Analysis: Gadgets are boring, but video games are cooler than ever
For the past two decades, I've been clinging to my beloved Nintendo 64. What could ever match the video game console's audacity of design and nostalgic allure, from its spaceshiplike controller to the timeless art of its games? ("Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey" is the most underrated sports title of all time. Fight me.) Yet, for whatever reason, in the last year alone, I have suddenly found myself overwhelmed with a variety of contemporary gaming platforms, which now clutter my apartment like a freshman dorm room.
The breadth of choices in gaming stands in stark contrast to other areas of technology. Android or iPhone? Facebook or Snapchat? Google or, um, Google? For many categories of consumer electronics, the titans of Silicon Valley churn out indistinguishable products, while the video game industry represents the rare corner of the business not entirely hampered by hegemony.
The results of this dynamic are so refreshing at times I've actually cried. Don't believe me? Just play Nintendo Co.'s "Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild" and see for yourself. My (late) reintroduction to modern gaming began with the Nintendo Switch. Then came streaming devices from Amazon.com, Apple and Google, which all double as gaming consoles. And just last week, after hearing endless you-have-to-try-it raves about "Red Dead Redemption 2," I finally succumbed and (tearfully) replaced my ol' faithful 64, which has held a spot on the TV stand since 1996, with Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox One.
There's been a "renaissance" in gaming over the last decade or so, says Lewis Ward, an analyst at market research firm IDC. Propelled by more than two billion consumers worldwide, the market has become so diverse that Ward has had to develop an ever-growing "taxonomy" of competitors. Beyond core consoles from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, there's the smartphone, tablet, and streaming-based hardware from the likes of Google and Roku. There's been a huge push into cloud-based games from Tencent Holdings and Nvidia that can be streamed over the internet.
A rash of semi-modernized retro game consoles are going on sale. Samsung Electronics, HTC Corp., Lenovo Group, Sony and Facebook are investing heavily in virtual reality. PC games continue to thrive, and there are fascinating new upstarts such as Panic's Playdate. Even my retired 64 will soon get an upgrade of sorts for the high-def age.
This creative success is partly driven, Ward says, by potent, cost-efficient technical components. "Computing performance and potential, from a low-end Chromecast to the latest high-end gaming rig, is massive," he says. They offer "a much wider range of hardware, software and services, and that makes the industry a hotbed of innovation, with a more competitive environment."
It still takes a lot of money to compete. Video games are expected to generate $174 billion this year, according to IDC. Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony have over the years crushed console pioneers like Atari and Sega. Even still, the three fight severely for market share among themselves and against new entrants. Nintendo has watched its fortunes rise and fall and rise again between each new risky release. The Switch, with its mobile-inspired hardware, almost whimsical user experience and embrace of indie developers, has proved such a radical, and prosperous, departure from the Xbox and PlayStation.
That kind of appetite for risk doesn't exist in phones or search engines, where it's futile to even try to compete. For now, we're stuck with bland rectangles and, um, Google.