A Response to 'What Games Are: Consoles Are Sinking. Get To The Lifeboats!'

Tadhg Kelly wrote an opinion piece for TechCrunch that requires a response due to just how awful it is. The premise for Kelly's article is that traditional video game consoles are stuck in the past, with a questionable future ahead. He uses the recent PlayStation 4 announcement event as the lens by which he examines this premise.

“Sony’s PS4 is DOA. Microsoft has won.” So said a friend of mine on Facebook moments after the PS4 event broadcast all around the Internet on Wednesday.

It's entertaining to know that there are some out there who think what Sony announced, while flawed, was somehow so devastatingly bad as to signal defeat before the other competitor has even announced its entry in the competition. Kelly's post just gets worse from here, folks.

Later in the post, Kelly talks about the sharing capabilities described at the PS4 announcement and compares them to the Sega Dreamcast:

When Sega tried to strike back at Sony’s original PlayStation (and the Nintendo 64) with a machine that was meant to connect every player in the world, every player in the world responded with profound apathy.

In that statement, Kelly shows a profound misunderstanding of the many reasons why the Dreamcast failed in the market. Previous missteps (Sega CD, 32X, Saturn), lack of third party developer support, and the marketing hype behind Sony's PlayStation 2 (with its vaunted Emotion Engine) caused the Dreamcast to fail. Not one bit of the failure had anything at all to do with the Dreamcast's connectivity feature.

Kelly next tackles the topic of the features offered by modern games consoles in the form of streaming video, social networking, and web browsing.

Sometimes a whole class of a technology just doesn’t make sense any more. In an age of smartphones, for example, nobody needs a Discman. In an age of tablets and laptops, nobody needs a home hub under their TV for browsing and IM-ing, and arguably not even for Netflix.

This is an interesting take. It's mistakenly conflating the obsoleting of a product by a superior product (the Discman and smartphone) with competition between products that meet different, if somewhat overlapping needs (consoles and tablets/laptops).

The entire console business is built on being able to sell games at $50, and it fundamentally doesn’t work in a $5 app world, but this leads to all manner of over-managed and controlled deadweight.

Kelly is making an argument that has become quite popular in the tech media. It is also incorrect. This argument fails to take notice of the fact that while smartphones and tablets have greatly expanded the overall video game playing market, it is a mistake to call each one of those users a gamerNot every person who plays a Facebook game or an iOS/Android game is what would traditionally be called a gamer (just as not every driver is a car enthusiast). Based on the fact that this mistake keeps being made in the media, it seems as though we need a new term to distinguish the two different markets.  Perhaps we could refer to the two as casual video game player and video game enthusiast. The needs of the video game enthusiast are not satisfied by the $5 app world. Angry Birds, for all its appeal to casual video game players around the world, does not provide the same kind of experience that the video game enthusiast is seeking when they play a game like Skyrim or Super Mario Bros.

Kelly finally covers the topic of "microconsoles", such as the OUYA, and their potential impact on the traditional game console.

The reason microconsoles are so appealing is all down to price and choice. The Ouya, for example, is aiming to be $99. Its games are likely to be $5, or free-to-play, or something equally straightforward. And you’ll play them with a joypad on your television, just like any gaming machine. Even better, the relatively lightweight process of developing and distributing on microconsole virtually guarantees that they will play host to interesting content.

While the Apple App Store and Google Play store have allowed for the rise of "interesting content" such as the aforementioned Angry Birds, they also have allowed for a deluge of rubbish in the video game world. Of course, there have always been stinkers in the console world (Atari's E.T., for example) but the lower barrier to entry in the mobile app stores (as compared to console development) makes it far more difficult to find good games. Try picking a few random games from a retailer's store shelf and a few random games from the app store, and see how that turns out for you.

In short, Kelly's premise doesn't stand up to scrutiny. By focusing on certain ancillary aspects of the traditional game console as compared to similar aspects of smartphones and tablets, Kelly has shown a remarkable misunderstanding of the video game market.