Who will be the Big Wii-ner in the Console War?
When I was a child I really wanted an Atari 2600 to play video games on at home. My father on the other hand would not entertain the idea. He said that as soon as he bought one console something new and better would be released and I would want that instead. Of course, he was right and I recognized this. I also recognized because this scenario was not likely to ever change, my chances of getting a game console from him were slim. It wasn’t until several years later that I had enough money to buy a game console for myself, and as my father predicted it wasn’t long until I started saving to buy a different gaming machine. As I was waiting in line fourteen hours at a local retailer on November 19, 2006 to purchase the Nintendo Wii on the day it was released, and thinking about how I would move my one-year old Xbox360 to a less used television in the house, I chuckled a bit. My dad had the game industry and consumers figured out thirty years ago.
The competition to gain market share in the game console industry has been fierce since the introduction of home gaming machines in the 1970s. Historically console manufacturers have tried to outdo one another with regards to the graphics, performance, and innovative features offered on their consoles, while at the same time keeping costs for the hardware low and often below the actual costs of producing the consoles. Typically one manufacturer introduces a game console to considerable buzz along with a select few “launch titles.” Steadily, more and increasingly better games are released for the console as licensed software developers complete projects and better learn to program for and utilize the features of that particular piece of hardware. After the manufacturer of the console recoups some production costs, and when the sales of the console begin to slow, the price of the console is decreased once or twice over the next several years, which increases console penetration and further helps software sales. After five or six years, in the face of waning sales, increased technological developments, and the threat that a new console will be introduced by a competitor, an old console slowly becomes obsolete and new console is released to take its place. At any given time, there may be three or more consoles competing for consumer attention. Gamers often refer to battle to gain market share between console manufactures as the console wars.
While there have been many console manufactures in the last thirty years, several like Atari, Magnavox, Coleco, and Sega have fallen into obscurity. At the moment the three major manufactures are Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo and each has just released a new console. As several hundred dollars separate the costs of each of the consoles, and the hardware, performance, and additional features vary widely, each company has apparently assessed the market in a different way. Indeed, the only similarity between all three consoles is that they play digital games and also allow gamers to do this in a networked environment. Everything from the shape and function of controllers to the size of the machine has been renegotiated. In short, this is shaping up to be a historical and important battle in the console war. When we buy a game console this time around not only are we voting with our dollars for a winner in this current battle, we are also telling the market place directly about the culture of gaming and technology in the home and this promises to have a rippling effect for future consoles and other consumer technology.
The Strategy of Preemptive Strike: Microsoft's Xbox360
The Microsoft Xbox 360 was released during the Christmas shopping season in 2005, a year ahead of any of its competitors. On the surface this seems to be a sound strategy for selling consoles. After all, by the time the original Xbox appeared in late 2001, the Sony Playstation2 was already so entrenched in the gaming community that both Microsoft and Nintendo never caught up. Current worldwide sales for the Sony PlayStation2 are well over 100 million units world wide, while the Xbox and Gamecube have sold just 20 million units each. Given that the price point for each of the current generation’s consoles ranges from $250-$600 it would be cost prohibitive for many people the buy two consoles in a short time frame. In other words, Microsoft released the Xbox360 to gamers that still had money in their pockets.
On the other hand, it was not that long ago that Sega, a former powerhouse in the game console industry attempted to use this same preemptive strike strategy to reestablish itself in the market with the Sega Dreamcast. Unfortunately, when the Sony PlayStation2 was released to worldwide success, and Nintendo and Microsoft announced their platforms, Sega stopped production of the Dreamcast and pulled completely out of the console industry. Given that the Xbox was gaining momentum at the end of the last round in the council war, and that they have already sold 6 million consoles, this doomsday scenario is not likely. However, poor sales in Japan and other parts of the world might hint that Microsoft’s early lead can easily be surmounted by its competitors.
At first glance the Xbox360 does not seem much different than its predecessor. As with the original Xbox, it features a built-in Ethernet connection which allows gamers to compete against one another online, download demos of games, or purchase arcade style games, as long as they have a broad-band connection and pay for a subscription to the Xbox Live service. The Xbox360 differs from its predecessor in mostly subtle ways. It is stark white, whereas the original Xbox was black. The Xbox360 has limited backward compatibility with games for the Xbox, while the Xbox had nothing to be backward compatible with—though this did not stop hackers from playing games from other systems illegally on the Xbox. The Xbox360 also features two USB ports, wireless controllers, and facilitates HD-DVD playback with the addition of an HD-DVD drive sold separately—none of these features were available on the Xbox. Most notably, the Xbox360 features tremendous processing power, which translates into stunning graphics. In short, the Xbox360 is system designed for people who want to sit on their couch and play visually interesting games against people from around the world.
The Xbox360 is currently available in two different configurations and thus two different price points. The core system costs $300 and the premium system, which includes a 20 gigabyte hard drive and wireless controller, costs $400.
The Ultimate Weapon: Sony's PlayStation3
The Sony PlayStation2 was a jugernaut. Given that the PlayStation3, released on November 17, is backward compatable with this earlier system, it seems that it almost has to be successful. Moreover, as with the Xbox360, the PlayStation3 comes in two models and both offer more standard options than the Xbox360. The PlayStation3 comes standard with motion sensing wireless controllers, and either a 20 gigabyte or 60 gigabyte hard drive. The 60 gigabyte version also has accepts flash media such as compact flash, memory stick, or secure digital and features built in bluetooth networking. Networked gamplay is free for all users, though some downloadable content costs money, and both feature a Blu-ray capable DVD player. The switch to the Blu-ray DVD format is significant as this media can hold more information than stadard DVD formats used in previous systems, which means that games for the PlayStation3 can contain more content or graphic detail. Because the systems is also designed to disply high definition images at 1080p, it makes sense that early assesments of the graphics in PlayStation3 games is considered as good or better than the Xbox360.
In many ways the PlayStation3 seems to present itself as more than just a game console. After all, it allows users to easily display and store images from digital cameras that they have saved on flash media. It also gives users the ability to send instant messages and browese the internet from their couch. In essence, it is computer, cutting edge DVD player, and game console, hooked to the living room television.
Unfortunately, the downside of the system is the cost. The entry level PlayStation3 sells for $500 and the premium PlayStation3 sells for $600. Indeed, a person could purchase an Xbox360 core system and Nintendo Wii for less than the cost of a premium PlayStation3.
Gorilla Warfare: Nintendo's Wii
People who are really committed to a particular game or console are called fanboys. I often hear this term used most when someone is referring to a die-hard fan of something Nintendo related. Truth be told, I didn’t grow up a Nintendo fanboy. In the mid eighties when Nintendo released the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), I opted to buy a Sega Master System and to this day still defend its technical superiority to the NES. I did later own a NES and other the other Nintendo systems that followed it, and fondly recall playing many Nintendo games. Nintendo has been making quality consoles and games (Donkey Kong, Mario Brothers, Metroid) for over twenty years and the Nintendo Wii is possibly the best that Nintendo has given us.
Before the Wii was released on November 19, media sources projected that upon launch there would be enough Wii consoles for everyone who wanted one on the first day. After all, Nintendo was shipping one million consoles for the launch. As I watched person after person be turned away unable to get a spot in line for the right to purchase a Wii, I quickly figured that consumer interest in the machine would outpace the supply. While we all expected this to happen with the PlayStation3, this was a shock for many people hoping to get a Wii.
The Nintendo Wii does not have fancy high definition outputs, or even feature a DVD player; the machine only plays standard Wii discs as well as the smaller Nintendo GameCube discs (DVD functionality is slated for 2007). Nor does it have a massive hard drive or slots for every type of flash media available; the Wii comes standard with only 512 megabytes of flash memory and a slot that accepts secure digital media and two slots that accept GameCube memory cards. What the Wii lacks in storage space and versatility, it makes up for in other areas. The system is universally praised by gamers for the innovative motion sensing controllers, which results in people literally standing in front of their televisions and pretending to play tennis, jump rope, or milk a cow. The Wii is also capable of connecting to the internet via a built in wi-fi connection—something only the premium PlayStation3 does. Online, gamers can play against one another, browse the internet, and send messages all for free. For a relatively small fee, gamers can also download classic Nintendo games.
In short, while the Microsoft and Sony entries in this console war emphasize high fidelity and high tech everything, the Nintendo entry emphasizes functionality and fun at every level. As the smallest of the three consoles it fits nicely next to a television, yet it performs the most essential functions of the other two consoles, and all for $250.
Who will Win this Battle?
About every gaming magazine or website I read tries to deliberate on which of these systems is the best. The popular answer seems to be that the best machine is ultimately an individual decision based how a person intends to use a game console. For example, if someone is interested in online gaming they should buy an Xbox 360 because of the already established online gaming community. If someone is interested in watching high-definition movies they should buy a PlayStation3. If they want to be active while they play games or like classic games they should buy a Wii.
What this means, in effect, is that our technology habits will dictate which console will come out on top, and this will in turn dictate the features that are supported in future consoles. Obviously, it seems that some features like playing games online against friends is something that is likely here to stay because all consoles offer this. But do we really care about high definition DVD, motion sensing controllers, or additional media slots? Do we want to send email and browse the internet from our televisions? Do we want to play online for free or pay a subscription fee? How much are we willing to pay for a game console? If it helps the reader's decision making process any, I have been a Nintendo fanboy since November 19th...and I don’t regret it.
Nate Garrelts is Assistant Professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan.