Gaming console loyalty hits reset as tablets, smartphones get more attention

11/16/2013 4:53 PM

11/16/2013 4:53 PM

Seven years ago, Darius Williams stood outside a Best Buy in Overland Park, feeling like part of a spectacle.

Around him, dozens of fellow gamers — many of whom had been camped out for days — happily braved the cold in hopes of getting their hands on the PlayStation 3, Sony’s much-hyped video game system. The line of customers wrapped around the building, some having gone so far as to set up tents, and local TV and radio stations had stopped by to document the excitement surrounding the system’s release.

“It was like a three-day party,” said Williams, 32, fondly recalling the memory. “You mixed and mingled. You met fellow gamers. They had hot chocolate for us.”

Fast forward to Thursday night, in the hours before Sony was to release its latest video game console, the PlayStation 4. Williams stood in front of the same Best Buy, though this time the scene differed dramatically. As of 8:30, not much more than a dozen people lingered quietly. No tents or TV trucks in sight. Not even hot chocolate.

In the seven years since Sony’s PlayStation 3, the gaming world has undergone a significant overhaul. As the new generation hits the market this holiday season to considerable fanfare — Microsoft’s updated XBox arrives Friday — some experts say that the traditional console’s days of dominance are numbered, thanks to the rise of alternative gaming options.

“These consoles are no longer the center of the gaming universe,” said Cade Metz, a senior editor and reporter with Wired. “Because we’ve got all these games on smartphones (and tablets), and the PC has risen to prominence and become such a big gaming platform, these consoles aren’t the only place you go.”

When the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 debuted a little less than a decade ago, alternative gaming options were few and far between. The iPhone wasn’t much more than a rumor, and tablets like the iPad and Kindle Fire were still years from release.

Today’s consumers need look no further than their pockets or purses for viable entertainment options. Smartphone games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush, though far less complex than those devoured by hard-core gamers on their traditional consoles, have shot to widespread popularity thanks to their affordability and portability.

Many can be purchased for just a dollar or two — compared to $60 for a new game on the PS4 or XBox One — and though the capabilities of smartphone and tablet games lag behind that of the major consoles, that gap is expected to shrink in coming years.

Some wonder, too, if the latest consoles are improved enough to warrant their price tags. The PlayStation 4 debuts around $400; the XBox One is $500.

When the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 launched, for instance, they opened gamers’ eyes to a new world of multifaceted entertainment. No longer was the video game console just for solitary gaming. The advent of online play allowed users of both systems to take on fellow gamers across the world in real time.

The ability to access the web and stream movies and television shows via Netflix, meanwhile, turned the video game console, which was aided by the rise in popularity of high-definition televisions, into the hub of the living room entertainment experience.

This time around?

The improvements are relatively miniscule, opined Lawrence-based video game designer Matt Cox, who helped develop THQ’s “Destroy All Humans: Path of the Furon” for the PS3. While the graphics will be undoubtedly improved, and though the XBox One will come with a Kinect camera, the new generation seems to lack a monumental jump forward.

For those who previously relied on the systems to stream television and movies, cheaper options are Apple TV and Roku.

What’s more, neither of the new systems will allow users to play games they used with their previous consoles.

“All the early reviews are like, ‘Why should I even get it?’” Cox said of the PS4.

This is not to say, however, that this species of the gaming industry is in any danger of extinction.

A hard-core population has grown up playing console video games and remains partial to them, Metz said. Those who have grown up playing PlayStation or XBox, for instance, often maintain a good deal of brand loyalty.

It remains to be seen, meanwhile, whether other gaming formats can duplicate the kind of detailed, involved game experience that has proven wildly popular on the mainstream gaming consoles.

Take “Grand Theft Auto V,” which set a number of sales records with its September release and is being hailed as a digital work of art. Other game franchises, such as “Call of Duty” and “Assassin’s Creed,” also have attracted a large contingent of loyal customers thanks to the detailed and innovative play that, at least currently, can’t be found in hand-held devices.

“You do have a built-in audience for (the new consoles),” Metz said. “An audience that is going to run out and buy these things immediately, because it’s the new thing from Sony, the new thing from Microsoft.

“The question is how much these consoles will attract the attention of people beyond that core group.”

Figures for the PlayStation 4’s initial sales weren’t available Friday, but if recent history is any indication, the popularity of traditional systems is waning, not improving.

Following its release in 2006, for instance, the PlayStation 3 sold only about half as many units as its predecessor, the PlayStation 2. And although Sony is projecting a more successful debut for the PS4 — the company expects to sell 5 million units by March, 1.5 million more than the PS3 sold in the same period — a recent New York Times story reported that console game sales last year were $24.9 billion globally, down from $29.4 billion in 2008.

Conversely, PC games have sold well in recent years, including a record $18.6 billion in sales in 2011.

Consider, too, the small contingent of people waiting outside Best Buy on Thursday night: Even as they waited to purchase Sony’s next big thing, many tapped away on their mobile devices.

Nineteen-year-old John Horvath, who passed the time playing a tablet game, said he wasn’t interested in purchasing a PlayStation 4 for himself.

“My brother offered me a flat $50” to wait in line for him, he said. “I wasn’t going to say no to that.”

Time will tell, of course, if the traditional console is able to maintain its place in the gaming hierarchy.

But the days of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo serving as a kind of three-headed gaming monopoly are, in all likelihood, over.

“I don’t think we can say there will always be (a significant demand for video game consoles),” Metz said. “As these new devices become more powerful, their games will get more impressive. It’s a common theme across the tech industry.

“We don’t need our PCs as much as we used to,” he added, “and we’re not going to need our consoles as much as we have in the past.”

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