So Jim Sterling recently posted a video about why PC gets away with the kind of things Xbox One was apparently unable to. And I have to say I agree with many of his points. That being said, I wanted to give some thought as to how this could change. And one thing immediately popped to mind: opening the market up.
As it stands at the moment, Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft are all experimenting with digital distribution on their respective consoles and will likely continue to do so in the future. So far, neither company has produced particularly exciting results. Nintendo's Virtual Console and eShop are both nice features, but are generally underutilized and underdeveloped. Xbox Live Marketplace clearly is intended to be a major service, but has a lot of downsides, such as the fact that a purchased game only works on the original console it was purchased for or that digital games cost just as much as retail games, even years later. Of all the services available, the PlayStation Network appears the best deal and the closest approximation to Steam (including lower prices than retail), though it still isn't there yet.
So what needs to change? It occurs to me that the answer might simply be opening up the console digital market to third parties.
Consider that on PC (that is to say, Windows) it's not just Microsoft who provides you with a digital service. In fact, Games for Windows Live is a pretty marginal service in PC gaming. Nor, for that matter, is it just Valve and Steam (though they're clearly dominant). You have an entire smörgåsbord of gaming services, from Steam and Games for Windows Live to GOG to Origin to Gamefly to Direct2Drive to GreenManGaming to Amazon to publishers providing you their games directly. It is, despite the predominant position of Valve, a thriving, competitive marketplace.
That, more than even Valve's generally customer-friendly attitude and pleasant demeanor, is the main reason that the PC gaming digital marketplace is so much different than the one which exists on consoles. On Xbox, there's no reason for Microsoft to provide an exceptional service, because Microsoft already has a lock on digital distribution. Indie developers and mainstream publishers alike have to jump through hoops to get their games on Xbox Live, which operates entirely according to Microsoft's say-so. On PC, that's not the case. If a developer or publisher doesn't like working with Valve, they can go elsewhere. Likewise, if a consumer doesn't like Steam because it features DRM (even if it's fairly non-obtrusive), they can always go to a service like GOG that doesn't feature DRM. As a result, there's a continual incentive for Steam to innovate and react to the desires of publisher and consumer alike, since there's some level of risk that they might lose either.
If console manufacturers really want to get a piece of the digital pie that Valve, EA, and others have all been feasting on for some time now, they're going to have to let go of their control. They're going to have to, in other words, open the market up. Otherwise, console consumers are going to continually prefer physical games until they're left with no choice but to partake in the system (as Microsoft originally planned).
Of course, this goes against all their better instincts and so it is very unlikely to happen (at least in the near future). But I think if they were smart and looked past the easy route of trying to control everything, these companies would see that this is the path to future success. Not so long ago, everyone was predicting the collapse of PC gaming. Instead, thanks to digital services like Steam and GOG and Origin, we have a PC gaming renaissance. Console makers would do well to pay attention.
If there's any one of the big three that seems to get it, it may be Sony. I'm not saying this necessarily because of their recent PR stunts regarding used games and DRM but rather because A) their service already is fairly advanced (low prices, lots of fringe benefits, an emphasis on community and a sense of ownership, etc.) compared to that provided by Microsoft or Nintendo and B) they've already experimented with what I'm talking about. Not only are indie developers allowed to distribute their games on PSN far more freely than on Xbox Live, but Sony has actually taken that further step and entered a partnership with Valve to bring Steam to PSN. So far, aside from a few Valve titles like Portal 2 and Counter Strike this has come to very little, but the fact that they're even doing something like that is encouraging.
When people say that the next generation needs to be different from the current one, they're right. But those changes need to be in the right direction. As it stands, consoles are far too stifling, both for developers and for consumers. What we need isn't more control, what we need is more variety.