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What The Next PlayStation And Xbox Need To Get Right

Skittles or Steak? I hate to admit it, but I like both. For me, it is not a choice. Nothing quite works like a steak for dinner. But, when I go to the movies, and I want to indulge, it’s Skittles for me. It is a bit embarrassing to admit. For me, it’s Skittles and Steak. I like both. You must be wondering what this has to do with games. Or why Kotaku would run my piece on candy and beef. This will take a minute, but let me explain.

I can’t keep track of the number of people who have told me they don’t believe the new consoles, long rumoured to be coming from both Microsoft and Sony this fall, will succeed. I’ve heard this from some industry analysts. I’ve heard it from friends. I’ve even heard it from some pretty dedicated gamers.

When I press them, most everyone says they see games on smart phones and tablets taking over the game biz. They see the massive numbers of apps — mostly game apps — being downloaded onto iOS and Android devices and see the demise of console gaming as inevitable. They see the multi-year decline of console software at retail, as reported by NPD, and they think the console gaming is done. They see Apple’s PR machine touting the 50 billion apps downloaded, and they’re even more certain the battle is over and that the future is all about mobile. For them, consoles are over.

I can’t keep track of the number of people who have told me they don’t believe the new consoles… will succeed.

Mobile games are awesome. It is a rare day when I don’t play a game on my iPhone or my new Samsung Galaxy S4.

I play them everywhere. At home. In a taxi. On a plane. Sometimes when I am trying to get to a next level, I get up in the middle of the night to play. This may seem unusual, but the numbers speak for themselves. Mobile gaming is exploding globally with no end to the growth in sight. What I notice, though, is that the vast majority of my mobile gaming is done five and 10 minutes at a time. Sometimes 15. Sometimes, I am watching TV while I am playing. Sometimes I am writing something and need a break for a moment or two (like now). Or, I am eating a burrito. When I am playing a mobile game, it takes some, but not all of my attention.

All the research I have read tells me that my experience with mobile games is very much the norm. We all do it. We do it often, in short sessions. Most of the time, we’re doing something else while we’re playing.

Put down that burrito, because console gaming is very different. I don’t have the fastest thumbs, so playing with any skill at all requires my focus. I am fully engaged. All-in. The room with the biggest TV is the most important entertainment room in my house. And there, console gaming rules. In the room where the entertainment stakes are the highest, console gaming wins. When I am exploring Columbia, or taking down Necromorphs, solving Portal Puzzles, or running as Faith over building tops (OK, so I still love that game), I am all-in. Fully committed. It is a commitment I am happy to make.

The room with the biggest TV is the most important entertainment room in my house. And there, console gaming rules.

Console gaming and mobile gaming. Both are awesome. For me, and I believe hundreds of millions of others, neither is going away anytime soon. Mobile and console scratch different itches. Satisfy a very different hunger. Mobile is here to stay. But, I firmly believe that after eight long years of waiting, we’re all ready for the next generation of consoles to bring us to a new frontier of immersive gaming.

Now, back to Microsoft and Sony.

I believe that console gaming is going to explode on the scene of consumer electronics with this next generation of consoles. Sony and Microsoft absolutely need to deliver new boxes that really impress us. They need to deliver platforms that enable game experiences that are not possible on current consoles. It is not just about graphics, although it is partly about graphics. It is also about recognising that a lot has changed with online devices and the cloud since the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were originally introduced.

Our expectations are much, much higher. The next generation of consoles needs to deliver. And, more than anything else, the great developers who create games for these platforms need to wow us with great games and experiences that go well beyond anything we’ve played before.

It’s about recognising that a lot has changed with online devices and the cloud since the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were originally introduced.

None of us has seen the future. But based on everything I know and what I have seen, most everything is pretty much in place for all of these things to happen, and to put console gaming front-and-center again. I see 2013 as the year that brings gaming pizzazz back to the living room, where it all really started.

But I do have this nagging fear that it is not too late to snatch defeat from the jaws of probable victory.

I keep asking myself how this might happen, and I come up with a four potential pitfalls that could turn my predicted console victory lap of 2013 into something a bit less grand. Trip on these, and what could be the start of a game console-driven revolution in the living room quickly turns into something that passes with more of a yawn than a cheer.

The first and most obvious of these pitfalls is if Sony or Microsoft forgets who brought them to the dance in the first place. Gamers. I certainly see the temptation to emphasise all sorts of experiences that these boxes might bring to the living room. These new machines can do a lot. The risk is that either or both of the new platforms emphasise these “value-add” experiences too much, both in the user interface on the consoles themselves, or in the story they tell consumers when they unleash their avalanche of advertising. To paraphrase a political slogan, it’s about the games, stupid.

The first and most obvious of these pitfalls is if Sony or Microsoft forgets who brought them to the dance in the first place. Gamers.

The risk here is real. Both Sony and Microsoft want to be seen as revolutionary companies. To capture that bit of magic that Steve Jobs had running Apple. Reinventing the Living Room sounds so big and sexy. It will read as brilliant in the Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, People and The New York Times. But the risk of complexity in the new console UI (User Interface) is real. Give us too much on the screen, and we’ll never find our games.

The risk is that too many choices and a UI design to appeal to too many audiences, means nothing stands out.

Ensure the box delivers awesome game experiences, better than anything we’ve experienced before, and millions of gamers will line up at midnight to buy it. Delivering a box that raises the question of whether we should buy the new console over the $US100 Apple TV device or a $US60 Roku player will cause too many gamers to wait it out and commit only when the smoke clears.

A second potential pitfall has to do with supply. Consumers today have gotten used to getting what they want, and getting it immediately. We want it now and we want our friends to have it now, so we can play together. The window of time to establish a new world order in consumer electronics is no longer measured in multiple years, as it was in the early 2000’s. Today, it is measured in a year, if not a handful of months.

Past console launches have been severely hampered by a lack of supply. A new console launch with only a few million units available will simply frustrate all of us. Limited supply means the new consoles will launch with a whimper and whine, not the cry of attack. If Sony and Microsoft want to see the next generation of consoles take high ground in the consumer electronics war this year, they are going to have to invest to make sure there are enough of the new consoles out there.

The window of time to establish a new world order in consumer electronics is no longer measured in multiple years. It is measured in a year, if not a handful of months.

The third issue is price. Last time out, Sony priced their fully-featured PS3 at $US599. This made some sense with a launch hampered by a lack of supply. It won’t make sense, either for Sony or Microsoft. Not if they decide to invest in enough supply to really compete for consumer attention in a world used to new hot products from companies like Apple and Samsung selling 5 and 10 million in the first month. Getting the price right is a very important part of the equation. The stakes are enormous.

The fourth issue involves how they handle a few third-rail topics. The question of the always-on connection is one that causes some gamers’ blood to boil. Gamers will want, and learn to love, the good parts of consoles being more connected to our digital lives than was possible with the machines launched eight years ago.

Some gamers fear the new consoles could be more about a DRM-walled garden than about enabling new types of connected gameplay. More about squashing second-sale (used games) than allowing us to play the games we own at our friends houses, in dorms or at home, without having to bring the disk with us. I don’t believe consoles managed as walled-gardens will succeed longer term.

I don’t believe consoles managed as walled-gardens will succeed longer term.

We will want console games that seamlessly connect with our iPhones. Games that change and update in the background while we’re sleeping, to make tomorrow’s gameplay different and far more dynamic than today’s. I believe we’ll all want the ability to bring meaningful achievements in our PC and mobile game to our new consoles, and from our new consoles to our PC and mobile games. It needs to be simple, seamless and without a bunch of headaches with multiple registration, identity and pay gates. The walled garden will fall eventually. At launch, Sony and Microsoft must avoid putting up new and alarming DRM schemes, and focus on enabling the cool new game experiences that seamlessly connected consoles allow.

Sony and Microsoft must avoid putting up new and alarming DRM schemes, and focus on enabling the cool new game experiences that seamlessly connected consoles allow.

I am a huge believer that this is the year we put focus back on console gaming in a way it has not been for some years. To put Sony’s and Microsoft’s next consoles in the same frame as Samsung’s and Apple’s hottest products. To do this, I believe they need to do a few things right:

  • They need to make it about games and gamers.
  • They need to invest to make enough consoles and prove they can compete with the supply chain prowess of companies like Apple and Samsung.
  • They need to price sharply to ensure consumers buy what they make.
  • And they need to think open platform more than walled garden.

If they avoid the pitfalls that would keep them from getting all of that right, I am quite sure console gaming will (once again) be the next big thing.

So, if you are still debating whether mobile gaming will kill the next generation of consoles before they ship, my answer is no.

Did everyone who loves Skittles stop eating steak? Of course not.


John Riccitiello is the former CEO of Electronic Arts.


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