Sorry about the away-ness, but here’s a little pause for thought.
The Nintendo Switch, the PS4 “Pro” and the XBox Scorpio all face a lot of challenges in the coming years.
Yes, there’ll be a lot of discussion about hardware power. Yes, there’ll be a lot of in-depth analysis on the games – and yes, there’ll be a lot of expectation from third parties to, you know, start delivering games on launch which sort of work. We’ll argue over the controllers, we’ll argue over design, we’ll argue the toss about every and any aspect of these new consoles. Which is as it should be, of course. We all want to see what happens next, and all bets are currently off.
However, in all of this, we’re missing on one crucial aspect; sales.
By this I don’t mean who comes in first place, or even last place. Clinging to sales performance numbers to desperately justify the purchase of a console is a tired old trope, but tropes all have grounding in some sort of commonality and it isn’t surprising that many fervently attempt to justify their purchase beyond the, “I’m having fun” thing (because apparently, having fun isn’t in most peoples top ten reasons for owning a games console any more. Yeah, I think that’s odd too…). What I mean is actual sales – sales data compared to previous years. If only I had some sort of chart which demonstrates my point…
The real challenge facing Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft is not just selling consoles – it’s selling more of them. The market has been on the wane for some time, but the drop from 2012 (The launch year of the Wii U) through the PS4 and XBox One and beyond has been pretty dramatic. In 2008, the culminate total sales of the main consoles on the market was 89.23 million units. In 2015, which many claim was a “bumper year” for games consoles, the industry managed 42.41 million units.
You don’t need to have a mathematics degree (or be called Michael Pachter) to see that 2015 was less than half that of 2008. And reports so far suggest 2016 is likely to be even worse.
There are of course a multitude of reasons why Generation 8 has been such a massive disaster. Broken promises, bad marketing, realising big releases were broken on launch and even #GamerGate – yup, I’m saying it had a negative effect on console sales and I’m sticking to it – have all contributed to a generation which has really struggled to take off. Add in the collapse of the Japanese home console market, and that the much-anticipated Chinese market never actually materialised, and you have years of slowly declining sales. And no-one wants to talk about it. No-one seems to want to admit that this… this just isn’t working for the games industry.
Is it any wonder, with falling console sales and indeed, falling software sales, that the games industry is piling into Pre-Order Bonuses, Season Passes and Microtransactions? Games are more expensive to make now, but are selling to a smaller audience – particularly on the console scene, where many still stubbornly seem committed to negotiating timed exclusivity. With no increase in retail price and the slower uptake of digital sales, developers and publishers doubtlessly seek to make up a financial shortfall and the only way to do that, unsurprisingly, is to charge the audience they have exorbitant prices for additional content – whether or not it actually even exists as they ask you to pony up the cash for it. In 2008, the best selling game in the UK was, perhaps not surprisingly for a nation of Football Fans – FIFA ’09, with more than 2 million sales. FIFA 2016, on the other hand, was just falling short of one million in the same timeframe of sales. The Tomb Raider reboot was considered a “disappointment” when in the first month, it shipped four million units. Rise of the Tomb Raider has been out a year now, and it’s barely pushing two million. Wonder what word Square-Enix has for that…
There are just less consoles out there right now this generation. That’s a fact. And a smaller audience isn’t going to give you the kind of sales needed for long-term success or viability. Again, this isn’t pointing out any real secret – just the cold, harsh reality of truth. Something many seem curiously averse to this year.
Beyond all else, this coming new wave of games consoles – the Pro, Switch and Scorpio – have a mountain to climb. They have to start selling, and selling well. As a fast-growing PC Market carves slices off game sales, and smartphones dominate other parts of the market, game consoles face an existential crisis. The last few years have been appalling – no, Sony, the PS4 is not the best-selling console ever (the Wii and PS2 are mostly even on generational sides, so it’s not even Sony’s best selling console ever…). And yes, the Wii U has been a complete disaster. If sales continue to fall as is the trend over the last few years, then third parties will find little choice but to find other platforms – and that’s going to be the PC, so as much as I hate EA and Origin, perhaps it was a prudent course of action from Evil Associates. I mean, Electronic Arts. It’s the same thing, really…
Having said that, at least third parties can and will transition seamlessly to the PC Model. Or well… they should, maybe not you WB Interactive. But generally speaking, there’s little stopping them. For Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft, it’s a different kettle of fish. If they can’t find the sales to justify the hardware manufacturing process and/or costs involved, then yes. This really could be their last shot at it. Not just for Nintendo, but for everyone. Who wants to remain on a sinking ship, after all? Much better to go where the money is, hence why Nintendo magically remembered Smartphones were still a thing (and despite being late, has been doing rather well on them…). If sales continue to decline, then the reason there won’t be a new generation isn’t because someone “won” the console wars, or because technology plateaued, but because the market simply vanished into the cosmos.
It means the next year or two will be important for games consoles overall. Marketing, games, quality and nice ideas and innovations will all help towards this. But there’s one thing that will certainly do more to help the games industry than anything else; it’s the games media, the specialist press. Yes, they who basically created one of the reasons why this generation has been so bloody awful. The press certainly demonstrated, like third parties, that left unchecked and to their own devices, their natural instinct is to basically $%&£ everything up. However, they have a crucial role to play – they have to find a way to excite the community they have (and tried to jettison) into wanting not just one console… but all of them.
This means B.S. like “Nintendoomed” has to stop. Every console in the coming years counts – every sale is going to be critical, and that’s not going to be done by Op-Ed’s that someone dreamt that Mr. Kimishima ran over their Labradoodle. Criticise when you really need to – I have no doubt we will have reasons to be critical – but right now the Switch is getting a lot of negative press based on rumour and speculation of Zelda ‘maybe’ missing its deadline for a more thorough quality control check (I know it’s hard to accept, press, when we’ve had years where QA Testing has been non-existent but you might want to let Nintendo give it a try…). We don’t know anything. We won’t know anything until January 21st. So maybe, just maybe, possibly, by some extraordinary chance of coincidence, you could possibly stop trying to destroy a key player in the market and start helping rebuild? Think that’s possible?
Starting… well, now, more or less, the industry and its press have to work from something of the same page. Without the market, the consoles will disappear. And likely, so too will a huge portion of the specialist sites out there. Everyone has a vested interest in the coming years being better than the last four – and those that don’t might find themselves not being given access or review copies oh wait sorry that’s already happening. Actions have consequences, games media people. The bed has been made. Nighty-night!
Growth will drive new traffic. Growth will drive software sales to increase – and maybe we’ll see the industry relax their tight grip on the throats of our wallets and throw in extras for free. Wouldn’t that be nice? Growth will drive more growth, as more people come in. This means press – no more controversies. We can’t afford those right now.
Growth will also drive technological change. We’ll see an industry which wants to fight over specifics, over details, over semantics because they will matter. Growth will drive competition – so companies will aggressively push development cycles, sales and deals on consumers to get any edge they can. Growth is going to be the key aim for the coming four years or so. And yes, fellow gamers, that means you too might have to consider the possibility of buying one – or more – of these consoles. The time for gated fiefdoms has passed, because the market cannot afford anyone to lose now. You can, and should, buy another console if you are able. Experience different. It can be quite nice.
The next few years, in effect, requires a group effort.
The industry, the press and the gamers have to put aside all their differences, all their historical grudges and all their personal feelings and show a united front to the world. To say yes, this is a place you want to be. This is a fun place to be. An exciting place to be. A place where we can, and will, entertain the pants off you. A place you can feel welcome, a place you can be happy and safe and we can all enjoy ourselves as one cohesive unit. Failure to do so could doom the console industry as we know it to a footnote in the annals of history.
I know this all seems doom-and-gloom, but truth is; I’m hopeful and optimistic.
I think the press has learned from #GamerGate – and I think it knows, deep down, that it might have crippled console sales (who knew painting a community of people as misanthropic would-be murderers and rapists might alienate the mass market…). I think Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony all know deep down they have to do better. And I think we, as gamers, know now without the casual market and the mass-market, we’re not going to have much of a console industry to speak of. I think we all know these things and more. I believe we’re all eager to get underway with new consoles, to hose down the last four years and start afresh and anew, tabula rasa.
I believe better times are ahead. But in believing that, I cannot be blind to the harsh realities ahead of us. The console market sits in a precipice, and if we’re not careful everything could fall over the cliffs edge. I believe we can do better – I believe we must do better. And I also believe its when on the brink of complete disaster that companies, like people, find that spark inside them to subvert the odds and triumph in the face of overwhelming data that suggests we’re probably not going to make it.
I believe in the industry – even after everything we’ve been through. I believe in us, as gamers. I believe we can do it.
So let’s make Games Consoles Great Again (yes, I am making that joke!). If the alternative is complete destruction… what do we have to lose?