Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Neither was the video game industry as we know it today. At no other point in history have video games been so diverse and so accessible. You don’t even have to leave your house to get a new game to play and if you are willing to wade through all of the Match 3 puzzle and city builder war games there are even some quality experiences to be enjoyed on your smartphone. Today we can follow every step of an anticipated game’s development and we know every bit of breaking news about it within hours. Compare that to when I was a kid and we got our gaming news once a month from magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly. We often didn’t even know when a game was coming out. We would just check the stores every week until we found a copy of a new game we wanted. I remember one day my mother and I spent a couple of hours driving from store to store in search of a copy of Ninja Gaiden for the NES.
Everything we enjoy about gaming today was built on the results of risks taken by those who were willing to step forward. Some ventures succeed and some fail but more often than not people have no idea how actions taken today influence the gaming environment of the future. It may be hard to believe now but there was once a time when retailers were reluctant to sell the Nintendo Entertainment System and CD-ROM drives were often regarded as expensive and useless add-ons that drove up the cost of a personal computer.
This phenomenon is not just limited to video games. Harry Truman once had the lowest approval ratings of any United States president but decades later he is regarded rather favorably. There was a time when the general consensus was that the world was flat and the idea that the sun did not orbit around the Earth was tantamount to blasphemy.
Interestingly enough, sometimes it only takes a product or two for the masses to change their minds. Some questioned the Sony Walkman; after all, who could possibly want to carry their music around with them? Myst and The 7th Guest played a major role in getting people to change their mind about CD-ROM drives and Sega of America proved that a company with limited resources could go toe-to-toe with a behemoth who enjoyed over 90% market share in the gaming industry.
All of which brings me to Microsoft’s current gaming initiative. As history has repeatedly shown, an unprecedented effort is often met with skepticism and resistance. That is not entirely a bad thing. Consumers should be skeptical until a company demonstrates the value of its product. However, it does means that we are often Ill equipped to foresee how a major undertaking will impact history. No other company has ever attempted to create a universal game development platform for console, mobile and PC while also coupling it to one of the largest cloud networks on Earth.
Many of the benefits this effort will bring already exist to some degree. Game development is easier than it has ever been and almost anybody in the world can make a game and sell it to almost anybody else in the world. However, the experience is disconnected. The foundation Microsoft is building for the Xbox ecosystem today could potentially culminate in a future where literally our entire gaming libraries are carried with us and used in much the same manner as we carry spreadsheets and Word documents today.
That does not mean it will be smooth going every step of the way. Every major undertaking in history has seen its share of stumbles. Mistakes will be made and detractors will be quick to call the effort a failure and predict that Microsoft is going to leave the gaming industry. That said, perspective is important. A potential mistake does not mean the entire undertaking has failed.
Is Microsoft guaranteed success in this venture? No, The 3DO, Atari Jaguar, Gizmondo and the Ouya all came into being through the visions of their creators but ultimately did not succeed for a number of reasons. However, even in failure there are lessons learned and the industry benefits.
I don’t know how this gaming initiative will turn out. Neither do you. What we do know is that moving towards a future where our games are even more accessible than they already are is a massive commitment of time, resources and capital. Few companies are interested in making such an investment but the payoff could be momentous. There will be resistance; history has proven that. We will be told that the Xbox has no exclusives. We will be told that most people will shun Microsoft’s console and just build a PC.
In the face of all that I find that I am optimistic about the future of video games. History will determine who is right but if I had to make a wager, I’d bet the nay-sayers will be surprised.