Can the console stay relevant in the new era of gaming?

The rise of smartphones has radically changed the gaming scene.

On Wednesday, Sony is expected to pull the wraps off of its next-generation PlayStation console, codenamed Orbis. Five years ago, a new console would have been a very big deal. These days, though, with all the devices competing for gamers' attention, console makers need to prove themselves and find a way to stand out.

When the Xbox 360 originally launched back in 2005—followed by the Wii and PS3 in 2006—the question was "which console should I buy?" A lot has happened in the gaming scene since then, between smartphones, tablets, streaming media, Ouya, and the rebirth of PC gaming—and that's just the beginning. Now the question becomes, "should I buy a console in the first place?"

We take a look at the competition stacked up against the next generation consoles, where consoles have changed this generation, and where they will need to go if they want to keep up.

The competition

Peter Belanger/Macworld
Steve Jobs after introducing the original iPhone at Macworld Expo 2007.

Thanks to smartphones, starting with the original iPhone that launched in 2007, the casual gaming scene has exploded. In the last year, we’ve seen mobile games like Temple Run 2 and Words with Friends become worldwide phenomenons.

Games on iOS and Android are only getting better, too, with titles like Anomaly Korea that have mechanics complex enough to be considered a “real game.” On the graphics end, tablets like the Nexus 10 are pushing 2560 by 1600-pixel resolutions that are unfathomable to the consoles that you have in your house today.

If it was not bad enough that mobile games have become increasingly popular, Android is about to encroach on the television space once dominated by consoles. Thanks to Kickstarter supporters, two Android-based consoles are on the way: Ouya and the GameStick. These Android consoles promise to bring current mobile games to the TV, along with a whole new collection of titles designed specifically for these consoles.

At the same time, PC game developers are experimenting some with new ways to make their wares more TV-friendly. Steam Big Picture from Valve made a huge splash last year; giving users an easy way to browse through their games with a PC hooked up directly to a HDTV. The Steam Box concept has become a great alternative because you can get PC versions of many console games through Steam, Origin, Good Old Games, or other digital game services.

At CES, we saw a few new devices that promise to bring PC gaming to you in a completely different package. Tablets like the Razer Edge, and to a lesser degree the Microsoft Surface Pro , come equipped with PC parts that can run full Windows 8, along with all games you would expect to play on a regular PC.

Google
Tablets have made their mark on the gaming universe.

Also, Nvidia wants to roll out its own handheld Android-based device, called Project Shield, which the company says will also stream PC games. Meanwhile, Valve has gotten into the gaming hardware scene with an extremely small PC box—its Xi3 could be first device in a long line of official “Steam boxes.”

Console evolution

Console makers have tried to keep up with the massive changes in the gaming landscape, and as a result, consoles no longer just play games.

Current consoles have evolved into complete entertainment hubs. Right now, you can stream just about everything on the PS3 and Xbox 360, including Netflix, Hulu, ESPN, Pandora, as well as Crunchyroll. Modenr consoles also have digital storefronts that come packed with TV shows, movies rentals, and music.

The next-gen consoles may become even more integrated with your living room television. You can already find apps for everything from exploring websites to watchingyour favorite cable TV shows (for example, HBOGo and Xfinity). Rumors of a built-in DVR in the next Xbox suggest that these next consoles could be another way to get away from your cable bill.

Console makers have tried to keep up with the massive changes in the gaming landscape, and as a result, consoles no longer just play games.

Game distribution is going digital as well. You can practically buy and download anything that has come out on either system—no need to go to your local game shop or wait for that disc you bought from Amazon. Sony in particular has been pushing for a digital day-one releases on the PlayStation, along with a digital games collection—a set of games that are either free or come with discounts—through its PlayStation Plus program.

Both Microsoft and Sony have new weekly deals, but those are nothing compared to the steep discounts found on Steam’s sales (like being able to buy every game sold under the Square Enix moniker for $60). If both companies are really serious about banning used games, adopting PC gaming’s way of providing cheap digital games could be the solution. History has shown that you can trump piracy if you make your service convenient and affordable—just look at what iTunes has done for music and what Netflix has done for movies.

Distinct systems

This year, you can expect systems to grow more similar to each other (again), with nearly matching PC-like hardware. So with such similar specs, console makers are going have to find other ways to make their particular system stand out, and provide more than just better graphics.

One of the most distinguishing points of the current console generation is how you could control them through alternative means:. This includes the wand-based motion tracking on the Wii and PS3, as well as how you “become the controller” with the Kinect on Xbox.

Nintendo

Looking ahead, the Wii U comes with a touchscreen device you can use to play or control games. Microsoft may have similar plans for the rumored Durango console with its SmartGlass app. As it stands, the app works with smartphones and tablets to “enhance your experience” by providing a second screen while you play games or stream media on the Xbox 360. Meanwhile, rumors suggest that Orbis may have a new controller that will include some capacitive touch controls similar to the front-touchpad on the PlayStation Vita.

Of course, one most important deciding factors on what system you buy will be which console you've already invested in. Gamers almost expect these new consoles to carry over your gamer tag or PSN ID, subsequent gamerscore or trophy level, and friends list, along with all your digital purchases.

Right now, your online profile might just be tied to your purchases and a nickname your online friends know you by. Newer consoles, however, may be able to your online persona to the next level by creating their very own social networking spaces on their systems.

Both the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita can seek out other players automatically and post this activity on a feed. The Wii U released last fall alongside its own Miiverse social network, giving players an online forum-like space to post their messages. Meanwhile, rumors suggest that the PS4 will have a sharing button on the controller that will let you post videos and photos from the system itself.

Taking everything into account, the upcoming PlayStation 4 has a lot to live up to. It needs to have hardware that can compete with current computer hardware, stream every kind of media under the sun, have a complete digital storefront, compete or create a space for casual games, have exclusive games, feature a unique control scheme, and maybe come with some form of social networking. All the while everyone (including me) wants or—is waiting for—price cuts every day.

It’s an extremely exciting time for console gaming because anything could happen next. All I have to say is, good luck, Sony—you too, Microsoft—and godspeed.

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