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'More Than Games'

by Ben Parfitt on April 18, 2004 @ 1:56 a.m. PDT

Back when games were in their mainstream infancy, there was a time when companies like Nintendo and Sega fought their battles through the games released on their systems. Did you prefer the ingenious structure of Miyamoto’s Mario platformers’ or the high-speed kicks of Sega’s Sonic? Was it Nintendo’s Mode 7 graphics technology or the arcade thrills of Thunderforce 3 that got you hot under the collar?

For the platforms of tomorrow, however, the battlefield will be very different. The leading characters of yesteryear no longer have the commercial power that they used to. Mario and Sonic will still sell consoles, of course, but neither can be guaranteed to top the charts for any length of time. Although commercially successful, Sonic Heroes for many indicates the start of the end for the once enigmatic hedgehog. After all, this is Sega’s third attempt to bring Sonic successfully into the 3D gaming world, and their success has been limited at best.

Platform specific franchises are very different nowadays, in many ways far less innocent. Mario, a camp and rather rotund Italian plumber, seems a tad quaint compared to the modern gaming heroes of today. I’d love to see him try to jump on Master Chief’s head, or attempt to toss a fireball in the direction of Gordon Freeman! If you look at the PS2 it’s even hard to identify a single iconic character driving the brand forward. Owners of Sony’s behemoth machine wait anxiously for the likes of Gran Turismo 4 and Winning Eleven 8 rather than character driven franchises such as Tomb Raider or Crash Bandicoot.

The press releases that emerged on the net the past few weeks clearly indicated the new direction that the console war is taking; no longer will the franchise prove the pulling power for the gaming consumer. Instead, and rather bizarrely, it seems that the battle will be fought on technological grounds not necessarily directly related to gaming. In an interview on Sony’s Irish Playstation website SCEE President David Rees revealed several intriguing snippets about the future of the Playstation brand as we know it.

The launch of the PSX is evidence enough that Sony is still actively pursuing a strategy that will turn the Playstation into a home media brand that redefines the conventional limits of the gaming market. Sony still very much sees the Playstation as the hub of the modern home’s digital needs. It seems that the company is considering launching two versions of the PS3.

Firstly, there will be a PSX style media centre device, described as the ‘home server’ version, which is set to include high end features such as a hard drive (all the more interesting when you consider the rumours that the Xbox 2 will not feature a hard drive). Secondly Rees suggested that a cut down system designed merely to satisfy those who simply want to play games without the added hassle and expense of the higher end model would also be made available. The difference in cost is significant; it’s suggested the media version could cost well over $700 whilst the gaming system would be a mere $250.

The revelations didn’t cease there. Not only is Sony’s handheld system, the PSP, looking more and more likely to boast comparable power to the PS2 (a huge achievement in itself and no doubt one that is worrying Nintendo). Sony are also aiming to use wireless networking features for not only multiplayer gaming but also to link the device to the other machines in the Playstation range. Wireless internet hotspot compatibility looks set to enable internet communication functionality at speeds of up to 10mb a second.

In much the same way as Sony released a streamlined version of the PSone, gamers may now be possibly set for the PS2, a smaller sexier version of the console we all know and love. Although the gaming specs would undoubtedly be the same, if the PS2 does emerge we can expect it to be compatible with Sony’s new networking dreams.

Also conformed was that Sony are investigating the possibility of electronic distribution of content over broadband, describing this as the ‘ultimate goal’ for the PS3. Rees suggested that such a network would have to boast a connection size of at least 2 or 3mb, though reportedly Ken Kutaragi has even been discussing network speeds of closer to 30mb.

It must be stressed that none of this is any more than speculation, though the fact that the interview has subsequently been pulled from the website speaks volumes. If nothing else it demonstrates that the gaming battleground of the future will in many ways be less concerned with the games concerned and more with the peripheral technology that surrounds them. As games become more technologically advanced and gaming tastes become both more mainstream and less diversified, there is less and less to differentiate one platform from another. After all, it isn’t the best games that sell the most units, it’s the more commercially viable ones that succeed.

What does this mean for the opposition? Well, Microsoft are surely now lamenting their decision to market the Xbox as a pure gaming machine and distance it from the media centre concept. It’s understandable that they wished to disprove the doubters who accused the device of being little more than a PC is a box, but no doubt this strategy will be reversed in the future. Still though, even the mighty Microsoft would have to go a long way to achieve not only the brand credence enjoyed by Sony’s machine but also the market savvy to achieve such mainstream and wide-reaching aspirations.

As for Nintendo, if they continue to focus purely on gaming it will now either prove the death of them or finally carve out a reliable but small section of the market designed to serve merely the gaming hardcore. Still, talk of multi-media compatibility and touch screen interfaces on their new DS handheld indicate than even the Japanese giants may be waking up to the multi-media future that Sony is single-handedly trying to force upon the industry.

Such announcements may prove exciting for the techno-savvy consumer out there but for the gamer there is an air of slight concern. What does it mean for the industry when games themselves are no longer the focus? The rise of shows such as Pop Idol brought rise to the “assembly line” approach to the production of pop music and now a few years down the line the charts are full of soulless drivel and sales are plummeting. Could a similar fate fall upon the games industry? Whilst there’s no need to prophesise the demise of the industry just yet, we should all treat David Rees’s comments as a warning. There’s nothing wrong with the technological development and diversification of the industry but only as long as we don’t lose sight of why we buy these machines in the first place.

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