SFTW: Generation Now.

The Kids Are Alright…

GENERATION (Noun)
A body of individuals or items born/created/released at about the same time.

It’s easy to forget that the next-gen has actually already begun.

For all the mocking of Nintendo’s little Wii U, let’s clear this up; a generation is not somehow a measure of graphical quality, or technical prowess. The assumption is of course there for us to draw upon, but that’s the problem with assumptions; to assume can make an ass out of you and me. A generation is defined in terms of time periods or groupings and whichever way you want to verbally argue the case, the next-gen began with the Nintendo Wii U.

That’s never an easy truth for people to take on board. People always want to assume that as we move on every generation, that things naturally jump in terms of fidelity and quality and that the best machines always rise to the top, always succeed in a market that demands more and more from their product. But again, this is an assumption that the market has always been very happy to prove wrong. The PlayStation was the weakest of all the machines of the era – the Sega Saturn was a powerhouse of arcade technology, whilst Nintendo transcended even those machines and didn’t settle for 32-bits, but instead leapt ahead with a whole 64 of them. The same was true of the next generation, the PlayStation 2 was the weaker console – even the Dreamcast was technically superior, and the GameCube was a little black box of power. But none of this helped Nintendo, did it? For all the power, Nintendo was always the bridesmaid and never the bride. It was the Wii in which Nintendo had, for the first time in some generations, taken the back seat in terms of raw power. The end result? Nintendo not only outsold its vastly more powerful rivals, but made the kinds of profits that Sony had traditionally been making in its sleep.

This is seen in the handheld market more than anywhere else; here, Nintendo have generally always been the technically weaker side. However, the handheld market is one that has for twenty-four years been dominated by Nintendo, a market where Nintendo has seen off rivals such as Sega, Atari, Nokia, the Wonderswan… err, yeah. Sony are hanging on in there, but comparing their sales to what Nintendo is shifting is a bit like comparing your bank balance to that of Justin Beiber – you’re only going to end up crying into your cereal in the morning.

What is the point of saying this?

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It’s hard to remember a time when Nintendo home consoles were the technically superior ones…

Well, for a start it is worth remembering that generations are time-frames, and for all the arguments, Sony and Microsoft can, really, be considered late to the party. Nintendo got there early, and it’s not been the easiest of rides for the company but then, being first is never the most pleasant of positions anyway. Not only that, but Nintendo was a full year ahead of its rivals, and as such has had arguably more market scrutiny than any company could ever hope to handle. By being the first next-generation machine onto the market, the market is going to examine you in microscopic detail, and under such a powerful lens, trust me; nothing looks clean. It’s a difficult position to be in, and with no like for like comparison to be had, we again leap to assumptions and try to conclude what constitutes success and/or failure in a modern market, without considering that the same could be readily applied to the newer machines released this year.

You see, when Microsoft release the XBox One, and Sony get the PlayStation 4 onto the market, they will have comparisons. Because that’s already been set; Nintendo’s stunning three million sales in the first month is the initial hurdle to overcome. If they fail to reach that, then there will be a sense of doom. That said, I assume they are going to try very hard to get this volume out of production by the end of the year; Nintendo had been stockpiling Wii U units for months before the machine was released. Sony only got a finished product in time for E3, which doesn’t exactly instil confidence that they can turn out millions by November (which is four months away). Then of course they have the post-launch lull; Nintendo suffered tremendously with this, seeing sales figures collapse. Perhaps this is where production constraints can come in handy; limited stock can make an item more desirable, after all. This was notable with the Nintendo Wii, a machine that survived an increase in its recommended retail price. I can’t think of any other machine that has in the past been able to get away with increasing the base unit price at a time when it is most desirable.

For people like me, the focus isn’t on the hardware. Don’t misunderstand, I appreciate the hard work and effort that goes into making a games console, but truthfully, it’s not the hardware that sells a machine to me. As I said some time ago about the Vita – without desirable software, the Vita is a wonderful piece of technological prowess. But it fails at its primary function; that is, to have desirable games that you’d want to be seen playing. A new games console isn’t about the hardware alone; it has to be about the games too, a tantalising glimpse into what this new generation can offer us above simple mathematical equations.

Arguably, this was quite easy with the Wii U for me; Zombi-U, for all its foibles (and it had many!), was one heck of a demonstration of what the machine was capable of. Beautiful, challenging, innovative and utterly creepy from start to finish, it was a beautiful example of what a launch game should be – a hint of promise and potential, a precursor of things to come. It’s a shame then that UbiSoft has already buried the Zombi-U series, and that most examples on the machine to date are last-generation ports done haphazardly. There are games now arriving that show those glimpses of promise once more, but they are slow to come. The best thing both Sony and Microsoft can do is to ensure that they have strong release titles that really do show the promise of what their machines can offer. A new games console without desirable games to play on it is a pointless object, and I can’t say that I can see such an example selling very well as a result.

Had the Wii U been left with Nintendo Land to demonstrate the promise of the machine, I probably wouldn’t have found myself willing to defend the machine as it is.

In a market where hardware is by no means your measure of success (and on past evidence, it may even be your undoing!), we’re left clutching at straws as what quantifies a successful new console, or whether we can say the “next gen has begun!”. The latter is easy; yes, the next-gen has begun, and it began with the Wii U. Like it or not, it is the next generation of machine from Nintendo and therefore is a next-gen machine (or current gen, as we’re actually in the next-gen now, but this may be arguing semantics), on the former – it’s impossible to say. It’s also impossible to say if a slow start is a problem; Sony had a very slow start to the PlayStation 3, which has increased rapidly over the years in spite of many stumbles. The Nintendo 3DS also had an extremely slow start; so slow, that many proclaimed it dead on arrival and heralded the coming of the new lord of the handheld space the Vita. The reality is somewhat different now. The 3DS got over its slow start. The Vita is still trying.

Even the last generation was one of segments; the first couple of years, the Nintendo Wii dominated everything. Then, following the Live redesign, the Kinect launch and a focus on software, the XBox 360 enjoyed a few years in the sun, and towards the end, Sony have come good and are basking in the warmth of consumer love and goodwill. Every single machine has had its time, and whilst Nintendo may have sold the most and made arguably the kind of profits that have most executives lying awake at night in a cold sweat, each machine has had its peaks and troughs. Each machine has had its time, and enjoyed a good software line-up. All three machines vastly expanded the market, and as such proclaiming losers is a silly notion. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo achieved something together that few thought possible; they expanded the market, and expanded it out of the traditional sphere and in eight years made video games an acceptable pastime. Whether you think that was good or not, the concept of growing the market again must be extremely appealing to all three console makers.

It’s very easy to discuss the last generation because it has happened; the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 will enjoy a twilight year or two before disappearing slowly but surely into obscurity, replaced by their newer offspring. We’re discussing the historical legacies of machines now destined to fade away, and it’s easy to wax lyrical about how Sony’s investment into games has been amazing lately, or the bombastic legacy that Gears of War will leave upon the market for years to come (for better and worse), or the frankly ludicrous amounts of money Nintendo made with the Wii. We can do this because the examples are there for us to grasp, tangible facts and figures by which we can mould a qualified opinion from.

When it comes to this generation – the “Next Gen”, as we still call it – we’re living in the moment. We only have one machine setting the trend, and it will not be until the others have followed suit that we can derive any sort of comparison. We are assuming that the PlayStation 4 and the XBox One will surpass the Wii U sales; maybe they will, maybe they won’t, it’s all theory right now. It isn’t until the machines are on the market, and we know the state of the financial side of things in the run-up to the Christmas period, that we can safely say with any confidence what will happen. Sure, PlayStation 4 pre-orders have been incredible, but again; pre-orders can fall in the coming months, and it largely depends on how Sony can meet demand. There is no safe bet just yet.

And heck knows we’ve been surprised before. Anyone who proclaims to know what is going to happen in the coming years is perhaps not being entirely honest with you, and likely also not being honest with themselves. Because each generation is different. Each generation brings new challenges and quirks to the fore, and each generation has to engineer their way out of those corners.

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Zombi U is a glimpse of a future, but it’s just that. A glimpse.

That’s the thing about generations; the new ones are rarely comparable to the last. They want to do things differently, be different, be exciting and break new territory and ground and taboos and generally entice and attract more people. My parents generation was one of free love. My generation was moulded in the Thatcher years of “Greed Is Good!”. I have to admit I drifted far from what my family expected of me; they wanted me to be a vet, or a doctor or something important. Instead, I became a meaningless writer and blogger with malfunctioning legs. And you know what? I’m happy. I am not that generation.

I didn’t want to be them; I wanted to be myself. Children are like that. They don’t want to be their parents, and trying to force them to be such can only end up with sky-high therapy bills and a grizzly Law and Order episode. We can admire, respect and/or learn from our parents, but we are not our parents. We have new challenges to face in the world today, we have new problems to deal with, and they shape us very differently to our parents and how they grew up. I still have people who say I look a bit like my parents, but that’s genetic. A new Sony console is still a Sony console. That is its main biological origins. That’s an undeniable point of commonality. We can’t escape our origins. We don’t choose our parents.

But we all choose how we move on, and what we become. Microsoft is changing its XBox One policies on an almost daily basis. Sony are quietly getting ready with the PlayStation 4, and Nintendo are having to practically elevate the Wii U out from an assumption that the market has always tagged to its parent company every year for the past twenty-two years. These new consoles will become very different machines to what we’ve had before; this is perfectly normal. There’s nothing wrong with that. Change happens.

Let’s just not assume we know how the kids will turn out, eh? Because I can tell you from experience, when everyone is expecting you to turn out a certain way, powers be damned – the kids gonna find a way to turn out differently somehow.

You can only hope that they’ll turn out alright in the end.

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