Totally calling people out on this.
Does anyone remember 2006?
It seems like a lifetime ago now. But it’s important we start at the beginnings of the generation we’re just about to leave. Perhaps it’s best to start, as I always seem to, with Nintendo. Who, after a full showing of the Wii, found itself at the mercies of the press, eager as they were to write Nintendo out of the market. With the wounds of the Sega Dreamcast and its discontinuation in 2001 still very fresh in the minds of many, there was a sense that the old guard was on its way out. And that, sadly, meant that it was open season on Nintendo. With such staple headlines such as, “Nintendo Concedes Defeat!” and my personal favourite, “Nintendo Wii Stinks Wii-Eww!” (foreshadowing is my favourite kind of shadowing!), the Wii itself was soundly dismissed by many as the final machine Nintendo would ever make.
But of course, it wasn’t. The darlings at the time – the PlayStation 3 and the X-Box 360 – instead found themselves stuck. From the outset, the PlayStation 3 was plagued with problems. Controllers that didn’t function, a high price point and a Public Relations campaign that may as well have been taking a blowtorch to their genitals, the sales of the PlayStation 3 were painfully slow, not helped by a lack of software and third-party support at the time. Openly mocked by Penny Arcade, Sony found itself the butt of jokes – especially when compared to its rival, which turned out at the time not to be the X-Box 360, which was also plagued by a lack of support and technical problems. We forget now about the Red Ring of Death, how Microsoft denied it was a problem until, in a PR disaster, it had no choice but to admit it as a design fault with the machine. This resulted in a humiliating compensation package and automatic three-year warranties for its consoles, and a redesign of its hardware to erase the aforementioned defect; The Jasper Model.
Both machines found themselves being outsold dramatically by the Nintendo Wii – which had a firmware hiccup or two, but generally speaking sparked a sales spike that was very unusual in the video gaming industry. Indeed, Nintendo were stunned to find that they could put the price of the Wii up, and it would still fly off the shelves – which they did. And it did. The Wii got plenty of third-party support at the time, perhaps not the support many wanted to see but support nonetheless.
This led to Sony making a huge mistake – the PS Move. An expensive, over-engineered Wii Remote that added little functionality above what Nintendo was doing with cheaper hardware and parts, allowing for greater profit margins. You can say a lot of things about Nintendo, and the Wii, but there’s little doubt that in plain business terms, Nintendo found a devastatingly effective balance between cost and performance, allowing them to make the kind of profits that, at the time, few could only dream about. Microsoft went with the Kinect, and spent a small fortune pushing it as “The Future of Gaming”. We all know how that went. Nintendo was on the crest of a wave; nothing, it seemed, could go wrong.
Of course, it did. As HD became more prevalent and sales of the 360 and PS3 picked up, Nintendo found itself slowing down on sales. It’s true that to the end the Wii was only selling a couple thousand units a month, but still – it had reached 90 million units when Sony and Microsoft were still only halfway there. Nintendo found like any craze, eventually there’s a cooler new toy. Fortunately for the company, that happened to be the Nintendo DS. So it wasn’t really much to feel sorry about.
Microsoft and Sony continued their struggles. The Live Service went down sporadically for days at a time. The PS Network was hacked. Microsoft pushed Independent Studios away with restrictive and dominating terms of service, whereas Sony found itself struggling with money and having to close down projects and exclusives it needed. Microsoft found it’s firmware criticised more as time went on, whereas Sony found themselves having to compensate and offer huge discounts for its software range. Even the Wii suffered; WiiWare terms of service was crippling people too and pushing projects away from Nintendo. Sony weren’t that interested at the time. They all are now, of course.
The reason I am reminding people about these problems is that they bear no resemblance to what we now accept as the market. It’s hard to think of a time when the PlayStation 3 was treated with such disdain. Or that Microsoft were vehemently denying any failure rates with the 360. Or that the Wii was selling out and the only way many could get them for Christmas and Birthday presents was paying over the odds on eBay. We’ve forgiven and forgotten their sins in most cases.
Which is why, when people criticise the Wii-U, I take a pragmatic viewpoint; that this is how a generation begins. Not with a bang, but a whimper. Nintendo are attracting all the attention being the only next-gen system on the market. There’s only so many nice things you can say about a machine and a company before it becomes saccharine and cheesy, and then you realise; hey, bad press is good press too! So you look for even the slightest flaw, the smallest chink in their armour, and you attack it. And everyone joins in, and everyone has a great time. Fortunately for Nintendo, when the Durango (or is that now the Fusion?) and the PlayStation 4 hit the market, it will find a lot of that focus goes elsewhere. There will be flaws, faults and foibles with Sony and Microsoft’s new babies for the press to gleefully toy with, until they get bored of that and then it’s open season on third-party developers because it’s become clear that none of the major hardware companies are really going to die.
We are looking back at seven years of huge change in the industry; not just a change in attitudes and interaction but a change in the way we see our games too. A change in how we buy them; Sony had the PSP Go! failure and Microsoft was soundly criticised for charging over retail price with its software (although they still do, along with Sony and Nintendo). So much has happened, so many have risen and fallen in this time that it’s almost impossible to look back at it with any real clarity. But when we do, we expose much of what we are doing now as cyclical and predictable. We go through this every time, and it doesn’t mean much. All three main hardware makers must know this by now. What is a problem now won’t be a problem in a year or two. Things get fixed, we forgive, we forget, we move on.
So it’s quite odd then that the press and the gaming community continue to fall into the same pattern, the same rhetoric generation after generation. If the definition of insanity is repeating the same actions expecting a different outcome, then we must all be certifiably insane. Because it’s unlikely – very unlikely – that Nintendo will “die” this generation. Will Nintendo sell the most machines? The question is – does it need to? If it makes money, then they’re doing it right. Similarly, anyone thinking that Sony and Microsoft will have a clean launch and a good first year or so are projecting so hard that we could show a series of films and make a fortune on overpriced popcorn and soda. Nintendo have a fortune in the bank. Even if the Wii-U does suffer, they have plenty of cash reserves to keep themselves afloat, and the 3DS and its surge of popularity of late to keep it relevant in today’s gaming market.
The same with Sony and Microsoft. I’m sure that after the last generation, they have a better understanding of how a business needs to work. The rumoured pricing structures of $499.99 for both systems wouldn’t surprise me, because neither will want to make heavy losses at the start. It’s better to start niche and work your way in; it’s how the PS3 did it, and how Microsoft did it with the 360. Why not do the same thing again? If it works, it works, and why fix a methodology that isn’t yet broken? Similarly, the first year of any system is problematic and with the firmware and software coming in as standard with the PS4 and the Durango/Fusion, there’s plenty there that can – and will – go wrong.
And Nintendo? Well, time will tell but if history tells us anything, is that discounting Nintendo is a foolish and reckless thing to do. It’s just when you think the monster is dead that it comes back to life, meaner and scarier than ever before. And people lap that up. They love it.
We need to be careful, however, that we don’t keep repeating this stuff because forgiving them all their sins the last few years means, effectively, we’re throwing away the best material we’ve got to keep pressure on them. Sony’s PS-Plus promotion was in the wake of the PSN Hacking scandal; and having to find a way to get people to buy into its subscription model again. Sony are already looking to throw away the PS-Plus idea for the PS4, and if we discard the PSN Hacking – we won’t see it again. Sony will forget about it and eventually, we will too. Similarly, Microsoft needs to be reminded that an always-online machine is only as good as the network that keeps it alive; and, historically, the X-Box Live service has had its moments of meltdown. If we discard that, Microsoft will try to convince us that such issues are “teething problems”. Yeah, teething problems that they should have ironed out by this point because they’ve been doing it for seven bloody years!
And no, we shouldn’t forget Nintendo, or dismiss them. They’re doing plenty wrong but, arguably, they’re the ones catching up with the march of technology and the Internet. They will make mistakes. You either encourage them to get it right with fair criticisms and discourse or you see it as some kind of twisted You’ve Been Framed, where their problems are merely for you to laugh at, forgetting that they’re probably struggling and/or in pain at that moment. With the right people and the right encouragement, there’s plenty of good in the Wii-U’s future. And it’s easy to forget that in the always-turbulent first year of a machine.
We need to grow up and just learn that such things are going to happen. Again, the birth of a new generation is rarely felt with a bang; more, a whimper. A muffled cry as everyone descends on it, clawing away for a piece of it to call their own in some way. When the dust settles and the generation ends, you can look back with some objectivity and think; actually, no, it wasn’t that bad. We went through some trying times and there were problems, but we survived it. And we can learn something from it.
It’s just a shame we don’t get the space or the time for that to sink in before we’re reduced to the same straw-man arguments and trolling we’ve seen every other generation. We don’t learn. We just forget and act all surprised when problems happen with the new systems, with the new firmware, with new ideas and concepts.
Maybe we should forgive. I’m all for forgiveness. But the only way the industry is going to stop this cycle of lunacy is if we remind them of it every single time, until it gets it right.
It’s time we stopped forgetting.