The home video game console, a dedicated machine designed specifically to bring video games into the home, is a stubbornly resilient thing of the past, a limiting anachronism that does much more harm to the gaming industry than it does good.
During an age when games can be played on smartphones, tablets, computers, calculators, watches and just about any other device with silicon in it, having something that sits under your television so you can play games at home is not just unnecessary, it's wasteful.
That the dedicated home console has survived so deep into this blossoming age of cheap, ubiquitous tech can only be blamed on a sort of blind spot created by nostalgia.
A little history
While electronic gaming had been around since the '50s, it wasn't until the early '70s and the release of the Magnavox Odyssey that video games become both relatively affordable and an at-home pastime. The late '70s brought with it the Atari 2600 and an explosion of home gaming.
In the '80s there was the video game crash, caused by an abundance of bad games, and then the rebirth of home gaming with the Nintendo Entertainment System. Single-handedly, Nintendo and its NES revitalized home gaming and the game console. But the NES brought with it a new sort of third-party licensing that included strict anti-competition rules and licensing fees. While some of that was tossed out following an FTC investigation, it set the tone for all future major game consoles.
Development is still typically the most expensive part of releasing a new video game creation, but the licensing fee or royalties paid to any platform holder (Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony) remains a high cost of entry.
This fee is one of the reasons indie development, which blossoms so easily on the personal computer and mobile, still lags behind on console. And that despite recent push by console makers to pull in more indies.
The cost of developing and manufacturing consoles, which are almost always sold at a loss, is also a big part of why platform holders like Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony are often so risk-averse when it comes to their first-party titles. As in the razor and razor blade business, the money a platform holder makes doesn't come from the console typically, it comes from the games.
Then there's the cost of shipping, of retail space, of required buybacks when a game doesn't sell. All of these things are in some way tied to the current home console business. And none of them are necessary.
First-party publishers are increasingly becoming an unnecessary and costly partner in the creation of games. Platforms are just as well known for their restrictive practices as they are for their massive hits and the cost both to the consumer and the platform holder continues to rise.
What once helped buoy the industry, now anchors it.
Recently, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata announced that the company was working on a new sort of gaming system codenamed NX. The description of the NX as a "dedicated gaming system" seems deliberately vague. Iwata later said he only mentioned the system, which the company won't share more details about until 2016, to assure people that Nintendo wasn't giving up on the console business and jumping feet-first into smartphone games.
One can assume, one can hope, that after three straight years of losing money because Nintendo misjudged the gaming audience and the design of the Wii U, that Nintendo is once more reconsidering how it should sell games.
Nintendo has long shown an ability to think outside the box when approaching the game industry and its longterm ups and downs. When the NES was released to stores with no interest in game consoles anymore, Nintendo included a robot and called the console a toy. When Nintendo saw it was being outpaced by the graphics and processor chips war going on in the game industry in 2006, it headed out into the "blue ocean" with an approachable, casual, massively successful console: the Wii.
Now, faced with the possibility of another off-cycle, not-quite-enough-next-gen console, Nintendo's brilliant minds must realize that it's becoming time to shed the console as we know it and the contentious business model it created, to once more reshape the game industry.
For Nintendo to succeed and to help free the video game industry from the shackles of console segregation, the NX should be a service, not an expensive box.
What that solution is — streaming to televisions, cable boxes or other devices; platform-centric operating systems on a computer; etc. — remains to be seen.
But it was Nintendo that helped create today's concept of game publishing, forced platform exclusivity and royalties, and it would be fitting for Nintendo to be the one that kills it and the console, too.
Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding editor and News Editor of Polygon.