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

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.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor on

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.

Editorial standards