Gen-8: The Console Crisis…

Sorry about the silence lately. More health issues. But since I’m here and we’re approaching the point of a new generational push, time to take a look back at Generation 8. Hoo boy…

The video game console market is in crisis. That sounds like a bold claim, but the figures are painting a pretty sordid picture of the current health of the industry. Slowing console sales and dropping software sales are contributing if not to an impending crash, then at least a point where the industry is going to need to seriously consider any future direction.

To kick things off, I want to start with one of the most heinous myths of the console market – that a powerful machine is better than a weaker one.

Logically speaking, of course, there’s a lot of validity to the concept that more powerful hardware is better for our console games. More processing power helps with games engines, better GPU’s help reaching those lofty 1080p visuals that many salivate over with every breath, more RAM means everything runs faster. In theory, you’d be forgiven for thinking that yes, raw power is an essential component in any piece of consumer electronics and weaker platforms should in theory be subjected to lesser sales and more consumer derision.

Of course, the reality is quite different. The PlayStation 4 is arguably the first time in the industries history where the most powerful games console is the best-selling. The PlayStation trounced the Sega Saturn and Nintendo 64 – both, technically speaking, superior platforms with better hardware, with the Nintendo 64 boasting 64-bit technology and the Sega Saturn boasting arcade-level performance. Sony also walked away with the following generation; the PlayStation 2 was vastly inferior to the Nintendo Gamecube, the XBox and the Sega Dreamcast but its reputation, entry-level DVD player and a slew of middle-market software made it seem like the obvious choice.

And it would be remiss of me to not point out that Nintendo walked away with the last generation, with the considerably underpowered Nintendo Wii. At a time when the industry was pushing into the HD Era, and the considerable leap in expense that came with it for so many, Nintendo made profits that will see it continue for long into the future, whatever mistakes they may make along the way, making the Nintendo Wii one of the best selling consoles of all time (just behind the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo DS).

Even in the handheld space, Nintendo has made a name with low powered hardware. The list of competitors Nintendo has held off over the years is certainly impressive – the Sega Game Gear, the Atari Lynx, the Nokia N-Gage, Neo-Geo Pocket and two Sony handhelds – the PSP and the PS Vita. All of which boasted superior technical specifications over all of Nintendo’s offerings. My friend also reminded me of the Tiger Electronics machine, the Game.com, which came with a modem back in 1997!

The truth is, for all Sony’s storied success with the PlayStation 4, it was an inevitable success – not because of its superior hardware.

Sony is fortunate that this generation, its competitors rather dropped the ball. Then-boss of Microsoft EAD, Don Mattrick, managed to spectacularly misjudge the market. The XBox 360 was a good second-place console, and arguably where many developers went with their games due to its ease of development and extremely well-constructed user front-end. But when it came time for the successor, the XBox One, it seemed as though Microsoft was making a power play, in a manner of speaking. Talking of squeezing the second-hand market, requiring constant online connections, a focus on television more than video games and an insistence at the time that the Kinect had to be an important part of the machine (despite many misgivings people had over it). Consumers revolted over any suggestion at being taken for a ride, and as consumers tore it apart, Sony was able to sneak in multiple jabs at their competition and walk away with much more credibility. Microsoft has never truly recovered from it.

Nintendo, on the other hand, really has been caught with its pants down this generation. After untold commercial success and the most obscene profits that the industry has ever seen, the Nintendo Wii was hashed out with no key Nintendo games. Nintendo largely had anticipated for more third-party support to hide this fact, but as Sony made moves in taking an audience away from Microsoft they also stole much of the commercial support of the third-party market. Lies were told, many which have been soundly debunked, but the simple truth of the matter is that without that third party support, Nintendo’s slate has been rather barren. The company famous for making some of the best games in the industry – Zelda, Mario, Metroid, Starfox to name but a few – had nothing to offer for the first year, and many of its bigger titles have been constantly pushed back. Metroid isn’t likely until the NX hits the market, the question of that fantastic-looking Zelda game being delayed to the NX release is still there and Starfox has been delayed into 2016 as well. Couple this with no killer evolution of the Mario franchise like Super Mario Galaxy and it’s sequel, and you can only leave with the conclusion that Nintendo – again, the company sitting on a goldmine of franchises worth tons of money – simply couldn’t get them out fast enough to compensate for Sony’s swift theft of third party support.

Sony has made more than its fair share of mistakes this generation – functions and features have been slow to materialise, games like Bloodborne (despite being good) released with a cavalcade of technical issues and Sony themselves have fewer studios than they’ve ever had before. Not to mention constant financial issues remain, blighting the company a decade after their ill-advised investment into Blu-ray. But compared to the competition, these mistakes are small-fry; by being the better console in terms of third party support, consumer rapport and industry-wide image, the PlayStation 4 could have been the least-powerful machine and Sony would still have soundly thrashed its rivals.

Sony’s success with the PlayStation 4 was not about power, it was about performance – about how it was seen. And when your rivals have been caught so short, this was effectively not the most challenging generation for Sony to run away with.

But, of course, with each successive generation we start anew and it is now largely believed that mid-2016, Nintendo will be kicking off the next generation with… well, whatever the Nintendo NX turns out to be. And you can be damned sure Microsoft, now committing to the future of the XBox, won’t be that far behind. This leaves Sony likely having to start research and development on a next-generation console in the midst of modest commercial success – compared to previous generations, sales of the PlayStation 4 are good but hardly spectacular, and as such content is likely from late 2016 to dry up and slow down sales further, at a time Sony themselves need that money so desperately.

And with a new generation will come a clean slate, where business and consumer relations will be reforged for the next few years of the hardware cycle.

Of course, I’ve got this far talking about the console industry. The problem that consoles have today, when it comes to the concept of power, is the continued growth of the PC Market; once the industry made it seem like the PC Gaming market was dead and buried, but in the last five years the PC has made a remarkable comeback and now accounts for the bulk of video game play; both online and offline, male and female.

You see, the problem with power is that hardware evolves rapidly, and consoles cannot adapt to such changes in hardware performance. Whereas even the most ham-fisted of dolts out there can easily go and buy a new £200 graphics card, remove the old one and plug the new one in with little to no prior knowledge. In fact, for all the comments about the PC in the past, it is remarkably easy to upgrade the raw components of a computer without needing an engineer on hand: GPU’s and RAM can be switched with little to no impact on the machine itself. Replacing a CPU can be trickier, of course, but if in any doubt any good pc shop can do that with minimal labour costs attached. Many are realising this – not least that PC Hardware costs have also been tumbling as technology presses onward.

And where buying all three consoles even in the UK would total almost a thousand pounds Sterling, others are remembering that can also buy a damned good PC. One that will play third-party software above console performance (for the most part, at least) and also give you access to many more independent titles and middle-market software. Not to mention that a PC can do much, much more than a console; word processing, YouTube on tap, an MMO market that still entertains and enthralls.

When it comes to power AND performance, it cannot compete with the PC. And though it tries to keep up, the PC has continued to outpace that market. No doubt this is why the PC market has grown, whilst the console market is suffering its worst figures in a decade. The console market has tried in vain to maintain some semblance of similarity to the PC. The key point was once that you didn’t need to spent half an hour downloading Direct X and driver updates just to play a game, but as console games release needing large patches and the likes of Steam, GOG and even the mongrel that is Origin often doing all of that for you (and patching in the background), the one thing consoles had over the PC has simply vanished. By trying to be more like the PC, it’s made the PC look like a better option for lots of people.

And the sad part is that consoles this generation have also lost on exclusives.

Whilst each console has its key exclusives, compared to the game-changing nature of much of what we have seen in prior generations they haven’t been as successful in driving sales. Microsoft has let many of its XBox One exclusives slide to the PC, notably to increase revenue, cutting into reasons to buy an XBox One. Nintendo has lacked killer titles, and whilst Splatoon is utterly brilliant it is a new IP and those tend to need more established names backing them up to drive hardware sales. Sony too haven’t had it any easier – The Order: 1886 was Gears of Yore, and Bloodborne as I have pointed out released in such a shoddy technical state that I was forced into the loving arms of Scholar of the First Sin, the Dark Souls 2 remaster which for me is everything Bloodborne isn’t (and by that, I mean fantastic).

And I haven’t even scratched the surface here; of the bullshots, broken promises, the lofty ambitions of 1080p, 60 frames a second gaming. The microtransactions, the season passes now starting to cost as much as the games themselves. Or even that many games have been released in clearly unfinished, compromised states. And of course, Konami and its alleged exit from the “Triple-A” gaming scene.

I mean, is it any wonder then that Generation 8 is already being touted as a failure? Companies like Microsoft and Nintendo want it gone fast, with Nintendo confident enough to start a whole new generation in the coming year or so (and yes pedants of the world, it’s a new console release so it IS going to be Generation 9, whatever the hardware in it turns out to be!). Sony claimed it had aimed of selling 100 million units of the PlayStation 4, but with a new generation looming it has achieved at last count 25 million sales. Still significantly more than the 13 million for the XBox One, or the 10 million for the Wii U, but a long way short of its predictions and if we’re being honest such numbers now look like a bit of a pipe dream. Last generation, Sony couldn’t achieve that with eight years on the market. With four years looking likely, and with slowing support, fewer games and dwindling sales, Sony must be aware that this isn’t going to happen. Unless it plans to skip a generation, and good luck with that one I suppose.

Thing is, when the next generation kicks off, whatever Sony has done will be for naught. The console industry is not one that lives in the past, and they will demand better from the machines of the day and disregard whatever good was done prior. Of course, there’s every chance Sony can clean up another generation. If they can finance it, if they can hold their company together, then I certainly wouldn’t put money against that.

But I said some time ago that a commercial and critical battering is often the best way to jolt a company into paying attention. Nintendo has been getting better, and its message is becoming more focused with the NX; account-based system, actual controller evolutions, having their franchises front and centre driving the sales, and even talk that Nintendo could be adopting a card-based game format (which, if it takes off, will certainly sting Sony and all the money it dumped into Blu-ray). Microsoft is even following Nintendo, dropping payments for third-party exclusives and pushing it into their own studios and new first-party content to give their future platforms a stronger edge.

Because for all those who argue that the hardware needs to be powerful – no, it doesn’t. What it needs is strong support from within with first-party games that sell you the system. What they need is hardware which is competent, capable and scalable. The PC will always outstrip the consoles in the end, much better for a platform to be scalable than for it to be left in the dust. It needs to have a strong commercial identity and it also needs to be reasonably priced. This generation, prices have remained stubbornly high. By the end of the third year of the PlayStation 2, it was just a smidge over £150 as I recall – for a games console and a DVD player in one. You could buy a console and several big-name games in the end for about what you’d be paying now for just a PlayStation 4. I don’t see this generation driving down those costs quite so aggressively, do you?

If success to you is denoted by overall sales figures (which, for the industry, is how they judge success), then why not judge a console against what a company achieved in prior generations? The first PlayStation sold more than 102 million units overall, the PlayStation 2 sold more than 155 million units and the PlayStation 3 despite its failings still sold just shy of 84 million units (although admittedly had a lot longer to make those sales). And if we go further back, the Super Nintendo sold about 50 million units, and the NES just over 61 million. Even Microsoft sold 84 million XBox 360’s, and 24 million XBox units. Oh look, Wikipedia!

That the current generation will struggle to meet the sales of the previous generations should be a significant wake-up call to ALL hardware manufacturers, not just Sony, that whatever they’re doing now clearly isn’t working. The market has changed, the audience has changed, the business has changed – their pursuit of power has come at a cost, and it’s showing up in their sales figures. This is why I say the console industry is in crisis – Sony have “won” Generation 8, sure. But when the competition was either ill-prepared or face down comatose in a pool of its own vomit, is that really anything to be proud of? I’ll leave it up to you to decide which one applies to which console.

It’s when you apply the context of past generations that Generation 8 looks as bad as it does. If gamers sound restless, it’s because this generation has been rather hollow so far. Easier for the sound of disgruntled gamers to travel through arguably empty space than it does a wall of games releases, right? Almost everything about Generation 8 has been a bit of a disaster, and the klaxon call of a potential new generation of consoles is stirring the pot, and attracting a lot of attention – even if we know next to nothing about the NX technically (although they do seem to be keeping the Gamepad, if patents are to be believed. That’s kinda cool, even if I kinda disagree with it – just means they really do have to knock the games out of the park with the NX, doesn’t it?).

People are eager for change. The home console market has a thing in that it is change only tends to happen when a generational jump happens, which as I said before wipes the slate completely clean. And that, actually, is one of the biggest advantages the console industry has. That in spite of how crap Generation 8 has been and will probably continue to be, that it will be over soon. That we will leave this generation behind. That we will move forward. That we can and will survive. Companies losing ground today will look around, learn and do better next time. It’s how it should be.

So let’s hope they’ve been paying attention, because as much as the slate will be wiped clean, no doubt when Generation 9 does hit – the industry is going to be facing a pop quiz, and god help anyone who hasn’t.

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