Wednesday, May 16, 2012

#21: The “What Ifs” of Apple's Alleged New Console

As of right now, major gaming has been a competition between the Nintendo Wii, the Sony PlayStation 3, the Microsoft Xbox 360, and the good-old gaming PC. Each of these options have their own pros and cons, and each were vying for supremacy. This is nothing new. It has been this way for a number of years now. This console generation has, for the most part, already been decided. The three consoles and the PC have all gathered their respective audiences (with a high degree of overlap) and most gamers have already passed judgment.

However, what if something major happens? What if, another major corporation decided to throw their hat into the ring and join the competition? It has rumored for quite sometime that Apple, technological innovators they are (despite my personal opinion of them), may be tempted to join the gaming market after a source said that Apple was in talks with Valve Software to make a new console compatible with Steam. While this rumor has since been debunked, this does raise a perfectly valid question: If either Apple or Valve (or both) decided to enter the console market, how would that affect the industry? This week will be dedicated to my own personal musings surrounding that.

First off, what would happen if this theoretical new console should be released and sell well? Perhaps the most obvious outcome of this would be a growth in indie/low-budget game development. Apple and Valve are well-known for their support of indies, Valve in particular is known for hiring indie developers who demonstrate potential. (This is how Portal became as well-known and loved as it is.) The Steam library and Apple App Store have tons of games developed by people in their basements/garages and available for very low prices. Should they make it into console space, this would expand beyond the PC and iPod markets and into the console space as well. Other console manufacturers would be forced in turn to expand their own efforts in the indie field. The focus would be on unique and interesting gameplay experiences, broadening the creativity of the industry. Like the Kickstarter campaigns, this would have the potential to bring back games that require a bigger budget than most indies do, but not the super-high budgets that AAA gaming has forced upon us. These side-effects would be generally positive for the gaming industry. The types of innovation that are only possible when games do not cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make would be commonplace once again. There would be no reason to constantly make safe games and sequels galore.

The other positive of another company entering the console market is the competition that would inspire. Although Apple and Valve are big corporations themselves, the sheer notion of another force going up against the behemoths of Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo would provoke other firms into trying their hand at it as well. Having several companies compete against each other in this space is good news for consumers. We would benefit from the technologies and ideas in introduced during such times. Furthermore, the competition would drive down prices, as each company would need to compete even more with all of its rivals for the consumers' collective interest. This would be similar to the time when Sony entered the market previously dominated by Nintendo and Sega. As many gamers are aware of already, this is often considered to be a “Golden Age” in gaming as each company was aiming to get all the game developers on their side. Competition and innovation were both at a high, with the consumers coming out on top. Many of the games from this era are still lauded as classics. This, combined with what Apple and Valve bring with them from the indie space, could do much good for gaming. I am not saying that they would control the industry as well as Sony did, but it would certainly be a much needed kick-in-the-pants for the big three.

But this would not come without a price, of course. Game publishers are notorious for refusing to change until they have no other choice but to do so. They believe that the business practices they use will always work no matter what. Because of this, some of them will be unable to adjust. This means that in this hypothetical console war, there would be casualties. Many publishers, and the studios that they own by proxy, would have to shut down, leaving many employees in the industry jobless. This is not necessarily all bad. In the competitive spirit bred by this console war, those who demonstrate great talent in this industry would most likely be rehired by the studios that can survive and thrive in this environment, allowing the true innovators to continue bringing us great gaming experiences.

The flip-side is that in the unlikely event that Valve or Apple decide to release a game console, it could just as easily fail. Something like that would also have its own list of consequences. At the foremost would be the message it would send to other companies looking to expand into gaming. Having Apple or Valve fail at such a major undertaking, despite their resources and expertise, would show that it is impossible, or at least incredibly difficult, for other companies to compete with the big three companies. Nobody else would want to compete in this area, at least not for the short-term. Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft would continue their current lines of thinking and strengthen their holds on the industry, emboldened by the fall of the new guy. Major publishers also would probably continue their current paths as well. Budgets will remain high until they are no longer capable of sustaining the industry, at which point they will be forced to change or fail anyway. Games will keep on as they will.

Valve and/or Apple could radically change the gaming landscape. If one of them were to release a new console, it would mean big things for the industry. I remain unconvinced that it will happen, nonetheless it is an interesting subject. Because there is not much information to go on, a lot of this is speculative, without much in the way of fact supporting it. Honestly, I am much more interested in discussing this with my viewers than having them read my opinion. Let me know in the comments below what you think would happen if Valve or Apple were to become a force in the console war. I want to see what other people have to say on this one.

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