The last four years of the console market haven’t been an easy ride.
From the Wii U’s spectacular faceplant through to the XBox One’s incredibly self-destructive launch fiasco, Sony’s PlayStation 4 has had a relatively easy ride – and, in my opinion at least, failed to capitalise on being the only home console making any headway in terms of sales. Rising subscription costs and a general lack of polish and content in terms of its releases I have said repeatedly is part and parcel of an industry where only one company actually has things wrapped up; why make the effort in such a case, when there are no major competitors waiting in the wings to pounce? What Nintendo kicked off in 2012, and what we’re now facing in the early stages of 2017, has been a perfect storm of hubris, ego and greed all culminating in a shocking downturn of sales across the board. As for the 3DS – Nintendo’s little handheld that could – it’s done better than the PlayStation 4, and crushed the PS Vita dead. And I’ve said before, it’s worth noting that for Nintendo’s Wii U disaster, Sony must themselves face up to the PS Vita debacle. Neither company got out unscathed in the last few years.
Which brings us to 2017.
Sony’s huge line-up of game releases. The Nintendo Switch, and its big reveal in a weeks time. Microsoft’s Project Scorpio, due sometime later this year. Suddenly, 2017 looks like the dull embers that have glowed at the heart of the console market are about to erupt into flame, with all three pitching to very different markets and all three consoles set to do very different things. This year is actually shaping up to be exciting – a time where we may finally get to see something resembling a fight between the three big console companies.
Sony, if they continue with the PlayStation 4 (and don’t announce a PS5, something I think may be quite likely), will be hinging everything on a line-up of games. Right now, much of that excitement is coming from exclusive content – from the new Nioh to Horizon: Zero Dawn, and teasers for The Last Of Us 2, and that’s a solid plan. Sony has been truly burned in the last few years with its doubling-down on third-party exclusivity. Much of it, sadly, hasn’t been fantastic and a lot of it has sold poorly, despite Sony’s prominent sales lead in the home console market. But one can argue that it has, effectively, managed to help Sony limp somewhat to its current market lead of fifty or so million unit sales, a far cry from where the last few generation leaders were at this point but not insignificant either. It has carried Sony as far as it needed to; now comes the deluge of content that many have been waiting three years for. Such is the way of the console market; sometimes, you must wait for a good year and it can take time for that to materialise. If Sony doesn’t undo it by pushing the “Pro”, or revealing a PlayStation 5, chances are good Sony will find themselves with a lot more sales this year as more people buy in for the anticipation of content.
Nintendo, meanwhile, will be kicking the year off finally showcasing more games for the Nintendo Switch. Taking the core concept of the Wii U and re-imagining it, the Nintendo Switch so far has not been a hard sell to most people – hell, Skyrim on the go, Zelda on the go… throw in Metroid and Pokémon and this thing is going to ruin some people. If, as has been talked about, Nintendo has a launch year line-up of hundreds of games helped along by support of middleware solutions like UnReal Engine and Unity – the Nintendo Switch and its hybrid ethos is going to set the cat amongst the pigeons, so to speak. Home consoles and handheld consoles haven’t really changed much in terms of concept for thirty years – suddenly, Nintendo is pushing a modular hybrid console. That’s a huge technological gamble, but if it pays off it will certainly kick off a new technological arms race in the coming years, as Sony in particular may find themselves unable to resist the lure of capitalising on two distinct markets. This may be the year a bold, modernising Nintendo and the young talent now driving the company brings the company kicking and screaming into the current day – and if it can do that successfully, I certainly wouldn’t be betting against the Switch outselling its rivals.
Microsoft, on the other hand, really does need to perk up this year. Truth be told, it’s been easy to avoid Microsoft and its XBox One the last couple of years – whereas Sony has had the home console wrapped up and Nintendo has sewn up the handheld market, Microsoft’s main gaming staple – Windows – is dominated by Valve’s Steam. This is a problem because it has effectively left the monolith of Microsoft with no strong gaming presence in any market. There is a lot now riding on the Scorpio – a high-end 4K-ready home console, whereas Nintendo is pitching to a broad crowd and Sony is pitching to a gaming scene, Microsoft is pitching itself to a very niche market. If it works out for them, it will be the first time in years that three major brands are all pitching to different markets entirely, and that’s actually very exciting – but it depends heavily on price, content and the state of the market. With the Switch due in March, and Sony dumping out so many games this year, Microsoft’s Phil Spencer needs to start detailing the Scorpio soon or find itself outmanoeuvred by its two rivals who will have eaten up the lions share of the market already.
So, yeah, 2017 is shaping up to be quite an exciting year for console games.
This said, 2017 is also a pivotal year for the console market – currently on figures alone, the current console market is at its weakest in at least twenty years. Not all of this is entirely of its own making; the explosive growth of the Smartphone market and the growth of the PC Gaming market, both far more nimble in terms of transitional evolution, simply outmanoeuvred the console market which had already been locked into its current path as early as 2010. Consoles don’t have the same ability to change direction on a sixpence, and so this has likely contributed to falling hardware sales on the console front. Indeed, the console spaces main weakness is this lack of manoeuvrability. Gen 7, for all its foibles, was able to capitalise on multiple technical zeitgeists – motion controls, HD Gaming, cameras and a growing interest in first person games and open world games, which newer hardware made easier than ever to make. Gen 8, or what we call Gen 8, simply hasn’t been able to capitalise on the market shifting towards the PC platform, or capitalise on years of heavy investment in mobile hardware.
What’s happening this year, as I see it, is Sony continuing – wisely, it must be said – with its current course. Whilst it does that, Nintendo is moving more towards mobile hardware with the Switch, and Microsoft is gravitating back towards more PC-oriented hardware, no doubt facilitated by pushing exclusives onto the Windows 10 store.
For all the perks of this, I do have my concerns. Whilst the Scorpio and Switch (and PS4) may be easy to make games with, all three are radically different machines in terms of hardware and concept. And this will doubtlessly have an effect on third party support going forward – whilst all the consoles may eventually equalise in terms of game standards, to start with things will be much rougher for third parties who perhaps want to broaden their market. Much of the next year will depend strongly on sales, and whether the big three can establish their new directions more firmly. Sony has the easier path on this – its path is set in stone at this moment, but don’t bet against Nintendo and/or Microsoft having a pretty dramatic impact.
If all three can nail this, however, I do think this year could be quite significant growth in terms of sales. Nintendo is pitching for at least two million Switch sales in what seems two or three weeks, with aims at 10-20 million by the end of the 2017/2018 year. Microsoft hasn’t detailed the Scorpio yet, but it must be hoping for a similar drive in sales. Add in games sales and the possibility for VR to grow, and it could be the first time in a good eight to ten years that the console market has faced the prospect of growing in numbers, and that will be healthy for all three main players in the market (and should be good for PC Gamers too, as more money should drive better PC ports. In theory, at least).
On the flip side, if it doesn’t work, sales could become critical enough that we may lose at least one of the big three – and no, I don’t believe that will be Nintendo. Based on current market presence, I’d say that would more likely be Microsoft, unable to continue to justify continued investment in gaming when it hasn’t been able to establish itself strongly in any given market. But who knows? If the market bottoms out a little, it’ll be very messy.
But I don’t believe that will occur in 2017. This year is more hopeful and optimistic than anything we’ve had in years. There’s a lot of work still to do, but the fight back starts now. After a couple of years licking wounds and preparing for another run at the market, we’re facing a tantalising console cycle refresh where each new machine will be pitched to a very different scene, and where all three could end up having equal weight in many households. All that needs to happen is for all three to stay hopeful, stay optimistic and showcase games we all want to buy into.
So y’know, no pressure.