Pure Parity? It’s a myth…

One thing I’ve heard a lot this week is “Parity”. The idea that video games shouldn’t be exclusive, or tied down to one console, and should be equal across the board. But this isn’t just a myth – it’s a dangerous myth, and one that fundamentally misses the importance of competition in the marketplace…

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Bayonetta 2 REALLY upset people.

Not that I care. My Wii-U is paid for already and I will be enjoying it on release day, but it isn’t the upset that bothers me. I get it. Even though games consoles are a predictive expense – that is, one you have many years to prepare for in some capacity (Savings accounts people! They do work!), it is the story of the human race that we put a lot off until its practically too late to realistically do anything about it. Like coursework. Or breaking up with someone. Or self-assessment tax returns. People panic – and when they panic, they often lash out and say it’s grotesquely unfair, when it isn’t unfair at all, is it? We’ve had six years to prepare for this day and another likely year for the PS4/Durango. It seems unfair because so many have put this off until, unfortunately, they realise that a brand new console is going to strip their budget down to its underpants. Blame it on Nintendo if it makes you feel better, but it isn’t really their fault.

Anyway, side-thought taken care of, as a result of Bayonetta 2 being a Wii-U exclusive, an interesting thought started to get discussed on many sites. The concept of Parity.

The dictionary defines Parity as “equality, as in amount, status, or character”. Parity as a concept in video games is nothing new, of course. We’ve had this at least once in every generation when someone dreams of the day that they don’t have to buy more than one games console in any given period of 5 years. But people want parity – they especially want it from their third party games, and many hope that someday, they will get that supercomputer that all three manufacturers want to be a part of.

But really, isn’t this just a pipe dream?

Let’s take the most obvious and realistic hurdle – that is, hardware. Like it or not, all three companies in this arms race – Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft – have their own competing hardware sources. So they’re not merely competing with each other, it is often the companies they are doing deals with competing against others as well. Competition is a massive part of why things happen the way they do – it is the competition that drives down prices, as the parts manufacturers and suppliers push onwards and try and outdo each other. It is competing against the other names in the hardware race that drives people to make deals to supply so many chipsets for so many consoles for a particular sum of money.

It isn’t that companies cannot work together or come to arrangements that are beneficial to both sides – Nintendo and Microsoft have had to deal with each other many times over the past decade since the Rare sale, and most recently they’ve had to negotiate the future of Killer Instinct. It can be done – of course parity could be possible. But then you have a problem that every market watchdog dreads – the lack of competition to drive down prices.

The problem with Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo sharing one platform is twofold. One, there is no other similar hardware competing to drive those costs down, or to ensure that there is cheap and at the same time capable hardware within the machine itself. This means the console itself would be equivalent to buying a £1000 gaming PC, and likely getting far less. The second issue is games pricing. If all three companies are no longer competing on price, it is in their own interests to ensure that the prices themselves don’t drop too fast. This could mean raising retail prices, or ensuring that digital sales are never sold at a loss etc. The reality of Console Parity is that without competition, we would be paying a LOT more for our hobby than we do now, regardless of what savings we feel we should be getting.

Nintendo know this better than anyone, as they have in Europe in the past been found guilty of price fixing for their own anti-competitive interests in the 90s, with Sega in tow. As Sega were pretty much dead by this point, Nintendo bore the brunt of this – and were fined €149 million, one of the biggest antitrust fines applied in the history of the Commission. This is why when it comes to Europe, Nintendo leave it to retailers to set prices – they sell the machine to them for a small profit, but ultimately it is who you buy it from that denotes how much extra you pay for it. Currently, it is believed that many retailers at a £249.99/£299.99 Basic/Premium pricing point will be making £50 profit for themselves on each sale. Greedy? Absolutely. But Nintendo more than anyone in the industry has no real alternative to allow this. It is part of the EU and UK laws that protect retailers and the anti-trust laws Nintendo previously fell foul of. It is why at E3 you tend to hear a lot of prices in Yen and Dollars, but rarely in Euros or Pounds.

Of course, it isn’t the fault of Nintendo that Bayonetta 2 is now a Wii-U exclusive because it is indicative of a serious problem in the industry. Sega are in trouble. THQ are in lots more trouble. Talk of an EA buyout continues apace, Activision have been cutting back – publishing houses are feeling the pinch of the global economic cooldown, and as such it doesn’t take a genius to see that Bayonetta 2, a game that sold in its Honeymoon Period 1.8 million copies to a potential audience of at the time 80 million people, wasn’t going to be taken on with any real gusto. Even Capcom and EA are talking of 5 million+ sales of their big name titles coming – Resident Evil 6 and Dead Space 3 respectively – in this honeymoon period (largely considered the first 12 weeks of sale on the market when retailers maintain their top prices). This is barking mad by any standard. It will end in tears, believe me.

And when these games hit, they won’t have parity. One party always tends to get the short straw – when it came to Skyrim, the PS3 has been abused tremendously. But when it came to Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, another big seller (although it baffles me why!), the PS3 got the better version compared to the X-Box 360. Final Fantasy XIII – and XIII-2 – were better on the PS3, but the Call of Duty games have tended to favour the X-Box 360. Why is this? Well, truth be told, the 360 can do PC ports very well and the PS3… not so much, as it has a unique console architecture. Games made for the PS3, or prioritised for the PS3, have always been better than the 360, which does PC transitions that the PS3 can only dream of.

It’s a case of being aware of what you are buying, and being aware that no matter how crummy and horrid the gaming market looks – at least it is to our own benefit, as consumers, that it is the way it is. Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony will always have their exclusives. That is what is supposed to make you WANT their consoles in the first place – the stuff you simply won’t get anywhere else. Microsoft want you to want Gears of War and Fable (although perhaps not the strongest of exclusives for me!). Sony want you to want God of War, LittleBigPlanet and Gran Turismo. Nintendo – the daddy of all console exclusive holders – has Zelda, Mario, Metroid, Kirby, Donkey Kong, Pokemon and many, many more. Nintendo have added Bayonetta to that list, which means it looks even better compared to the rest.

Which is partly why Nintendo gets the hate in this case, isn’t it? It’s a case of abject jealousy. People who wouldn’t ordinarily want a Nintendo console (which isn’t that many of you) may now be thinking, “Hmm.” And that is entirely the point. Even taking that away, if Nintendo hadn’t come in and picked it up, we’d NEVER have seen it. Nintendo got involved and now we are getting a sequel to a ridiculously game-y kind of game. Sony and Microsoft don’t do console exclusives nearly as well as Nintendo, whose lineup can roll off the tongue as a series of character names rather than complicated franchise titles.

There’s no parity there. When it comes to exclusives, Nintendo is in a league of its own and that’s not taking into consideration it has many other smaller franchises under its wing as well. And you want this company – Nintendo, with all its massive series and franchises, to somehow agree to a single platform ideal? I’d have thought everyone else would be against that – no-one else in their right and sane mind would want to willingly share a market with Nintendo, let alone a console. Even Nintendo know this and are desperate for the Wii-U to have more third party support, but it surely knows when its games start to poke through – HD Zelda, Metroid, Pokemon Battle, Xenoblade etc – third party support will die off, because they will look to an emptier and less competitive market for their bread and butter. It can’t NOT make these big games, because it will scare them off. But it can’t make them if it wants third party support. It’s… complicated, I know.

Even if one day parity happens, I think it will be Sony/Microsoft, and Nintendo will not be included. I know that sounds fanboyish but it really isn’t, because it simply wouldn’t be in the interests of Sony and/or Microsoft to do so. Microsoft have already been burned – at least twice – by Nintendo, who took Microsoft for a lot of money for ostensibly not much. Sony have had the indignity of now being hammered by Nintendo twice in the handheld space and once in the console space in the course of a decade. Neither side will have any real desire to include Nintendo into a parity ideal, because they know Nintendo has the ability to practically drown out every other game and concept. You don’t want a company with that kind of power sharing power. Like Animal Farm, all games are equal; but some are more equal than others. Nintendo could undermine their whole approach. Dominate. You want a unified front, not a dominant force making everyone assume it’s a terribly one-sided affair.

Nintendo are, as ever, kind of left alone in this. But that’s the problem when you have the sort of power and presence that Nintendo clearly does have. It’s lonely at the top, and Nintendo should be more aware of this than ever before. It wants others to make games for the Wii-U, UbiSoft already seem to be well on course for getting the best from it from the off (usually it’s Capcom, but they’ve been slacking in recent years) but so far the release schedule for the Wii-U is ports, lots of ports, and not a lot else for a while.

Parity is a myth. The market isn’t equal and very likely will never be equal. In the meantime, I’d suggest those who want games and are gamers do the sensible thing and start saving a little each month for the NEXT Next-Gen console lineup in 6-7 years time. Because it WILL happen. It’s kind of doomed to happen. And you can’t keep acting surprised when it is so painfully obvious this stuff is happening – we’ve had over thirty years now of this.

Why on earth do we believe it’s going to change now?

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