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GAMES

Could video-game consoles disappear into the cloud forever?

by Brian Ashcraft

A new PlayStation. A new Xbox. A new Wii. The last one is definitely happening with the upcoming Wii U and the others are no doubt being prepped for high-profile “reveals.” But what about a future with no consoles? None at all.

For movie lovers, if they want to watch a flick, they simply get a DVD machine or a Blu-ray player — it doesn’t matter if Sony, Samsung or Panasonic made it. And, let’s say, you don’t own physical, disc-based media: Then, you can stream whatever movies you want through your TV or PC.

But video games are different. Video games may outsell their cinematic colleagues, but they still chain gamers to specific consoles. Want to play a Nintendo game? You need a Nintendo console. Sony-exclusive games must be played on PS3s, and Microsoft-exclusive games are for the Xbox 360 (though some end up on Windows boxes, too). As much as you may want to take your copy of Nintendo’s “The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword,” pop it into your PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, and play the game — You just can’t. You need Nintendo hardware.

Video-game consoles are closed ecosystems that don’t take kindly to alien flora and fauna. Each console holder (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo) approves every single game that appears on its machine, which is why consoles are called “closed platforms.” Two big reasons for this are control and retail sales: large retail chains, especially in America, will not carry adults-only video games. And because they are closed platforms, console game-holders can ensure that explicit, pornographic video games are not released on their machines.

In the past, Nintendo has been very strict about the types of games that appear on its consoles in order not to tarnish its family-friendly image. Another reason is profit. Game companies must buy development software from the console-makers and then give a percentage of the sales to them.

PCs, on the other hand, are completely open. Anyone can release pretty much anything on a PC — which is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good because it means that large corporations don’t dictate content. This freedom is a double-edged sword, because games with questionable content can also be released. A few years back, makers of erotic PC-games in Japan came under fire in the West for their pornographic — even misogynistic — titles.

The freedom PCs have is close to the freedom DVD and Blu-ray players have: being able to run both family-friendly and adults-only content. Ultimately, that means that the hardware itself moves to the background, and the content becomes the central focus. Often for gamers, it seems like the console itself is the main focus due to the power and influence consoles and console-holders have in the game industry.

But it’s not only content regulation that consoles offer. They are a standard. PCs are continually evolving with faster processors being released all the time. When a game is released on PC, one of the first things PC gamers do is check the game’s technical specifications to see if their computer is powerful enough to run the game. Some games can be played on pretty much any PC. Other games require top-shelf hardware. Video-game consoles, however, ensure that both players and game-makers are on the same page. If you buy, say, a PS3 game, then your PlayStation 3 will definitely be able to run it. If you buy a PC game, you’ll need to check your specs first.

Last month, one rumor seemed to offer hope that PC-gaming could get a standard — one that could actually be the nail in console-gaming’s coffin. Video-game-maker Valve was rumored to be working on a “box” that would allow gamers who don’t own PCs to connect to Steam, which is Valve’s computer-based digital distribution service. That would have meant gamers would no longer have to worry about PC specs or be boxed in by closed console platforms. The rumors were shot down, but not before exciting legions of gamers about the possibility of a console-free future.

Sony, Nintendo, or Microsoft are not likely to give up their console dominance anytime soon, however. Nintendo has repeatedly said its games will only appear on Nintendo hardware. For Nintendo, the games and the physical hardware are inseparable. Microsoft, however, is first and foremost a software maker, and Sony is continuing to outsource its manufacturing to China — a move that could reveal Sony’s desire to concentrate more on its software and networking businesses.

Nintendo’s consoles are always very different from Microsoft’s and Sony’s, which, increasingly, are starting to converge. The horsepower for the Xbox 360 and PS3 are different, sure, but the graphics are not dramatically so. The layout of the controllers is similar, too, so that game-developers can easily release games on both the PS3 and the Xbox 360. But does that mean Sony and Microsoft are going to release a PlayStation 360? Don’t hold your breath.

The next Xbox, which is apparently codenamed Durango, is also likely to be very different from the current system and offer a unique experience. Microsoft has not revealed any info about its new system, but there’s no doubt consoles need to differentiate themselves to entice players. The next PlayStation, which is rumored to have the codename Orbis, should be more powerful than the current hardware; it might be able to use Sony smartphones as a controller. Nintendo, meanwhile, has provided a look as to what to expect with its new console, the Wii U. It will sport high-definition graphics as well as a new, tablet-style controller.

Sure, making consoles is expensive: Putting them on trucks and getting them in stores alone is expensive. But the machines, along with their online services and paid digital content, are lucrative moneymakers. If consoles do disappear — and one day they will — expect current console-makers to shift their emphasis from hardware to their online services, which Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo all currently have. Gaming will move from the consoles to the cloud.

Gone will be the day of buying an actual box console. One day, PlayStation or Xbox games may be accessible through your TV or playable using your Sony or Windows smartphone as a controller. Gaming hardware as we now know it could disappear forever.

But Nintendo’s console? You’ll still probably have to go to the shop to buy that.