Anatomy of a Generation Part 1 – The Consoles.

So, let’s begin with the solid evidence that this generation is, by and large, over. It is unlikely, short of annual releases like Call of Duty and Battlefield, that we will see many – if any – major new titles announced for 2013 and beyond as talent, funding and general consensus moves us towards the inevitable marching drum of the next generation – of the Wii-U, X-Box Next and Playstation 4.

But in knowing that the shift is already underway, it is a good time to look back on this generation. This generation has seen some incredible highs, some catastrophic lows and an industry in flux; steeped in tradition, unable to let go for the future. It has been a turbulent time, with predictions and guesswork made at the start completely rewritten as time goes on. So let us look back on this generation, and start with the consoles.

The Wii, the X-Box 360 and the PS3 were all very different beasts, and it was the first generation where power and performance was challenged by general market expansion. Nintendo gambled heavily on the Wii – the Gamecube, for all it did right, did plenty wrong too and Nintendo decided that keeping costs low, and expanding the current gaming populous, was a more sensible concept than chasing power and graphics. Nintendo were soundly written off as somehow conceding the generation – to the industry insiders, and analysts, Nintendo had lost before it had begun. A console steeped in last-generation technology? At a time when everyone was trying to push HD? How droll! How boring! How terrible, and the assumption was clear from all concerned – that this generation would be the last Nintendo saw.

Of course, we all know how this transpired. Far from being a failure, the Nintendo Wii sits at a hundred million units – forty million more than its rivals – and Nintendo made a profit on each one. Rumours of Nintendo making $10 on each console may not have been exaggerated – indeed, the Wii was such a marketing and sales success that for a brief period of time, Nintendo got away with the unthinkable. They put the Recommended Retail Price of the machine UP. Nintendo were struggling to meet demand, but demand held up for three years before sales dipped. Even the Playstation 2 did not enjoy such a healthy sales period for that long. The net result is that in just hardware profits alone, Nintendo are estimated to have made $1 billion. Just from Wii sales. Just the unit itself. That’s a lot of money – and Nintendo were just getting started. The Wii Fit was a lifestyle accessory that became a must-have piece of equipment, for young and old, thin and not so thin. It was a brilliant, clever pitch.

So too was the budget nature of it. Nintendo kept the price much lower than its rivals whilst still making a profit, and as it is only really in the last two years that HD has become the norm, Nintendo enjoyed a long period of sales where people were simply not ready to make the generational leap. With a stable of already established names, and some fantastic gimmicks, Nintendo went from being the rank outsider to the market leader, a position that many thought impossible for Nintendo as Sony were the monoliths of the industry.

Sony were in the strongest position of any going into this generation. The Playstation 2 was a runaway hit, and was still a sales monolith when the PS3 was announced. It had built its name and reputation on diversity of games, ease of use for players and developers alike and generally looking sleek, cool and of the moment. It seemed that Sony could do no wrong.

But the build up to the PS3 was fraught with perils and untold dangers, and Sony paid the price for their sheer complacency. The PS3 used technology that was ahead of the curve, but this came at a price – for everyone.

There was talk that the new Playstation was “a pig of a machine to make use of”. This is something that has been sounding out across the industry for some time, and Sony haven’t ever been able to escape it – especially not recently, as Bethesda struggled to get Skyrim working on it without so many bugs and glitches. It was a reminder to Sony towards the end of its generational lifespan that their next machine cannot repeat these mistakes. It is a lesson that Sony ignore at their peril.

But if the industry was not so sure about the PS3, it was the consumer base that would be most turned off. A series of catastrophically miscalculated PR events, gaffes and executives being allowed to “speak their mind” resulted in a hostility that no-one could have predicted. Sony talked about the $599.99 price coyly, saying that “People will pay it because they want the new Playstation”. There were other gaffes, some derogatory about developers complaining about the technology and Sony restricting some of the power for their first-party offerings, others mocking the consumer base they were pitching to sell to. It was this consumer base that would turn on Sony in a way that seemed unreal at the time, as it was this market that read the gaming press – this market that would be most likely to buy into the machine at the start. And whilst the PS3 did have good sales, it was – in terms of sales volume – a complete disaster.

It got worse as Penny Arcade took up the challenge set by Jack Tretton. In denial about stock not selling, from the retail sectors no less, he categorically denied that the machines weren’t selling, and offered a $1200 bounty on people who could find a PS3 on sale. Penny Arcade were very quick to respond to this challenge. In one hour, they had found eleven systems, which would have amounted to a payout for them of $13,200. And it wasn’t just Penny Arcade – people around the globe started taking pictures and sending in reports, each hoping to cash in on this incredible offer. It is unclear, and unlikely, that Sony made good on the offer, but remained an example merely a couple months after release of just how out of touch they had become.

The PS3 has had many other PR issues, but none more damaging than the failure of the PSN security systems, as hackers attacked and broke through without much of a problem. Sony were forced, eventually, to admit they had been hacked – and that peoples account details and possibly their credit card numbers had been stolen at the same time. As the bad news continued to dribble out at a slow, leaking pace, it resurfaced tensions that had been forgotten, and reminded the market just how complacent and lax Sony had become. Once the darling of the market, with the world at its feet, now invariably struggling to survive – with Sony posting year on year losses and a swindling market presence, it is the Playstation brand that will enter the next generation as the underdog.

Of course, Microsoft weren’t having a good time at the start either, such was their exuberance to get to market that they were forced to confess some minor technical issues were happening with the X-Box 360. And when I say “issues”, I mean of course the dreaded Red Ring Of Death.

And again, it was the PR that failed Microsoft as they denied for so long that it was a widespread problem, as failures and general disquiet rose and took over the internet. This presented a problem for Microsoft, and in the end they did indeed take responsibility, as well as offering an expensive free three-year warranty on their machines, something that was pretty much unheard of in the console market. It also required them to release a new model – the Jasper model – that would rectify any similar problems in the future.

Where Microsoft failed, they also succeeded in their X-Box Live concept. Although in recent weeks cracks have started to show from developers both commercial and indie, for a very long period of time what Microsoft were doing was both brilliant and revolutionary – with an achievements system and scorecard that made playing every inch of a game fun for those chasing higher scores. It became a compelling and insightful model for the industry to follow – which Sony eventually did.

Of course, to go onwards with this topic, I would need to branch out into part two. So I’ll wrap it up here. This generation in terms of the consoles and companies behind them has been a real shake-up, and predictions made have failed to hold up over time. Who would have guessed Nintendo would sell the most consoles?! Not even me, that’s for sure. And the downfall of Sony has been a spectacular thing to watch, but perhaps it may not be so good for the industry.

Part two (likely tomorrow) I’m going to talk about the controllers – The Wii Remote, the X-Box Kinect and that other Sony PR downfall, the PS Move.

Until then, sleep well!

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