Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Are you surprised by the success of the game consoles?

If you read reviews in general interest newspapers or magazines like the New York Times, you should be surprised to learn that the PS4 has been out of stock nearly everywhere. This is surprising since not only do the consoles face competition from tablets and PCs, but also a range of devices ranging from Roku to Chromecast. One would think that those cheaper devices would out-rank expensive and "difficult to use" game consoles for Netflix streaming, but NPD reports that 39% of Netflix users who watch movies on a TV watch it on a game console! This figure is even more amazing when you consider that only 56% of US households have a game console, meaning that those game console owners are much more loyal to their devices than Roku or Chromecast owners. By the way, this unexpected use of the game console as a media device explains why the Wii U had such low adoption rates: the Wii U cannot double as a blue ray player, nor can it play movies from an external device.

The mystery becomes much less of one when you consider recent computer ownership trends. Most laptops simply do not have the GPU capable of running modern games. For instance, the highest end Apple Macbooks and iMacs have an Nvidia GT 750M inside them. This is a 722 GFlop GPU with 384 stream units. That sounds very impressive, until you consider the PS3 and PS4 each have more than 2 TFlops of performance, with the PS4 running 1152 shader units. But that's not all, the high end Apple machines are driving 2880x1800 displays or 2650x1440 displays, while the PS3 is only driving 720p output and the PS4 is only going to drive 1080p output. In other words, the game consoles have more than 3X the GPU power but are driving 1/4 the pixels of the laptops.

Tablets are even worse, as they frequently have the same resolution as the above, but have to be optimized for battery life of 10 hours or more. The iPad Air has 76 GFlops (1/10th the power of the high end Mac), while driving the same number of pixels. For reference, the PS Vita has 38.4 GFlops, but is driving a display that's 1/6th the resolution of the iPad Air, so it's got 3X the equivalent power of the iPad in terms of pushing pixels around. Note that the Vita has a battery life of 3-5 hours, as opposed to the 10 hours that you would expect from an iPad.

Gaming PCs are a different story, since they don't have to run at low power, but if you look at a typical PS4-alike PC, not only do you not manage to hit the $400 price point and end up with a much larger case and lower memory bandwidth than the PS4, you also run out of budget to buy a blu-ray drive or controller. You could buy an Alienware PC, but now you're looking at a budget well over $400, and you're locked out of Sony's exclusive games for the PS4, which judging from the track record on the PS3, would be a fairly substantial loss. This explains why my PC gamer friends were disappointed with the PS4 and XBox One announcements, while the market has proven that those consoles are selling very well. The typical PC gamer will have a $1,000+ PC that will outperform any of the consoles, but will also be an increasingly small percentage of the population compared to the number of folks toting Macbook Airs.

The problem with PC gaming recently has been the focus on lower power rather than higher performance. Intel has simply chosen to use its real estate on the chips to increase performance/watt by delivering more cores rather than deliver more GPU. While most consumers couldn't care less about reduced power consumption on their machines (most PC users still turn on and off their machines, and don't run their machines at full capacity often enough for the power bills to matter),
Intel's primary customers for high end processors are the companies running high end data centers like Google and Facebook, rather than the individual consumer looking for maximum single-threaded performance. In addition, it's hard enough for you to get others in your household to use the controller for movie streaming, let alone a mouse and keyboard that's required to manipulate a PC UI.

The net result of this set of trends is that unlike many other pundits, not only do I not think that console gaming is dead, I expect to see a console-like device in about 50% of homes for the foreseeable future. There will be a 9th generation of console, and beyond. The typical household doesn't consider PCs/Laptops anything other than work devices, and will continue to buy separate game consoles both for streaming video and for playing high-end games.
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