The age of the console as we know it is coming to an end, if various game developers, journalists, and industry analysts are to be believed. With current PC's outperforming this generation's consoles, the increasing prevalance of iOS and free-to-play games, and the rise of cloud gaming, the days of plugging a physical device into your TV with which to play video games may soon be a thing of the past. According to most involved with the industry, there will be only one, maybe two more generations of home consoles before gaming will be solely exist as integrations into everyone's television, smartphones and personal computers.
What's troubling, though, is that this is being seen as a good thing. The integration of gaming into every other facet of entertainment media has its upsides, sure, but the loss of the dedicated home console will prove detrimental to the quality of gaming, not increase it. Here are the reasons why:
A Dedicated Platform
Indie games and social games may be increasing in popularity on the internet and smartphones, but they are far from the primary feature. If we lose home consoles, gaming will forever be a secondary feature of the device it's on, not the selling point. People don't go to Facebook solely to play Mafia Wars, and people don't buy iPhones so they can play Plants vs. Zombies on the go. Games will no longer be developed for those who love and respect the medium, but made as entertaining distractions.
Every time a high profile PC game comes out, there are invariably issues with the technical specifications of the machine that gamers are playing the game on. If a gamer has outdated hardware, or just doesn't have the right graphics card (remember Rage?), then their enjoyment of the game will not be the same as someone who already spent time and money getting the best possible PC. Likewise, I could see this problem transferring over to smartphones as games for those platforms become more technologically advanced. There are dozens of smartphone models on the market, as oppossed to the three current dedicated gaming systems currently available. When you buy a console, you more or less are guaranteed to be able to play almost any game for the next 5-7 years, without having to upgrade your drivers or buy a new graphics card. Likewise, developers only have to worry about developing for that particular console and its specifications, rather than having to worry about all the different possible combinations of PC hardware that gamers are using.
Consoles exist as the happy medium between "hardcore" gamers and "casual" gamers, as much as I despise using those terms. Not everyone has the money or dedication to deck out their computers into super gaming machines, but not all gamers are content with farm simulators or mini-game collections. Consoles offer gamers a one time investment that allows them to enjoy the broadest range of gaming available. Modding aside, someone playing Skyrim on 360 will have roughly the same experience as a gamer playing it on their PC.
Let's say consoles go out altogether, and gaming only becomes available in cloud services like Steam, Origin, and the App Store. Well, what happens when the servers for those sites invariably get shut down? One day, services like Steam and Origin will no longer exist, or be extremely different than they are now. There's a good chance that one day the games you purchased will no longer be available. If they remove the DRM from those files before shutting down their servers, you are still stuck only being able to play that game on whatever device its downloaded onto. With consoles, you at least get a physical copy of the product you buy. Even if future consoles are no longer backwards compatible with older generation games, you can still always store your older consoles and bring them out when you want to play your older games.
Many gamers lament the fact that if you want to play all of the best games this generation, then you have to own all three consoles, as well as a state of the art PC, and perhaps portable systems. The amount of money you need to spend to be able to enjoy all these games is the biggest argument for why gaming consoles should make way for cloud gaming. However, it's the competition between the home console manufacterers that brought games to the level of quality they are at today. Going back to the days of Sega vs. Nintendo, to the current rivalry between Sony and Microsoft, the drive to outsell the competition is the reason that gaming is at its current graphical and artistic level of quality. Companies would have never been driven to increase the graphical power of their systems if they didn't have a competitor to one up. Without the need to have a killer app to sell your console on, we would have never gotten great modern franchises such as Halo, Gears of War, Uncharted and LittleBigPlanet. The downside may be flame wars between system fanboys, but that's more an argument against the mentality of gamers, and not the state of the industry.
WIthout consoles, gaming would no longer have a dedicated platform to call its own, and no longer have a dedicated audience to cater to. Many gamers may not be enthusiastic about having to shell out $300-$500 (or more) for each next generation system, but if we want gaming to not only continue to support dedicated gamers, but continue to grow and evolve, we need consoles to be the culture for them to grow on.