Tales of a lapsed gamer.
I've been a fan of electronic gaming (in any form) since back when it was still called that. Somewhere along the way, I moved from using computers to consoles for my source of gaming fun. Around the time the C64 emerged a slew of 8bit consoles popped into existence. Few of them caught my attention but a couple made there way into friends houses where I could have a go and see what the fuss was about. The Sega Master System was graphically superior to the C64 but most of the games lacked familiarity to me and beyond playing games the consoles had no further tinker-able features, so I never bought my own system. During the time I had my Amiga 500, my brother in law had a Sega Megadrive. I didn't play it much as the games were more expensive and less appealing (to me) than their computer based equivalents, but I kept an eye on console technology, interested to see where it would go. Commodore gave Amiga the console treatment with the CD32. It appeared in electronics shops and I had a play around. I was very tempted and still fond of the Amiga brand, but apart from some FMV sequences, the software wasn't that much an improvement over my old A500. Commodore helped me with the decision by going bankrupt and the system disappeared from retail soon after.
I was still hunting around for Atari Lynx games back in the early 90's, it had become a bit of a hobby to track down bargains. Most of the chain stores had given up on the thing apart from the rare and short lived liquidation sale at Target where games that used to sell for 60-70 bucks were now around $15-20, I snapped up a few choice titles from among the piles of unwanted copies of Lynx Casino. One shop out in an industrial part of the city still exclusively sold Atari stuff, ranging from the ST line of computers to the Atari Jaguar. I had a few shots on the machine and it was technically impressive. At a time when we were all used to strictly two dimensional, 8 and 16bit graphics this machine was pumping out some pretty fluid shaded polygons. I was most impressed with Tempest 2000 designed by the legendary Jeff Minter, a pyrotechnical kaleidoscope of vector graphics combined with thumping audio effects and music, it was impressive even if the gameplay was ten years old. I was tempted to buy one of these machines but the huge AU$600 price tag and the lack of support from anywhere other than this one shop shook me out of that fantasy. Like the Lynx the Jag flopped and was killed for good when Atari went belly up.
I was an early adopter of the PlayStation back when the Sega Saturn was on the same shelf competing for my hard earned. It was a tough choice, the Saturn had some pretty impressive release titles like Panzer Dragoon and Sega Rally whereas the PS had Ridge Racer, (which I played once or twice in the arcade when Sega Rally was being hogged by some cashed up mug). In the end, time and the tide of cautious magazine reviews turned me against buying a Saturn in favour of the PlayStation.
It was sad to see the Saturn bomb, some of those games were really innovative and interesting, Sega wasn't afraid to use 2D graphics in some of its games unlike Sony who seemed to insist that even the simplest gameplay had to be presented in chunky, often ugly 3D even if it meant the game sucked as a result. I had a lot of fun with my PS for the first year or so, but after a while the thing gathered dust and I gave it to my brother (who managed to kill its laser within 6 months). Castlevania SOTN is still my favourite game on the system, ironically it's one of the very few 2D side scrollers, makes me wonder what could've been...
I let mainstream gaming go for a few years, the glut of mediocre 3D games that I'd played on the PS left me disinterested in the scene. Around this time I bought a used Amiga 1200 and went through the back catalogue of Amiga games finding the odd gem here and there. The A1200 was a good system if not quite a worthy successor to the technologically ground-breaking A1000 and A500. Using WHDload it was possible to install games on the hard drive. The minor addition of a slightly faster 68030 CPU and some extra RAM and the machine "felt" like an A500 on steroids. After work, I used to spend evenings just tooling around and having fun downloading and converting ADFs from the net. One very good title I came across was Ruff 'n Tumble, it looks like an AGA game (Amiga speak for the A1200's slightly beefier chipset) but will run on a plain old A500. The sprites, animation and backdrops are richly detailed and the end bosses are large and cleverly designed. While the gameplay is fairly standard sidescroller action, there's something that makes you want to have just one more try. If there was one major disappointment with the A1200 it was that there were not many true AGA games, most titles were just tweaked OCS/ECS-A500 games with little or no noticeable improvements. AGA was introduced in 1992 and was much too-little-too-late to revive mainstream interest in the Amiga platform. While there were rare and expensive options for upgrading the machines and occasional optimistic rumors of a revival, by the mid 90's the "Wintel" PC industry had swept past with more powerful processors and cheap plentiful hardware that delivered rich 3D-gaming, multimedia entertainment and a web-centric future.
Meanwhile around 1997(ish), the console industry was plodding along. My brother got an Nintendo64 for Christmas one year and I had the occasional mess about with it. I'd liked Crusin' USA in the arcades but by the time it finally made it into the home I was largely indifferent to it. That didn't stop me having a go when my bro' borrowed a copy for a weekend. It was good but lacked something in the translation from arcade cab' to console controller.
Sometime later, Sega cast its hook for one last try at the market with its oddly named Dreamcast. I remember having a look at it in games shops around the time of release and not being too impressed. I'd blame that mostly on the fact that most stores insisted on running Sonic Adventure on it, a title that doesn't exactly ooze graphical accomplishment. The price was a bit steep too compared to what we'd become used to with the PS and N64, fair enough it was a generation ahead but with the PS still doing well late in its life, I don't think anyone was ready to pay real money for something new just yet. That and Sega were regarded almost as has-beens by a lot of bitter fans and journalists. I bought one dirt-cheap secondhand a few months before Sega pulled out of the hardware biz. It's a shame the machine wasnt more popular, it has the least shovelware of any of the consoles.
So then the PS2 hit the market and despite a slow start due to a weak debut lineup and DVD playback issues it took hold and then took some more. I went to look at the machine on release day to see if it would spark enough enthusiasm for me to buy in but the release list had nothing on it that I was interested in at all and the in-game graphics weren't nearly as jaw-dropping as the pre-release hype had us believe. Being an early adopter of the PS1 had taught me that a promotional flyer proclaiming all sorts of technical specs and performance potential was nothing more than a piece of paper with some pretty pictures on. I know to some degree I was coming at it from the wrong angle, I wanted to be impressed, to be blown away by the technology not just play a fun game. I'd had some of this feeling way back when I first played an arcade game and some more when I got my C64 and A500 and to a lesser extent the PS1. I held off buying a PS2 until something really impressive showed up...
...and then I held off buying one some more. My brother bought one but I never actually played the thing, by this point I was aware I just wasn't interested in the PlayStation 2 scene at all. Eventually, I lost interest in gaming almost altogether and turned to other hobbies for a while. Mad gaming nuts tell me I missed one of "the best gaming platforms evarr" but, meh. Sorry guys.
I still retained some interest in the technology behind consoles and would occasionally read about the hardware on the net and in magazines, most of these reviews just skimmed the surface and talked about aesthetics, ergonomics and basic features which can be interesting (to a point). I developed a taste for the more in depth analysis of the technology and hardware architecture inside the machines. It was while accumulating this knowledge in my free time that I started to see just how far a lot of the marketing spin is from the silicon reality. All companies employ marketing agents and all of them use spin and hype to entice the consumer, but in markets where you have to sell massive volume quickly, competition is high and consumers are price conscious, the marketing hype can quickly become a work of pure fantasy. It seemed to me Sony being one part tech' company, one part advertising agency was the worst offender. Or perhaps just the least subtle? In any case, there's a definite fine line between drumming up purse-string-loosening anticipation and just telling lies to sell a product. But the ends justify the means, I s'pose?
Xbox Press Mockup.
Microsoft wanted in on the console game. The very earliest rumors of Microsoft getting into the console market sounded like navel gazing. Some time later they turned out to be true. The first press release mock up of Microsoft's Xbox was a chrome upright "X" with a central, green fish bowl/HAL eye. It was over the top and probably some in-joke amongst the Microsoft hierarchy? My interest in the Xbox as a platform was technical, not as a potential gaming platform that I wanted to buy. I was more interested in how the console industry was moving and developing and what this new player might mean to the scene. When the Xbox hit the shelves here in Australia it was overpriced and had very little consumer confidence and soon appeared to be heading the way of the Dreamcast. Sony's PS2 was already entrenched as the "only next-gen" console and had a huge and loyal following, upgrading from the PS1.
The Xbox launch coincided with Nintendo's Gamecube, a diminutive machine based on IBM's PowerPC technology. The Xbox itself was very similar to a X86 based PC with a Geforce3 derived GPU. On paper, the Xbox chipset was easily more powerful than either of its competitors, but that means squat if you don't have the games. While Xbox sales failed to impress, the PS2 continued to grow fanbase and Nintendo's own legion of fans were jumping on board the Gamecube bandwagon. It seemed Microsoft may have made a big mistake. A massive price cut came within weeks of release and the Xbox could now be had for less than $500 making it far more attractive to potential buyers, in addition Microsoft made the gesture of rewarding early adopters with a gift pack to the value of the price cut, mailing each owner games and controllers.
While reading all the tech' reviews, I got it into my head that I wanted a new console. I probably wasn't that interested in the games much but wanted a new toy. Consoles are a bad choice as a toy because aside from games they don't do much else (unless you hack them). Fortunately, both Xbox and PS2 play DVD's and at the time my only DVD player was in my noisy PC so I had an excuse to buy a "DVD player". Real DVD players were still around the same price as a console so it wasn't too much of a stretch. One of the games shops ran a deal where you could buy an Xbox for $399 by trading 10 old PS1 games. I had a stack of PS1 titles I'd probably never touch again so I took the bait. I used my Xbox as a Music server and DVD player for weeks before I reluctantly bought this Halo game everyone was going on about. I didn't even play the disk once I got it home, instead it sat on the shelf until I had some free time.
The first level of Halo, aboard the ship was a bit of a let down but about what I'd expected, standard FPS fare. It wasn't until I landed on the ring world that my jaw dropped. An open environment with rich textures and sounds and no time limit, clever AI and control mechanics that just worked... They had me, even the boring bits with the flood didn't dampen the joy.
Sadly, not many other games on the Xbox reached the lovingly crafted heights of Halo, many were good fun and some had elements of greatness like Halflife2 and Morrowind but none provoked that same "eye-popping wonder" response Halo did. Even Halo's sequel, Halo2 fell short although what it lacks in originality it makes up for with lasting appeal.
Instead of following along the generation like a good gamer, I lost interest again and made a pact with myself not to buy games at full price from now on, (too many unfinished titles gathering dust). I eventually worked through my backlog, sometimes just going through the motions to get it over with. I went back into gaming hibernation, reading whatever I could find about the next generation whilst catching up with other hobbies.
In time the Xbox360 became a reality and I read up on it and its competition (that were still under development). Multi core CPU's were just becoming available on the average PC and while their benefit was untested there was a general consensus that more cores instead of more megahertz was the future. The 360 had a slow start but eventually gained momentum and a respectable stable of games. Bungie finally released Halo3 and the fanbase seemed pretty happy with the result, though still a shadow of The Original's greatness.
More show than Go?
Sony's Cell architecture had been much hyped and in mainstream articles often touted as "supercomputer on a chip", this tired hyperbole had the opposite of the desired effect on me though it got the hype-hungry fans slavering. Looking into Cell's story, it was increasingly obvious there wasn't going to be the kind of performance Sony's marketing arm was spruiking, more a technological cul-de-sac. Something weird happened at the PS3 launch too, it was like the big green hype bubble burst, leaving Sony covered in goo. Sure there were still a lot of people buying consoles but the press was reporting large scale disappointment. Then, for months it became fashionable to bash Sony and PS3, which combined with a very high pricepoint compared to it's competition, seems to have done lasting damage to PS3's sales and tarnished the PlayStation brand, long term. To add salt, almost out of the blue, Nintendo had a hit on their hands with the comparitively humble Wii and it's unique motion control method. My sister bought one and I was ashamed to find it as much fun as everyone was saying. Kudos Ninty, you all but won a console generation using last gen's technology, who saw that coming? It's one for the big book of console industry methodology.
I was seriously thinking of bowing out this generation because besides becoming disenchanted with gaming, even my interest the industry and it's dramas were waning. But I thought I'd wait for Microsoft's hardware to get down to impulse-buy levels and play through the final episode in the Halo series for "old time sakes". After a while, Microsoft made several aggressive price cuts and hardware revisions and got the Arcade version down below AU$300 and 35% failure rate (in theory, my console still RROD'd). I bought in, got a 20gig HD for AU$35 from Microsoft and got Halo3 from play-asia.com on the cheap. I liked the game a lot but it was nowhere near as jaw-droppingly impressive as the original, which is to be expected I guess. I've since bought a stack more games but being a frugal bast' I'm happy to wait for them to drop below the AU$50 mark. Mass Effect was enjoyable as was Oblivion, Orange box was worth playing through again; Portal was a breath of fresh air. GoW and Bioshock weren't that great, I'm a bit sick of zombies and bugs or even zombie-bugs.
The Xbox 360 is poorly designed hardware that is arguably made tolerable by strong third party support. Inevitably my falcon "revision" 360 went the way of so many others and got the terminal RROD. The online support left a bad impression; full of broken/dummy links when I went to register my repair order online, and the phone support consisted of an automated message that refers you to the broken online support then hangs up on you. The full happy rant is on my blog, it doesn't inspire me to invest in Microsoft's next console effort. I hardly use the 360 for gaming anymore, I have a small backlog to work through sometime. When this machine dies I doubt I'll replace it.
Shortly after this, the DVD tray started getting stuck more and more often. So I opened it up and replaced the slack drive belt. This seems to have fixed the problem - for now. Should Microsoft consider paying the extra ½ cent for belts that don't lose tension (after 18 months of infrequent use) instead of the rubber-band-style "belts" they use? I wonder how many of these things have ended up in landfill because of this?
The lesson here for lapsed-gamer types is to hold off buying a console as late into the generation cycle as possible then grab a more reliable revision and a few choice titles from the bargain bin and see if all the hype was worth it.
I'm clearly no longer in the target audience for mainstream consoles however I am still interested in the technology. Console architecture is one area of computer technology that historically hasn't been heavily constrained by legacy compatibility and archaic standards (though that looks set to change with backward-compatability a priority for consumers). Console designers create novel machines on the leading edge of performance curves, sometimes leapfrogging much more expensive PC technology. That by itself is pretty cool for machines that end up retailing for less than a couple of hundred bucks.
It'll be interesting to see how much Nintendo's success with Wii influences future consoles. I get the impression PS4 and Xbox720 will be a lot less focused on bleeding-edge technology? This could be good news, it'd be nice if Sony'd quit slapping "Supercomputing power" and "Potential" over marketing literature and put more effort into creating fun and innovative game interactions. Microsoft would do well to apply some hardware quality control that works next time, it remains to be seen what impact the RROD fiasco will have on early adopter uptake next time round?
Further reading on PS3 and Xbox360 architecture:
The Race for a new Game Machine. David Shippy and Mickie Phipps.
Game Console Architecture In-Depth Ars Technica.
Just before Christmas 2012 Nintendo released a new console. WiiU doesn't seem to have the same obvious novelty appeal that the Wii tapped into and Ninty slashed its sales forecast. It has been noted that the gaming landscape has been irrevocably changed by the growing popularity of smart phones and tablets. Maybe the lounge room gaming paradigm is in decline? Funny considering how much emphasis both Microsoft and Sony were putting on "owning the lounge room" just a few years back.
The WiiU is an interesting product. I like the idea of a controller with a built in screen, meshing a console with a handheld seems like a fun idea. I guess it'll be up to game developers to show consumers how it can be fun. Aesthetically, WiiU tablet/controller does look a little bit "my first tablet" which might put some demographics off. Time will tell if Nintendo can repeat the runaway success it had with Wii.
PS4 & XboxOne
May 2013: Looking at the prelaunch details of these devices it's now very clear I'm no longer the target market. XboxOne is a non-starter for me, a combination of mixed messages on DRM, lack of confidence in MS's ability to keep user's privacy secure and gaming-as-an-afterthought make it unappealing.
June 11 2013: PS4 seems more on target but Sony aren't blameless when it comes to privacy concerns and generally acting the douche. The PS4 is USD$100 cheaper, has faster RAM and a
less bloated OS. If I was going to buy an 8th generation console PS4 would probably be my pick.
One week later: Xbox180! MS did a backflip on most of their DRM policy, making us wonder who's driving the Microsoft marketing train? It might be a good thing to get your story straight before telling it to - y'know - the whole world. The story I'm hearing is that mainstream consoles are getting too expensive and complicated.
2013-14 will see several new console-like products enter the scene, each of which could become a potential disrupter of the standard console industry model. The OUYA project seems to have the best chance to snag my interest. It's an inexpensive Android based system designed to connect to a TV just like a regular console but is comparatively open to developers and hacker types. As well as having its own app service with optimized Ouya apps and games it's possible to sideload more interesting things.
Read this excellent article 2013: The Year of the Microconsole? for more.
Next: Some tech' Book Reviews.