Game changer: consoles, Steam boxes, and the future of gaming

Game changer: consoles, Steam boxes, and the future of gaming

Summary: Distribution methods aren't what matter most. Screen size isn't what matters most. In-game payments and monetization models aren't what matter most. Game play matters most.


I've been trying to recall just what the first video game was I ever played. It wasn't a console (although my first console was the ColecoVision). I don't think it was even an arcade (although the Defender game in the 24-hour store on Boynton Street in Worcester, MA gobbled up more quarters than I care to admit). It wasn't even Zork on the PDP-10 (although I almost lost a term of college playing it).

No, my first video game was Trek, played on teletypes. For those of you who don't remember Trek, it was one of the very first video games ever, a rudimentary turn-based strategy game. You commanded a starship, had to manage weapons and energy, and, when you moved into a region (which was just a small 16x16 square of ASCII text characters) you had to either kill or be killed.

Trek and Zork didn't even have color, and were printed line-by-line in text on paper. Defender had some rudimentary graphics. Even so, they were all compelling games even though they didn't have a single polygon, they didn't have physics models, they didn't have rag-doll physics, or graphics co-processors.

They were compelling games because they were fun to play. They were good games.

In a fit of nostalgia last night, I decided to see if I could find something like Trek on my iPhone. I found it in the form of a fun, little free game called Padd Trek that actually recreates the spirit and feel of the original game, updated slightly with colors, graphics, and a bit of sound.

Padd Trek for iOS

(By the way, I also found the official Star Trek PADD app, an LCARS simulator brought to you by ZDNet's parent company, CBS Interactive).

Although the iPhone game has a bit of bling, the game play is essentially the same as Trek of the 1970s. And you know what? It's still fun to play. I played for well over an hour last night, until a strategic miscalculation caused me to accidentally, um, blow up a bunch of stars which, well, blew up my ship.

Look, I never said I was a good player.

My wife is actually a far better video game player than I will ever be. But just because I'm cannon fodder in Battlefield doesn't mean I don't love the game.

And that brings me to the recent Great Debate my old pal Adrian Kingsley-Hughes and I had this week. If you haven't seen it, go check out Xbox One vs. PS4: The final battle of the consoles?

Our discussion was — at least on the surface — about whether or not there was enough steam in the game industry to keep the console business going, or whether this new generation was eventually going to be the last. I had the unenviable task of arguing Yes, that this is the final battle of the consoles.

The fact is, as I stated in my closing statement, "I expect there to be future console generations." I expect that, if for no other reason than the living room is a tempting market and manufacturers aren't going to cede those billions of slowly expanding butts anytime soon.

The popular vote sided with Adrian's side, voting no in a punishing 76 percent to my side's 24 percent. Adrian, as he always does, argued a compelling case, and I found myself agreeing with most that he said.

But Larry Dignan, ZDNet's editor-in-chief and the moderator for this debate, gave me the nod for best argument, "by a slim margin." I accept that win because I do think I brought up some issues that most of the media don't these days when discussing the future of games.

Cloud-based gaming is one example.

There's been all this argument about whether we'll ever have cloud-based gaming or if it's even viable. And yet, the real fact is, we've had cloud-based gaming as early as the days of Diablo I, which came out back in 1996. World of Warcraft is a wildly popular gaming-as-a-service cloud application with a PC client. In fact, the entire MMO genre is all about cloud-based gaming and its been around since the dial-up days.

Today, though, when pundits talk about cloud-based gaming, they're actually not talking as much about gaming-as-a-service, the gaming version of the cloud services we usually discuss. Instead, they're talking about using the cloud to distribute game installs, or to do the heavy processing, and just pump pixel changes to the local machines.

Then, instead of a discussion of game play, we're suddenly dropped into a discussion of DRM, who can play on what machine, and intellectual property rights. In other words, the discussion is no longer about the love of the game and simply becomes one of business model.

No consumer, and certainly no gamer ever bought a game because he or she loved the business model.

So, is digital game distribution in our future? Sure. Netflix, Pandora, Spotify and other on-demand entertainment services have shown that while consumers like owning their media, they're also willing to rent access to it. It depends on the quality of the experience and the price point.

If game makers are able to build a practical, consumer-friendly gaming service, we'll see it grow. But if makers build a service that's filled with gotchas and restrictions, it will die a certain and painful death. And, above all, the games have to be good.

The mobile world is providing a similar transformation.

The hottest categories in app stores are games, and for good reason. Having a fun, available game is a pleasant experience, and the app stores have also helped push the price of games down to make them more accessible to more consumers.

This CES saw an interesting experiment in the Steam box. Steam, of course, is the PC gaming service with millions of engaged players. The idea behind the Steam box is to create a lean-back playing environment. While the boxes themselves are just pretty Linux boxes running a custom Linux distro, the Steam controller is what's interesting. It's a new take on controllers that tries to meld the keyboard/mouse paradigm of PC gaming with the lean-back experience of living room gaming.

While the Steam controller is exciting, the Steam box experiment has some serious hurdles, ranging from the pricey boxes to the fact that they run Linux and the bulk of Steam games require Windows. Even so, this is an innovative experiment, and innovation and experimentation are to be encouraged in an industry mired in sequels and lawyers.

That brings me back to the future of gaming.

We often compare the video game industry to the movie and television businesses, but gaming's presentation model has changed at a level that movies and TV can barely comprehend.

Early movies were black and white, with no dialog. Then talkies came out. Then color. And then higher resolution. That's about it. The same with TV. Color. HD. Maybe 4K. Just more pixels.

On the other hand, since the days I played Trek in the basement of the college computer center, we've gone from text-based interfaces to fully-realized 3D models in games like Bioshock Infinite. With the newest generation, game makers are able to add soft physics models, like in the upcoming The Order: 1886 on the PS4. With soft physics, everything is soft -- it's just a matter of how soft. Metals can deform from explosions and wind can rustle clothing on the line.

The difference in presentation quality between Pac-Man and Assassin's Creed is astonishing, especially in comparison to the relatively minimal change in TV and film presentation quality.

Through it all, though, presentation quality isn't what matters most. Distribution methods aren't what matter most. Screen size isn't what matters most. In-game payments and monetization models aren't what matter most.

Game play matters most. Good games that players can enjoy playing will succeed.

That's what matters. And as long as good games keep coming out, there's a future for the gaming business. It's nice that we'll be able to play on our computers, laptops, couches, in buses, doctors' offices, in the middle of a war zone, and just about anywhere where we can use a little fun and benefit from experiences that can take our breath away, make us laugh, make us yell, give us a scare, make us growl, and make us smile.

Topics: CES, Hardware, Linux, Mobile OS, Mobility, After Hours


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Nostalgia

    I remember Trek with fondness too -- though I also found it frustrating! I was never very good at it (nor at "Lunar Lander," another game from those days).

    I agree with your points. To me, the most interesting thing is the sudden boomerang back to lower-quality graphics (I'm speaking of the market in general, not flagship console titles) due to their convenience. My wife is the canonical "casual gamer," and often I do a double-take when I see graphics in these things that would look right at home with some of the earlier versions of King's Quest (or earlier). The engineer in me demands an explanation as to why anyone would subject themselves to something so primitive-looking. But a smaller voice (getting louder as the years go by) reminds me that these sorts of games were certainly enjoyable 10, 20, 30 years ago, so why wouldn't I enjoy them now? I have to accuse my engineer-side of being a slave to fashion rather then just enjoying the moment. Certainly having fun, accessible games is important. (Not that I'm knocking recent "power" games; I have a uber-rig for those, but I can't use that while waiting in the lobby at the dentist's office.)

    Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to go off and play "Adventure" on my Atari 2600...
    • My Gaming Addicted Son Put It Best

      He plunked out $60 of his allowance for ACBF, dove into it, finished it in too few hours and proclaimed "What a waste!".
      Now he's back on the PS2/PS1 stuff.
      The glitzy graphics and realistic interaction don't automatically make a game "fun".

      Now if I could just get Wizardry 8 to stop locking up on my Surface Pro ....
  • Game changer: consoles, Steam boxes, and the future of gaming

    Most definitely its about the game play. I'm not familiar with trek but I have been playing some of the old Sierra games lately. They are awesome because they are low graphics even though they have been remade with VGA and they have a good story to them. For me that beats just grabbing a gun and shooting anything that moves in a game.
    • Running out of steam

      My first game was Pong followed by text based games on minicomputers and mainframes until the first PCs started emerging. I remember programming an Artillery game for a Tektronix graphics terminal connected to a DEC PDP-11 using open source code and around 30 years later someone would slap a graphics interface on it and sell it as Angry Birds.

      I was there for Wolvenstein 3D and played most of the single player and multiplayer games that sprang from it. I was there for the beginning of WoW, which was the first MMO I liked and provided a sprawling immersive world instead of another key, another doorway and another level.

      I've played consoles, but never liked them, but had to buy a Kinect just to experience it. However, the lack of complexity and accuracy in console games as well as their last generation graphics ( at least compared to my gaming PC) made me stick to PC gaming. Consoles are great for developers as they offer a standard hardware environment, limited input devices and established channels for distribution, but the games always seems dumbed down to me compared to similar titles on PC.

      Valve's attempt at a console seems to ignore the reasons for consoles - namely standard hardware. With the differing hardware in the coming SteamOS consoles, it's not that attractive to developers. Unless it magically gets some killer games and sells at a lower price than the XBone and the PS4, I can't see it making much of an impression.

      Steam was a great idea for PC gaming, but the majority of Steam games are lacklustre and some are truly awful. Something I revisit every Xmas when I get Steam game presents from well meaning relatives. However there are some major titles and it offers a distribution system for indie game developers, but I still prefer to go to the game developer's site to get my downloads.

      Then there's the OS you use. The vast majority of games on Steam are Windows based. The Mac games for the most part are ported from their Windows versions (although I sure there must be one or two that went the other way) and are in the minority and then there's Linux games - I'm tempted to say both of them, but that's a bit cruel.

      I'm glad we've left the disks, cartridges and CD/DVDs behind. Digital distribution with automatic patching, upgrades and DLC have made everyone's life a lot easier and hopefully made games cheaper and more environmentally sound.

      Cloud gaming is always just around the corner and will probably stay that way for years to come until server hardware and the internet can support it. Every current MMO already experiences the occasional lag and connection problems and that's with most of the grunt work being done by your PC.

      Input devices now give us voice, gesture, full body recognition, 3D head sets, eye tracking and offer a variety of controllers, keyboards and mice.

      But I'm still waiting for my personal holodeck ;-)
  • Thoughts

    "Instead, they're talking about using the cloud to distribute game installs, or to do the heavy processing, and just pump pixel changes to the local machines."

    Both of which we already have on the PC:
    -Steam (cloud installs)
    -OnLive (pushes pixels)

    So far, Steam has been doing great, and OnLive has been struggling. It would appear the future of gaming is cloud installs.

    I expect that console makers would be wise to adopt a similar model.

    "the Steam box experiment has some serious hurdles, ranging from the pricey boxes . . ."

    Cheapest ones are console price, I should point out.

    " . . . to the fact that they run Linux and the bulk of Steam games require Windows."

    This could be a major problem. As much as I like the idea of a Steam box - how many of my games will it play? Will it play my personal favorites?

    "Game play matters most. Good games that players can enjoy playing will succeed."

    Indeed - that I can agree with :).
  • Amen to gameplay

    I noticed the gameplay went stale on Halo when Microsoft took over with Halo 4. Most of us multiplayers went back to Bungie's Halo Reach.
    D.J. 43
  • Found the text Trek

    The iOS version of it is unplayable., With constant crashing and absolutely no menu navigation infrastructure. However the Google play store version is excellent. I hadn't played it since I left college about 30 years ago., Quite a nostalgic hit.
    Luke Skywalker
  • I want to OWN IT

    I still have the first Nintendo and its games...and all other systems I bought..for my kids and grand kids...we get some of the out and play the old games. I avoid EA games and others because I do NOT want to ask permission to play something I bought on disk. That's why I will not buy an Xbox one..If I buy a game I expect the kids to be able to take it to a friends..The only EA game I owned was spore..what a hassle. We need to fight the DRM garbage..or we will be perpetual away the keys to our gaming..consoles who demand DRM or will not make games portable are destined to DIE...also the rental market spurs game it for 3 it buy it...DRM KILLs that.
  • My first video game..

    In 1978, when I was 11 years old my dad ( an assembly/COBOL programmer) would take me into work with him when he had to work the occasional Saturday. I think it was while he was at Time magazine in Manhattan. There were a couple of computer games I could play from a terminal in his office (these were the mainframe days). The one I remember most was a Star Trek-based strategy game, where you could navigate to different parts of the galaxy and had to 'fight' Klingons. You would get options like 'fire photon torpedoes' or "fire phasers", as well as pick your headings and warp speed levels. I don't remember too many details, but it was a heck of a lot of fun for a kid. (Thanks Dad!)
    PS: Does anyone remember the "game" about the "Thing King"? I seem to remember 'things' come in crates, can be stored in the warehouse (and other places) and what you do with a thing is to "zork' it...
    Steve I.
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