The latest next-gen gaming consoles are all the buzz this holiday season but is there really anything new here other than more of the same stuff in nicer packaging? Perhaps. My simple response to this question is that, for generations beyond 16-bit, the console wars have been all about marketing hype and aesthetics. This time is no different.
Ask a gamer what they feel about a system and their response is rarely about the features provided by each system, it’s not even about the tech specs. The first thing most people will say is “wow, that game LOOKS amazing”. It’s all a big show and, this year, we’ve seen quite the circus. The PS3 launch alone was ugly as people practically mauled each other to get their hands on a box.
Old-school gamers, especially us purists, feel that nothing much has changed. The games are uninspiring and, for the most part, just rehash the same tired mechanics. Cynicism aside, I think the major players on the console market are realizing that they can no longer rely on long-time favorites, powerful brands, and strong franchises to hold on to their market share. In reality, you’re either expanding or shrinking. Franchises are part of the power of presence equation but shouldn’t be your only strategy. Believe me, I love my Mario, Zelda, Final Fantasy, Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, and all that good stuff but these well-established franchises, powerful brands in themselves, will not be enough. We need something fresh and new.
Right now, Nintendo seems to be the most devoted to making gaming more accessible. Aiming to the masses is risky but, really, I think it’s what the console market needs. You see, PC gaming has long ago pushed the envelope on gaming but, since not everyone is technologically savvy nor can they afford the equipment, consoles stand to benefit while computers still create a facade of elitism, as if computer gamers belong to some sort of exclusive club. This holds true in spite of the fact that computers have a greater product cycle (life span assurance and overall product longevity beats the pants off of the short-lived consoles), endless third-party support, far more expandability, and a huge library of games.
If you look closely at the market now, the XBox line of products tries to offer a PC experience at an entry price. Playstation is more focused on those that love the epic single-player experience and don’t care too much about multiplayer (though Sony Home will change this.. maybe) or socializing, beyond water cooler discussions about the latest Silent Hill, DMC, Final Fantasy, or Dynasty Warriors. Nintendo’s systems, since day one, have focused more on family gaming, gaming for all, but has earned the rep of making purely “kiddy” games. The snobbery of those that are loyal to the Microsoft or Sony brands keeps them from experiencing a diverse world of gaming on the Nintendo side of things.
Truth be told, each system caters to a very specific gamer, for the most part, but Wii really is trying to welcome all by making games that are as intuitive as they are fun. When you’re not worried about cumbersome controls or technical issues, it’s much easier to get into a game and encounter something called replay value. I tell you: it’s a beautiful thing. To me, when you buy a game, it should be an investment. It should do one of the following:
- Give you a truly immersive gameplay-focused experience worth repeating again in the future.
- Provide a story and content so rich that you truly fall in love with the characters and essence of it all.
- Focus on multiplayer rather than throw this in as a mere after-thought.
- Be dynamic enough that you are not merely using cookie-cutter moldings or doing the “grind”.
In my eyes, those are the things that make a game memorable and highly replayable. My standards for gaming have gone up greatly once I got heavily involved in the development of games myself. I have seen just how many corners these big brands cut just to get product out. Quality controls essentially fly out the window, if you ask me.
In spite of the ugly trends that we’ve seen in the past, I am optimistic and believe that folks really see the urgency in doing things right and sticking it out for the long haul (a’la product longevity). My hopes are that, instead of trying to make the NEXT next-gen system, developers will stop slacking and learn how to program properly; that is, take advantage of each system’s strengths and create quality content, optimized for the specific platform. The software is where the money is made, not the hardware. Heck, Microsoft always makes sure people know that they are selling XBox units practically at cost. BOO HOO.. You make up for it elsewhere, M$!
Getting a bit more focused here, this war depends on something more than a killer app. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo need to stick to their positioning and really hone in on their focus. Microsoft seems to be leveraging online multiplayer mostly and Halo 3 is their killer app, supposedly. I’m not holding my breath. I felt from the beginning that Halo was all the hype and, since I’ve seen games like and better than Halo on PC way before it came around, I am definitely not swayed so easily.
XBox has some exclusive titles to their credit which will help but, currently, they share a lot of the same titles as the Playstation. Interestingly enough, there are barely any shared titles on the Wii except for those that have their own flavor on every major platform. Games like Call of Duty 3 and Marvel: Ultimate Alliance are two of the few games that are being offered in different packages on each system. Undoubtedly, the PS3 versions have the best graphics while the WII versions offer some unique and fun mechanics. To me, the XBox 360 just doesn’t have enough appealing titles. I mean, I am tempted by games like Gears of War and Rainbow Six: Las Vegas but those are the exceptions, not the rule.
In all fairness, I realize that there’s still many things in the works and we’ve only begun to see what each of the three “big ones” can do right now. I really like Nintendo’s approach to the online gaming community. Their allegiance with former rival Sega is brilliant and, at the same time, surreal for a gaming veteran like myself. Throw in some retro gaming offerings and it is gaming euphoria. This could be the last console needed for a long time. The backwards compatibility makes me very happy because I HATE when people abandon products – that’s just bad business!
Even with my connections, I am not particularly interested in jumping on any system and, if you want some good advice, I recommend this: don’t be an early adopter unless you have a good reason. Being the cool kid on the block will lose it’s novelty when your system’s bugs come to surface and you see your friends buying the same system for much cheaper months later. I make it a point not to get on-board with anything that is overly-hyped or first generation. Too much risk. Of course, there will always be early adopters and bless their brave souls. The ones that count the most are the unbiased folks, the non-fanboys, that can deliver the hard facts to us.
I know I seem biased but, believe me, at this point I like all the home gaming consoles equally, each for very distinct reasons. I am ranting here because I am seeing this all from two perspectives: that of a gamer and that of a developer. This battle in the ongoing console wars is certainly one of the most interesting in the last ten years. There have been many great fallen soldiers, like the Sega Dreamcast (one of my personal all-time faves) and hopefully things won’t get so ugly now. For the most part, the technology has been pioneered as much as it can be as the manufacturers borrow pages from the PC gaming market and the lost cookbooks of the little systems that could-have-been.
In the end, it’s all about marketing. We’ve all been told stories and, depending on what we choose to absorb and what we want to believe, these stories will be hit or miss in our minds. Microsoft seems to have the least marketing power right now. They’re essentially strong-arming things by locking down some exclusive content and buying out the competition, as they always do. Nintendo and Sony have carved out strong niches. The Wii seems to be untouchable because, really, they’re not even in the same playing field. It’s interesting stuff indeed.
More on the gaming console wars to come – don’t forget to send me your feedback – also available (scarcely) via Google Chat!
* The Gaming Console Wars: Initial Thoughts
* The Gaming Console Wars: Marketing Analysis
* XBox Dominates the Multiplayer Arerna (For Consoles)
* Dirty Selling Tactics, Price Drop Nay-Saying, and Project “Zephyr”
* Price Drop Considerations – Aggravated Gamers