Reroll: Takeaways from Gamescom

It’s been a tumultuous week both here in the United States and around the world, but fortunately there have been a few shreds of good news to come out of this year’s Gamescom conference in Cologne, Germany. Microsoft, Sony and EA each had major press events, and a bunch of really exciting games were revealed over the course of the week.

We’re stuck in a weird position in gaming right now. The new consoles have been out for nearly a year and, based on Sony’s announcement of 10 million PlayStation 4 consoles having been sold through to consumers, it sounds like there’s a strong (if not overwhelming) demand for advanced hardware. Of course, Nintendo’s Wii U is languishing despite the relatively strong performance of Mario Kart 8, and Microsoft’s been tight-lipped about actual Xbox One sell-through numbers, even after the console’s $100 price drop. Still, we’re not seeing anything that paints a do-or-die picture for any of the three hardware companies. Something like 20 million current-generation consoles have made it into consumer hands so far, but is that a big enough install base to give developers the confidence to invest in new games specifically targeted for new hardware?

There’s always a tipping point with a new console generation where most developers and publishers shift the majority of their development resources over to new hardware, and it varies pretty substantially from generation to generation. (Remember how the PlayStation 2 maintained its healthy long tail of sales year after year, even after its successor launched?) My hunch is that, as of the last month or so, we still haven’t hit that point with the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Wii U. Based on what we know about upcoming big-name games arriving next year—and how many of them are launching both on last-gen and current-gen hardware—I expect that transition won’t really take place until spring 2016.

Of course, we’re not gonna see the proof of that shift until a bunch of the noteworthy, current-gen-console exclusives make their way into the marketplace. But given how many new and retooled games were exhibited at Gamescom exclusively for new hardware (many of them notably missing a release date of any kind – even a rough target) it seems the major studios like Ubisoft, Square Enix and EA have made a substantial and crucial shift toward removing the old hardware from some major upcoming games.

There’s a good argument to be had that this split-generation phenomenon is actually good for consumers. Like most of my friends, I don’t have the money for a new console at this point, and I’m appreciative of the fact that many “big” upcoming games will be playable on the creaky, old hardware I own. But developing games for multiple console generations at the same time is more expensive up-front. That added strain on resources creates more risk, and in order to mitigate that risk companies push for less-ambitious game design. So while it might be good for consumer access, the medium sputters and struggles to maintain forward progress in terms of creativity, experimentation and complexity.

We’ve heard this story before. There are more parallels to the last console generation’s debut than you might initially guess. But there’s a key difference this time around: the PC.

Without getting too deep into it, the PC has historically struggled to deliver traditional “console” games at the same level of polish as the native hardware those games were originally designed for. But the last generation of consoles had to extend their lifespans a few years longer than usual, largely as a result of the struggling world economy, and that was the window the PC needed.

PC gaming has always appealed to a wide spectrum of gamers, from fans of casual and social games to enthusiasts in pursuit of the most-impressive graphics performance with money to burn. While the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 spent an extra few years resting on their increasingly antiquated laurels, PC hardware providers kept innovating. It wasn’t long before your average PC could run circles around the console in the living room, and game developers recognized an opportunity to serve a growing market of engaged gamers who weren’t outrageously wealthy but still had a desire to see games keep growing more sophisticated and impressive.

As more people flocked to services like Steam, more games started launching on PC in parallel with their console versions without any sacrifices to performance or quality. In fact, the areas where PC had lagged the worst behind consoles for decades—polish, bugginess, controller support, feature parity—were suddenly no longer a problem. In just a couple short years, for example, we saw the release of a frustrating and delayed rough PC port of Dark Souls to a superior (albeit several weeks late) PC version of Dark Souls II. In other words, the PC finally feels like a next-generation console, with controller support almost a baseline expectation at this point and a flood of triple-A and indie games hitting the platform daily. Throw in the ability to stream from one device to another within your household network and suddenly it doesn’t sound so strange to think about Steam finally making serious inroads on the living room.

This also means that those of us who kept up with PC gaming are facing a wholly different landscape this time around. Almost every major game announced for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 is also coming to PC. Even Metal Gear Solid V—a series that saw a few rough ports over a decade ago—is coming to Steam.

What does all of this mean? Personally, I get the sense that this is going to be a very unpredictable console generation. Here’s how I imagine this whole console generation most likely playing out:

1. Steam’s user base continues to grow rapidly over the next few years. As content creation (including in-game items, livestreaming, and so on) becomes more of a consumer expectation, the PC will benefit from existing productivity software and Valve’s years of experience with its Steam Workshop and Marketplace. The biggest make-or-break moment in this strategy hinges on how well Valve does at getting small streaming boxes into living rooms to convert more PC gamers into couch gamers. My hunch is this number won’t come close to even the number of PS4 owners at any point, but a few million gamers who used to buy consoles and upgrade a PC will abandon consoles altogether. That’ll give Valve leverage to keep investing in its infrastructure and feature set.

2. Sony will sell more PS4s than either the Wii U or Xbox One. I don’t see this gap ever closing at this point, thanks to a strong consumer value proposition and a much shrewder press and developer relationship than what we’re seeing out of Microsoft or Nintendo. I don’t see the Vita ever selling well enough to establish itself as its own distinct platform, but it’s a safe bet that most coveted indie games will make their way to both PS4 and Vita.

3. Microsoft is in the unfortunate position of going through a major restructuring during the crucial first year of its console’s release, and until the dust settles we’re likely going to see a conservative approach out of the company. It’s dumping untold resources into shipping a remastered Halo collection this fall, but any must-have exclusive properties are nonexistent at this point. Unless it can definitively court either consumers or developers to its side, Microsoft is looking at a distant second place.

4. Nintendo will stay the course in the face of dwindling profits and tepid hardware adoption. The 3DS will find itself it sore need of a successor within a year or two thanks to already dwindling new software output, and fortunately for Nintendo the handheld market is still something of a “blue ocean,” a term the company seems to be fond of. Wii U, however, will never recoup its losses to a degree where it outsells the original Wii. It’s in danger of performing even worse than the GameCube’s 22 million lifetime console sales. Nintendo’s only hope for profound recovery this generation hinges on its willingness to make major internal cultural and operational changes – for example, like greatly loosening its independent publishing restrictions, relaxing content censorship policies (which, given the fact that The Binding of Isaac still hasn’t been released for 3DS, appears to still be a thing) and aggressively courting consumers with a value proposition and a promise to do better. Nintendo has made no visible progress in these areas since the Wii U launched, and I fear it’s not going to learn its lesson anytime soon.

The biggest winners from this generation will likely be Sony and Valve. But there’s a more interesting competition taking place than just raw hardware sales numbers; usage frequency, average spend and content creation are all relatively new metrics that will go a long way toward indicating which platform has the greatest momentum behind it. I’ll be watching eagerly to see how the competition addresses these new metrics.

As for me? It’s kinda funny, but I find myself back in pretty much the same place I was the last time around: playing a lot of Nintendo games and getting my core and indie gaming time in on my PC. But there’s a part of me who still remembers the thrill of buying and opening an original PlayStation for the first time and jumping on my first 16-player local Halo match. Those memories make for a powerful nostalgia – the kind that might even outweigh rational analysis and drive a person to make a big purchase solely in pursuit of a feeling.