Seeing Red

Early on Saturday psu let me know that his Xbox 360 had given up the ghost. He had been hoping to get the Red Rings of Death at least since mine died a few months ago, and they sent me back a cooler, quieter model. Still, he was a bit nonplussed, and at a loss as to what to do without his beloved Halo 3. “Maybe I’ll play Banjo- Kazooie,” he joked. “Of course, I’ll need to buy an old Nintendo 64 first.”

Little did he realize that I never pass up a chance to get another piece of obsolete computer equipment out of my basement. I packed up the N64 (along with Banjo-Kazooie and a few other games), and brought it over. And while I was packing it up, a funny thing happened.

Last Christmas my nephew (let’s call him “Vaan”) was visiting my house. He was too young to play BladeHunt: DeathSpank 2: The Revenge, so instead I showed him how to operate the N64, hooked it up to an old TV, and promptly forgot about it.

When I went to pack up the Nintendo this weekend, I noticed it was a little warm. You see, Vaan, being a youthful little scamp, had irresponsibly left the device on. I, being lazy, had not bothered to check to make sure that it was off. So this Nintendo, which is more than 10 years old, had been left powered on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the last 9 months.

I didn’t even turn on the TV to make sure it still worked. I yanked the cables, stuffed everything into a shopping bag, and went to Pete’s house. Where, of course, we plugged it in and it worked just fine. I never experienced even a moment’s doubt about whether it would work.

Now, I’d like you to think about this for a few minutes. I have several co- workers who have held off on buying an Xbox 360 because they are waiting for Microsoft to make one that won’t melt down. When I owned my original 360, I would never play games on it with the media cabinet closed because I believed in all seriousness that if I did, it might burn down my house. I put it to any Xbox 360 owner out there: does anyone believe that if they left their Xbox powered on for 9 months straight that it would still function? No. No one believes that.

I’ve written at length about the competitive advantages consoles have over “gaming PCs”. There are a number of variables here, not the least of which is cost, but if I had to boil it down to one simple factor, it is this: the game console is an appliance. Its value proposition subsists largely in the fact that it is supposed to just work.

Some console manufacturers, in their understandable quest to encourage hardware turnover, have placed a bet on HD-capable machines, systems that can render and display incredible graphics. Software publishers have embraced these platforms, enjoying the benefits of republishing the same games with higher resolution art assets. But it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the simple truth that HD gaming in 2007 comes at a cost higher than simply adding together the price tag of the hardware and software. We pay a price in convenience. We pay a price in power consumption, shelf space, and revoltingly ugly industrial design. We pay a price in noise pollution in our living rooms. Most of all, we pay a price in peace of mind. Imagine if every time you turned on your oven, you had to worry if today would be the day that your oven would stop working. That’s what everyday life is like for an Xbox 360 owner.

The Xbox 360, the PS3 and the Wii are all obviously more complex devices than the Nintendo 64; at a minimum, they have moving parts. I’m certainly not saying that I want the architecture of game consoles to be frozen in 1996 forever. The key point is this: industrial design and computer architecture have something important in common. They both require making intelligent tradeoffs. I’m sure that the designers at Microsoft and Sony were acutely aware of what they were asking consumers to give up in the name of pushing a few more pixels and gaining a foothold in the living rooms of HD early adopters. The gaming press, intriguingly, doesn’t seem to discuss these tradeoffs in any continuing or rigorous way. They simply take it as read that the only option is to buy newer hardware, even when that hardware is defective.

The ongoing success of the more conservatively and cleverly designed Wii (and the continued success of the PS2 even while its successor languishes on store shelves) suggests that the average consumer understands these tradeoffs, even if no one in the industry or its vanity press is willing to acknowledge them.

Design matters. In the marketplace for personal items and appliances, design can matter even more than a list of features. Competitors in the portable music player industry learned this the hard way.

The game console manufacturers are learning this hard lesson now.