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Arriving First And Finishing First

We are standing on a bridge. This bridge connects two things that are both familiar to us and altogether alien, simultaneously in the way you’d expect and not expect. The first is the seventh generation of video game consoles: the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3, and the Wii. It has changed so much since the 360′s launch in November of 2005 that it’s hardly recognizable anymore. The Dashboard no longer has blades, PSN is actually providing value now, and the Wii has come down from its sales pedestal. The entire breadth of that generation is several journeys put side by side and end to end.

The eight generation is just beginning, but it’s a culmination of feelings we’ve long become jaded to. In all, we’re just looking forward to three console launches and we’ve already been through one, and that single event was as lackluster as opening your birthday present to find a countdown to your next one. The console itself is decent enough, but multiple times a year now we are subject to this gnawing sense of been there, done that. Every year we have one or more big Apple product to buy. In 2011 we got the Nintendo 3DS and just last year we got the PlayStation Vita. We are numb.

And now that we’re supposed to also anticipate Valve’s onslaught of hardware offerings and a plethora of specialized Android devices, it all kind of feels like being caught in a blizzard rather than enjoying some fresh powder.

The old trio has grown long in the tooth, though. We’re tired of what the 360 and PS3 has to offer. The Wii has long been collecting dust in the corner. The services and the hardware are more tiring than endearing at this point. We’ve gone through multiple rounds of new controllers and full-on console replacements. We are worn.

So to look forward past the bridge and greet things like leaked Orbis and Durango specs with cynicism is strange. We are tired of where we’re leaving and nervous about where we’re headed. The bridge is our limbo, an imprisonment of our own design. What do we have left when we hate where we’re going and loathe where we’ve been when we should only be looking forward with unfettered optimism?

Perhaps, my fellow travelers, we’re looking at this all wrong. Perhaps we’re trying to get excited about the wrong things. Our mindset is one of the hardware age, and that seems to be all but done. Up until the beginning of the PS2 era, video game experiences were intrinsically tied to the platform. There’s a reason why such vivid imagery pops into your mind at the mere mention of 8-bit and 16-bit gaming when I have said nothing about any particular game or year. This tethered concept began to wither away with the PlayStation and the N64 and never seemed to come back after.

Yet we still have such strong mental images and emotional ties to the current set of consoles. Some games, sure, but it’s mostly and ethereal sense of personal investment. It’s hard to put your finger on it because you’ve rarely had to articular just why things fallout the way they do beyond yelling in YouTube comments about fanboys and haters.

What you’re associating your experiences with is the software innate to the platform, such as firmware and services. Internet irrationality aside, when you boot up a 360, a certain feeling comes over you, a sensation of corporate structure and rigor. It’s comforting, in a way, to know that every movement of yours is guided and purposeful, if overtly monetized and scrutinized. It’s changed, though, since the launch with the blades. Those sliding slabs felt more utilitarian, more like you were there for business and not pleasure. Now it’s a mix of both.

The PS3 boot-up has gone largely unchanged as the XMB has gone largely unchanged. It still opens to a congealing orchestra warm-up and fades into soothing shapes and colors. The association with the console at first glance is elegance. But once you start using it, the connection changes to futility. System updates, game patches, an impossible-to-navigate store, etc. All these things fight against your desire to elevate this to a classy affair.

That is until recently when PlayStation Plus made a compelling argument for a better pay service over Xbox Live and the PlayStation Store got a redesign to finally look and function as nice as you’d always hoped it would. Over the past six years, Sony has been working hard to turn around its PS3 image and the public opinion, and it’s been paying off. It’s no longer “that one with the Ratchet games” but now it’s just the PS3.

As far as the Wii goes, it’s almost perfectly analogous to a salad; light, bright, and healthy. Also, incredibly boring if you’re not a Food Network chef. Eventually you grow tired of it. You know that it’s good for you to play (the sprightly gameplay, easygoing facade) but it so rarely changes to something exciting that you eventually put it down. Maybe for a week, maybe for a month, but eventually you put it down for good. Or at least until someone comes along and tells you to add raisins or chicken and then you’re ready to go again.

Notice that for the most part, none of what you associate with these consoles has anything to do with the hardware. The closest you get is with the Wii, but it still stands that the intrinsic association with the console is elsewhere. Different from the days of Atari and Commodore and the NES, the mental ties you make are largely comprised of the things surrounding what you played instead of those within the realm of how you played. That’s because at this point, service is king. Or rather, the services offered.

The very simple reason that the 360 beat out the PS3 this generation is because Xbox Live was far and away the superior online service from the beginning. The playing field has been leveled since then, but even PSN’s $0.00 price tag couldn’t compete with Live’s cross-game chat, achievements, and a coherent ecosystem. And on the console, the mere fact that you could sign into multiple accounts in multiplayer games didn’t even make it a fair fight. The one-year head start was an advantage, sure, but no amount of time could give such an insurmountable plus as being a better software service.

The Wii had a compounded problem of not offering a wide enough range of games or enough high quality games while being a conduit to a service that would have better fit in 10 to 15 years ago. Friend codes were an absolute swing and a miss, and to even say that Nintendo went up to bat is a generous concession. Worse yet, it seems as though they haven’t learned their lesson and now Wii U accounts are basically tied to the console they’re created on. And they have restricted M-rated games to “adult hours.” And so on and so on. Nintendo has already shown its hand in its eighth generation services, and it seems content to once again be in a distant third place.

According to the leaked Orbis specs, though, it seems as though Sony is learning. The highlight is that users can now sign into multiple accounts at once just as you can on the 360 and everyone can individually earn trophies, a major coup in terms of reappropriating the weapons that defeated you before. Sony had previous underestimated the social aspect of modern gaming and seems to be adjusting (it has a Share button, for goodness sake, and I doubt that it’s for the Share Care Bear).

If you examine the leaked docs, you’ll notice that the specs are nearly identical, something that can’t be said for this generation’s 360 and PS3. The hardware is secondary to the experience; Microsoft and Sony have realized that it’s the software wars that matter now. And it’s not just for the consumers. The developers matter, too, as they will choose what is easiest to develop for second and most profitable first. Or maybe not, but it doesn’t really matter because one follows the other. The next generation must court users with services and developers with users, but users will also be drawn to what developers put out there, so if a console is easy to develop for and not full of Cell processors that are hard to wrangle, then it’s a double win.

We are past the concerns of hardware. Past a minimum line and we don’t care; all that matters is that it’s good enough. The more tangible product is the software, the stuff you interact with which interacts with the hardware. The abstraction has become the game and now we’re going to see who plays it better. This is not a bridge from the PS3 to PS4 or the 360 to the 720; this is a bridge from hardware to software, and I’m not sure everyone is going to make it across.

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