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The next gen consoles then and now

posted on June 3rd, 2008 by christian

Folks, it has been some time since the “next gen” was actually the next. I think it is about time to call it the current gen, and on that note, I think it is time to re-evaluate the three major players in the race. Much has changed, and my opinion of each console has changed wildly. Note that this is not an attempt to analyze who is going to “win” the console war. I think that it is quite clear that so long as there are games like Wii Fit and Wii Sports released at the right times, Nintendo is going to be unchallenged in total sales numbers. Meanwhile Sony and Microsoft will claim the Wii is not a true competitor, and then spin the numbers to make it look like they were the true winners. This already happens every month these days, and I do not expect it to change.

Right then, let us get started.

Microsoft
Then: While the Wii showed early signs that it would be a runaway hit, Microsoft’s efforts with the 360 seemed smart and honorable. They created a great controller, a sharp interface, and gave us achievements.

Xbox Live continued to be the gold standard for online play, and MS seemed to be doing a good job of reaching out for both AAA blockbusters and smaller, riskier games. As an overall offering, the 360 seemed to be the best bet for any gamer.

Now: MS has fallen greatly in my eyes, and rather quickly at that. The first and biggest problem for them was the Red Ring of Death fiasco, which they handled horribly. First they denied it, then they claimed it occurred in small numbers. Then they finally gave up and began mass replacements and extended everyone’s warranty. It cost them quite a lot of money, but they never did what a responsible company should: start an official recall. Since then, they have used new chipsets that should minimize or eliminate Red Ring issues, but the ordeal was so great (or at least made out to be, thanks to the internet), that many gamers have still have a bad taste in their mouths, and fear buying a 360 that may be a ticking time bomb. In manufacturing it isn’t rare to see build quality sacrificed for price and power, but perhaps you have gone too far when your console’s parts start to detach from the motherboard due to the heat generated from normal use. At that point you might want to do something, even if it means hiking up the price.

The Red Rings were only the beginning of MS’s foolery. Some time last year they decided to stealthily equip standard 360’s with HDMI outputs, leaving earlier adopters out of luck. The Xbox Live outage of December ’07 reminded us that our $50 yearly fee guaranteed shit. They have often messed around with the maximum file size for Xbox Live Arcade, meaning Core Pack users (if they still exist) are still screwed into buying bigger memory cards, and the rest of us have to hope the games we want can be squeezed down to the right size.

Now they are planning to delist the worst of Xbox Live games in order to clean up the interface. Their basis for decision? Partly sales, and partly Metacritic, which should not, but increasingly is being used for major business decisions. But wait, you will still be able to play and re-download these lost games that you have purchased. And maybe you can still buy them after jumping through hoops? Then what the hell is the point of this idea? I guess the answer is to declutter the Live Arcade selections without actually getting rid of any games. Of course, the easier solution would be a redesign of the 360 interface, which has gone from sleek to horrendously clunky now that there is so much content to access. But that would require admission that their interface sucks, something Microsoft has never been good at.

This whole ordeal is a matter of image. Indie developers whine about their games getting no exposure among the Live clutter, and MS can’t just tell them to shut up (especially when comments like that come from the guys behind N+. You put a Flash game on Live with some extra levels and are shocked most people would rather play for free). MS spend so much time convincing its users that this is the HD Era, and nothing else would suffice, and then they find it strange when consumers don’t want to play the arcade version of Contra? Isn’t that opposite what they have been selling us?

Microsoft has become terribly wishy-washy. They are clearly pandering to the lowest common denominator, but unlike the PS2, they won’t leave well enough alone. They constantly tweak and refocus so that the 360 meets whatever image they want that week. They also tweak to create the features their competitors came up with after the 360 was launched. That is a problem when it leaves players confused and/or out in the cold. Microsoft needs to determine what the Xbox brand is, and if the answer to that is “everything for everyone”, then they need to let more things run their course rather than rope it all together under the Genuine Microsoft Experience.

Sony
Then: Sony’s first few steps (perhaps its first mile) out of the gate were awkward and painful to watch. It seemed as if they could do no right. Their list of screwups is too long to mention, but suffice to say that Sony’s obsession with making Blu Ray an important format came at a cost. We didn’t want to pay for it, we didn’t like the lack of focus on quality games, and we didn’t like the disrespect towards PS3 users. The lack of a Dual Shock controller, the loss of backwards compatibility, and the initial lack of games on PSN all seemed attributable to Sony’s various agendas. Many here at videolamer came to the same conclusion – if Sony was going to give us a $600 paperweight and coast on the goodwill of their past success, we wouldn’t have any of it.

Now: Sony is the opposite of Microsoft. They had their jitters early in their console’s life, and are now starting to create a more consistent “Playstation Experience,” in the form of the 40GB PS3 and the PSP 2000. Of course, this means that new PS3 users and old PSP users have been screwed out of some excellent features, but if we have to deal with these annoying revisions, it is better to get it done now, especially if it means we’ll have some standard consoles for the next five years. Of course, that assumes there won’t be new models aside from maybe a PS3 slim, so Sony still has the chance to mess things up again. For the time being, however, the future is looking bright, if you can get past the lack of backwards compatibility (I still can’t).

For one, Blu Ray won. Or should I say “won“, leading to a domino effect that shows how fickle the business world is. In any case, now the inclusion of Blu Ray looks like less of a risk and more of an enticing feature, and the PS3’s ability to update itself means it won’t be obsolete when new Blu Ray features are added to films.

Surprisingly, the giant corporate monolith known as Sony seems to be growing a softer side. This Valentine’s Day Demo promotion doesn’t look like the Sony of old. Neither does this humorous t shirt. The company that once installed rootkits via music CD’s is the same that lets you install your own harddrive or Linux distribution (they even give you instructions!). As for features, we sure have been seeing a lot of them. PSN has been updated constantly, making it easier for PSP owners to get content without needing a PS3 (their pricing scheme is also the simplest; you pay the price of the game, and not for blocks of points that you may not entirely use). Features like Remote Play have also been improved since their introduction.

After all their arrogance, Sony now appears to be aware of their consoles’ strengths and weaknesses, and are attempting to create the best user experience (sans BC) they can. I recently read a Sony exec liken the PSP to a gateway platform to attract people to the PS3. I must confess that it has worked on me. I have used a ton of the PSP’s functionality, and I find it both slick and reliable. I have also seen the handheld evolve in the time I have owned it. This positive experience has been as important as anything in making me interested in a PS3 purchase.

I don’t think they can become the sales leader, but Sony has a the ability to perform incredibly well. Their hardware is powerful enough to last for many years, and future updates can allow them to remain feature rich and user friendly. This, combined with Blu-Ray, is why I feel the PS3 is futureproof. It took a while for the hardware to be viable, but it won’t need to be replaced any time soon. Sony can still make a very good piece of electronics when they want to. Microsoft seems to have no idea what to do with the 360, so now is the time for the Playstation brand to earn back some trust. Clearly I am giving them another shot, but I also intend to watch them with two careful eyes.

Nintendo
Then: Everyone went from constant jokes about the Wii’s name, to quickly realizing that Nintendo may be on to something. Not long after the console launched, it became the talk of the town, and people were not only rushing to buy it, but were experimenting with the Wiimote and making PC Mii applications. It looked like Nintendo may have actually found a bright and different future for gaming.

Now: Sales wise, I do not have any doubt that the Wii will continue to dominate the charts. Its wide audience and increasing aura guarantee that. But this does not make for a happy gamer.

I had three Wii games at the end of ’06. I had three Wii games just before Christmas of ’07. The same three games, mind you. What did I do in that year? I rented a few few things, but otherwise the console collected dust. To say the Wii has been one of the greatest disappointments I’ve seen in gaming would be to put it accurately. The controller has an incredible amount of potential, so powerful are its motion sensing abilities. Over a year after launch, I see no reason to believe many developers are going to get around to using the controller for anything worthwhile any time soon.

The Wii started off exactly wrong. The flagship gamer’s game was written entirely for the Gamecube, and so its motion controls were unnecessary. The two most interesting games to display the Wii’s potential were Wii Sports and Excitetruck. In the case of Sports, you would think that someone would have expanded on its idea with a quality game, but you would be wrong. Not even Nintendo has followed it up, and so a proof of concept pack-in game is still the standard.

Since launch, Nintendo’s own software has mimicked some of the patterns of the DS; good entries in classic series that have little or nothing to do with the cool new controls scheme available. You don’t need the Wiimote for Super Paper Mario, or Mario Galaxy, or Smash Bros. You also don’t need it for Mariokart, and considering the stories of old folks drastically oversteering with the Wii Wheel, perhaps it isn’t the best way to play it either. If they are going to build up this grand new control scheme, you would think Nintendo themselves would show us how it is done. Instead they choose to ignore it as much as anyone else.

But back to Excitetruck. Damn that game was good. And the successor to its “great use of the Wiimote” crown was Metroid Prime 3. Finally, someone showed us how to use the Wiimote to make a quality FPS. Since then, the only series to try and capture that magic has been Medal of Honor, which is all you need to say to explain how bad the situation is. The Wii’s innovation so far has been half-baked ideas thrown out and left to rot.

The rest of the Wii formula is minigames and shovelware designed to attract the idiots who scooped up the console in a tornado of trendiness. Not all of these sell, and so publishers whine about a lack of Wii sales. Sometimes they do sell, and those publishers decide there is no reason to work any harder on the platform. It is a vicious cycle that is made even worse by current industry mentality. As long as it remains a stigma to put a hefty budget behind something without gobs of shaders and no less than 720p glory, the Wii will never attract enough developers with the resources to do the console justice.

I blame much of this on Nintendo. They have been sitting on their hands this whole time. When are we going to see more parts and features for our Miis? Likely never. When are we going to see an improvement to the laggy online play? Again, probably never. Why did the flow of Virtual Console releases have to slow to a trickle while WiiWare was getting ready to go? Where is the assurance that WiiWare is going to continue with some quality games like Lost Winds, rather than be filled with the equivalent of paid Flash games?

With Sony and Microsoft, I can at least get an idea of what they might do and how they may react. Nintendo on the other hand is too busy drowning in their blue ocean to give a shit. It seems they are quite content to slap a smiling face on some advertising videos and prop them up all over retail stores to attract children and ditzy moms. They have no problem constantly releasing peripherals (like the gun shell and the WiiFit balance board) rather than work with the goddamn technology they originally sold us.

Some may say they still believe in the potential of the Wii, and that it will deliver. I’ve been banking on Nintendo potential for the last three console generations. I’ll pay attention for now, but I’m not holding my breath. Almost all of the major franchises have had a game on the console by now, which means either Nintendo will follow up with new and original content, or more paint by numbers sequels that won’t dare stray far from the mold. Guess which one I am banking on?

This console had me feeling like a child all over again, but I have been brought back to reality, where I am a disgruntled adult who blew his load over nothing.

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7 Comments

  1. Neil said on June 4, 2008:

    For an article that was intended to be non-bias, you certainly seem to have a strong disposition against the 360 and Microsoft. I have had my 360 since the day it released, and bought a 360 Elite on the day of its release and have experienced the Red Rings, I also had my console returned in half the time they estimated and received a free month of Xbox live for my trouble. For how widespread the Red Rings of Death issue was, it was managed following the only possible means they had. A mass recall would have taken years to resolve completely removing them from any “Current Gen.” system war. With the issue only covering a percentage of the systems, possibly due to levels of usage, or the conditions the systems were kept in, a full recall would have been impractical, and cost the company a lot more then it did. While I admit I am a massive fan of the 360 and the Wii, and was a great fan of the PS2, need I remind anyone of the laundry list of issues that plagued the PS2(including the laser alignment issue that claimed 4 of my systems), or the early spontaneous combustion issues with the PS3 power supply, without Sony even offering a sympathy card. As for the December Live blackout, I did what most of the gamers did; I played offline, and still had fun.
    In the end it all comes down to the games and gimmicks. Wii has plenty of gimmicks, each of which has given it an edge in the market, PS3 has its current fan base and the power of its reputation with the gaming community, and the Xbox 360 has its online community, quality of games, and exclusive titles. I will never mock brand loyalty, or the power of a good ad campaign. As a capitalist (in the purest form) I feel each company played to their strengths, played the market the way they do best, and that we won’t see any results to this console war until we see the sales figures of the next generation of systems. The People have already purchased their systems for this round, or have made the decision of who gets their loyalty, and are not very likely to switch now, but when the next gen releases we’ll see where the true loyalties lie.

  2. Christian said on June 4, 2008:

    Neil, your input is very insightful, but I wanted to make one thing clear. At no point in the article did I claim unbias. This was an attempt to evaluate how my own view of the consoles had changed since I had last frequently discussed them.

    To address MS in specific, the 360 has had some great years, and their initial vision was clear and strong. I do however feel that some of their recent decisions have been poor, and will cause trouble for consumers in the future. Their actions are in line with their software division in a way – they get an idea, but they wont’ change it (for better or for worse) until their competitor forces their hand, and when they do change, it is often in a kneejerk way.

    Sony, no matter how they flounder, still has enough goodwill in the industry for them to get away with a lot of stupid things without punishment, enough to allow them to regroup and reconfigure, which they have done to an extent with the Playstation Line. MS needs to have a strong and consistent stance against that, rather than a continually evolving Xbox line (especially since they brought this gen upon us prematurely) which again, I feel they had initially.

  3. shota said on June 4, 2008:

    Interesting write up of your experience Christian.

    The only comment I have is regarding Sony. Even if what you say about their “future proof” status pans out for Sony in terms of the technology that can be found in the PS3, what about the games? Maybe i’m out of touch with their new releases but last i checked they were still trialling in what I think should matter most to any gamer: the number of quality games on a system. For me this point renders all others mute. Including the one of “futureproffability.” How can you be future proof with crappy games. I hate to beat a dead horse but as long as games like Heavenly Sword represent Sony’s flagship efforts the ownership of the PS3 will literally be pointless for gamers like me.

    Mind you this comes from someone who hates microsoft and loves his PS2. But if you can’t deliver software the issue of hardware becomes irrelevant.

  4. randyrandall89 said on June 5, 2008:

    A fantastic article and a great read. I share your woes with the Wii- it deserves so much more attention. More excellence a la Prime!

  5. bruce said on June 5, 2008:

    Great article. I agree with pretty much everything you said. Nintendo has really dropped the ball on moving the motion sensing technology forward in regards to gameplay, and oddly enough other companies have done MORE with it than Nintendo since Wii Sports showed us what could be done with it. I think all of their major franchises shipped early in the Wii’s life began as Gamecube games, hence the lack of solid motion control that didn’t feel tacked on. Well, Corruption didn’t feel tacked on, but an FPS is a natural fit anyway. I’m wondering if we’ll see games in the near future from Nintendo built AFTER the tech was in designers’ hands that make better use of it. Maybe, maybe not.

    Sony will do all right with their pricey blu-ray player, but like the other poster said, software software software.

    Microsoft. Ugh. The internet has done MASSIVE amounts of development on sites that let people sift through reams of content and merchandise to find what’s likely to appeal to them and people with similar tastes and their best response is to just start removing things from Live? Has someone from MS ever even seen Amazon.com? It shows me something I might be interested in buying every time I visit and I don’t even have to ~do~ anything! Seriously, it’s time for MS to fire some people on the Live interface development team.

  6. Billy said on June 22, 2008:

    I own all 3 systems… I had highest hopes for Wii, Ps3 and 360 in that order when I learned of them. And so far I am in love with my 360 and my PS3, the Wii has been a dismal failure though IMO. With the PS3 and 360 I am buying new titles all the time and playing a lot. My Wii sits there. Is it me or is the system made for 11 year olds? I swear to Christ barring Resident Evil 4 every game on the Wii has been for kids. When my 9 year old cousin comes over to visit, she comes to my entertainment room with all 3 systems set up and she plays the Wii, but not the other 2. The wii is a joke, its just a gimmick system with a bunch of retarded Japanese accessorizing. I went MONTHS between even considering buying a game for my wii, the last one I bought was Brawl and even that is just a tired retread of the same N64 game I used to play with a few mini games and new characters. Jesus Nintendo is a joke.

  7. Joel Zank said on February 28, 2010:

    Do you want FREE Xbox live gold time?

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