Consoles By Necessity

I find it refreshing that Gabe Newell is taking a Microsoftian approach to the retail offerings of what may revolutionize in-home gaming. Recognizing your influences is part of being a responsible creator. Unfortunately he hasn’t done that this time.

He suggests that the Steam Box, a burgeoning reinvention of modern consoling, may be offered to the public in three tiers. Sound familiar? Have a look:

Good, a $99 console with minimum specs for casual games, some streamed from a more powerful PC. Also on the hoof, an advertising or vendor supported version that might be free (though that’s a long shot, especially with our present global economy).

Better, a $300 system utilizing vendor partnerships to serve us a console-style experience that would play most games in our library with specifications far better than anything Microsoft, Nintendo or Sony “can or will offer”. How’s that for ambitious?

Best, at a price only your wallet can beat, in the form of a Steam branded PC with the choicest hardware that can be had. Sounds like Dell to me, and after ten years of failing to … succeed, how will Steam fair better?

Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? The geek in me is interested. Gabe’s sounding pretty wise here. Flexibility is the key to survival isn’t it?

Why is it so important for Steam to push into the hardware market?

Allow me to present my understanding of the success of gaming. Historians please feel free to correct me as I go, I won’t be mentioning dates. My factual knowledge is pretty solid, and I care if I make a mistake.

Consoles have been called bottom feeders and cursed for it, by some. What’s checkers then, than stones arranged on wooden panels? Cards? Paper. Baseball? A few rules and an air filled sphere. Chess? Pieces of varying quality and detail upon the very same board as the aforementioned Checkers.

Game developers get in trouble for stealing backgrounds like that, these days. At least, they do when anyone is paying attention, and money for the product.

Games are psychological processes we use to keep our minds sharp. Certainly there are many other reasons, but that one is unavoidably true no matter how you look at it. Game mechanics are added when the game we are playing does not meet our needs, such as socializing, complexity, variety, style and presentation, or amusement.

To put it simply, there is nothing cheap about console gaming. Whether one configuration of microchips is better than another is not a point of this article. Skilled designers presented their best configuration, and “best” was never the deciding factor.

Gabe appears to have forgotten this. Oh, it looks like he’s covering his bases, but tiered gaming is not going to draw mass market. It’s that rule: put another step in the process and you’ve lost another customer.

Nintendo and Sega were struggling with these realities, and though the Master System was more capable in many ways than the NES, it was more complex. It literally was visually more complex as a physical unit.

As a kid, I remember which of the two consoles made more sense to me. The Master System looked neat, but I didn’t know what anything on the front of it meant except for the arrow that indicated it was powered on. The NES however was easy, and clarity in memory is vital here.

Two controller ports, a power button and a reset button. Much like the controllers. Simple. Oh, and there was that troublesome cartridge slot. Both system had that, so there was no confusion at all. To me this embodies why Sega failed as a hardware designer.

I agree that the Dreamcast outshone any unit of its generation. In fact it still does some things better than modern consoles do, but none of that matters, because Sega didn’t know how to make it important to us as players. I’m not talking hardcore fans here, because all of us hardware geeks get it, but we’re not the ones who flip the ‘survival’ switch.

Nintendo learned from Mario Bros. that music connects players to the experience, and characters help us identify with the struggle presented. They’ve been plying that trade since then, and it has succeeded. They connect with players.

They did it with the cheapest hardware they could lay their hands on. While the Wii has suffered a lot of grief for its low hardware specifications in a world of performance, what was the Xbox but a Celeron, the cheapest x86 processor on the market?

See, this is how the good, better, best argument is confused for the meat of the matter. The fact is that the hardware specifications are totally trivial. My favorite games range every flavor of processors from ARM to custom 8-bit hybrids.

I care what’s inside the box because it tells me more about who made it. When it comes to playing, the only question I ask myself is, am I enjoying it? That’s not exactly true. If I enjoy the game, I’m too absorbed to care. Mostly.

The truth of the matter is that Steam is facing a somewhat shaky proposition with Gabe’s opposition to Windows 8. He has to assure the future of his platform, not to mention the over 50 million players who bought in, including yours truly. Building his own gaming platform when the console market looks up for grabs is a good way to gain a foothold, except that the only people who know what Steam is are the players themselves.

Steam is not a household name. Microsoft is a household name. Apple, Sony, GE… gosh. Sega has more intellectual presence. Steam rises out of the pot, in the minds of the world. Steam does not power games.

Team Fortress and Left 4 Dead will not a palatable launch line up make if and when the Steam Box hits shelves, though I would be pleased as punch to play one.

At present the Ouya is a more realistic approach to gaming than most consoles. If they get it right, the good titles will float the hardware to the surface and we won’t be too out of pocket to play along.

Good hunting, guys.

hastypixels
hastypixels

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