If you could perform some time-travel wizardry and put together a Tweetcloud for popular ’90s buzzwords, the boldest, largest word in the group would be “multimedia.” Society was obsessed with the idea of all-in-one wonder consoles that could play movies, music, games, and teach kids how to tie their shoes. The lure of compact entertainment stations even predated the widespread release of CD-based game systems: Sega’s Game Gear, for instance, had a TV tuner attachment that could grant the battery-gobbling handheld the power of broadcasting.
But when the actual products were dreamed up and put on store shelves, the adoption rates were sluggish. The earliest game consoles that boasted multimedia were expensive, operated poorly, or were the Phillips CD-i. Gamers (not to mention the poor parents who provided for them) stuck to cheaper, more reliable cartridge-based systems. When Sony put the PlayStation on the market, the company was perfectly content to market the system as a game console first and foremost, though the PlayStation did feature CD playback capabilities and an accompanying light show for anyone who wanted to bliss out on the couch and change tracks with a game controller.
But game console-based multimedia didn’t die; it merely went to sleep for a handful of years. Then the PlayStation 2 launched with DVD playback just as the world’s interest in DVD was heating up, and everything changed. In this age, it’s the single-function game console that is approached warily.
In fact, the online research group Knowledge Networks recently released the results of a poll stating that over 20% of consumers use their game consoles to watch movies and television shows, whether through DVD, Blu-ray, or Netflix streaming. Not surprisingly, the number fluctuates according to age group: 31% of polled users between the ages of 13 and 31 make their game consoles pull double-duty, whereas only 8% of users between the ages of 46 to 54 do the same.
Does this mean it’s time for system developers to think about a console’s video playback as thoroughly as graphics processing power? Big “Yes” and small “No.” That “20%” cited by Knowledge Networks is only going to grow as the young population grows, and the older population…moves on. Aside from Sony, Apple and other smartphone manufacturers are to thank (or blame) for bundled entertainment becoming accessible and affordable. Gone are the days of picking up a transistor radio, a Nintendo, or a tape player. Welcome the days of cell phones that can play games, give you directions, feed you music, and call mom. Nothing less will be sufficient ever again.
Even Nintendo, which has always held out on the newest, shiniest features in favor of easy-to-use and affordable tech, is aiming to make the 3DS into All That It Can Be. The Nintendo DS Lite was probably the last hugely successful stand for simple plug-and-play gaming, and its features seem almost primitive next to the Nintendo DSi. In addition to playing games, the DSi can play music, transfer images, take and edit pictures, and surf the web. Granted, it can’t do any of those extras especially well, but the presence of those capabilities indicate that the last stragglers have caught up and a new bar has been set.
But then there’s the problem with cost. Xbox 360s, iPads, PSPs, and PlayStation 3s don’t come cheap, and uneasy rumors indicate that the Nintendo 3DS might not, either. Around $300.00 USD is a big price tag for a handheld, especially to a family recovering from a recession. Whereas extra features are desirable and even necessary for a game system, its primary function should be exactly that: Gameplay. Preferably the kind which is accessible and easy to afford. That’s what people expect out of Nintendo, and that’s what people will ultimately pay for. Even Apple learned that it can stuff the iPhone 4 with every bell and whistle under the sun, but it won’t amount to anything except a pile of angry consumers unless phone reception is clear.
It’s far easier to develop quality multitasking hardware now than it was fifteen years ago. Be that as it may, console engineers who are sitting at the easel right now should remember not to overdo it at the expense of the console’s primary function or affordability. Multimedia is now as much a part of people’s lives as cars and clothing, but it’s still possible for us to be scared away once more by high prices coupled with low quality.