30 Years of Consoles, Abridged: What’s Working?

We’ve just started 2018 and we’re knee-deep in the 8th generation of game consoles. Whatever a “generation” is at this point. But that will be discussed in due time.

The PS4 is slaying the Xbox One in sales, due mostly to the Xbox One’s shaky press coverage before its reveal. Needing daily Internet checkups to ensure you were playing a legitimate copy of the game, purchased games being tied to your account (rendering the discs useless after initial purchase, effectively snuffing out the used game market), and their motion controller/camera supposedly “always watching,” it comes as no surprise that the Xbox team dropped the ball with their marketing.

Its reveal didn’t help its case, either; many would say that the reveal wasn’t necessarily to demonstrate the games the Xbox One could play, but rather to demonstrate what the console could do as a whole. While that may be true, the reveal left most game enthusiasts feeling sour amidst the console’s already negative perception in the community.

Like a predator hunting its prey, Sony went for the throat at an E3 press conference, taking a shot at Xbox’s controversies. Xbox’s negative press, coupled with PlayStation’s response to used games thrust the PS4 into the spotlight as the hero of the generation, a position they took very well. With developers hesitant to work with Xbox, the PlayStation 4 seems on course for 3 successful consoles in a row.

At the time of writing, the PS4 has sold roughly 60 million units. While Microsoft doesn’t put out sales figures for the Xbox One (a shocking move), VGChartz estimates they’ve sold about 31 million. The accuracy of VGChartz notwithstanding, it’s pretty safe to say that the Xbox One won’t win out in sales this console generation. At least, not by itself.

It’s easy to talk about PlayStation and Xbox. They seem to be the biggest players in the industry right now. But that isn’t necessarily because of their successes alone. No, Nintendo helped push them in that direction. The Wii U, successor to the lightning-in-a-bottle that was the Wii (intentionally left out of Part 1 of this series) didn’t achieve the meteoric success the Wii had in sales.

In fact, it was quite the opposite.

While the Wii won the previous console generation in sales, its hardware was lacking in comparison to the Xbox 360 and the powerhouse in the form of the PlayStation 3. Because of the weak hardware and sub-standard control scheme, third-parties skirted the Wii and developed for seemingly everything else, leaving the Wii with little support by the end of its life cycle.

So when Nintendo announced they were developing a successor to the Wii, expectations were high. Would they create a powerful console to make up for the Wii? Would they have a standard control scheme that would accommodate everybody?

In fact, it was quite the opposite.

It appeared as though Nintendo had learned nothing. With hardware comparable to that of the PS3 and Xbox 360–hardware one generation old–a tablet-like controller that wasn’t quite as impressive as the idea of motion controls, and the lack of third-party relations built in the previous generation, the Wii U fell flat. 5 years later and with only 13 million units sold, the Wii U was discontinued.

While the Wii U floundered, however, Nintendo had another idea brewing. Codenamed “NX,” Nintendo was developing a new console, a successor to the Wii U. Rumours were that it was either a portable device, a home console, or something in between. The Wii U hurt Nintendo’s reputation greatly and while the Wii sold like hotcakes, its negative reputation followed it well into the Wii U’s lifespan. If this next console didn’t do well, it very may well have “sunk them straight to Hell.”

But in fact, it was quite the opposite.

Released on March 3rd, 2017, the Nintendo Switch released to immense praise. During its reveal, it was announced that the Switch was indeed, a kind of “hybrid console,” one you could play on your television set (like a home console), and one you could take with you outside the house (like a handheld).

More powerful than the Wii U and actually portable, the Switch is selling like hotcakes. (What’s the modern hotcake, anyway? Hamburgers? Hot dogs?) At the time of writing, the Nintendo Switch has officially outsold the Nintendo Wii U’s entire lifetime sales in under a year.

 

So, that’s the current generation of consoles at it stands right now. Each has something to offer in its own right and while some are succeeding, some are not. Let’s unpack this.

On the one hand, the Xbox One sounds like a repeat of its predecessor: an all-in-one machine (hence the name) with a great online service and a collection of great games to boot. Despite over 100 million units sold, Nintendo’s Wii didn’t come out as the winner of the generation among the community. The PS3 may have slid into second place, but the Xbox 360 was the winner for most of the generation. When I hear that a games console can…

  • Double as a set-top cable box
  • Double as a media streaming box
  • Let you download movies, music and TV shows via paid service
  • Record, save, share game clips and assorted media

…In addition to being a game console, it sounds like a no-brainer. It really is an all-in-one machine.

But on the other side of the coin, Xbox struggles to develop a first-party gaming presence, leaning heavily on Halo, Gears of War, Forza and exclusive partnerships with third-party studios. Third-party games are great and can definitely add value to a console. While the Xbox One has almost every third-party game that other consoles do, games make the console. Everything else is auxiliary.

While people loved Xbox Live on the 360 and what it offered, it’s 2018. Movies and TV shows are easily accessible on media streamers and various devices, including the PS4. Mr. Robot, Breaking Bad, nor Game of Thrones would be able to save a games console with no games.

PlayStation, on the other hand, is walking all over Xbox. With a plethora of first-party games, from MLB to God of War, from mainstream to offbeat games, Xbox might find it hard to keep up.

Throughout the years, the PlayStation brand has built a bond with third-party developers, companies that stayed with them and helped them grow alongside them. Unlike Microsoft, Sony–to put it bluntly–didn’t shit the bed with regard to the Japanese market. With Japanese developers on board, it guaranteed the brand would have franchises for decades.

But neither Sony nor Microsoft can top the success of the Nintendo Switch. Like a Moltres rising from the ashes, the Switch is lightning in a bottle (wait, was it lightning, or fire?) The Switch is successful, against all odds. With one near catastrophic failure and one financially successful but critically panned console, stocks were low and stakes were high.

I would say that I’m surprised, but quite frankly, it should come as no surprise. Sans the Wii, Nintendo’s best selling consoles have all been their handhelds. Both the Game Boy/Game Boy Color line and the Nintendo DS line of handhelds have sold 118 million and 154 million, respectively. More units than the Wii.

So when Nintendo came out with, what is essentially a souped-up handheld that doubles as a home console, they began flying off the shelves. If you listen hard enough, you can hear the shoes of children and adults alike, galloping down the street fast as they can, to unbox that Switch and load up the biggest Legend of Zelda experience to date.

Not every company can make a successful handheld, though. The original iteration of the PlayStation Portable sold well (especially considering what it was up against), but the obscenely powerful PlayStation Vita failed to find that same success. A toxic combination of…

  • Hardware that was too powerful
  • No support
  • High price

…ultimately doomed the console.

Because the console was so powerful, the price of the console was high to accommodate, and people dodged the console. To make the most out of PS Vita hardware, game developers would have to make higher budget games. But because few people bought the console, developers had almost no reason to make games for it.

Which meant the $299 USD price tag seemed less justified. Which mean more people dodged it, which meant even less support from devs, etc., etc. So clearly, power isn’t the first thing people think of when buying a console.

So, what do people look for in a console? If it’s not power, or multimedia features, what is it? Spoiler alert: it’s the games. But it’s not only games.

Looking at Nintendo, a combination of first-parties (30 year old first-parties to boot), the convenience of portability and a reasonable price makes the Switch a machine worth buying. The ability to keep it plugged into the TV and play these games as if they were home console games is a great feature and allows the Switch to succeed as both a handheld and a home console.

Nintendo have had decades of development experience, honing their first-party franchises and trying a number of different development styles during each console generation. This, coupled with their relationships with third-party developers like Game Freak and Intelligent Systems, they’ve future-proofed their company for generations to come.

But the Wii U didn’t sell that well, despite having some solid titles. Looking at the sales numbers though, it’s easy to pinpoint its successes. Out of the 13 million people that bought a Wii U, 8 million of those people bought Mario Kart 8. Conversely, out of the 30 million that bought an Xbox One (assuming the high sales estimate is correct), only 5 million of them bought its best selling game, Halo 5. Maybe it’s not the meager selection of apps that people bought the Wii U for.

By that same token, the PS4 has more exclusive titles than the Xbox One, while offering comparable services with the PlayStation Network, in terms of apps (though not as many as the Xbox One) and movie/TV rentals. Games for the console were also at slightly higher resolutions, and while the difference between 1080p and 960p is marginal at best, many consumers opted for the console with the better graphical capabilities and more games to show off that power.

At the turn of the century, a game console that could play DVDs and games was considered an immense value. In 2018, it’s to be expected that your multimedia box can do all of these things and more (Nintendo, almost inexplicably, is the exception to the rule). No matter how you market your games machine, people won’t buy the PS4 or the XB1 solely for the apps, they’re buying them for the games… but the apps are a nice bonus.

While the amount of assorted media the Xbox One offers is only marginally smaller compared to the competition (less exclusives than the PS4, less movies than Google Play, etc.), the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A jack-of-all-trades is a fine choice, but for an extra $100 more, you could buy a multimedia box like a Roku to go along with your PS4 and have everything you would need.

There are more options for digital media now than there were in 2005, so Microsoft needs to add more to Xbox Live if they want to keep up with the rest. Considering Microsoft’s experience with digital media, operating systems and software, maybe the Xbox brand needs a rebranding.

Maybe instead of attempting to make games, they should attempt to make their own media box, a premium media box with an equal focus on everything, including games. I wouldn’t say that’s outside the realm of possibility, considering Microsoft’s background. The only problem then, is the support.

It’s strange. Looking back, none of the most powerful consoles were the most financially successful: Sega Master System, Neo Geo, Atari Jaguar, Xbox nor the PlayStation 3 (arguably the most powerful). Despite the advent of 4K, many are still trepidatious about upgrading their TVs. Most are fine with the picture quality they have now.

But I may be wrong. Doing some final research before uploading this, I noticed something interesting. The Xbox One X, the “most powerful console ever created,” was just released and is selling pretty well. Surprisingly well. With 4K capabilities, the Xbox One X is definitely the premium choice for those who want to play their games at the best resolution they possibly can.

Has Microsoft found that niche? If they stopped first-party development, acquired the same third-party games as the PS4, and had the most apps, could they succeed as the number one premium multimedia box? All I know is my gut says “maybe.”

 

At the end of the day, what sells consoles? If history is any indication, a combination of first-parties (PlayStation’s huge library of exclusives), convenience (the Switch’s combination of portability and home-console quality games) and power (the Xbox One X outputting games at a higher resolution that most consoles) is the magic formula.

Much like cooking, you can tweak the ingredients and make a recipe that works, but you have to understand the potency of the ingredients you’re using. Otherwise you’ll end up creating something that’s just unappetizing.

 

…I’m getting hungry. Stay tuned for the third and final act of this series!

sph3re

 

EDIT: I had written this back in 2017. One would imagine in the span of a few months, nothing would be dramatically different. But boy, was I wrong. Microsoft is apparently considering an acquisition of some game publishers, most notably, EA and Valve. While I don’t think Valve will budge, an EA acquisition would be huge for Microsoft. Perhaps a super-powered media streaming box isn’t all they’re set out to be?

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