The Traditional Video Game Console Is Dead

For the new generation of gaming, it’s all about the platform

Photo: T3 Magazine/Getty Images

A key part of Google’s pitch for Stadia is that you can play it anywhere. Since it streams from the cloud, it’s accessible on phones, laptops, desktops, and TVs. The Everywhere Console.

But while the idea of playing your games on any device you want is compelling, it’s not actually unique to Stadia. For the new generation of consoles — the Microsoft Xbox Series X, Sony PlayStation 5, and Nintendo Switch — being available everywhere is the new normal.

This year, Microsoft added Stadia-style cloud gaming to its Xbox Game Pass subscription, allowing players to stream games to Android devices. That same subscription allows players to download many Xbox games to a PC where they can play, even if they never buy an Xbox.

For Apple and Microsoft, selling games is what matters. What device players play them on is up to them.

Under this system, a physical Xbox is no longer the gaming platform itself, it’s an optional appliance that happens to play video games in the living room. The platform is Microsoft’s game store and subscription. The Windows Xbox app functions as a Steam-esque game store and a library for Game Pass games, serving up the real platform to anyone with a computer. The Xbox app on Android serves a similar purpose, enabling game streaming.

This model bears little resemblance to older console generations, instead mirroring Apple’s approach to games. On Apple devices, the platform is the App Store. Through it, developers can sell games for the iPhone, iPad, and — if they optimize their apps to run on Apple’s newest ARM processors — even Macs.

For Apple and Microsoft, selling games is what matters. What device players play them on is up to them.

Nintendo has tackled this shift in a slightly different way. In years past, Nintendo operated entirely separate platforms for mobile and living room gaming. From the NES to the Wii, consoles were designed for playing on the TV, while portable hardware like the Gameboy and DS let players keep gaming when they left the house. But these platforms were incompatible with each other, running separate game libraries.

That is, until the Switch arrived. Since its launch in 2017, Nintendo has sold more than 65 million units of its convertible console. Since the Switch can be docked to work in the living room and still be portable enough to carry outside the house, it no longer made sense to maintain separate handheld consoles. So Nintendo discontinued the 3DS line earlier this year.

With a single device, Nintendo has achieved its own version of the Everywhere Console. However, the company’s approach comes with a couple shortcomings. The Switch isn’t very powerful, so Nintendo has started relying on cloud gaming — powered by the Taiwan-based Ubitus GameCloud service — to play more advanced AAA games like Control and Hitman 3, without having to scale back the game’s visuals. Unlike how Microsoft or Stadia sells games, these streaming games are sold as stand-alone titles through Nintendo’s eShop alongside traditional downloadable games. Performance permitting, the fact that they run on a streaming service might be invisible to the player.

Even Sony, which sold 113 million PS4s and owns some of the most valuable AAA properties — Insomniac Games’ Spider-Man and Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, for example — has had to start making its games accessible on more than one screen. PlayStation Now allows players to stream older PlayStation games, and the occasional high-profile current-gen exclusive, to their consoles or their PCs.

Being able to play PlayStation games on a PC should be a huge deal — much like Microsoft’s Game Pass, it removes the need to own a particular console in order to play games — but so far, it’s a bit of a letdown. Sony has actually been in the cloud gaming business for the better part of a decade after acquiring early developers of the technology, including both Gaikai and OnLive. But it’s done very little with it.

For example, Sony’s released early versions of its Remote Play feature — which allowed players to stream games from their own console, rather than a server — as far back as 2006. By 2014, Sony started using Gaikai’s technology to power the feature, enabling players to stream games to their phones — so long as they were Sony phones. The decision was only made to expand this feature to all iOS and Android phones in 2019.

Similarly, Sony’s PlayStation Now service has been underutilized. Until recently, the service only supported streaming up to a relatively paltry 720p. Now, it can stream up to 1080p, but it’s a change the company made with very little fanfare, only updating a help document to note the shift. Between the lower quality service and its hit-or-miss game library, Sony has had trouble attracting users, only netting around 2 million subscribers as of May 2020, compared to the 15 million subscribers Microsoft has acquired for its Game Pass subscription — before game streaming has even launched for the service.

Now, despite the head start, Sony is in a position where it might have to play catch-up. As the holiday season ramps up, neither the PS5 nor the Xbox Series X have more than a small handful of launch titles to drive console sales. However, with an extended platform, Microsoft could edge out an early lead.

Parents buying consoles this holiday season — when families are more strapped for cash than usual due to a pandemic-afflicted economy — may find a Game Pass subscription that kids can play on their phones or computer more appealing than a new Xbox. Even buying a game on Stadia — a service that, apart from individual game purchase, is technically free if you don’t need to play in 4K — might be more appealing than shelling out $500 for a console that can only play games in one room.

For Sony, which relies heavily on a single console and offers streaming only to PCs, this puts the company at a slight disadvantage. Sony certainly has the games to drive some console sales eventually, but until its biggest titles are released, the flexibility of a platform can be a bigger factor in driving consumer decisions this holiday season than usual.

Players are now free to pick which screen they play on and how they play. In that world, offering one device that plays games on one screen seems like a relic of the past.

Update: A previous version of this article misstated the timing of Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass rollout on mobile. It is currently available on Android devices.

Eric Ravenscraft is a freelance writer from Atlanta covering tech, media, and geek culture for Medium, The New York Times, and more.

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