Sometimes I forget that gaming, like most other communities, is a bubble. I forget that what I take for granted as par for the course in my hobby is new and incredibly irritating to a more casual user. Then I find an article like the one on Deadspin this morning, which sports the provocative headline, “The Xbox One is Garbage and the Future is Bullshit.”
I’m not going to link it here because I find the style in which the analysis is presented irritating, at one point describing the Witcher 3 as “butt,” which is apparently what passes for discourse in 2015. But I’m highlighting it here because it presents from a casual point of view how time consuming it can be to actually get into a game these days, and why that’s a problem for Microsoft and Sony.
By now, gamers are well-acquainted with how annoying the process of installing a $60 game can be. You either buy a game online or purchase a disc, then you go do something else while the game installs, downloads a Day One update, and if you’re lucky, boots up after 15 minutes or so, leaving aside potential bugs, connection issues, and other problems. It’s a process that reminds me of when I used to surf the Internet on my 56K modem and would go down and make a sandwich while a site loaded (yes, I’m aware that I’m dating myself a bit here). As it happens, for the past 20 minutes or so I’ve been downloading an update for The Witcher 3 so that I can play the Hearts of Stone expansion. It’s currently sitting at 65 percent.
As hobbyists, we’ve more or less accepted this as the cost of doing business. Games are gigantic and there are lots of updates to download at the outset. Surveying the broader media landscape, though, it’s easy to see why the average consumer might be frustrated. Devices like iPads pretty much work right out of the box with a minimum of setup, apps download in a few seconds on a good Internet connection, and services like Netflix require just a few clicks to access a movie. Fair or not, game consoles must seem like dinosaurs by comparison.
To their credit, both Sony and Microsoft have done some things to speed up the process of getting into a game since the last generation. The ability to suspend a game and return to it immediately is a godsend. If you buy digitally, you can download it ahead of time and have it ready to go the moment it unlocks. Occasionally you can even start playing a game before it’s completely done downloading.
Still, there’s no denying that the process can feel clunky to an outsider, which is partly the product of gaming’s comparatively slow transition to a totally digital format. At some point we’ll be able to stream games and all of the updates will happen invisibly, but services like PlayStation Now remain in their infancy, and we’re unlikely to see anything on the scale of Netflix until the next generation at the earliest.
Plug and Play
It’s at this point that most people hearken back to the good old days of the NES when you could just plug in a cartridge and go. We are, of course, a long way from the mid-1980s, a period in which the Internet was pretty much non-existent and bugs were forever. I have no real desire to return to those days.
On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that we have to accept every technological inconvenience as a necessary evil. Xbox One install times can certainly be improved. The dashboard remains a messy collection of icons and options relating to its original purpose as an all-purpose entertainment machine, with games tucked away in a secondary menu. And the disaster of an online store makes discoverability practically non-existent.
I’m picking on Microsoft here because, as an owner of both consoles, I find playing my Xbox One to be a much slower and tedious experience. But even the PlayStation 4 isn’t immune to an annoying number of system updates; and yes, there have been technical issues to date (remember last year’s rest mode debacle?) With the New Xbox One Experience on the way, many of the Xbox One’s usability issues are hopefully on the verge of being addressed. But both Microsoft and Sony should keep a central truth in mind going forward: People want to play games as soon as possible.
At their best, video games are already a substantial commitment. They require time, energy, and a mental investment that other forms of media do not, and as games have become more complex, that investment has only grown. Games have managed to hold their own in this environment, but developers shouldn’t take it for granted that people are willing to sift through overly complicated interfaces or wait out lengthy install times.
Steps have been made in the right direction, but there’s still work to be done in balancing power with convenience and accessibility. Until then, casual users like the one at Deadspin will go right on assuming that gaming is a pain and a waste of time.
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