Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The State of Play

As I sat in the office I was contemplating the impossible. Yes, I sat there with a Vita in my hands and I saw two possible futures. One saw me in bed with the enemy of an old friend and the second saw me sitting tiredly with a friend that had lost his way. You see I was contemplating buying the next PlayStation instead of the next Xbox.

I know; the Dreamcast was near and dear to my heart. Its brilliant design coupled with working online play, for the very first time showed console players the light. The first real controller with a joystick (suck it Nintendo your controller was garbage for non-Nintendo games), Sega was ahead of the curve. And Sony’s PlayStation killed it, killed Sega for that matter, more than a decade and Sega still hasn’t recovered from the debilitating debacle. But as I look at the horizon I wonder where Microsoft lost its way. They used to young and hungry. Making games, admittedly usually only average games, but at least they tried. These days Microsoft has no vision, no plan. They make money, and as Sony has demonstrated with its year to year losses, that is a nice thing to have but they’ve lost touch with reality. Apple and its mobile ilk are gaining paying, loyal customers with the new and improved IOSs’. Microsoft isn’t paying anything forward. So they lost the gamble with Rare, Bungie made them billions. The 360 was a disaster as a hardware platform and the sinking suspicion on everyone’s mind is that they have a huge security hole in their flagship Xbox Live, their veritable golden goose. So what? A champion brushes himself off and rises again. So why would I choose the PlayStation 4, you ask?

In many ways the choice I make next generation will be more a signal of what the other guy isn’t doing than what the one chosen is doing. In a perfect world I’d be able to buy all three consoles, but real life has a way of prioritizing where my money goes. Sony as a company has taken some rather big hits of late. The security hole on the PlayStation Network, their flagship online gaming network, was well published and likely cost them in the billions after it was all said and done. You know you’ve got problems when there’s talk of a Senate hearing. After all, Senate hearings about nothing important are about all Senators can agree on these days. Sony bet on 3D as well, and while they weren’t alone (I’m looking at you Nintendo) most Americans said meh to 3D. Big cuts in work force are all nice and good at cutting cost, but are unsurprisingly the easy way and will be paid for in the future. Even when Sony does innovate it doesn’t seem to produce results. Their online network is seen as second class to Microsoft, their motion control is playing second fiddle to Nintendo’s no matter how much better it really is, and they currently have no direct competitor to Microsoft’s Kinect. Even their strengths haven’t paid off, using a Blu Ray drive hasn’t mattered as gamers don’t seem to care about multiple discs and interchangeable HD’s have sent money into pockets other than Sony. All of that means that by generations end Sony will be lucky to be a distant second to Nintendo.

While we’re on the subject of Nintendo let me say what should be said, Nintendo made a grave mistake this generation. A mistake that is unsurprising given its position the last decade but still a mistake. You have to understand that Nintendo is the only company of the big three that makes its money primarily on games. So while Microsoft and Sony can hide losses from the Xbox and PlayStation behind the rest of the company, Nintendo has no such recourse. Nintendo has had a history the last decade and a half of having high quality self-made games and then junk from every other publisher. This generation should have been the perfect time for a 180 degree turn on that slide but it didn’t happen. Nintendo sold more consoles than all others but on the game side they were at best average. All of this meant that in the end the perception was that Nintendo made billions at the expense of not only publishers but console owners, who had nothing to buy in the long stretches between Nintendo games. This partial misconception is further bolstered by the fact that Nintendo games still sell very well years after their first published. While it is a testament to their high quality, the matter remains that in part it is a reflection of the lack of quality elsewhere. All of which is continued by Nintendo’s next generation console, a HD version of its current console. Whether or not it is a success will be overshadowed by the fact that Nintendo is basically selling the same console as its competitors five years after the fact. To top it off Nintendo seems to have shot itself in the foot in the handheld department. Between the rise of mobile gaming and handheld platforms announced before the newest iteration has even launched has left Nintendo with a market severely glutted as well as declining.

In the long term Microsoft can coast because Sony has been hemorrhaging money for the last four years and Nintendo is seen as a toy maker. If the big three were all Microsoft had to compete with their current stance would be fine, but that isn’t all the competition. The iPod, iPad, and Android are slowly eating away dollars that could or perhaps would be spent on gaming. While those platforms are for the most part casual, that might not always be true. We're constantly hearing about this company or that company that wants to make a high quality mobile title. Microsoft can coast now and bring in those big paydays, but the gaming industry like life, always follow a simple rule; you can pay now or pay later, but you will always pay.

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