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Console woes

Putting the console before the horses

I'm not a gamer, but I follow various developments from the IT world, and I can't help but notice the various scandals that shake the gaming world with worrying frequency. Take the fall season of 2008: between a cold reception for Fallout 3 and the Spore DRM enraging users, you'd have thought the industry is coming to an end. Needless to say, it never does, but that's how the game is played, apparently. And no, the pun was not intended.

Sony complains about PSP piracy

The latest (mini) scandal is Sony complaining about the 'frankly sickening' piracy on their famous Playstation Portable (see here and here). Mind you, they're not actually losing money over this; they're just not making as big a profit as they expected.

This got my attention for a very simple reason: as far as I can tell, the PSP is a hugely popular device. Several of the crew here at GameXTV have one, and they buy games like crazy. But when it comes to playing them, suddenly we're talking half a dozen each, tops. On the other hand, they'll use their consoles to play music, watch movies, read books and surf the Web — going as far as installing homebrew software (at the risk of damaging the device) to support these "secondary" activities. And I suspect that many PSP buyers skip the game buying part entirely. But they do buy the consoles in the first place, and they're anything but cheap. So why is it such a big deal that they don't also buy games?

'Geeks' love the hardware, not the games

The problem, I believe, is that manufacturers are putting the cart before the horses. As we all know, consoles are traditionally sold below the factory price, and costs are recouped from game sales. In other words, they are more or less giving away the one part of the product that can't be pirated, while the one that can be infinitely replicated (like it or not) is necessarily overpriced. Which in my book is a sign of seriously messed-up priorities.

Because, you see, I don't think most people buy consoles for the games. I think they buy consoles for the appeal of the platform. Just look at the PS3: its main selling points are the included Blu-Ray player and high-def output. What do geeks want it for? It can run Linux! That, and the 64 Cell processing cores. Real time ray-tracing, anyone?

And let's not forget about the Nintendo Wii. That little bugger has been all about the controller from the start. People have used the motion-sensing stick for everything, from remote-controlling PCs to crazy electronics stunts. As for the games? Two words: Wii Fit. Which not only has caused reactions from outrage to ridicule, but doesn't even use the famous controller. There must be some good Wii games out there, but you don't hear about them much... at all.

As for the other Nintendo darling, the DS, not even the eponymous dual screen has attracted as much attention as the portable console's ability to surf the Web as well as a desktop computer, thanks to WiFi and the embedded Opera browser.

The alternative: open consoles

So what is a poor console manufacturer supposed to do? Oh, I don't know... maybe give up this silly idea that consoles are mainly about games, and just sell the hardware unlocked, but at a price high enough to turn out profits. Doubters may want to check out the story of the Gp2x, a little-known and underpowered Korean console that nevertheless has a cult following. Fortunately, several newcomers to this market appear to have done so. Here's how the Pandora is advertised:

The Pandora (...) was designed (...) with one goal in mind - to make the ultimate open source handheld device. (...) It is by far the most powerful handheld in the world both in terms of raw CPU power and 3D graphics capability, it will be able to handle things such as Firefox3 or Quake3 with ease.

And while the Pandora is still under development, much like the Wiz, expected successor of the GP2X, here's another device, this time non-portable, which you can already preorder. This is how Envizions is recommending their EVO console:

Why spend thousands of dollars on multi-media (sic) devices like PCs, DVRs, game systems, phones and DVD players? Just get an EVO!

Indeed, that was my first thought when I saw the Linux Devices coverage of the EVO: "A computer that works out of the box, does all this for the price of a netbook, and I'll bet even my mother can use it. I want one."

(I should probably point out that I already own half a dozen other gadgets, and I can't afford any new ones, no matter how much I want them. But I can dream.)

Now, you may have noticed a common trend among all these newfangled open consoles. All of them are based around a developer-friendly operating system (take that, traditional consoles!) that has a certain... ahem... reputation. Namely, Linux.

Wait, what? Linux? But there are no games for Linux, right?

First of all, that's simply not true (more about this in a future article). Second, if you were a game maker and you learned of a new platform that sold like hot pancakes, wouldn't you at least consider jumping on the bandwagon? But remember, that's not the issue. Nerds don't buy the consoles for the games, but for all the other things they can do with them.

And that's what the typical console buyer is: a nerd. A geek. A gadget enthusiast. The same guy who buys the most expensive smartphones as soon as they get on the market. (Or used to, before the iPhone came along. Now he's just waiting for the next generation.) Oh, he'll buy one or two (or a dozen) games, mostly out of curiosity, but for the most part he'll use the device as a media player, book reader and Internet gateway, unless he'll simply take a screwdriver to his new toy. So why not give him exactly what he wants? I sure don't see anything wrong with that.

Post Scriptum

Upon reading a preview copy of this article, a friend pointed out that the console owners he knows bought the machines specifically for games. Admittedly, we're working with small samples here, and a more comprehensive study would be needed in order to settle the matter.