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VRPlayin with the HTC Vive

I’m no stranger to VR. I’ve tried it a few times, the most notable of which was trying out Rez Infinite on PSVR at a friend’s place; I loved the original, and playing Rez Infinite in VR was nothing short of incredible. A little disorienting for sure, but an incredible experience nonetheless. So when a friend of mine suggested we go out to a VR arcade, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

 

The arcade let us book rooms in 1 or 2 hour intervals, so we chose 1 hour to give it a test run. They took us to the back where two 7’x7’ stations awaited us, walls padded with foam. I would soon learn that this foam was to protect the controllers, if one were to swing too close to the wall. Ahem.

 

The VR headset of choice was the HTC Vive, ranking quite high among the best PC headsets (second only to perhaps the Oculus Rift). The controller feels similarly to a remote control, which means it fits pretty well in the user’s hand. I found it a tad awkward to hold at certain angles, and I couldn’t help but think a more cylindrical shape would have worked better, like the PlayStation Move. It worked well, regardless.

 

The headset was relatively comfortable. Despite wearing glasses, the headset accomodated my face quite well and there it a knob near the crown of the head that you can use to tighten or loosen the headset. The image was blurry originally, but after fiddling with the position of the headset, the picture was perfect.

 

vive-pdp-hero-desktop-031918-v3

Via Vive.com

 

Joe and Donald both played a few rounds of Beat Saber, the aptly titled rhythm game where the player must swing lightsabers in time with the beat of a song.

 

It’s more nuanced than I make it sound, of course. Blocks fly towards the player in time with the beat, towards either their left or right hands (or both) and the player must swing the sabers in one of 4 cardinal directions to cut the block in half. Occasionally, walls will fly towards the player from the left or right, and the player must also move their head accordingly to avoid getting hit.

 

I did not play the game for myself, but Hard Mode looked like a trial in hand-eye coordination. It looked like Rock Band in 3D space. Donald and Joe seemed to take well to it, making me think one day they will be the Dubsteb Jedi we need to save the world.

 

But while I missed out on Beat Saber, I wasn’t too broken up about it. Mainly because Shu and I got to play SUPERHOT VR. If you know anything about this game, you’ve almost certainly heard the premise:

 

Time only moves when you move.

 

If there is a better elevator pitch for a video game, I have yet to hear it. On PC, this meant walking and jumping, shooting guns, and throwing punches or weapons would move time. There was a 3D layer to everything and planning was key, which made…

 

SUPER

HOT

 

…more of a puzzle game than a first-person shooter. The VR game, by comparison, took out the movement aspect, which meant we could only rotate our bodies and lean to-and-fro. Something I forgot about SUPERHOT was that enemies are fragile and everything short of a soft breeze would kill them. So when I wound back to punch one in the face, I immediately realized how overzealous I was when my controller hit the foam wall.

 

More specifically, the metal frame holding two pieces of the foam wall together. Oops…

 

Despite that, SUPERHOT VR was as fun as I thought it would be. If the Matrix comparisons in vanilla SUPERHOT weren’t concise enough, SUPERHOT VR lets you lean back and dodge bullets like Neo. It was a little frustrating when I dropped the only weapon just out of reach of the camera’s range, prompting me to headbutt an oncoming bullet to reset the level. Those issues were paltry though, as it felt better than ever to dump shotgun shells into a wave of enemies and throw the empty guns at the remaining two baddies.

 

Shu seemed to pick it up even faster than I did, which makes me think he’s either done it before or he’s seen the inside of The Matrix.

 

Finally, one of the best experiences I’ve had in VR was a co-op round of Raw Data with Joe. My booth’s session ended before his, but the 5 minutes we played together was so much fun. In short, it is Gears Of War’s Horde Mode, but with robots.

 

Unlike SUPERHOT VR, we could walk around (or rather, teleport from place to place) which proved to be useful, considering the robot ninjas who chased after us, trying to slice us open with their blades. There was a fun dynamic going on, where we were backing each other up when we were being attacked (although in all fairness, I was being attacked way more), and we teamed up to fight a heavily armoured robot at the end of a wave. Right before my session ended, they added flying robots as well, which sounds like an absolute nightmare in their eventual conjunction with heavy robots.

 

The whole experience only lasted about an hour, but it was an amazing experience nonetheless!

 

While fun, I’m still a little apprehensive about buying a VR set for a handful of really good games. SUPERHOT was fun, but I don’t think I’m okay with dropping nearly $800 Canadian (after taxes) for an HTC Vive and buying/building a VR ready PC at the same time.

 

Lucky for me, these VR “experiences” will be around for a long time. Maybe I’ll book a booth for an extra hour next time.

 

~sph3re

The Volatile Power Of Nostalgia

As a child, everything is a novelty. With a miniscule attention span and little to no life experience, we ingested as much media as we could and all of it was the best thing ever. Cars that transform into robots, four exterminators busting ghosts, adventurers donning green tunics. Whenever one thinks of those wonderful things they grew up with, they’re awash with homesickness, a “sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place of time.

This is the feeling of nostalgia; a mix of both happiness and sadness; a happy longing for the past and a sadness that it cannot be reclaimed. It’s a force that draws us towards things that bring back fond memories of our childhood. You know nostalgia when you feel it. When you’re on the Internet and you stumble upon the theme song to your favourite childhood cartoon, uploaded in that glorious VHS quality, your heart swells with feelings of simpler times.

For many (if not, most) of us, a lifelong bond between us and video games was formed when we were children. One of my earliest video game memories was playing the Donkey Kong Country series with my dad. The Donkey Kong Country is a series of relatively difficult platforming games, with the ability to play the game with a second player who can tag-in during particularly difficult platforming sections (some of which have prevented me from beating Donkey Kong Country 2 to this day).

Having fun with my Pops is an incredible memory, but while he stopped playing video games a long time ago, I keep going back to those sweet, tasty jams. When I go back and listen to those classic tunes, I can’t help but sway my head along to the tune of Aquatic Ambiance. The music is so good that when I found out that David Wise was returning to Tropical Freeze after a nearly 20 year absence from the series, I bought the game on launch. I even bought Snake Pass, another difficult platformer, solely because David Wise was composing the music.

Nintendo are the masters of nostalgia. They have franchises that have lasted for decades and they will use any and all of them when they want to invoke that nostalgia in their consumers (see: the aforementioned Tropical Freeze anecdote). If you grew up with Mario and you hear that classic 1-1 theme in a modern Mario game, or when you see a familiar castle from another Mario game in HD, it’s a safe bet that Nintendo has you in the palm of their hand from that point forward.

Nintendo keeps familiar faces and game mechanics in their games to make sure the audience knows that Nintendo stays true to their roots. Link has used bombs and a boomerang in nearly every game since his first appearance, Bowser is still capturing Princess Peach for reasons I don’t fully understand and you will always have the choice of choosing between a green, red or blue Pokemon before starting your adventure.

Nintendo isn’t the only company that leans on nostalgia, however. The PlayStation brand, despite not being in the game as long as Nintendo, has plenty of franchises under their belt they can whip out at a moment’s notice if they want to cash in on that nostalgia. Over the years, they lost their grip on more than a handful of exclusive franchises, but the nostalgia for those franchises is still going strong in the hearts of many.

If you need proof of the power of nostalgia, my good friend JoshRockStark started a series called The RetroSpectacle, where he streams a series of games from his past and ranks them after completing them. The inaugural series in The RetroSpectacle? Crash Bandicoot, top selling PS1 franchise that began over 20 years ago. His nostalgia for this series is so powerful, JoshRockStark is making content about it over two decades after the fact. That’s passion.

Nintendo and Sony are masters of their own domain, but when they wait to cash in on that nostalgia, other developers are more than willing to fill that void. Smaller developers in particular. It’s no secret that a lot of indie games are inspired by games of a simpler era; some of the more well known indies came to prominence due to their similarities to classic franchises.

Some similarities are more easily seen, like the aesthetic and gameplay similarities between Super Metroid and Axiom Verge: both are 2D games with a focus on exploring the world and unlocking new areas in a sci-fi aesthetic. While there are some differences between the two games (their weapons, for example), most looking to recapture that warm Metroid feeling can sleep easy knowing they can wrap themselves in a cozy Axiom Verge blanket.

Other similarities are not quite as obvious. Mekazoo is a platformer starring various neon-colored animals. On the surface, it looks like an interesting platformer. Upon closer inspection, you can see the finer details; the placement of collectibles and speed of the gameplay make the game feel like a nice blend of both Sonic The Hedgehog and Donkey Kong Country. After an hour or two of playing this game, I started taking in the similarities and was taken back to my childhood. Hopping into a cannon and being shot through a row of gems brings back memories of Bramble Blast (in a good way). Without this nostalgia, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed Mekazoo as much as I did.

For some, nostalgia means going back and playing a game decades after the fact. For others, it means bursting into tears when finding out one of their favourite franchises is making a grand return. Nostalgia is a fantastic and powerful thing, something that can drive sales and ignite passion in the hearts of many. But much like a drug, nostalgia can be an addictive feeling. When something undermines one’s nostalgia, sometimes people get irritated and even outright angry when something doesn’t tug at those nostalgic heartstrings. Perhaps the most foolproof way to infringe on fans’ sense of nostalgia is to reboot a franchise.

5 years since the release of the last Devil May Cry game, DmC: Devil May Cry was Ninja Theory’s attempt to reboot the franchise. The game acted as a prequel to the Devil May Cry series that many knew and loved, starring a black-haired Dante as its protagonist. With slower paced combat and an edgier protagonist, longtime fans of the series couldn’t help but feel burned when a profanity-laden trailer was revealed. The game didn’t perform nearly as bad as was expected, but the damage was done. Those who stuck through the series, even after failing to fill someone’s dark soul with light, felt almost irreparably burned. Of course, since the reveal of Devil May Cry 5 at E3 2018, all has been forgiven.

After DmC’s commercial success, it might be easy to say that developers know best. But this isn’t always the case, and in some cases, can be catastrophic. In an attempt to modernize the series, Hudson Soft created Bomberman: Act Zero, a futuristic Bomberman game where the cute characters in their quirky worlds were thrust into a futuristic setting and turned into humanoid cyborgs. Needless to say, the game did not do… quite as well as Hudson expected. The game was completely dumped on by critics across the board, due to poor gameplay, terrible aesthetics, and a $50 price tag. Unlike Ninja Theory trying their hand at making a Devil May Cry game, Act Zero was made by Hudson themselves. It seems that they completely underestimated the value of nostalgia, and of their own IP and eventually paid the price (R.I.P. Hudson Soft).

But while Bomberman: Act Zero may have nearly killed the franchise, there is another reboot that many would consider (at best) an insulting installment in a bestselling franchise.

Sonic Team founder Yuji Naka wanted to reboot the Sonic The Hedgehog series in a grand fashion. With a realistic setting in mind, and consoles that supported more modern physics engines, Naka aimed to make an installment that nobody would forget. He was quoted as saying “When Marvel or DC Comics turn their characters into films, they are thinking of them as blockbusters, huge hits, and that’s what we were trying to emulate with Sonic 2006.” He succeeded in making an unforgettable Sonic game… but not in the way he would have liked.

Like many retro games of the era, retro Sonic’s premise was pretty simple: stop the bad guy from taking over the world by destroying his killer robots. This was enough to get by in the 90s, but by modern day standards, this is a pretty flimsy justification for anything above a low-budget indie game. Knowing this, Sonic Team wanted to make a more compelling story for a character who was previously known for running fast and eating chili dogs. In contrast to the retro games, Sonic 2006 has:

  • A damsel in distress who is kidnapped multiple times by Robotnik, dies, then is revived via time-travel shenanigans
  • An evil hedgehog (no, not that one) from the future who tries to manipulate Shadow into turning against humanity (again); later kills Sonic
  • Sonic’s corpse being kissed by aforementioned damsel and coming back to life as Jesus Super Sonic through the power of love or something

The story is, in no minced words, glorified fanfiction. What used to be a simple series about stopping Dr. Robotnik was turned into a convoluted mess. Hiring the cast of voice actors from Sonic X, an anime widely regarded as having a terrible English dub, likely didn’t help matters. If there a single silver lining to the story’s existence, it is that the game’s ending effectively removes the game from the series’ continuity… that is, until Sonic Generations happened and all bets were off.

But Sonic was never known for its story. Part of the appeal of Sonic The Hedgehog was the flow-like state in which you blasted through a variety of colourful levels, getting from Point A to Point B. Somewhat bafflingly, Sonic Team decided to double-down on the bad design decisions of previous 3D Sonic games with Sonic 2006.

Sonic is characteristically fast, but uncharacteristically difficult to control. Rob Fahey of Eurogamer stated that “a touch of the stick in the wrong direction often [sends] him hurtling to his doom,” and removed “any form of stickyness or automation from other key aspects, like sliding on rails.” Another frequent criticism is the camera, which often shows you an angle that is less-than-helpful at best and frustrating at worst. Shifting the camera often makes no difference, as the game will default to an awkward camera angle in a manner of seconds.

Not only is the story poor and completely unnecessary, the gameplay completely breaks the gameplay flow that previous, successful Sonic games had. But it isn’t bad enough that the story and gameplay are poor (at best), but the game itself is riddled with graphical and gameplay bugs and glitches that make it a poor game, regardless of its design.

I started writing this bit about Sonic 2006 to make a point about Sonic Team having no concept of nostalgia. Surely, there are plenty of fans who abandoned the series after the first 3D Sonic game and plenty more after Sonic 2006. But despite a truly awful development cycle, poor story and gameplay, and unacceptable bugs and glitches, there are still fans who will die on the hill that is “Sonic 2006 is a good game.”

…Maybe nostalgia is more powerful than I thought.

Stay tuned for more!

 

~sph3re

30 Years of Consoles, Abridged: Final Thoughts

A lot has changed in almost 35 years. Where consoles were once machines that could only play games, they have become something much more. Throughout the years, consoles evolved into machines that went from playing games to playing DVDs, to machines that could access the Internet, to machines that have every form of entertainment you could possibly want.

The PS2 ushered in this new era of consoles, machines that could become your multimedia machines. While this was great for the living room, it may have been detrimental for gaming as a whole. Where a console’s selling point was once solely based on its library of games, it is now based on what services the consoles can provide the user. The Xbox One is an egregious example of this, shunting exclusive games in favour of replacing your cable box and DVR functionality as a selling point.

With everything a console can do, console manufacturers are less incentivized to create and support exclusive console games than previous generations, being able to sit on third-party support for the most part and let Sony Video and Xbox Music help keep it afloat. I’m reaching just a little bit; the Xbox One has more features than the PlayStation 4, but isn’t selling as well due to its lack of first-parties (alongside a disastrous launch). Had they stood on equal footing, with equal exclusives, the Xbox One would surely take it.

If you want to look at a machine that really does it all, you need not look further than your pant pocket, or maybe even the palm of your hand: your smartphone. The machine that almost literally does it all, a smartphone can do more than a game console when it comes to media. It’s a portable machine with a screen built in, it can take pictures, manage your finances, find recipes and in a pinch, it can even make phone calls.

So, if it has the widest possible appeal, does that mean it’s unsuccessful as a games machine? It is in fact, quite the opposite. “In 2017 alone, iOS developers earned $26.5 billion [USD],” which, if transferred to Canadian dollars, could buy Saskatchewan and maybe the Territories. This is mainly due to Apple’s hands-off approach to app distribution, focusing far less on game curation than somebody like Microsoft or Sony. Taking a look at these numbers, the logical course of action for Sony and Microsoft to maximize profits it to take this exact same approach: fill their consoles with as much multi-functional capabilities as they possibly can, with as much games as they possibly can to get the most money they possibly can.

A console’s concentrated focus isn’t the only thing that’s hurting sales. The Internet, despite being one of the greatest inventions of the last 100 years, is used as a crutch to help increase a game’s longevity, instead of inherent quality.

Once upon a time, when a game was released, it was considered a finished product: what you saw was what you got. As such, games had to be packed with a high amount of top-tier content to stand out above the rest. Then, if a game was successful enough based on this criteria, a sequel would be sure to follow. When Xbox Live introduced a successful instance of digital distribution, it looked like games would surely benefit from this power.

But with great power, comes great responsibility: publishers would soon abuse the ability to add content after the fact to maximize profits. Characters created before a game’s launch to be sold at a later date, content that isn’t even remotely worth the price, and the dreaded “Loot Box” are all examples of DLC that seem to serve no other purpose than to fuck the consumer without buying them dinner first (it’s worth noting that 2 of those examples are EA games).

Where a game could once rest on its laurels and be satisfied with a completed project, most large budget games are propped up by DLC after launch, some of which is in development before the game comes out. This isn’t even mentioning “pre-order bonuses,” content you get for spending a small amount of money on a game before you can ascertain its quality. I can think of nothing more presumptuous than asking for more money, for a product that is already quite expensive, for a product you don’t know whether or not you will enjoy.

But games are bigger and more expensive in the 2010s. One would think that some of that money goes to polishing a game before release, right? One would be wrong. Games are frequently launched with issues (another EA game, to the surprise of no-one) and glitches, occasionally with fixes (or sometimes “fixes”) patched in after the fact. Even worse, some games are launched in a completely inexcusable state.

Stand-out classics like Super Mario 64 and DOOM are also becoming more sparse, while open-world games that preoccupy your time with busywork push their way into the mainstream. Achievements were created in 2005 to help legitimize this busywork, giving out Boy Scout patches to anybody who could complete certain tasks in the game, like getting a certain amount of kills with a certain weapon or getting a certain hit combo. Ultimately though, that is all Achievements are: busywork.

Looking at the most successful games of the last 10 years, it’s clear that the creative well is drying up. Most “Oscar Season” games have some, if not most, of these elements:

  • Shooting or slashing (The Last of Us/The Witcher)
  • Open-world or very linear/”cinematic” (The Witcher/The Last of Us)
  • Heavy online focus (Overwatch, Destiny, Battlefield series)
  • Lots of collectibles (Assassin’s Creed series)

Like any company in a capitalist society, game publishing companies seek to make the most amount of money they can. It is financially reasonable to see what type of game works and to make more of them; conversely, a publisher’s “financial reasoning” cripples the creativity of developers, pigeonholing them into creating games that are much similar to already successful ones. The games that attempt to break the mold are often those with the lowest budgets, and the least amount of commercial marketing.

In short, the most successful gaming platforms are the ones with the worst and most exploitative games and the cheapest hardware (smartphones). Blockbuster games on consoles are often the ones with the worst practices and most uninspired gameplay, where more creative games get lost in the shuffle.

Looking at all of that, the future looks a little bleak… at least, the future would look bleak, if gaming in 2017 wasn’t a sight to behold. There is no denying that blockbuster games could use a little spicing up, but to write off all mainstream games isn’t just silly, it’s outright wrong. The gaming community is one of the most vocal and passionate group of fans in any entertainment medium… for better or worse.

No matter how much the industry swings in favour of microtransactions, or how profitable it would be to essentially let devs self publish on their platforms, the community wouldn’t let it happen. Whether they’re rallying against EA for Star Wars: Battlefront II’s hideous microtransactions or putting painstaking hours into studying Dark Souls’ lore and mechanics for Wikis, the gaming community knows what it wants and won’t let it stray too far from the path.

2017 felt like a special year. By the end of it, there were some serious surprises. Nintendo and Xbox, two contenders that looked down and out, are on track to breaking through their negative perceptions and succeeding. If there’s anything to take away from this year, it’s that gaming will still be thriving for at least another generation.

When Nintendo created the Wii, it was initially hailed by critics, but those same critics kicked it down a few notches for its lack of both powerful hardware and 3rd parties. When the Wii U came out, critics were less than kind with it, and the sales were no better: it’s still one of Nintendo’s worst selling consoles to date. But the Switch is lightning in a bottle. Its release emboldened Nintendo fans everywhere, dissipating the storm clouds above their heads and giving them a console they could be proud to own.

It’s not as powerful as the PS4, probably not even as powerful as the PS3. It doesn’t have the features of the Xbox 360, let alone the Xbox One. It’s portable, but not quite as portable as a smartphone or even a 3DS XL. But what it does have, is games. People may use Steam for the discounts and the variety of games, or Xbox for its services, but people buy Nintendo consoles for those first-party masterpieces, those experiences that leave a lasting impression on you well after you’ve finished playing them. Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild and Super Mario Odyssey are both getting rave reviews, and their sales are showing no signs of stopping. Nintendo recently brought some of their Wii games to the NVIDIA Shield in China, strengthening the notion that Nintendo’s games transcend the capabilities of its hardware.

Sony is pretty good at this, too. Not Nintendo good, but they’re definitely the closest example. They’ve got a wide selection of first-party games, ranging from the Indiana Jones inspired Uncharted series, to the deconstruction of the Greek Hero in God of War. They’ve got their own multimedia service with the PlayStation Network, with movies and TV shows for rent and purchase. But they haven’t taken their eye off the prize: the games are the biggest draw.

Google and Apple have their niches. People may not buy smartphones for the hard-hitting exclusive titles of games, but their services create a wider, more casual audience of gamers, broadening the scope of games and creating experiences that might not be made on consoles for fear of them not selling. Low budget games for a machine nearly everyone has access to? Truly, this is an indie gamer’s dream.

Steam is their PC equivalent, with community tools like Curators to help recommend games otherwise buried in Steam’s massive library. PCs also have more avenues to find and purchase games, with options like GOG (where you can find classics like Planescape: Torment), itch.io (indie focused, with a ton of experimental games) and Humble Bundle (where a portion of a game’s sale goes to a select charity).

Windows, being at least 4 times more popular than MacOS, is the standard for PC operating systems. Microsoft, owning both Xbox and Windows, seeks to amalgamate the two services, bringing Xbox games to your PC. While they probably won’t make a dent in Steam’s marketplace, it’s a great feature, bringing those hard-hitting console exclusives like Gears of War and Forza from the console to the PC. With more options to buy the same games and the ability to play them on various devices, perhaps the Xbox might live up to its “all-in-one” mentality after all.

Consoles are essentially optimized, user-friendly machines. One might ask why one would want to play console games when they could get those same games on a PC, sacrificing game optimization for higher performance. Microsoft’s answer to that is “why not both?” Why not both, indeed.

While people love playing games, it isn’t the only way people consume them. People enjoy watching people play games, whether they be itch.io’s experimental games or Steam’s AAA powerhouses. To many outside of the community, there is no appeal in watching people play games. “Why watch them when you can play it for yourself?” What they don’t realize is that it isn’t about the gameplay alone, but about the community. Seeing the Twitch chat erupt when someone does something hilarious or something that takes a monumental amount of luck is a magical moment. These streamers create moments that the viewers can take with them and tell other game fans and hopefully get more people playing the game.

Maybe an Amazon/Twitch console wouldn’t be so bad: a machine where you can watch games, chat with people and streamers, buy them off of Amazon’s marketplace, stream them for other people, chat with them, continue the cycle. It isn’t as intimate as something like Facebook or Twitter, but it’s slowly becoming the de facto social media hub for game enthusiasts. A social media platform for game fans could very well be a step in the right direction. In fact, it could help strengthen the gaming community even more.

Nothing would make me happier: a world where game enthusiasts are encouraged to help foster a greater game community. Maybe I’m a little close-minded. After all, there are communities that do just that, if you know where to look.

 

I’ve said a lot about consoles and gaming platforms. Quite a lot.

I talked about the most successful game consoles of eras past, from the top notch library of the SNES, to the multifaceted PS2, to the polished online service of the Xbox 360. These consoles laid the foundation for the consoles of the present and perhaps even the future.

I talked about what’s succeeding presently. The PS4 is topping the charts, with a steady stream of games, but a portable home console in the Nintendo Switch and the imposing power of the Xbox One X are worth talking about. We have yet to see the full capabilities of the Big 3 right now.

I talked about the future of game consoles, platforms and which game or tech giant could feasibly make a new console. Activision Blizzard and EA are two of the biggest game publishers and have the resources to make a game console, if they chose, although a Twitch console seems possible too. Tencent has the finances and the reach to make a dedicated gaming box succeed in the West.

Finally, I talked about what could go wrong. In short: lots. But looking at the industry leaders, it doesn’t seem like the Doomsday Clock is going to hit midnight anytime soon… although I maintain that it should wind back a couple of minutes for the industry’s sake.

Doing research for these posts, I learned quite a lot about the industry. I got a little scared (can you tell?) but overall, I’m pretty excited for the future. I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m excited to find out.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more!

sph3re

30 Years of Consoles, Abridged: Who’s Next?

In Parts 1 and 2, I talked about what makes a console successful, past and present. To sum up, the most successful consoles had any combination of these 4 attributes:

  • Convenience (apps, portability, etc.)
  • Power (an attribute not seen before the current gen)
  • Games (whether for first-party polish or third-party volume)
  • Cost/Value (as it turns out, most people are apprehensive about spending a lot of money)

Nintendo took the portability of a Nintendo DS, gave it console hardware, a sandbox style Zelda game and a new mainline Super Mario game in the same vein as Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine. They hit that convenience/first-party sweet spot and I have faith it will take them far.

Sony has built up a reputation with developers throughout the years and that those relationships have followed them all the way to the current year. They are sitting on a treasure trove of IPs that they can utilize if they wanted, and that is something most competitors should fear.

Microsoft started off strong with the Xbox and the Xbox 360, but dropped the ball with the mixed message of the Xbox One. The Xbox Live experience was great for two generations, but focusing too much on its multimedia capabilities hurt the console. With the Xbox One X selling as much in 1 week as the PS4 Pro did in 4, it looks like it might find its niche as a premium multimedia machine after all.

Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are all doing something right this generation. But they didn’t start off as games companies. Nintendo sold trading cards for 50 years before even stepping their toe into games. Sony was a top-tier hardware company, making everything from DVD players to portable CD players to TVs. Microsoft made the Windows operating system you may have heard of once or twice.

Each of these companies stepped into the gaming market and made something successful. They took huge risks and succeeded. There aren’t many game companies who could take a risk like that and succeed. That isn’t to say there aren’t those with the finances to make a game console, however. Newzoo, a market research company that specifically analyzes “global games, esports, and mobile markets” posted a list of The Top 25 Companies By Games Revenue.

Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly, depending on who you ask), Nintendo doesn’t make it into the top 10. But everyone above them has some serious money to make a dedicated gaming machine happen.

Let’s start with #10 and work our way up. The total numbers are from the first 6 months of the calendar year and are represented in USD.

 

#10 is Nexon. Perhaps best known for making the Fantasy MMO Maplestory and free-to-play FPS Combat Arms, the South Korean company brought in roughly 1.04 billion dollars, mostly due to in-game transactions.

#9 is Bandai Namco. A Japanese company, Bandai Namco is now known as “the company that publishes all the anime games, and also Dark Souls,” but was once more closely associated with Pac-Man and arcades. With a staggering number of anime games under their belt and pulling in 1.14 billion dollars, they’re a big player in the Japanese gaming industry.

#8 is Google. Yes, that Google. The advertising company that also makes apps, Google raked in a whopping 2.06 billion dollars on Google Play sales alone. While it may be pocket change for Google, it’s double what Nintendo pulled in during that same time period.

#7 is NetEase. NetEase makes online PC games such as Fantasy Westward Journey II and New Westward Journey Online II, but they also operate some of Blizzard Entertainment’s games in China, such as World of Warcraft and Overwatch. With the intention to bring Minecraft to China, it’s no surprise they brought in 2.90 billion dollars.

#6 is EA. One of the biggest names in the Western gaming industry, EA has developed and published games for 35 years, with the help of dozens of acquired studios. One wonders how a company can turn a profit when they close an acquired studio every 8 months on average, but lo and behold, EA pulled in 2.98 billion dollars.

#5 is Apple. Much like Google, they don’t publish their own games but rather, have created their own store for others to upload their games. Due to a large install base and the longevity of the App Store, Apple brought in 3 billion dollars.

#4 is Microsoft. I won’t harp on this too much, there are 2 other posts you can read where you can see me wax on about their success. Suffice it to say, it’s not surprising that they made 3.23 billion dollars.

#3 is Activision Blizzard. While publishing both the Call of Duty franchise and the World of Warcraft, Activision Blizzard also acquired King, the company who made the ridiculously popular Candy Crush Saga. Game revenues for the company were at 3.35 billion dollars.

#2 is Sony. Again, I won’t harp on this too much, Sony is one of the Big 3 console manufacturers, but it is worth noting that Sony pulled in 4.27 billion dollars, almost a billion more than the 3-pronged titan that is Activision Blizzard.

#1 is Tencent. If you’re not familiar with Tencent, the simplest explanation is that they are the Google of China. With their hands in everything, from creating China’s leading web browser, social networks and chat apps, their own online payment platform, and the largest gaming community in the country, they have raked in a staggering 7.97 billion dollars in game revenue alone.

 

There are some things we can take away from that chart. For one, while Sony and Microsoft manufacture and distribute their own consoles (although technically, Foxconn manufactures them), they only have one avenue for game distribution. Two, if you include Microsoft’s PC gaming platform… but most wouldn’t.

Google and Apple made 2 and 3 billion (respectively) on their platforms alone, while Activision Blizzard and EA are both enormous publishing companies with PC-based distribution platforms (Blizzard Battle.net and Origin, respectively) and top-tier franchises under their belts. Both Nexon and NetEase’s games are available on their respective websites, whereas Bandai Namco games are much less selective about where their games get published.

But Tencent is something else entirely.

Making more than double what Activision Blizzard made in 6 months, Tencent is a tech Goliath. Topping the charts in games revenue for the last 3 and a half years, they’ve dominated the gaming industry in China.

Due to a video game console ban back in the year 2000, companies like Nintendo and Sony were limited with what they could do in the country. 15 years later, the ban was lifted and Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft could finally branch out into the mysterious market that was Chinese gaming. But will they?

Tencent had more games revenue in 6 months than Activision Blizzard and Sony combined. The market is there. However, while they may find success in China, they will have significant trouble toppling the Chinese behemoth. It may not even be worth the time of the Big 3 to try and compete with Tencent; towering over the competition, the Big 3 might have to concede to small victories in China. With the console ban lifted, however, Tencent could create their own console and achieve worldwide success.

In fact…

The TGP Box (Tencent Games Platform Box) is a compact PC that runs on Windows 10, but can open up into a “TGP Box Game Mode,” akin to Steam’s Big Picture Mode. Aside from being a League of Legends machine (fun fact: Tencent owns Riot Games), they have an almost 50% stake in Epic Games, which means there is a slight possibility of seeing some Epic Games… games on the TGP Box. This isn’t even taking into account the fact that Epic Games owns the Unreal Engine, one of the most used video game engines (if not, the #1 most used) on the market.

Essentially, the TGP Box is a Steam Machine that runs on Windows, instead of a new OS that no game developers support. Sorry, was that too snarky? Okay, moving on.

If Tencent has done one thing right, it’s amalgamation. Remember the 4 attributes I listed right at the start of this post? Tencent created the ultimate “convenience” in the form of the app, WeChat. An all-in-one app, where you can talk with your friends, go shopping, blog, get your news, pay your bills (including traffic fines) and more. If they can apply those all-in-one sensibilities to a games machine, it may be–as the cool kids say–“game over” for the competition.

So, we may see Tencent make a big move in the Western gaming industry yet. As one of the biggest Internet-based companies in the world, I’d be surprised if they didn’t. But what about North American tech giants? Tencent is monstrous in China, but we have some tech juggernauts ourselves.

We need not look any farther than the financial investment term, FAANG:

Facebook
Amazon
Apple
Netflix
Google

These 5 companies are the best performing tech stocks on the market, constantly impressing investors. But could they succeed in making a gaming-oriented push? Long story short: no. They probably wouldn’t succeed and/or wouldn’t want to try.

But it’s fun to think about.

Let’s take a look at FAANG, starting with the already mentioned Apple and Google.

Apple and Google have a lot of similarities. They both offer user-friendly products and services and try and keep people in their ecosystem. Apple has the jump on Google with this, creating their own OS and hardware to compete with Microsoft. At the end of the 2016 fiscal year, they were the biggest tech company in the world.

If there’s one thing that people like, it’s convenience. If Tencent wasn’t enough proof of this, you need not look further than your pocket, your computer desk or even the palm of your hand at this very moment. Smartphones are the quintessential example of “convenience”; with a smartphone, almost everything you would ever need is–quite literally–in the palm of your hand.

Apple is the master of convenience, with their user-friendly ecosystem brewing for over a decade. It’s the reason why people line up for days, sometimes even weeks, to buy the latest iPhone or other Apple product. But they didn’t start off that way. Macs were initially created as an alternative to standard PCs, but Apple blossomed and created more disruptive products, like iPods and iPads. With all of these products under their belt, they created an ecosystem, where everything works with everything else. There is a reason Apple has more market capitalization than Alphabet, Microsoft and yes, even Tencent.

But where Apple has built a reputation on user-friendliness, Google has built a reputation as the website. Being the primary search engine since 1996, Google is the website to go to when you want something. If Apple is synonymous with user-friendliness, “Googling” is synonymous with “search” and “information,” so much so that the verb made it into the Oxford Dictionary (despite actually being a word, albeit with different spelling).

Directions to the nearest GameStop? Google Maps. Want to read about politics? Google News. Need to bring some files with you wherever you go, but don’t have the storage for them on your device? Google Drive. All of which, you can access via Google’s own ecosystem. If that wasn’t enough, Google gathers literal gigabytes of your data, aiming to out-think the user by suggesting things the user hasn’t thought about searching yet. They are one of few Gatekeepers of the Internet, for better or worse.

In addition to all of this, they created the mobile OS, Android. The biggest competitor to Apple’s mobile iOS (and with Google Play bringing in slightly more revenue than the App Store), Android is open-source, so it can theoretically be customized to the user’s liking. Not only that, but the majority of Android devices aren’t Google products at all, but third-party devices with a customized version of Android running on them.

Google and Apple‘s yearly revenues are staggering, each dwarfing Tencent in annual revenue. Clearly, they have the financial power to create a dedicated gaming console. But what would a console like that look like?

In terms of hardware, Apple could pull off something spectacular. Looking at the 4K ready Mac Pro, it’s clear Apple can create a powerful machine in a small form factor. With the Apple ecosystem and MacOS in a powerful box (or tube), the pieces are already there. All Apple needs to do it put them together. 2+ million apps on the App Store, roughly half of those apps being games, it could be a one-stop-shop for everything Apple.

Google has that potential, as well. With a search engine that knows nearly everything about you, Google could theoretically make a console that suggests games to you, uploads your saved game data to Google Drive, gets you news on games you’re playing, and load up YouTube videos of games to watch trailers of upcoming games.

It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? That’s probably because it is. Apple and Google each brought in over 100 billion dollars in annual revenue in 2016, through their various products and services. In that same year, Tencent brought in 20 billion (12 billion of that being specifically video game revenue). It wouldn’t be worth it for Apple or Google to heavily invest in the console gaming industry (a risky industry, dominated by 3 or 4 companies) when they already have a steady stream of cash. This isn’t even including the fact that more people would rather buy App Store/Google Play games on their smartphones or tablets.

It might work in theory. Perhaps Google or Apple could heavily invest in game publishing, financing first-party games you can only get on their devices. But considering the millions of apps on their services, mediation of that size just isn’t worth it.

If Apple or Google wouldn’t create a gaming console, maybe Facebook could?

With gaming communities becoming increasingly relevant and with some people even getting their news from Facebook rather than dedicated sources, it’s possible that Facebook could be a “social gaming console.” The install base is there: 2 billion people have Facebook accounts, so a Facebook Box (FaceBox?) wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility. Facebook also owns Oculus, the company that Kickstarted a virtual reality headset, the Oculus Rift.

Imagine, a future where you access Facebook through your virtual reality headset, play games, read the news, everything. I’m getting some Ready: Player One vibes thinking about it. This too is very unlikely. Facebook, while huge, has little to no experience in the gaming industry. Their experience reaches about as far as casual and social games like Farmville. While these games make up a decent portion of the industry, the convenience of having Facebook on a device separate from your TV is too great to ignore.

So, Facebook doesn’t seem likely to dip into the console gaming market either. If anything, Facebook might be better off making a phone; the most financially successful platforms to make games for are smartphones and tablets according to financial numbers from 2017. In general, casual games tend to do better on smartphones as well, so this wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility.

Rising in popularity alongside casual games, watching live-streamed games on sites like Twitch is becoming closer and closer to the norm. Which is very convenient for Amazon.

Back in 2014, Amazon acquired Twitch for almost 1 billion dollars and became the owner of the biggest live streaming platform for gaming. In early 2017, Twitch announced that you could purchase games via the website, with Ubisoft, Telltale Games and Paradox Interactive onboard. In theory, you could watch someone play the latest Assassin’s Creed game on Twitch, then buy it without ever having to leave the website. Then in June of this year, Twitch signed a two year deal with Blizzard, giving Twitch “third-party streaming rights to select Blizzard esports content, as well as offering game content to users who are Twitch Prime subscribers.”

Twitch does offer “IRL” streaming, where you can watch real people do things instead of fantasy characters, but the real draw of Twitch is the games streaming. Considering Amazon also makes a media streaming device, it would be a surprise if they didn’t implement that in creating a TwitchBox. With Amazon’s e-Commerce capabilities, a gaming-oriented platform in Twitch and the multimedia capabilities of an Amazon Fire TV, Amazon has the greatest chance at creating a gaming console than any of the other 4.

The only thing that stands in their way are the exclusive games. It may have the “value” and the “convenience” boxes ticked off, but games ultimately make the machine. Amazon isn’t a games publisher; while they do create and distribute their own content, no FAANG company is better at it than Netflix.

Netflix seems like an odd choice. After all, they create visual media of all sorts, not interactive media like games. But much like Apple, Netflix has that name recognition. Netflix has published original content in many different genres; comedy, documentary, drama, animated.

As one of the better performing tech stocks in the market, Netflix could potentially finance a game publishing branch, where for a monthly fee, you could stream Netflix Original Games. Their name recognition might also encourage big publishers like Ubisoft and EA to bring their games over to the service for a small cut. All they would need is a box to do it with.

Game streaming is tricky, though. To get the best possible experience, it requires a fast and steady Internet connection, something that is up to the Internet Service Provider. If history is any indication, ISPs usually aren’t looking out for your best interests. To rely on them to provide a primary service would be a foolish choice.

So, to sum up: Apple and Google make more than enough money without a game industry focus, Facebook has too big a pool of casual games for a home console (perhaps not for a phone), game streaming is too unreliable for a Netflix Gaming service to succeed, but Amazon could very well bring something new to the table. Except for maybe the latter, none of the members of FAANG could feasibly create a games machine as successful as the current competitors. But there may be other tech companies who could… just not in the way you think.

We touched upon convenience, games and value. Tencent’s game machine would be the ultimate convenience, Apple and Google’s services host millions of games between them, while Netflix could finance their own, and an Amazon box could feasibly have the overall best value. But we didn’t talk about power.

As mentioned in the last post, the Xbox One X is selling surprisingly well, due mostly to it marketing itself as “the world’s most powerful gaming console.” It’s no surprise: tech enthusiasts always want to be on the cutting edge of tech. The sharper the edge, the better the games look, and there is no company with a sharper blade than NVIDIA.

Known as the company that makes absurdly expensive graphics cards, NVIDIA is the market leader in GPU manufacturing. Yes, GPUs are only one part of a PC, but NVIDIA has one thing over all the members of FAANG: they already have a truly premium digital streaming box. The NVIDIA Shield Android TV can stream games and movies in 4K at 60fps. It may not have nearly the amount of apps the Roku line has, but it has more AAA games than its media box competitors (as in, more than zero). The Witcher III, Street Fighter IV, Borderlands 2 and more, are all on the NVIDIA Shield.

Having some high-tier games already puts the NVIDIA Shield above its media box competitors, but not nearly as high as the Big 3 console manufacturers. If it beefs up its console with some hard-hitting hardware, NVIDIA could very well become the Big 4th. Its biggest issue then, becomes games publishing. As it stands, there is not a single game on the NVIDIA shield that you cannot find on any other platform. So while they may have the hardware, they will have to actually start getting some exclusive deals to make a dent in the mainstream console market.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about tech companies and what they can offer. If they focused their efforts, they could definitely offer a lot. With hands in everything, companies like Apple and Google could make polished machines that offer much more than the current console offerings. A Tencent gaming console might succeed in the West, but chances are good that they won’t bring it over and stay as the kings of the Chinese gaming market. A Facebook phone doesn’t sound too far off, and maybe if Netflix partnered with Google and Google Fiber for blazing fast Internet, we could perhaps see a Netflix game console or service. Amazon and NVIDIA seem like the two likeliest tech companies that could break into the console market.

Maybe they could even pool their efforts: Netflix-style gaming service, with NVIDIA hardware, Apple software, Google’s all-in-one services and app library, and Amazon/Twitch distribution and streaming. Together, in one unholy gaming machine. If any of these companies were to make a game console alone, it’s likely it would just feel like a PC in a console’s clothing.

Looking at what’s out there in terms of games, companies making services instead of games makes the most sense. Apple and Google are killing it in game revenue alone, and they don’t financially support any games. They offer a service for people to upload their games and they take a cut. Most game enthusiasts will notice this is how Valve makes their money (as opposed to actually making and finishing games). But they’re not wrong in doing so: the numbers speak for themselves. So as interesting as it would be to see a Google console, it’s more financially reasonable for Google and Apple to host a service and skim a little off the top.

But as much as I’ve been talking about tech companies, I haven’t even mentioned who would be the most likely to create a game console: other gaming companies.

Most game companies would have the lowest barrier to entry when it comes to making a games console. Activision Blizzard is halfway there with Blizzard Battle.Net. Through Battle.Net, users can log onto the service and play all of their favourite Blizzard games, whether that be World of Warcraft or Overwatch. But Activision Blizzard is a huge publisher. They don’t have to restrict themselves to PCs; they could leverage their well known IPs (Call of Duty, Destiny, Warcraft, Hearthstone) and create a box where you know you’ll get the best experience for all of the best games of the year.

As the game publisher with the highest revenue and stock price, they certainly have the finances to do it. Plus, they have been publishing games as long as Nintendo; it wouldn’t be farfetched to say that they have enough resources and/or experience to finance smaller development teams and have them create exclusive games for the console. There is one main issue though, being that most of Blizzard’s games are PC-oriented. The switch from mouse & keyboard to a controller might put off some. Currently, there is no real “middle ground” for those sorts of controller inputs (except for maybe the Steam controller), so research into some hardware would be necessary.

But it may still be within the realm of possibility. Razer is a very well known “gamer brand,” known for making loud keyboards and louder looking headsets. While many wouldn’t choose Razer controllers over something like an Xbox One Elite controller or even a PS4 controller, they certainly do the trick.

EA is in a similar situation as Activision Blizzard. EA’s online service, Origin, is only available on PCs. Where Activision Blizzard has some big franchises that are supported for years, EA has a steady stream of annual franchises. Where owners of an Activision Blizzard console would have to wait a few years for a new AAA game to hit the console, there would be a new selection of first-parties for an EA console every single year. But it’s not all sports and racing games they have. EA is sitting on a treasure trove of franchises that they could bring back and make exclusive to the console.

EA “is the third-largest gaming company in the Americas and Europe by revenue and market capitalization” as of September 2017, so they could very well port their games to a dedicated Origin box. Comparing them to Activision Blizzard once again, they have the resources and the experience to finance development teams to make some exclusives.

Having EA publish one of your games is the deal of a lifetime for most developers. But considering EA’s track record, I can’t see many core game enthusiasts supporting it, and I can’t picture somebody buying a game console exclusively for the annual franchises EA offers.

Where EA owns their annual franchises and can pump them out like clockwork, Bandai Namco publishes a wide range of games, some of which are developed by 3rd party companies, but most of which are developed by Bandai Namco themselves. A big player in the early arcade scene, Namco developed over a dozen different franchises, including the legendary Pac-Man. Fast forward to 2017 and Bandai Namco has almost as many franchises as Nintendo. Maybe even more.

With a concentrated effort on developing games and their own box to play them on, it sounds reasonable. Despite being not being as big as Activision Blizzard, EA or even Nintendo, they’re still a relatively big company. The only issue then, is the online services. Bandai Namco doesn’t have the same brand appeal in gaming as something like PlayStation or Xbox, at least not in the Americas; it would be difficult for them to acquire the apps the Roku has, or even the Xbox One.

With their close relationship with anime companies, however, perhaps they could create an online store where you can buy the latest episodes of your favourite anime series, or a free subscription to the anime-style Netflix app, Crunchyroll, with a subscription to Bandai Namco’s service. An anime machine, of sorts. It might not achieve worldwide success, but it does have a niche appeal.

 

Tencent, FAANG, big publishers. There are quite a few theoretical competitors in the console market. Will they make big plays soon? My gut tells me “maybe.” For companies like Google and Apple, it’s hardly worth it. The amount of money they’re sitting on is so high, their execs are getting altitude sickness; a gaming console would be superfluous. For a company like Bandai Namco however, it might be worth looking into. Tencent is a mysterious player, the single ruler of their own market. But will they leave their empire and try to overthrow the Three Kings of the console gaming industry?

The trilogy is over, but I’m not quite done. I’ve talked about past, present and future, but I’ve got one final post to close everything off. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Stay tuned!

sph3re

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?

30 Years of Consoles, Abridged: What Worked?

Prior to the release of the Sega Dreamcast in 1998, game consoles were designed to do one thing: play games. You popped your cartridge into your black/brown/soon-to-be eggshell coloured console and turned it on. A splash screen of bright colours and catchy tunes played and you were in.

Life was simpler back then. In 2017, people are building borderline supercomputers to play games at the highest graphical fidelity possible. To some, the strength of the machine is a huge determining factor when buying a console. But that didn’t matter in 1985.

With only games to keep us entertained, console manufacturers like Nintendo and SEGA needed strong libraries of games to sell their consoles. The SEGA Master System had more powerful hardware than the NES, but Nintendo had a policy of “restricting developers from publishing and distributing software without licensed approval” from Nintendo.

This resulted created a strong library of exclusive games for the NES, while simultaneously keeping those developers from making those same games for the Master System. At the end of its lifecycle, the NES outsold the Master System by an almost 3:1 ratio, selling 62 million units to the Master System’s 21 million.

The SNES did not have this same policy, but is regarded by many as having a lineup of critically successful games, both in-house and third party, such as Super Mario World, Final Fantasy VI, and Street Fighter II.

Learning from their mistakes, SEGA had a much higher output of quality games for the SEGA Genesis than they did for the Master System. Catering to a more “mature” audience with sports games, action games and offbeat games, the SEGA Genesis sold an impressive 30m by the end of its lifecycle. While not catching up to the SNES’s 49 million sales, it helped carve a niche in the gaming market for more mature audiences, due in part to the development of the ESRB as a consequence of Mortal Kombat’s delightfully violent inception.

SEGA and Nintendo were big players for about a decade, but there was a new player about to enter the scene. After falling out with Nintendo over the development of the Nintendo PlayStation, Sony took matters into their own hands.

Sony took a different approach with the PlayStation; where SEGA and Nintendo focused mainly on first party games (which did yield some long-standing first party franchises) and didn’t interfere much with third-party companies, Sony put a stronger emphasis on relationships with third-party developers. As a result, developers flocked to the machine and created hits such as Tomb Raider, Crash Bandicoot and Final Fantasy VII. Capping off at 102 million sales before the end of production, it was far and away the most successful console of the time.

Their reputation, both with game enthusiasts and developers, would follow them into the release of the PlayStation 2. Boasting both backwards compatibility with PlayStation 1 games and DVD/CD playback, the PS2 had a tremendous launch, shipping 6 million consoles in only 8 months.

Because of the trust built with developers during the PS1 era, devs brought their talents over to the PS2, giving it an obscenely large library of games to choose from, with sleeper hits (Okami, Beyond Good and Evil, Ico) and blockbusters (Grand Theft Auto trilogy, Metal Gear Solid 2, Kingdom Hearts) alike.

Despite being the weakest console on the market, the PS2 sold a metric fuck-ton, an amount equal to about 155 million units.

SEGA’s Dreamcast made a valiant effort with their console, shipping with a dial-up modem, giving the console itself internet connectivity. The Dreamcast utilized SegaNet, an online service where users could play games with other users online and download additional content for their games.

Despite the innovation, however, there were some serious flaws. While it did ship with a dial-up modem, broadband was the more widely adopted Internet access format at the time, which helped hinder the Internet capabilities of the consoles. It came packaged with a memory card, like most consoles at the time, but the size of the downloadable content was limited to accommodate the limitations of both the memory card and its Internet access.

The Dreamcast was a sleeper hit among game enthusiasts, but considered a commercial failure by most metrics and as a result, was SEGA’s last console. But in the ashes of the Dreamcast and SegaNet, a new competitor was born: Microsoft’s Xbox.

Microsoft is known as the company who created Windows, the PC operating that held a virtual monopoly on the market, so much so that Microsoft was actually “accused of becoming a monopoly and engaging in anti-competitive practices.”

The Xbox built upon the multimedia capabilities that the PS2 started. In addition to a DVD-ROM drive, it also allowed users to rip songs directly from music CDs onto the newly added internal hard-drive, with some games allowing players to use those songs as a custom soundtrack. All in all, the Xbox carved a neat little niche in the market, putting PC hardware into a console form-factor and brought multiple facets of PCs to consoles.

But while people came for the Xbox, they stayed for Xbox Live, a service going strong 15 years after its inception.

Where the Dreamcast and SegaNet had limited storage capacity and slow Internet connectivity, respectively, the Xbox and Xbox Live both had large internal storage which allowed for bigger files of downloadable content and was quick enough to download them at a reasonable pace. Much like the Dreamcast, Xbox Live allowed users to play games together via an Internet connection, with the added benefit of communicating via voice chat.

(the addition of voice chat had made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move)

Coupled with a polished online service and a marketing push in the way of gold labels on the covers of Xbox Live compatible games (e.g., Brute Force), the original Xbox managed to exceed the GameCube’s sales before the end of its life cycle by 2 million units, despite releasing a year later. A new competitor, overtaking an industry veteran, in a shorter amount of time. An impressive feat.

The quintessential example of Xbox Live’s capabilities was seen in Halo 2, a game so influential, The Province’s Paul Chapman wrote, “I am currently addicted to Modern Warfare 2 online play, and none of the games we play like this today would be as much fun if it wasn’t for the ground broken by Halo 2.” With voice chat, matchmaking and downloadable content, it’s hard to imagine what gaming would be like without Halo 2.

Building on that success, Microsoft came out with what would be one of the most influential consoles of the last 12 years. With the Xbox 360, Microsoft doubled down on their online services. With better graphics, downloadable media, apps, Achievements, a refined user matchmaking system, clean interface and an excellent selection of timed exclusive titles in the form of Xbox Live Arcade games, it’s no surprise that the Xbox 360 was one of the best all-around game consoles in terms of what it offered its consumers.

Home consoles are decades old at this point, over 4 decades old at the time of writing. For at least half that time, home consoles reigned supreme. But in 1989, Nintendo struck gold and produced something that would fundamentally change the way we consumed games.

A departure from the Game and Watch, where the game was the console, the Game Boy was Nintendo’s first crack at a handheld console where you could buy games and take them with you on the go. At the same time, Epyx created the Atari Lynx, the first color handheld gaming console. It sported a backlit display, something not seen in the Game Boy line for over a decade, an ambidextrous configuration and cable-based network capabilities.

While innovative for the time, the Lynx couldn’t keep up with the Game Boy. An excellent battery life, sturdy hardware and killer apps such as Tetris (who some would call the perfect game) were all things the Game Boy had over the Lynx, resulting in the Game Boy and the Game Boy Color sold over 118 million units, drowning the Atari Lynx.

The Game Boy Advance succeeded the original Game Boy, with hardware comparable to that of the SNES. With the help of SNES ports and original games such as various Pokemon games, Wario Land 4 and Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga, the console managed to sell 82 million units before being discontinued. This is including the Game Boy Advance SP, which fixed the GBA’s missing backlight issue. It could also be folded in half to save space, which is a feature that Nintendo would use in their next handheld console, the behemoth that is the Nintendo DS.

The Nintendo DS was the first handheld console to successfully utilize two LED screens, one of which being a touch screen. Allowing users “to play intuitively,” the touch screen offered a new touch input for users, creating new gameplay opportunities, in a mobile form factor.

Appealing to both casual and core audiences, the Nintendo DS had a wide range of games. Everything from a Tamagotchi-style game in the form of Nintendogs, to a mobile version of the widely popular Mario Kart series.

Before the end of its life cycle, the Nintendo DS sold a whopping 154 million units across all members of the Nintendo DS family. Just 1 million short of the PlayStation 2.

Sony was somewhat successful with their attempt at a handheld console. In fact, the original PlayStation Portable sold 82 million units, more than the industry saving NES and matching the Game Boy Advance. With more powerful hardware than Nintendo’s line of handhelds, the PSP offered a PlayStation experience on the go. While initially lacking support, the PSP was later supported by hits, such as God of War: Chains of Olympus, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, and Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.

This is, in no way, shape, or form, a comprehensive list of every console of the last 30 years. It’s not even every notable one.

What it is, however, is a list of all the consoles that were the best in their class in one way or another. Each one of them had their own “X” factor that allowed them to succeed. There is no denying that there is something about each of those consoles that made them special.

 

But what about current gen consoles? What is their “X” factor?

Stay tuned for more.

sph3re