement from computers programmed from the get-go to master single games like chess.

While this research sounds like it’s all fun and games, it has big implications for artificial intelligence. According to Nature, DeepMind uses a combination of AI technologies based on the human brain that let it learn from experience as well as respond to rewards—in this case, high scores in video games—much like people respond to a jolt of dopamine. That means DeepMind could give researchers new insight in how to replicate human brain functions in digital code.

Still, DeepMind’s software isn’t about to destroy all your high scores. Nature points out it has trouble with maze games because it “struggles to link actions with distant consequences,” not unlike most of your buddies in high school. And for now, it can’t take what it learns from one game and apply it to another similar title.

Google bought DeepMind in January of last year for a reported $650 million.

[Nature]

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com