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Are Consoles “Dead Men” Walking? Let’s Just Say the Future is Uncertain

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Are video game consoles “dead men” walking? Could we be approaching an era free of home consoles? Will people instead turn to their home computers and smartphones to scratch their video game itches? Might this be one of the last holidays for game consoles? So many questions surround the video game industry and consoles in particular.

Originally, a “dead man walking” was someone taking that final stroll to the execution chamber. Their fate was already sealed, even if they still had a pulse. Let’s run with that definition and examine if consoles are here to stay, or if they are already walking down death row.

At their heart, game consoles are dedicated computers. Originally, they only played video games. Nowadays, many consoles also offer other basic functionalities, such as video streaming. However, other computers, including smartphones, may soon be able to offer gaming experiences akin to consoles.

Already, powerful gaming rigs are more powerful than home consoles, but they are also costly. Smartphones, on the other hand, don’t cost too much more, and most people are already slipping them into their pockets anyway. Could smartphones one day replace consoles?

The current generation of consoles is still around and doing well, but not exactly thriving. The PS4 has sold roughly 60 million units, while the X-box One has sold roughly 30 million. World-wide Nintendo Switch sales have reached roughly 8 million, but supply constraints are making it difficult to meet total demand.

Let’s compare that to the most popular console of all time: the Playstation 2. That console sold nearly 160 million units. The first Playstation sold over 100 million units. The more recent Xbox 360 and Playstation both sold nearly 85 million units each. In other words, the old Xbox 360 and PS3 individually each sold nearly as many units as the current PS4 and Xbox One combined.

Gaming Consoles All-Time. By Statista.com
Gaming Consoles Sales All-Time. By Statista.com

With the holiday season around the corner, video game consoles will likely enjoy a solid sales bump. The Nintendo Switch, in particular, could enjoy quite a bit of success as pent-up demand meets enlarged holiday supply. Regardless, the current consoles won’t be catching up to the PS2 or PS1.

Are Gaming Consoles Necessary?

Do we really need game consoles anymore? This is perhaps the crux of the question. A high-end gaming PC offers far more graphics power than even the latest and greatest generation of consoles. However, there are a few serious downsides to powerful gaming rigs.

First, they are pricey. Consider Alienware, one of the mainstream gaming PC companies. Their most basic desktop starts at $599, no monitor included. However, this only buys you a barebones system. A mid-range system can easily top $1500. A high-end gaming rig can top $2,000!

A gaming console, on the other hand, can be had for $299.99. If you’re patient and wait for a bundle or sale, you might even get a game thrown in with it. However, consoles also address another challenge with gaming PC’s: ease of use. A console is easier to use. A computer comes with computer problems. Viruses, annoying hookups, etc. A game console can be plugged into your TV and then you’re set. The risk of viruses is minimized (but not eliminated).

These advantages will help game consoles stick around, but they won’t ensure survival. Many truly “hardcore” gamers already prefer gaming rigs because they are simply more powerful. This means that the graphics are better, and games can be built to be more complicated, larger, etc. However, these hardcore gamers make up only a minority of the market.

Smartphones Are a Real Threat to Consoles

For game consoles, the biggest threat isn’t a gaming PC. Instead, the smartphone might be the biggest threat. Once upon a time, gaming on cell phones meant simple 2-D games similar to those old Gameboy systems. Now, a high-end smartphone can increasingly support console quality games. The gap hasn’t been eliminated, but it’s closing quickly.

In a few years, it may even be possible for a smartphone to stream high-quality games onto TVs. Consider that current high-end smartphones are about as powerful as the recently launched Nintendo Switch. The Switch acts as a hybrid. It can stream current generation games onto the TV, or can be used as a handheld. This could pave the way for smartphones to stream games to TV’s and monitors. Simply plug and play with a proper controller, and you could be set.

Smartphone gaming is advancing By Android Kothon Via Flickr
Smartphone gaming is advancing By Android Kothon Via Flickr

The Switch generally holds an edge in performance because it is optimized specifically for video gaming, while smartphones and tablets have to be jacks of all trades. However, the gap is going to close quite quickly. The Switch isn’t likely to move to massively upgraded chips. Doing so would basically be akin to launching a new console. Smartphones, however, will continue to include the latest and greatest with each generation. Already, the most recent smartphones, such as the iPhone X, feature more powerful processors.

Nintendo May Be Showing Us the Future

While the Switch may portend the end of gaming consoles, it may hint at the future as well. The Nintendo Switch has been selling well and receiving rave reviews from critics and fans. It doesn’t offer the most powerful hardware, far from it. The Switch does offer an excellent experience. Graphics may not be top notch compared to the PS4 or Xbox One, but the games are fun and have received critical praise.

Nintendo’s key advantage is that many of its biggest games, think Zelda and Mario, are owned in-house. This means that Nintendo owns exclusive rights. While Nintendo has been tiptoeing into the smartphone market with Pokemon and Mario games, the company has continued to save the best for itself. Many Playstation and Xbox games are not owned by either Sony or Microsoft. This will make it different for the companies to hold onto exclusives.

Via BagoGames on Flickr. Zelda on Switch.
Via BagoGames on Flickr. Zelda on Switch.

If and when the day comes that gamers can play their favorite Xbox or Playstation games on their smartphone, or typical home computer/tablet, these consoles may find their days numbered. Nintendo might live on, but as powerful games make their way to non-console, non-gaming rigs, the company will have to work harder to attract gamers.

Are home video consoles dead men walking? That’s hard to say. If you’re thinking of picking a console up for a loved one (or yourself) over the holidays, don’t sweat it. The current generation will enjoy plenty of support. When the next generation rolls around in a few years, however, you’ll have to take some time to evaluate the to-be current conditions.