Tuesday, January 09, 2007

An Op-Ed on the Next-Gen Console War

As you can see from the title, this will be a gaming-related article so if you're not interested then skip on to something else.

According to VG Charts, Nintendo's Wii is smacking the crap out of both the Xbox 360 and the PS3. How do I arrive at such a conclusion considering the 360 has double the sales numbers of the Wii? Simple.

The Wii has been out for roughly six weeks.

Now, will the Wii continue to dominate through the course of this generation? It's hard to say considering Nintendo's track record of putting out first party gems every nine months or so with a whole lotta "meh" filler in between. I may give Sony a hard time on the PS3 (deservedly so) but by all accounts it is a solid piece of engineering and Sony does not skimp on the games. From the looks of things, their slate of titles this year will be impressive provided they all ship on schedule. Microsoft falls somewhere in the middle which is a position they should, frankly, get used to. I honestly think for all their bluster, Microsoft is going to have to settle for being the Number Two Man through this generation and possibly the next one as well.

Practically everyone under the sun has weighed in with their opinions on all three consoles and where things are headed, and every one of them (read: us in the gaming press) are talking out of their butts because we've never seen anything like this. By "this" I mean a seismic shift in the gaming demographic which happened virtually overnight as well as skyrocketing development costs by the Powers That Be, micro-transactions that allow the Powers That Be to nickle-and-dime us for things already in the game (read: Viva Pinata), and EA's staunch refusal to do anything about the problems in Madden.

Gaming has now entered the big time, and for the record I believe this generation of consoles will be the one that sets the standard for all that will come down the line. Prior to now, the term "gamers" was aimed squarely at the cliche of angst-ridden teenage boys sitting in their parents' basement playing video games with their friends until 2 a.m. surrounded by empty cans of Mountain Dew. This misconception was recently shattered and at the heart of it all is Nintendo's little console that could.

Take a look at your Xbox and Playstation controllers. Pick them up, weigh them, then examine how many buttons are on each one. Do the same with your PC's keyboard and mouse then recall when we all played flight sims (both on earth and in space) back in the day where we'd use almost every button on the keyboard. Now ask yourself this question: Were we working or were we playing?

Bill Harris made this same point the other day and he's right. What Nintendo has done with the Wii is strip away the complexity inherent to video gaming and made it so accessible to the mainstream that now a grandmother can roll 185 on Wii Sports Bowling with her grandchildren who are used to rolling aliens with heavy weapons in Gears of War on the 360.

Which game can justifiably be accused of bringing the room together?

Almost instantly, the gaming universe shifted. Every woman I've talked with who previously regarding gaming as "that thing my boyfriend/husband/ex does in the living room" is fascinated by the Wii. They all want one of their own because they want to dance around while they play instead of sit on the couch. The question is, how long will it last?

As noted, Nintendo tends to drag their feet on getting quality material for their consoles into our hands in a timely fashion and they have a real chance to storm the beaches and take a commanding lead with the Wii. Head over to iTrackr.com and run a search for Hot Items and see what pulls up. Without question, the Wii will be sold out regardless of zip code. Compare that to the PS3 which will absolutely be in stock everywhere. What the hell?

Simple - it boils down to "fun." Every one of us at E3 last year came out saying that "fun" was what it felt like to play the Wii. It was pure "fun" in a way many of us were unfamiliar with except on a primal level. For the past 20+ years, we've been conditioned to think that the more complex a console was the better it was by default. Sony's entire marketing campaign for the PS3 has been about the awesome fury it would unleash on every household in the world, but not one time did they ever mention how much fun their games would be.

Exactly five seconds after picking up the Wii controller and actually using it results in a euphoric high no other console has matched, ever. The closest approximation is Guitar Hero because it also taps into that same primal level. All of us have played air guitar at some point in our lives, and every single one of us wanted to be a rock god for at least a fleeting moment when we were kids. Then Guitar Hero hit and not only provided an excellent gaming experience by itself, but also captured the essence of "fun" that comes from flailing around like an idiot to your favorite song when no one else is looking.

Now take that very same essence and inject it into a console and the potential you're looking at is limited only by a developer's imagination. There will be plenty of junk released to be sure, but the titles devoted solely to the Wii's control scheme that maintain the essence of "fun" will score and score big.

So what of the other two consoles? I have a few thoughts on each so bear with me just a bit longer.

Sony's mistakes this past year have been so numerous it is literally impossible to count that high. The only thing they should have done is shut up and put out the console. Oh, and slash that damn price tag by $150 at least and then they'll get some better press and attention. Their laughable attempt to force mass acceptance of Blu-Ray technology was boneheaded to say the least because the tech is at least two years away from being properly pushed by the software. Anyone that claims either Blu-Ray or HD-DVD are better than the other haven't seen anything yet from either format because they're still just ramping up. Show me Lawrence of Arabia completely restored in both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray side-by-side and I'll be far more eager to proclaim a victor.

In short, I'll wait a few more years for the kinks to work themselves out so I'll let the early adopters drool all over themselves in the meantime. For me, DVD wasn't worth paying attention to from a consumer point of view until roughly 1999 which was two years after the first players hit. I knew immediately that it was the future and was genuinely excited about it, but with technology following Moore's Law (more or less) it was smarter to hold off then and I'll do the same with Blu-Ray and HD-DVD now.

That's a long way of saying Sony shot themselves in the foot by forcing something on the market that 95 percent of consumers are in no way either informed enough about or ready to commit to. With the requisite hardware costing probably north of $1000 per console, Sony cannot commit to a price cut this soon and John and Jane Doe in Middle Of Nowhere, Nebraska, aren't about to buy one of those beasts for Little Jimmy when his perfectly good PS2 is sitting in the family room surrounded by quality games. This leads to point #2 about Sony - they are their own worst enemy.

The PS2 may not be as strong hardware-wise as the Xbox but it sure has a vastly superior games library, and this looks to continue well into next year. Microsoft has abandoned the Xbox in favor of the newer and shinier 360 (more on that in a second) but Sony still has a viable cashcow with the PS2 and intends to milk the hell out of it for as long as it can. I'm fine with that because since I don't own an HDTV then buying either a PS3 or 360 right this second isn't as much of a priority to me as enjoying the games on the current consoles. With games like Final Fantasy XII and God of War 2 hitting at the end of the generation, I believe the console is better equipped now to maintain a steady pace of solid titles for the next year (or even two).

By contrast, Microsoft has dumped development for the original Xbox completely and this just pisses me off to no end. Their view of hardware is the same as their software - we should upgrade when they say so. Well, sorry Redmond, but that just ain't the case and you can screw off for thinking so. Plenty of millions world wide are lapping up the 360 but more than a few of them have had to send them in for repairs due to faulty hardware. Microsoft's stance of "be gentle with it" and "keep it well ventilated" and "we'll make as much first-gen software backwards compatible as we can whenever we get around to it" is utter hogwash. All of it. This is a gaming console that was the first in a long while that had a viable chance to stab Sony in the heart and take its lunch money at the same time.

Instead, Microsoft let Sony pretty much do that to itself.

Now, here's where I give Microsoft a ton of grief - backwards compatible is important regardless of what people say. The majority of us who have neither the room nor the intention to have multiple big-ass consoles in our living room will need to remove the old and replace it with the new. If the new cannot play the games from the old, and offers very little in the way of attractive new software, then the new console will remain un-purchased. But there's one more kicker Microsoft more or less announced just recently:

Within the next 6-9 months, version 2.0 of the Xbox 360 will be released. It'll use a better chipset (65nm) which means it will be better engineered and quieter, and in theory shouldn't require a power brick to juice it up. Oh, and it should be far more stable than the first-gen Xbox 360's are.

This revelation should effectively kill 360 sales between now and then. It won't, but it should hurt sales among the more "plugged-in" among gamers. Certainly those of us currently on the fence will wait for version 2.0 before committing, and since there's exactly one game between now and then Microsoft is releasing (Crackdown) then I feel even better about the wait. Microsoft's attitude this generation seems to be only slightly less arrogant than Sony's and that just rubs me the wrong way. It's like both companies feel we should be grateful to them for putting out these consoles when in fact I find nothing to sell me on either system.


In the end, it all comes down to the games and only Resistance: Fall of Man on the PS3 and Dead Rising on the 360 are the ones that grabbed my attention. The 400th interation of Madden or NBA Live can both kiss off because neither are inventive or push the genre forward. To be sure, I hate sports games exactly for their lack of innovation and nothing those fools at EA say will change my mind short of actually practicing what they preach. They've been going on for a year now about how they were going to work harder to promote new titles and new franchises but all I've seen is the same old thing of pushing graphics at the expense of gameplay. Maybe it's because I've been doing this for 20+ years now but I'm frankly sick of graphics replacing gameplay. For example, while I respect the heck out of how Crysis looks, if it's as boring and empty as Far Cry was then I won't care that it can bring my PC's graphics card to its knees. Fortunately, Nintendo took a "graphics don't matter" approach and focused on the "fun" aspect of gaming and wound up knocking it so far out of the park even they were surprised.

Both Microsoft and Sony were blindsided by the Wii and the rapidity with which it sold and continues to sell, and they must be scrambling internally to figure out what they can do to counter it. Every single Wii Nintendo can make will sell, and neither of its competitors can accurately claim the same thing. When they each decided Nintendo was a non-threat and decided to focus solely on each other they left the door wide open for Nintendo to walk in and steal their thunder.

If Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo can actually follow through on the promise of their consoles then gaming as a whole will benefit from this generation. When companies are forced to dig in and compete with one another then the best all sides have to offer come out. Sure, there's a bloodbath left over but we the consumer reap the benefits. Xbox Live as a service forced Sony to work more on its online service which, to date, has monumentally sucked. Nintendo has uniformly ignored the online marketplace but have embraced it with the Wii and while their service might be a little rough compared to Microsoft's, both have pros and cons that each will learn from and improve on over the next year.

My predictions for where everything will end up depends heavily on the next 12 months. Until Christmas 2007 is over it is too early to call this war and anyone that says otherwise isn't looking at the big picture. Should all three companies crank out software that fully utilizes the strengths of each console then I think the Wii could be numero uno with Microsoft number two and Sony number three. I think the gap between Sony and Microsoft will narrow considerably once Sony drops that price by ~$100 and will continue to narrow when the Sony-exclusive titles keep hitting. Right now though, they're priced out of the mass market but I think they may wise up sooner rather than later. Microsoft needs to focus on getting games to market faster than they have been, and those games ALL need to be triple-A titles to have enough of an impact to keep Sony down.

This is where the playing field stands as 2007 begins. How this field will look when the year comes to a close is anyone's guess. Fortunately, there is plenty of time between now and then for all three parties to work their butts off to impress us with shiny new games. And who knows?

Maybe some of them might even be system sellers.


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