Monday, April 17, 2006

Building A Better Console

While it will always be the software that determines who wins each generation of the videogame wars, there is something to be said for the hardware and accessories and how they can affect not only what games get made, but also how you interact with them.

Let's do a little comparison, shall we? First, the Nintendo Entertainment System, launching in 1985, the console most credited with bringing the gaming hobby back from extinction. Here's what it shipped with:

  • The NES console
  • Two controllers
  • The Zapper light gun
  • Two games: Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt (other options existed, but these were the most common)
  • Two controllers
  • TV/Game switch (for audio/video)
  • Power cable
  • R.O.B. the relatively obsolete robot (optional)

All of this went for about $250, if I remember correctly. Maybe more, maybe less, depending on your territory. Now compare this to the Sony PlayStation 2, releasing in October 2000 for $300:

  • PS2 console
  • One controller
  • Power cable
  • A/V cable

Seems like a rip-off by comparison, doesn't it? No game, no options. Nothing. And it's $50 more!

One problem is that companies want to keep the prices low and competitive in favor of offering more to the players up front. You think there would have been any light gun games for the Nintendo if it hadn't been packed in? The Super Scope (SNES) and Menacer (Genesis) had meager support at best, mostly because the implementation of the accessory came long after the primary machine's debut.

So now the market expects these hardware releases never to spike above $400. Honestly, there are people willing to pay a bit more for a machine, especially if they hear, "But look what else you get!" Pack some stuff in. Open the doors to new development and interaction. And yes, I have suggestions.

Now I'm not promising this will be cheap, so let's get that out of the way right now. What I do promise is that people will buy it; the hardcore don't even acknowledge dollar signs, and as the price comes down, the casual players will buy it, too. Here's what my dream machine console package would contain in today's market:

  • The main console
  • A/V cables
  • Power cable
  • Pack-in game (or two)
  • Two controllers (one dual analog, one with a trackball)
  • Wireless keyboard and mouse (with recharger base)
  • Built-in hard drive and Ethernet connectivity
  • USB camera
  • One memory card (or other compact, removable storage, like a Memory Stick)
  • Light gun (third party if need be; Namco makes a good one)
  • USB headset

The idea here is to widen your audience up front, make them dream of the possibilities, not cringe at the limitations and wonder how anyone is going to make something worthwhile within the constraints of the hardware available.

You may also notice that I said one controller should have a trackball in it (like a mouse that is touch-sensitive and doesn't move). This is an idea that's well overdue, in my opinion. In an era where games would benefit so much from having mouse and keyboard support, can we at least get some sort of a pointing device thrown in? One of each type of controller at least opens up the possibilities. Buy a second controller later if need be, but have the tech in the box from the outset. Just replace the right analog stick with a mini-trackball. Better yet, have the sticks/ball be removable so you can reconfigure any way you like! Want two trackballs on your controller? So be it!

However, I didn't throw in HDTV/component cables because in that realm, base functionality is really all you need out of the box. Beyond that, there are so many options it's kind of insane. Some people want S-Video. Some want basic component video. Some want optical audio. Some want to get Monster Cables for everything. Some want the all-in-one cables that hook up to every console. Some want VGA or DVI cables to run it through their higher-resolution PC monitor. There's just too much wiggle room here to suggest a definite standard.

Wireless keyboard and mouse (With recharger! Save on batteries!) may seem like an odd choice, but consider this. The PS3, Xbox 360, and Nintendo Revolution will all feature wireless controllers. I know the PS3 specifically supports up to seven infrared controller input signals simultaneously, but honestly, who is going to make an offline game for more than four players, realistically? It's very rare. Instead, have those input relays read info from the wireless keyboard and mouse instead. In the online arena and with more games having customizable speech, characters, and other content, and consoles having Web browser software, having a keyboard saves a lot of time on hunting and pecking with the controller astride some unwieldy on-screen interface, not to mention macros and other functions that can be added as time rolls on.

The Nintendo Revolution (or whatever it ends up being called) is coming out this fall with this sort of remote control wand thingy that no one fully understands the ramifications of yet, so I appreciate them trying something new in an era where everyone else is playing it relatively safe. Other companies need to look at their hardware and see where similar or smaller tweaks can be made to open the floodgates of innovation. I think some of the things suggested above are at the very least some baby steps in that general direction.

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