Consoles

This blog has always covered a mixture of topics that interest me, but in the past year it's definitely become somewhat dominated by movies, with the occassional Anime post, culture/technology post or link dump thrown in for good measure. I spend a significant amount of time watching movies and indeed even reading or listening about them. So when you consider my tendency to arrange interests in parallel, it makes sense that I'd spend most of my blogging capital on movies. But with my recent purchase of a PS3, the whole enterprise has been upended. Most of my free time since its arrival has been spent playing games or watching Blu-Rays. As such, you can expect to see more video game related posts in the coming weeks and months. I might even get around to doing another round or two of my Video Game Retrospective that I pretty much abandoned about a year and a half ago (So far, I've only covered the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64 eras, so I'm still a few decades behind here). But today, I'm going to talk about the current generation of video game consoles.

Before I start, I should mention that I'm not what's referred to as a "hardcore" gamer these days. In the past, I've described myself as something of a "casual" gamer, but my experience with the PS3 has shown me that I'm probably somewhere inbetween those two poles of what is actually the false dichotomy of gaming (that I will nevertheless continue to use). My perspective on gaming really comes down to time, in that I don't like to waste any of it. It's valuable to me. On the other hand, I don't consider being entertained to be a waste of time. If a game really grabs hold of me (i.e. it's entertaining or at least compelling in some way), I don't mind spending a lot of time playing video games, even ones that don't seem to have any real "benefit."

A lot of complex games lose me because they start off and nothing meaningful happens. Perhaps I die a lot. Perhaps the story sucks (and there's no shortage of that). Games that have really steep learning curves puzzle me. In general, the way this type of game goes is that it kills me for about an hour straight, and I think "This is stupid, why am I playing this stupid game?" and then go off and do something interesting with my time. Good games usually give you some sort of introduction, building confidence and button-mashing muscle memory before thrusting you into the really advanced gameplay. This isn't to say that there isn't a place for games with steep learning curves, just that I think such games have to earn their bullshit. If you want me to spend hours upon hours learning combo movies so that I can defeat such and such boss, that's fine, but you have to make the learning process worthwhile too. And learning should bring some sort of tangible reward (and I'm not talking about unlockables here either). One other thing that bothers me is a lack of clarity, especially when I know I'm being railroaded, but I'm not really sure where to go (I'm looking at you, Metroid Prime III). Now, these complaints and others used to make me think that I was a casual gamer, but since picking up the PS3 and playing a few supposedly non-casual games, I'm not sure what to make of it.

Apparently, we're in the 7th generation of consoles (drastically simplifying with the main consoles of each generation: the first being Pong and its ilk, the second being Atari 2600, the third being the NES, the fourth being the Genesis/SNES, the fifth being N64/Playstation, and the sixth being the PS2). In this generation, three main consoles have emerged. I own two of them and have played the third enough to comment on it. Let's start with the most interesting system:
  • WiiNintendo Wii: Not content with competing along the same graphics/power trajectory of its main competitores, Nintendo went off in a wholly different direction. They did some minor upgrades to their previous generation console and then completely changed their entire controller scheme, focusing on creating new and interesting interactions rather than cutting edge graphics and technology. Instead of the typical button-laden video game controller, Nintendo created a remote-control-like device with motion-sensing abilities and relatively few buttons. At first, this seemed rather silly, and Nintendo really was taking a lot of chances with their strategy here. It wasn't uncommon for Nintendo executives to say things like "We really don't know how well the Wii will sell, but we think the market is ready for a change." I'm paraphrasing here, but it turns out that Nintendo has really been focusing on a few key business strategies called The Blue Ocean and Disruption. In short, their goal was to undershoot the market, pick up some non-traditional casual gamers, and build on that base to achieve dominance in the "hardcore" market. Will this gambit work? The Wii certainly does seem to be the winner of this generation, outselling its competitors by a significant margin (especially when you consider that the Xbox 360 came out a year earlier). Furthermore, their reliance on established technology and their focus on innovative interactions seems to be a lot cheaper than their competitors, leading to a much higher profit margin for Nintendo. It certainly seems like their strategic maneuverings have paid off.

    From my perspective, the real question is whether or not Nintendo can really sustain what it has built. As near as I can tell, their strategy is to corner the casual market, then move up the ladder to more complex games and interactions in an effort to pry the hardcore gamers away from the competition whilst retaining and perhaps growing their casual base. The only problem here is that I don't see how they're going to do that. So far, their Wiimote has done well, but in my experience, attempts to move up the ladder to more advanced games have been a bit rough. The closest they seem to have come to this is Super Mario Galaxy, which, while a very good game, also suffers from many of the things that more advanced gamers demand. Other attempts at this sort of thing have been an abject failure (at least to a gamer like me - and I'm again looking at you Metroid Prime III, as well as games like Zelda and No More Heroes, which were perhaps not total failures, but not great either.) I think part of the issue is the Wiimote itself. Don't get me wrong, I like the Wiimote, but a lot of what is done with the Wiimote seems gimmicky and sometimes unneccessary. Take Super Mario Galaxy as an example - there's nothing in that game that really pushes the boundries of the Wiimote or controller schemes in general. It would have been just as good with a traditional controller system. In his console rundown, Yahtzee makes a good point about this (emphasis mine):
    Nintendo is the oldest contestant still in the console race and it seems they've gotten bored with the usual brick-with-button-pads-attached-with-string model and is trying to mix things up with a fancy motion-sensitive system of controls, a bold effort perhaps to do away with the grind of random button mashing, but in practice it's only really replacing it with random stick waggling.
    Games that really do take advantage of the stick waggling features also tend to screw up your arm too, which leads game developers back to the grind of random button mashing until some sort of quicktime event pops up indicating that you shake your controller one way or another.

    In the end, I have to give the Wii credit for trying something new, and they've certainly done a decent job capturing the market they were looking for. The console is an absolute blast at parties and social gatherings... unfortunately, it's not so great at the single player experience. For instance, Wii Sports is a brilliant until you've played it alone for 10 minutes, at which point it becomes mildly boring. None of which is to say that Nintendo can't overcome the deficits of their system so far - they're certainly in a good financial place to address those issues and we're still relatively early in their run. Perhaps once they establish their base and truly attempt to expand, we'll see some really great games. But so far, I'm not so sure. It's a strange situation for me personally. I love the Wii, I love what it's trying to do, but I realized in December that I hadn't even turned it on since August, and before that it was relatively sporadic. The only game that really grabbed a hold of me during the summer was Guitar Hero III, but that had nothing to do with the Wii and indeed, I found myself frustrated when I learned that PS3 and 360 owners could download additional free songs to play. Since then, I've played some Mario Cart, which is fun, but otherwise basically the same as any other Mario Cart game (to me, it never got any better than the original for the SNES). I haven't played Wii Fit, but am only mildly interested in it anyway (at this point, I'd much rather spend my money on PS3 games/Blu-Rays). There were a few times when I decided to buy one of them when I was at a store, but of course, they weren't in stock and are generally difficult to find. Just like the Wii itself, now that I think about it (not a good way to start an experience with casual gamers who value their time). In short, it's a fun system, great at social gatherings, and it shows a lot of promise and potential. But in my mind, it still needs to deliver. Fortunately for Nintendo, I don't think they've really been trying to deliver that experience yet. Like I said, their strategy is to build a big base of casual gamers and then use that to target the more advanced gamers... and I think they're still targeting the base right now. By all measures, they're succeeding at that...
  • Playstation 3Sony Playstation 3: On the other end of the spectrum, you have the PS3: the expensive, overpowered, and cutting edge console for videophile nerds and people who can afford to take out a second mortgage on their house. After their dominance of the market with the first Playstation and then with the PS2 (Sony is the first company to "win" two successive console generations in a row), Sony simply continued to increase complexity and power along the same vectors that made it a successful brand. They've added some nice features along the way, including an included wifi adapter and free access to the PSN for multiplayer (both of which cost extra in the Xbox 360), but these are ultimately nothing new or unique. The PS3 also plays Blu-Ray discs, but for various reasons, that hasn't caught on quite as much as Sony had wanted, perhaps because of the costly HD-DVD format war, followed by general apathy regarding the difference between BR and upscaled DVD. I think that the general story with the PS3 is that they overshot their market. It's a very impressive system, but everything about it is cutting edge and expensive. Plus, to take advantage of its best features, you need to have an HD TV. For me, this wasn't that big of a deal, and HD is making inroads all over the place these days, but back in 2006, it was perhaps a bit too ambitious. The Xbox 360 also focused on HD, but Wii didn't, and I think that might be another part of the puzzle. The biggest initial issue for the PS3 was the astronomical price, which was twice as much as the Wii. Since then, prices have come down a bit, but it's still the most expensive console on the market. The only reason I finally broke down and got one was becaues of a whopping $150 credit if I got a Sony credit card, which put it on par with the Wii and the Xbox 360.

    I have to say, in the short time I've had the PS3, I'm impressed with the system. It has its flaws, sure, but by my estimation, I've already played my PS3 about as much as I've played my Wii. What's more is that I actually look forward to playing on the PS3. Even good games like Super Mario Galaxy became a chore towards the end on the Wii... I've already played through 4 games on the PS3, and have had more fun with them than I have with anything on the Wii. What's more, there are about 5 other games I still want to get for the PS3, and lots of stuff is coming too. The PS3 library of games could probably use some expansion (too many shooters and not enough new and interesting games right now), but there are plenty of games to keep me busy for now. And while BR discs aren't that much better than upscaled DVD, they are pretty impressive and there really is a noticeable difference. The online experience could use some work, but being free helps in that respect. Similarly, the relatively new Trophies system needs some work (are gamertags too much to ask for?), but it serves its purpose well enough. PSN and Trophies have a long way to go before they catch up with Xbox Live and Achievements, but they're serviceable at this point.

    Alas, the PS3's prospects don't look all that good. It's not going away, to be sure, but it also doesn't look like it has any chance of dominating either. Perhaps it could, but Sony seems rather hellbent on running it into the ground and I can't see them doing anything to propel this system past one of its competitors (despite having bought the system, I really don't like Sony very much - they suck). I suppose the one promising thing about the console is that it's advanced technology could mean that it will have a longer life than its competitors, but that's not much and it leads to Sony making baffling statements about how the PS3 is still for early adopters (2 years after it's release). Sony's behavior really is baffling. Consider their holiday strategy, which seemed to be to create a bundle for the PS3 that cost $100 more than their standard overpriced system. Because raising prices during rough economic times is generally a strategy for success, right? I understand that Sony is still losing money on the consoles, but their behavior is hard to defend. Still, I'm happy with my purchase and my enthusiasm doesn't seem to be fading. The general story here is that it's a great system that has to suffer through Sony's mismanagement and annoying tendencies. It shows some potential as well, though perhaps not as much as the Wii, especially given the Wii's long term strategy.
  • Xbox 360Microsoft Xbox 360: Of the three consoles covered in this post, I am the least familiar with the Xbox 360. From what I've seen, it seems to be a somewhat toned down version of the PS3 with better online community features. The Xbox was the first to market and thus it got a head start on everyone else... This didn't stop the Wii from steamrolling over the Xbox, but I do believe that's a significant part of why the PS3 still trails. By the time the PS3 came out, a portion of its target audience already had an Xbox. Some of them may have bought the PS3 anyway, but a common story is the one where people buy a PS3 and let it collect dust because the Xbox does what they need. The Xbox certainly seems to have the best library of games at present, including some pretty good exclusives. Like the PS3 library, there's not much that's really new or innovative here, but they've got plenty of solid games with traditional fun gameplay.

    A couple of catches though. First, while their online system is fantastic, it's also not free. There's also that whole red ring of death thing that will periodically brick your system. Obviously, every system has issues, but the Xbox issues seem to be more persistent and common.

    So what I can see here is a pretty straightforward console. It gets the job done, and that appears to be good enough for most gamers. On the other hand, it doesn't do anything truly innovative or particularly interesting (then again, I guess their online community might fit that bill), and like the PS3, they may have overshot the market (perhaps not as much as the PS3), thus making themselves vulnerable to the Wii's long term strategy.
The thing that strikes me about this generation is just how well balanced it is right now. Each console is targetting different markets, though they all overlap in some spots. The Wii is targeting casual gamers, former gamers, and non-traditional gamers, and it's great fun at social gatherings. It's also the only console to be doing something truly new and unique. The PS3 is going for a more traditional gamer audience who wants cutting edge graphics and advanced gameplay, but they're also the only console that is really going for the videophile audience. The Xbox makes a happy medium, targeting the standard gamer without pushing any real boundries. There's a place for all three of these consoles in the current market, which isn't something that was common in earlier generations. Of course, there's a lot of overlap in the indended audiences, especially between the PS3 and the Xbox. It's also worth noting that owning multiple current generation consoles (as I do) is becoming more and more common (I think that is a part of why the Wii is pulling ahead).

Each of these companies will try to gain ground at the expense of the other, and Wii's long term strategy seems like it could really cut into the Xbox and PS business, but in the near future, I see all three consoles flourishing. The Wii may win, but the Xbox and PS3 won't necessarily fail. What does the eigth generation hold in store? That might be where the Wii's dominance really asserts itself on the market, as I can't imagine that it won't be the primary influence on what the next generation will look like. It'll be a while before we know for sure, but I'm betting that Nintendo will be ideally positioned to retain the thone... but then, so was Sony during this generation, so who really knows?