Gaming peripherals: Do we need all this stuff to have fun?
Once, computer games consisted of a console and a joypad. Now our homes are cluttered with an ever-expanding collection of plastic guitars and dance mats. Archie Bland wonders if we're being taken for a ride
Wednesday 17 June 2009
It hasn't always been this way. Once upon a time, my living room was a sanctuary: a safe, peaceful place, a comforting cocoon that stood as a serene retreat at the end of the working day. It was calm. It was decorated in a simple, straightforward style. It was a place I came to relax. It was not a place I came to make use of an imitation Fender Stratocaster, 3D goggles, and an oversized red beanbag with integrated speakers.
But like millions of others, I have fallen victim to the cult of the video game accessory. In the world of the gaming geek, life was simple: whether swinging a tennis racket or firing a gun, all you had to do was press a button. These days, you have to swing a tennis racket or fire a gun.
The result? We're knackered. Our credit cards are close to melting. And our homes look as if they've been decorated by hyperactive four-year-olds given unfettered access to Piet Mondrian's paintbox. It's all an awfully long way from Space Invaders.
"A lot of people's living rooms are full up with a lot of crap," admits Tim Ingham, editor of industry bible MCV. "You can turn your console off, but you've still got plastic drums, a plastic guitar, a dance mat, Wii Fit, a steering wheel. You basically have to throw your sofa away to fit it all in."
Not so long ago, it was quite possible to enjoy the full range of the console experience with nothing more than a nondescript grey box and a couple of sophisticated remote controls. But over the last few years, the peripheral has become the games industry's great cash cow. In the US, sales of gaming accessories went from $1.4bn in 2006 to $2.57bn last year. On this side of the Atlantic, they have soared from £319m in 2006 to £707m last year. We are a nation with a new addiction to plastic tat.
But teenage boys, loyal customers though they are, can't on their own account for that startling change. The new gaming order has a lot more to do with their sisters, their little brothers – and even their mums and dads. And with that broadening of the target audience has come an enormous increase in potential profit. "It's a market everyone's trying to get into," says Nick Gibson, an analyst at Games Investor Consulting. "Most of the larger publishers are scrambling for a piece of it. These peripherals that aren't based around the traditional joypad break down barriers for a whole new kind of user."
This year, DJing and skateboarding will be added to the range of physical activities you never thought you'd do on your own in your front room. Tony Hawk: Ride and DJ Hero are amongst the most eagerly-anticipated games of the year. The appeal, of course, has little to do with either game's internal mechanics. There have been plenty of – well – pedestrian skateboarding games that no-one gave two hoots about, and the main reason no-one has made a DJing game before now is that, out of context, there is nothing at all fun about watching a little digital person put on a new song just because you told him to.
But introduce an actual board, or a set of decks, and all that changes. Suddenly the game's narrow conceit is retooled in a way that makes it possible, if you have a couple of drinks and engage your imagination and half-shut your eyes and close the curtains, to pretend you really are wowing the crowd with your kickflip or your scratching.
It's far from a new concept – back in 1984, the thoroughly underwhelming NES title Duck Hunt flew the flag for light-gun enthusiasts everywhere, and a Japanese title called Guitar Freaks tried to colonise the territory that later music titles made their own in 1989. The difference is, this time it's cool. The sleek design most accessories now bear is a million miles from the clunky light guns of yore; and crucially, the songs you can play and the stars you can pretend to be are instantly credible. "It's about letting people know what kind of interaction they can have right away," says Alex Wiltshire, online editor of Edge magazine. "They know what the game is going to be about. Guitar Hero wouldn't be fun playing on a pad – it would just be abstract."
Guitar Hero is, of course, one of the two unmissable landmarks in this new epoch: the other is the Wii. The remarkable thing is how entirely unheralded both concepts were. Why, the gaming cognoscenti sneered, would anyone want to put their joypad buttons on the end of a silly little plastic guitar? And why would anyone give up the infinitely superior processing power of an Xbox 360 or a Playstation 3 in favour of waving their arms about in front of the technically limited Nintendo equivalent?
The thing is, the gaming cognoscenti does not have a particularly strong overlap with the mainstream cognoscenti. It's that lack of intersection that goes a long way towards explaining how the perceived wisdom was so utterly wrong. Thanks to people who didn't particularly like computer games, but did quite like having a laugh with their mates after a night at the pub, Guitar Hero has now sold an eye-popping $2bn worth of units worldwide; and last year, Nintendo sold £481m worth of Wiis, putting them £38m ahead of Microsoft and £147m ahead of Sony.
The commercial benefits to be gleaned from exploiting such a market are, of course, huge. Swathes of coveted floorspace at shops like HMV and Game are now devoted to accessories, and their online competitors are scrambling to catch up. "Gaming is definitely a very big area for us now," says Claire Wood, PR manager at gadget retailer Firebox. "It's becoming such a lucrative industry, and there are more and more niche accessories becoming available."
Niche is right. In its range, Firebox includes a £250 gaming drum kit, some deeply geeky 3D video goggles, and a frankly terrifying vibrating vest, lest anyone should feel insufficiently traumatised by the violence of their favourite shoot-em-up. Another online emporium, MadCatz, will sell you a range of wholly unnecessary plug-ins for Guitar Hero and Rock Band, from the aforementioned imitation Stratocaster to a microphone stand with special control pad attachments.
Nor are these gizmos at the extreme verge of gaming extras: you can get golf clubs, and special vibrating chairs, and windbreaks for that mic. I promise I am not making any of this up. "It reaches a point where it perplexes me," says Tim Ingham. "For the amount you're spending on console extras you could be setting up a home studio and learning to play the guitar for real."
It doesn't take a genius to surmise the commercial logic behind this. Besides opening up the games market to a whole new audience, such accoutrements also have the benefit of being, generally speaking, cheap to produce, and yet bafflingly expensive to the consumer, who doesn't seem to have noticed the scam. "All the consumer gets is a lump of plastic," says Ingham. "You might think, why are you paying 70 quid for this? But the fact is the player doesn't view it that way."
Ingham points to the UK release of Guitar Hero rival Rock Band, which sparked much dark muttering about a consumer revolt when EA sold it for significantly more here than it did in the US. "But it turns out the general UK consumer isn't that desperate for a cheap product. Core gamers are annoyed by the pricing, there's no question. They have always grumbled and they will continue to do so, but they will still be the bread and butter of the industry. The only people any of the games publishers are worried about alienating are the new gamers."
It's depressing news for committed games players, then, who can look forward to being treated like mugs for the foreseeable future, and who have no one to blame but themselves. There are consolations, of course: it should not be forgotten that plenty of these games are brilliant, and that this has as much to do with their success as the accoutrements do. And no-one is obliged to buy any of this stuff, after all. Already, the plug-in peripheral looks like it might be on the verge of being superseded. The launch at industry fair E3 of Microsoft and Sony's highly-sophisticated "Wii Killer" set-top cameras seem to promise a means of playing games without having to contend with any kind of gadget at all. Looking around the detritus strewn across my living room, that certainly sounds like a blessing.
Still, for some of us, even that degree of freedom will be unwelcome. For us, gaming will always, in the end, be primarily about sitting hunched over a glorified keyboard getting blisters from hammering away at the buttons slightly harder than necessary. "The controller can still deliver gaming experiences that are vital and can't be taken over by other things," says Alex Wiltshire. "There's something about a joystick that still works."
What's in Archie's living room
Ah, this is more like it. Saitek's good old-fashioned Aviator Joystick (£39.99) lets you pretend you're a real pilot. Confusion awaits those who use it in a car racing game.
Imitation full-sized Fender Stratocaster
An imitation full-size Fender Stratocaster, available from Mad Catz, is, of course, a ridiculous indulgence at £68.50. But that's the whole point, isn't it? What could be cooler? Apart from a real one that you could actually play, of course.
Should your television be insufficiently noisy, try the Slouchpod, a beanbag with integrated speakers that makes the sounds of gunfire and guitars alike horribly close. Not a total snip at £119, but you can sit on it when the console's off, too.
Vuzix's astonishing iWear plugs into your PC or console, and creates the impression of an enormous, 3D screen. They start at £149.95 from Firebox, so maybe consider the red and green plastic alternative.
Mad Catz's mic stand
If you find your musical experience is lacking something, you probably need one of Mad Catz's mic stands, for £19.99: silly as you might feel, it means you can warble to your heart's content at the same time as strumming chords.
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