If console gaming were a first-person shooter, it would be taking heavy fire right now. A red hue would envelop the viewable screen from all sides, an ominous sign of spilled blood.
Or worse, near-death.
Despite this, Nintendo will release its new Wii U console on Nov. 18, ushering in the eighth and possibly last generation of traditional home consoles as we know them.
Consider this: Dedicated gaming sales --- including living-room consoles and handhelds --- are in the midst of a four-year tailspin. You might say that's because of a bad economy, but then you'd have to explain why movie revenue and cable TV subscriptions have largely stayed the same.
Or why music sales, gutted by online streaming and piracy, have held up better than slumping sales of console games. Or why the popularity of social, mobile and PC games have skyrocketed to unthinkable heights.
The problem seems to be isolated to dedicated video games. Video game industry sales in the United States, including game discs, consoles and accessories, were down 24 percent in September when compared with the same period last year. Many experts believe these decreases in profits, the rise of casual and social gaming and waning consumer interest are affecting makers of the three big living-room consoles: Microsoft's Xbox 360, Sony's PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's Wii.
So is this it then? Is the death of dedicated gaming upon us? In a word, no.
"I bristle when people suggest as much," says Adrian Crook, a game design consultant. "Consoles will grow again and will never go away."
But today's dedicated gaming business is arguably in its most tumultuous period since the 1983 gaming collapse. It's nowhere near ruin yet, thanks to big franchises like "Call of Duty," "Madden," and a select few mainstream console games. But the console's influence is waning, and there's uncertainty about its future.
Here's where the shots at console gaming are coming from, and how the industry might dodge and counter them.
Since the '80s, console makers have dreamed of using their "dedicated gaming machines" as Trojan horses to further control the living room with a single, proprietary device.
That time has come. Gaming consoles have transformed into entertainment hubs for people to stream movies or YouTube videos. So much, in fact, that gaming consoles no longer are being used primarily for gaming. In fact, "40% of all Xbox activity now is non-game," Microsoft boasts. Netflix accounts for most of that, as they do for Wii and PS3.
Combined, game consoles account for half of all Netflix users. This is great news for the movie industry. Not so great for console gaming's bottom line, especially since the industry largely subsidizes consoles now.
In other words, a console isn't helping the gaming industry if it's mainly being used to stream Netflix movies.
Not only that, but gamers' tastes have evolved to include quick, bite-size gaming sessions -- something consoles have never been good at. (Gamers must go to the living room, wait for the console to power on, load the game from the main menu, wait for it to boot.) It's much slower than tapping an icon on the smartphone you already carry in your pocket.
"Most people who liked console games in the past still do today," says Alex Hutchinson, creative director of Ubisoft, "but they're also looking for a wider spread of experiences. I want some games I can play quickly after work or while the kids are asleep and have a short satisfying experience."
As the number of gaming scenarios has increased, so, too, has the number of diehard gamers, says market researcher DFC Intelligence.
"Gamers have not only increased in number, but they are playing on multiple platforms now," says analyst David Cole. "Fewer enthusiasts describe themselves in a single camp such as 'I love Nintendo and hate Sony and Microsoft' or vice versa."
If enthusiasm for a single dedicated machine has waned, however --- or at least has been spread thin --- then the machine that demands the most attention will invariably suffer. That machine is the console --- the one you hold dear to your heart, but probably reach for less than you used to, whether you like to admit it or not.
When it's not taking a backseat to more convenient app gaming, some say the console has stagnated creatively.
"You would think that XBLA (Xbox Live Arcade), PSN (PlayStation Network), and the rise of 'free to play' would have opened a door to smaller games that can take more risks creatively, but right now they're just cut-down versions of box-product games, or retreads of games I played on the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System)," says Hutchinson, referring to the online gaming networks offered by Microsoft and Sony.
"I don't honestly think that someone who didn't want a 2-D platformer 20 years ago is going to wake up today and buy it on XBLA."
In addition, even big-box games have lost some of their visual allure in recent years. What were once graphical leaps in previous generations have now become bunny hops, at least to the average eye.