Tuesday, July 15

Console Wars!

I was going to discuss what makes a game good today, but as that's a multi-part discussion and isn't too dependent on news I can probably delay it until tomorrow, or after E3 if the news from there continues to be interesting and controversial.

Square Enix announced that Final Fantasy XIII will be multi-platform today at their E3 presser. This is significant because it's kind of a first. Good for them.

I never really understood the 'console wars' tag anyway. We don't have fridge wars, TV wars, washing machine wars or fan heater wars (unless you count that the current gen of consoles can double as fan heaters), so the very idea of console wars is ludicrous. It's not helped by the largely baseless wankery of a variety of Microsoft and Sony somebodies. And then there's the gaming media - satisfying the fanboy demand apparently - because the online media needs to generate clicks to get paid.

We may have format wars - blu-ray versus HD-DVD or plasma versus LCD - but the context, meaning and motivation for this situation is entirely different. In a market economy everything is in competition with everything else, but we don't go around claiming that gaming is eating into the DVD market…oh wait, the games industry makes all sorts of these claims. Other devices rarely make such claims, the fridge versus gaming console debate hasn't really reached a climax yet.

I understand the concept behind console exclusives and now, more than ever before they have meaning. Each of the current generation of consoles is quite different, their core build is different, the tools by which they operate are different, and at the moment the markets that they're capturing are quite different too. Developers, therefore, have to make a decision, whether to spend huge amounts of time and effort on developing for many diverse platforms in the hopes that they will increase numbers of actual sales (enough to offset the costs), or whether to specialise knowing that their sales numbers could be higher if the reached more gamers through that other gaming platform. Of course, some developers just want the one console for this very reason, it would make these decisions redundant.

If the developer, such as Epic Games developer of the Unreal Engine, has the hardcore market in mind, then it's a pretty basic answer. They can specialise in either of the 'hardcore' capable machines. This is because most hardcore gamers (hardcore is such a crude and derisive term - I'm going to change it and call 'us' dedicated gamers instead!) have both. However, the fanboy quotient means that some people will refuse to buy one or the other not on reason, but emotion, irrational, baseless, mindless emotion. And it is these individuals who are likely to play games like Unreal Tournament, they are the target market of Epic, so it's reasonable that Epic target both consoles. It's also reasonable that they maintain their stance of not developing for the Wii.

I also understand the developer's need to go multi-platform. Now, more than ever before, game production costs factor heavily into profitability. Thus, to recoup the investment gaming companies must consider how they can increase their sales, one such way is to deliver the product to as many consumers as possible. The multi-platform approach. This will tend toward games like Alone in the Dark which has all this potential but it is unrealised for every single console format because it wasn't built with either the technology or the audience in mind.

Here's where it gets interesting. Gaming is in a boom state at the moment. The world economy is experiencing difficulties, difficulties that will not be resolved anytime soon. What can gaming companies do about it?

Let's start with the hardware companies.

Nintendo has done it right. They have taken a long hard look at what they were doing wrong with the Gamecube (keeping up with the Joneses) and focussed on what it's really about, gaming.

Sony's arrogance really dug a deep hole for them. They completely misjudged developers and the market and they're paying for it now. Their product has probably the best overall feature set, the best overall specs and if they hadn't completely misread how difficult it was to develop for (given existing frameworks) it'd be doing much better than it is. Ironically, they're also failing to properly differentiate the product from their competitors, and it is this that is holding them back more than anything. They still don't know or understand what it is that they have, how to sell it, and who to sell it to. A market has developed for it, so they have a chance now to define that market, strengthen the relationship they have with it, and diversify by building strategies around other markets. It doesn't appear that they've quite grasped this yet.

Microsoft also suffers from arrogance. Arrogance born of gaining an headstart and by being unchallenged in other markets. Right now they're last in all territories, and if they can't stem that tide and turn their fortunes around then they're fucked. Problem is, in order to get to the leading position they've created what is essentially a shit box. The components are cheap, easily broken, it's missing the functionality, quality and versatility of its competitors, at least from a manufacturing perspective, and has instilled a perception of poor quality in the great unwashed masses. Somehow this hasn't had the impact on the Xbox that it would in other consumer products and Microsoft can thank the ease at which developers have in developing games for the console and the sheer desperation of dedicated gamers. The headstart helped a lot here too. Their target market (the dedicated FPS / racing gamer) is largely saturated, and if they don't broaden it then sales will drop significantly rather than steadily decline. The RPG market is clearly their next choice, but time will tell us whether it will be enough.

Given this situation, I think the days of the multi-platform gaming may be numbered. At least those sorts of games developed by a single developer. Smaller specialist developers who focus on a single platform now have an opportunity to 'port' existing IP to alternative systems and build an entire business model around helping larger development houses increase overall sales by broadening the available market. It's just that, so far, projects handled in this way are sub-standard. Alone in the Dark for the Wii is an example.

I know the gaming industry professionals are saying that the day of third part exclusives is in the past, but this may be erroneous. The size of games, and the commitment it takes to make one on current generation consoles means that developers lack the versatility required to properly capture the unique qualities of a given machine, and the preferences of each machine's market.

Time will ultimately prove this one way or another, but while we wait let's speculate.

What do you think? Are you going to buy all the consoles and therefore have your pick of the litter, or are you going to stick with one and rough it with the exclusives?

Before you answer think about this…

Many dedicated gamers are choosing which copy to buy based on what differentiates it on a given console. Quality, downloadable content, controller preferences, hard-disk space, and price are among the many factors gamers cite in forums for choosing which console to buy a game on. I couldn't play a game like Soulcalibur IV on the Xbox controller so I'm getting it for PS3, for a more specific example.

The other thing I want you to think about is, Sony has recently announced that they're going to duplicate the Nintendo business model and focus on delivering high quality first party products. What does this mean for 3rd party developers and publishers? A mass migration to Xbox perhaps? Or has the horse already bolted?


BRK said...

As an X-Box owner, I think that MS has more foresight and planning into the console than you give them credit for. Consider the recent developments announced at E3 - direct download of games to the X-Box HD, a redesign of the Dashboard and X-Box Live to reflect a commitment to multimedia and gaming content. The console is also drawing a wider variety of games to it.

I do agree that the 360 was rushed to market, but according to VGChartz.com, it's selling quite well outside of Japan; it maybe that Japanese developers will have to focus on X-Box development or ports if they want to cater to the European and US market.

I was thinking of getting a PS3 to get FFXIII, but now it's multi-platform. That was a definite loss for Sony, as I suspect many gamers were waiting for FFXII in order to pick up a PS3. At this rate, by backing the X-Box horse, I'll still be able to play a decent range of games that aren't shooters or driving games.

nobody said...

brk you may be right about Microsoft's planning, not that it's really discussed at much length in my discussion (credit or discredit), and I certainly never suggested at any point that they weren't committed to "multimedia and gaming content." Are you going to try to suggest that Microsoft are humble?

I agree that it's still selling quite well, just not as well as the other two, and I wondered whether that situation could be reversed or would continue.

Yes, you will still be able to play a decent range of games. Still, I wonder whether you're actually interested in addressing any of the questions I raise or in defending your precious Xbox.

May I ask why you bought an Xbox, instead of one of the other consoles? Does your choice impact on your gaming choices, such as whether you would like to be able to play exclusive titles on other machines? If so, then what do you do about it, if anything?

BRK said...

I thought I addressed your question about what consoles I intend to get; X-Box for the forseeable future, due to games coming out for it and MS's futureability planning for it.

Micrsoft are certainly not humble, but they've put their weight behind the X-Box and their usual corporate shenanigans (e.g. ensuring that Squeenix will develop FFXIII for X-Box 360) will guarantee the console's success in the Western market place, if not Japan. I don't see the PS3 overtaking it anytime soon for West. I think the Wii will continue to do well, but it's cheaper and is aimed more families/kids/casual gamers.

Re: your comment on Sony's investment in first party exclusives. It doesn't mean much to me (as a prospective PS3 buyer) until they put out a 'must have' game, but it'll have to be better than FFXIII at the moment, as that was going to be my reason to get a PS3. Legend of Dragoon (a Sony RPG for its earlier consoles) was okay for example, but I'm not hanging off the rails for a sequel.

With former mainstay PS2 franchises coming to X-Box, there's less of a reason to switch over. For example, Silent Hill 5 will be on X-Box. And let me mention FFXIII again.

I primarily got the X-Box in order to play Mass Effect. I like RPGs but prefer consoles to PC gaming. I loved KOTOR I and II and wanted to support what Bioware did next. There's enough RPGs on it (Eternal Sonata, Lost Odyssey) to make the investment worthwhile, while there aren't enough reasons to justify me purchasing a PS3 just yet. Most of the games I'm interested in the pipeline are cross-platform anyway and will end up on X-Box. For 'must play' games on a PS3, I'd certainly consider getting one or perhaps just borrowing it from a friend if the game is short enough (e.g. MSG4).

nobody said...

Gotcha! For you, it's ALL about the games.

I'd also like to complement you on keeping a level head when I baited you with the phrase "precious Xbox". I'm grateful that my first commenter is / was rational. And I apologise for being antagonistic toward you.

Oh, and I can't resist. MSG4 - extra tasty!