For those of you who come to the RPG Night Live Streams, a few weeks ago was the start of my Mass Effect stream. To say there were some technical difficulties would be an understatement, as the disc drive in my Xbox 360—which had long been giving me problems—finally let go. Now, I can no longer play any disc-based game in my Xbox, period. This led to immediate side effects: an hour long delay; having to buy Mass Effect, a game I already own, for $15 digitally to please my viewers who came expecting it; and now having a portion of my library inaccessible, including NHL ’12. It’s not a huge portion, but it’s one that has some good games.
Electronics break. This is an inevitable fact of life in the 21st century. As they become more complex, the precision needed to make them work increases, and the margin for error grows tighter and tighter. We not only want amazing technology that does things we couldn’t fathom years ago, we want it to look good, too. Today’s smartphone can surf the Internet with web browsers that sync to the same software on our desktop PCs while storing thousands of songs digitally and playing a modern video game, but they also run hot enough to literally burn the user’s hand. In the case of the iPhone, the form factor doesn’t allow the battery to be changed out, making it a literal ticking time bomb. Video game consoles, historically the realm of cartridges and simple CD-ROMs, now house hard drives and high-level CPUs that force billions of commands to the Internet and back, all while pushing graphics that were unheard of even a decade ago. However, that power comes at a price, as I literally changed the layout of my entertainment centre to allow my PlayStation 3 room to air out.
Suffice to say, I expect a higher rate of failure on my hardware in 2012 than I did in 1992. With that said, what I’ve observed the past decade plus, as the traditionally non-gaming companies have taken over the hardware business, is nothing short of astounding.
Bring Out Your Dead
Here is my rundown of every system I’ve owned that was made before 1995 and the number of units I’ve owned, not counting replacements for stolen units.
* Atari 2600: 2; current unit dates back to 1984
* Nintendo Entertainment System: 1; owned and practically abused since 1986
* Sega Genesis: 1, since 1991. The RF switch is flaky.
* Super Nintendo Entertainment System: 1; stolen in 2003, just replaced.
* Nintendo Game Boy: 2, they both broke down.
Only one system, Nintendo’s first switchable-software handheld, was an issue. Every other system that wasn’t stolen has lasted at least twenty years.
Things have been rough since 1995, to say the least.
* Sony PlayStation: 3, including my current PS One.
* Sega Saturn: 1, traded in in 1998. Replaced last year and sometimes has problems reading discs.
* Sega Dreamcast: 1, since 2001.
* PlayStation 2: 4; I’ve burned through two regulars and smoked a slim literally five days after my year-long warranty ran out. My current unit isn’t great, either; it won’t read some of the cheaper-made discs to the point where I have to use packing or electrical tape on the disc to give the spindle something to grab in what has to be the most ghetto setup I’ve seen since I used to put NES games on top of the ones I’d be playing to get them to work.
* Xbox 360: Just burned out my second, but at least it hasn’t red ringed yet.
* PlayStation 3: 1, but it’s only two years old and could heat an igloo, and reports of yellow lights of death are rampant, so I always hold my breath.
* Game Boy Advance: 1 regular; traded in for an SP that no longer keeps its charge, so we’ll say one.
* Nintendo DS: 1. Still rocking the old school fat DS.
* PlayStation Portable: 1.
* Neo Geo Pocket Color: 1.
* Nintendo Wii: 1.
A few things to note. First, every system that was made in the 1980s, including the Genesis, has not needed to be replaced yet due to its own fault; I was four at the time, but I do think the 2600 was fried because one of Mom’s drunk friends spilled beer on it. Only the Genesis is close twenty-one years later. Second, Nintendo has the best success rate; only the Game Boy’s struggled, and the DS is still holding strong even if the battery’s starting to waver.
On the other hand, Sony and Microsoft, the two companies that came into the industry from other avenues, have an abhorrent record. I’m going to have to buy my third 360 soon with money I would much rather use elsewhere, and that doesn’t even count the number of controllers I’ve had to replace. However, that doesn’t compare to Sony, of which I’ve had to own SEVEN different versions of their previous generations’ models. The Walkman and Discman had reputations for not being up for much wear-and-tear, and that level of craftsmanship is apparent in their video game consoles.
So what if I decided to hell with this Xbox and decided to cut my losses? After all, I only use it a few times, and I’ll never make the mistake of buying a sports game for the system again because it’s the version my friends own (as was the case with NHL ’12). If I wanted to sell my NES, I’d get monetary compensation for every single thing I owned. With my 360, I’d get pennies on the dollar for my disc games, and I’d get absolutely nothing for the hundreds of Xbox Live Arcade and Indie games I own. Sure, I could download them to a new system, but that defeats the purpose; I would have to purchase a brand new system, which puts money in Microsoft’s pocket that they’re getting only because they sucked so badly at making consoles that I’ve had to replace them repeatedly.
It’s in the active interests of Microsoft and Sony to make bad consoles because we will have no choice but to repurchase them as they go more and more digital. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the issues with the 360 and virtually every iteration of the PlayStation console are a bastardized form of forced obsolescence, defective by design. It’s an unproven accusation that would never make it beyond the pages of an editorial, but their outright disdain for their customers are well documented through their dealings in other businesses, so it’s not the kind of stretch that requires a prerequisite tinfoil hat. If someone leaked a memo from either company stating that cutting corners on manufacturing costs would explicitly lead to greater profits through the purchase of multiple consoles, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.
When the next generation of consoles come out, we will go through the same things we saw in 2006. Customers will queue, wait, and eventually beat each other up for them; take them home; and then cry when they break sooner than expected in large quantities. The company behind the system of the moment will thoughtfully stroke their chins, harumph, and state that improved technology has allowed them to redesign their system; and that we can now purchase a new, more special one that also comes in a new colour, without even bothering to thank early adopters for being unwitting participants in a widespread beta test with a $500 or so entrance fee. However, consumers, while impulsive, aren’t completely stupid; they learn fast, and they’re learning that the buyer bewares on first generation hardware in the modern era. When the company they’re buying from has a noted and widespread history of screwing them, they start to break out drink testing kits before taking a swig.
If push comes to shove and I decide never to pick up the next generation of consoles, I have thousands upon thousands of games to tide me over. I could exist solely on playing the games I own for the rest of my life. If I run out of English language games, I just picked up four Super Famicom games that require Japanese knowledge, and brushing up on my Nihongo is a time-taking endeavor, surely. Put simply, video game console makers need me more than I need them, and as the market gets more casual—and more jaded—that becomes the truth for a group of people that is growing by the second.