Here's What I Think (Console Wars)
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I first got into writing when the PlayStation 2 launched in Japan, so this upcoming generation is really the first time I've gotten to experience the buildup to the "console wars" first hand from a journalist's perspective. Forums, blogs, and gaming sites are filled with arguments and predictions on how things will play out. Some people think Sony will continue to dominate, some people think Microsoft's head start will get them the top spot, and a few think Nintendo's new strategy will return them to their former glory. I could care less who "wins", but here’s what I think: about the upcoming "console wars".
Ignore the fact that I write for a Sony-centric site. I've owned just about every console since the NES, and I've always found something to like - even with the 3DO. Obviously it would be good for business if Sony continues their dominance, but personally, I just don't care. The 360, PS3, and Wii all have their strengths, each one is capable of delivering something unique, and I feel like each one will end up appealing to a different group of people.
Let's get this out of the way first: it's too expensive. Sure, the average gamer is 29 years old (just like me), which means they make more money than a teenager, which in theory, means they can afford the PS3's $599 price tag. The problem is, 29 year-olds have wives, bills to pay, possibly kids to feed, and to be honest, they're not hardcore enough to "need" the latest and greatest system right away. Most of my gamer friends had to wait until the PS2 price dropped before picking one up, and they make a heck of a lot more than I do. Part of the reason for the system's high price point is due to the inclusion of a Blu-Ray player. I don't know who did the market research, but nobody I've ever spoken to could care less about Blu-Ray or HD-DVD. Most people don't own high-def televisions, and many of them that do, don't utilize the high definition capabilities. 1080p? Don't get me started...
So what does the PS3 have going for it? There's no denying that the PlayStation brand is a strong one, so there are going to be some people that buy it based solely on the name. Perhaps the PS3's biggest strength is that it is the most powerful of all the systems. This won't be obvious right away, but as anyone who owned both the Xbox and PS2 can tell you, the difference in capabilities was readily apparent by the end of the consoles' life span. At $399, the 360 isn't all that cheap, and many people that are only going to buy one console, are going to buy the one that's the most powerful. First-party software won't be a strength (Jak and Daxter, and Ratchet and Clank fans don't have $599 to spend), but third-party support will once again be one of Sony's biggest selling points, making timed exclusives imperative.
Being first out of the gate was a key part of Microsoft's strategy in challenging Sony's dominance. By the time the PS3 launches, between 8-10 million Xbox 360's will have been sold. This is no small number. Even if the $399 price point stays the same, it's still $200 less for a console that to the casual gamer, is delivering the same experience as the PlayStation 3. You might be able to talk your parents into an Xbox 360 for Christmas, but it's going to be a tough sell to convince them to drop $600 (without games or accessories) on a PlayStation 3. Xbox Live is finally delivering on Microsoft's promises, with downloadable content readily available, free game demos, and of course Xbox Live Arcade being a huge hit. Sony says they'll be offering something similar, but they promised that with the PS2, so we'll have to wait and see.
Microsoft needs to get some exclusives locked up between now and Christmas, and they really need Gears of War to set the gaming world on fire, or else people are going to think back on this generation, where Sony delivered the big-name exclusives, and the Xbox's library was virtually the same minus the Metal Gears and Grand Theft Auto games. If Sony gets their online act together, I'm not sure exactly what the 360 is going to be able to offer gamers that the PlayStation 3 can't. This is never a good thing when you're going into a battle as the underdog.
Nintendo saw the writing on the wall, and it basically said that they had no shot at becoming relevant again unless they shook things up. I loved the GameCube, but it has been a dead system for over a year now, and outside of Nintendo's first party games (many of which weren't up to the usual Nintendo level of quality), the software lineup was a nightmare. After the success of the DS, I'm smart enough not to count Nintendo out just because they are delivering an underpowered machine with a unique control system and a terrible name, but I'm not hearing about any revolutionary gameplay that's going to sell systems. Of course, this was the same scenario with the DS, and it has turned out fine. If Nintendo can come out with a few truly unique games, and make their system appealing to the casual and even non-gamer, I think they could do just fine this generation. A price point that's certain to be less that's less than $249 isn't going to hurt things either. Nintendo's decision to not support high-def may hurt them in the long run, especially three or four years from now, where their games are really looking rough compared to what we'll be seeing on the Xbox 360 and PS3. Graphics aren't everything, but they do count for something. Would you rather play Gran Turismo or Gran Turismo 4? Exactly.
So there you have it. I can't predict a winner, and to be honest, I don't know if there will be a clear cut winner. Sony's absurd price point guarantees they won't have the same market share that they enjoyed this generation, the 360 doesn't do anything that the PS3 can't do, and Nintendo just might be on to something if they can deliver a unique experience with the Wii.
6/29/2006 Aaron Thomas