In the schoolyard, in front of the TV, on the phone, arguing about what was the best "system" at the time permeated my childhood. "Super Nintendo can play better music than Genesis" would be countered with "Sonic will never be on a Nintendo system," or "Game Gear has a color screen, it's amazing!" It was a golden era for me in many ways: it introduced me to the idea that competition could fuel really good game design, that gaming interfaces can be unique and interesting, and that arguing can be fun and good for you.
In this spirit I embrace the next generation of platform battles. I don't want to speculate so much on each individual platform as contrast today's digital distribution trend with hardware-based platforms of yesteryear.
I will not tire of looking at those real cartridges on my bookshelves... the way the stickers peel a bit at the edge, or the gray plastic sometimes yellows with age. I have strong memories of riding in the car, a 45-minute drive from the nearest place that sold video games, reading the instruction booklet from front to back and imagining what the game would be like. Or renting a game at the local grocery store, hoping that their sole copy of Ocarina of Time would be there, in its plastic clamshell with photo-copied instruction booklet... or having to settle on Duke Nukem 64 again, wondering how far the last player got.
Yet I'm really not sure what the last physical game I bought was. It might have been Metal Gear Solid 4, for the PS3, or Super Mario Galaxy 2. I may be the exception, but I *wish* that those games would just have been downloadable; I wish that the Metal Gear Solid series was available thru Steam. I wish that Nintendo published their games to more platforms than just the Wii, and that the Wiimote interface wasn't mandatory. I would say that I know that's impossible, but hey - who would have ever expected Sonic to be a character in Super Smash Brothers?
I guess it's just that optical discs don't really do it for me the way that they used to. Even Playstation and Dreamcast and Xbox games I equate with as needing to purchase at the game store. At the time, I really did - broadband wasn't available in my area until 2003 or so, and even then, it wasn't the kind of broadband that's available now, for a reasonable price.
It wasn't like you could download Skyrim and a half dozen other games in an evening. But the thing is, you can do that now. And that rather negates the need for physical media.
Before I go any farther, I realize that there's still a need for physical games. I realize that not everyone has broadband or even if they do, it's still on the 160KB/s side of the spectrum, not the 1.6MB/s side. And even *with* the highest-speed available, it's still quicker to pop a copy of Skyrim in an Xbox 360 rather than downloading it on Steam.
Additionally, we can't fully discount the importance of hardware interfaces. Sure, plenty of games on the Xbox 360 and PS3 and the PC seem perfectly interchangeable, but there are those titles that are designed for motion control - no less than three, with the Wii, Kinect, and Move. I can't say they've impressed me much in their depth, but I don't see the major publishers dropping them any time soon. There's also touch-screens, and a whole world of gaming on the iOS and Android platforms. And we can't forget the DS and PSP. And even when a game isn't dependent on special controls, first-party games and other exclusives will continue to exist for the foreseeable future.
In a lot of instances, you do only need one platform to experience a multitude of games. Third-party publishers aren't stupid; there's no reason to limit your audience to single-console owners if you can release your game for a variety of platforms. I've definitely felt welcome to experience a large variety of games these past few years simply by owning a PC and using Steam as my main delivery platform. But even on the PC, a battle is ensuing: aside from Steam, there's Games for Windows Live, which seems to be the "inside" to Steam's "outside," EA's new Origin client their exclusive titles, and Blizzard, who doesn't seem to give a damn about what anyone else is doing. Although each of these delivery/community platforms is much more polished than our GameSpy clients of the past, the fact that I can't download Battlefield 3 on my "platform" of choice is irritating, or that certain games contain GfWL seemingly as DRM despite downloading it through Steam - there's definitely some growing pains, here.
Then there's in-browser gaming, not quite in its infancy but perhaps entering puberty, and shooting up like bamboo. There's loads of gaming happening over on Facebook, for people who would never touch a typical controller, and even games that run straight on Google Chrome, now - I never expected the likes of Bastion or Mini Ninjas to pop up so suddenly. And there's always Flash, and individual websites.
And then there's that other frontier of gaming processed server-side: with the OnLive platform, you theoretically never need to upgrade another piece of hardware or buy a new system again. I've never tried this, and I'm sure I'm not the only skeptical one, but apparently, when it works it is impressive. I'm sure there will only be more of this in the future.
Platforms within platforms within platforms - nowadays things are a lot more complex than simply choosing Nintendo over Sega, or Windows over Macintosh.
I'm sure, in the end, it will be money that decides what platforms - or types of platforms - survive and thrive. The good thing is, it's our money as gamers that makes the final decisions. So let's spend it wisely.