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A Critical Look at Today's Videogame Landscape and the Possibilities for the Future

My Nintendo Wii U (2013)My Nintendo Wii U (2013)I've been quiet on the blog front of late as I've been focused on writing three new books for 2013 (and hopefully do what I can to help get the documentary out as well). However, with the latest NPD figures for videogame consoles being dissected across the Web-o-sphere, and Sony likely firing the next salvo for next generation platforms with their upcoming PlayStation-centric announcement (and Microsoft to follow soon thereafter), I thought this would a good time to break my silence and chime in with my perspective on the current videogame-centric happenings.

First off, it's clearly not looking good for pure videogame stuff with three lackluster hardware launches in a row: 3DS, Vita, and Wii U. The 3DS recovered sufficiently with a dramatic price cut that was very much against Nintendo's previous corporate policies that discouraged losing money on hardware, which allowed it enough time to hold out for the software situation to pick up. While it will never reach the sales heights of the blockbuster DS, considering how much competition both direct and indirect there is now versus then, it should still end up selling quite well when it has run through its complete lifecycle.

On the other hand, it looks like the Vita is a lost cause, which is sad to me because not only do I have a book out that covers the platform, but also because it's actually a really solid handheld, made all the better with the newly unleashed PlayStation Plus option ("free," top quality games!). Similarly, the Wii U is not catching on anywhere the way that it needs to, not even Japan, which has always been Nintendo's stronghold. All the love over there appears to be relegated to the 3DS. In fact, the Wii U only sold around 55,000 units here in the US, give or take, in January, the worst sales performance by far for a console since before the Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii generation started back in late 2005. Hopefully Microsoft and Sony throwing more power at the problem with their forthcoming successor consoles and taking slightly different approaches/strategies to the present market situation will turn the tide back to purer videogaming's favor, but if not, then what we feared all along may very well already be happening, with all the attention turning for the foreseeable future to smartphones and tablets, as well as low cost, low risk Android-powered gaming devices (and who can forget the squeeze that may soon be felt from the PC side, with directives like the Steam Box). Naturally, we'll know for sure after the holidays of this year, but the clock is definitely ticking. Of course for me, I've pretty much always been platform agnostic, so it technically doesn't matter to me since getting one's videogame fix is easily served by countless devices, including the PC, but I'll always have the softest of spots for platforms that put videogames first, rather than as a secondary feature.

There has been a general call - and one that's been renewed of late due to the Wii U's struggles - for Nintendo to release their games on smartphones and tablets, with the theory being that they'd make a killing. The problem for Nintendo is that would be admitting defeat and would not only spell the end of the Wii U, but also irreparably hurt the 3DS. It's always an option for Nintendo to go this software-only route a la Sega, but the reality is it's truly a last resort that would forever change the company, with the obvious caveat that while it would spell the end of their hardware ambitions, they would no doubt remain one of the most beloved and profitable software companies on the planet.

Certainly Nintendo has been at fault with the Wii U thus far, pricing it perhaps higher than it should be, not differentiating it enough from the 360 and PS3, and not even making it clear to the general public how it's different from its predecessor, which lost consumer favor well before the Wii U's release despite winning the generation's sales war.

Despite the snobbery of some videogame aficionados who still like the rallying cry of touchscreens not being a substitute for traditional controls and finding every possible backdoor explanation on why their fanboy-driven devotion should be validated by the rest of the planet, the point remains that smartphones and tablets sell better than anything else out there and have cut into the sales of anything even remotely similar, be it videogame- or computer-related. In fact, successful smartphone and tablet platforms can move more units in a single quarter (three months) than a successful console or gaming handheld can in an entire lifetime (greater than five years). While it's true that a device built first for gaming is generally better in most cases than a device that has gaming as a secondary function, the point remains that history has shown that being good enough is often all that it takes, and we've long since passed the point of good enough with smartphones and tablets. In fact, many of those same videogame snobs put many gaming hours into their own smartphones and tablets in addition to - and sometimes in lieu of - the "superior" console or gaming handheld experience, often taking great pains to turn those "limited" (actually, incredibly flexible) portable devices into the ideal traditional gaming experience, complete with "real" controller and TV output. If that's not a case of "do as I say," and not "do as I do," then I don't know what is. You really can't have it both ways. If we're to enjoy all types of gaming, then it's not unreasonable for the non-enthusiast to be satisfied with just one solid aspect of the possible gaming options, which again are those pesky smartphones and tablets that are easy to take with us everywhere and have a frightening rate of increasing technical sophistication that traditional videogame console and handheld lifecycles - which are measured in many years rather than many months - can't possibly match.

In any case, as was mentioned, it's well known that once you reach the point of good enough, that's often enough. It can then be argued that perhaps, despite the protestation of PC gaming enthusiasts who want every ounce of their powerful rigs tapped, the Xbox 360 and PS3 hit that good enough point, which is why their particular generation has lasted so incredibly long and both platforms are outselling the Wii U (for now). The games look good on hi-def displays, sound good, and offer solid multiplayer. They have huge libraries and are known quantities, plus they do other things well like Netflix. In other words, what's the incentive to the mass market to call out for an upgrade? Again, unlike the Wii U to this point, the next Xbox and PlayStation consoles need to make a case why we, the greater we, not the fanboy, should care. I don't envy these mega corporations the task.

It's unlikely all three will last all the way through another generation like the one we're wrapping up here in year eight. None of the three companies will have the cash reserves to prop up a device consumers don't want, meaning we'll likely see at least one of the three drop out while one or the other two press on. Whether we'll have anything after that from a pure gaming standpoint as we know it is anyone's guess, and whether it will even be necessary considering what is rapidly evolving on the smartphone and tablet sides of the equation is also up for debate. I for one hope at least one of them, preferably two of them, figures it out.

What are you thoughts on this subject? What do the big three hardware videogame companies need to do to make their next gen systems a success? Is it already too late?

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