The latest next-gen console battle is well under way. The Xbox 360 was the first to launch on November 22, 2005, in the US, followed by the PlayStation 3 on November 17, 2006, and the Wii on November 19, 2006. However, in Europe, things were turned a little on their head, with the Xbox 360 launching on December 2, 2005, followed by the Wii on December 8, 2006, and the fashionably late PlayStation 3 on March 23, 2007.
The previous console cycle saw the PlayStation 2 scoring a decisive win. Since it debuted in 2000, the machine has gone on to sell more than 120 million units worldwide and is the best-selling console in history so far. After overtaking Sega's ill-fated Dreamcast, which launched in 1999, it went on to fend off new rivals such as the Nintendo GameCube and the original Xbox, which both went on sale in 2001.
Part of the PS2's success was Sony's scoring of must-have console exclusives on the format--including Gran Turismo 3, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the Kingdom Hearts series, and Final Fantasy X. Indeed, many people bought the console just to play Grand Theft Auto III and its two successors, Vice City and San Andreas, which all debuted on the PS2 before being eventually ported to the Xbox and PC.
In today's market, though, high-profile exclusives are fewer and farther between. Many developers are choosing to go multiplatform to recoup the rapidly increasing costs of producing games for the so-called "HD Era." These include traditionally PlayStation-focused Japanese publishers such as Capcom and Koei, which both have announced a strategy going forward to make all titles multiplatform.
What does the industry think? Which console has the best lineup of games this Christmas? Which is most likely to entice consumers to part with their readies? Will there be a console to rule them all?
THE PRICE IS RIGHT...AND THE GAMES
The Wii is the cheapest of the three systems at £179 ($250 in the US)--but its scarcity has led to massive markups on eBay. The PS3 and the 360 have both recently had price cuts, with the new 40GB PS3 costing £300 ($400) and the premium 360 costing £250 ($350). If you want top end, you can get the 360 Elite for £300 ($450) or pick up an 80GB PS3 in the US for $499 or a 60GB while they last in the UK at £349.
The Xbox 360, which has been out the longest, has probably the strongest 2007 holiday lineup, a fact that is somewhat to be expected. The library for the 360 is the biggest and currently adds up to well over 300 games. On the exclusive tip, the hugely successful first-person shooter Halo 3 generated more than $170 million in its first day on sale in the US and sold more than 5 million units worldwide by the end of November. The 360 also exclusively has the newly released sci-fi role-playing game Mass Effect, which has sold more than 1 million copies since its late November release, and the flight sim Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation, which boosted 360 sales in Japan.
Following on into 2008 and beyond, exclusives coming up for the 360 include Lionhead's Fable 2, the psychological thriller Alan Wake, the real-time strategy Halo Wars, and Silicon Knights' sci-fi action adventure Too Human, which is due out at the beginning of the year.
The PS3 has the fewest games out at the moment, with around 160 titles currently on the market. Recent games, such as Heavenly Sword, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, and Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, have made a stir and have been joined by the recently released SingStar, which gives gamers access to the SingStore to buy new tunes. In North America, the just-released Unreal Tournament III will be exclusive to the console until next year (alongside its PC release). However, the console's biggest exclusives are arriving next year, and they include Ubisoft's first-person shooter Haze and the long-awaited swan song of Konami's popular Metal Gear series, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.
The Wii has just under 250 titles currently out, including the critically praised bestsellers Super Mario Galaxy, RPG Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, and WarioWare: Smooth Moves. Hot exclusives coming up include Suda 51's weird world of No More Heroes, Mario Kart Wii, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams. However, two of the oldest games for the system--Wii Sports and Wii Play--remain among the top titles for the game, since they come bundled with the console and extra controller (respectively).
THE MAKERS SPEAK
Sony has had its fair share of bad publicity, which Sir Howard Stringer has called "unkind," surrounding the PS3. But according to upper management, those teething problems are now behind it. Stringer commented that the PS3 was "making a comeback already" and that production issues had been solved, adding, "We believe PS3, going forward, will be vital to our future and will succeed." The company also touts the PS3's powerful Cell processor as a plus to the system, along with the ability of the console to play Blu-ray movies at a price cheaper than most actual Blu-ray players.
Sony Computer Entertainment New Zealand's head of marketing, Warwick Light, said that in comparison, the Wii was not actually a next-gen system. He said, "Look at the tangible differences between processing power and scope for scalability between the PS3 and the Xbox 360. It is clear that the PS3 is designed to last until the next generation... DVD is current generation. Why would you support current generation?"
Microsoft has argued that Xbox Live and Xbox Live Marketplace are two of the biggest reasons to go with its console instead of one of its rivals. Xbox Live Video Marketplace recently launched in the UK, Ireland, Canada, France, and Germany and is already going strong in the US, where a wide variety of TV shows and movies are available for download.
Last but not least, Nintendo claims that it is not involved in the console war at all, but is merely doing its own thing and going its own way. David Yarnton, Nintendo UK's general manager, said, "We are not fighting our competitors, we are fighting apathy... Instead of trying to improve technology for its own sake, we decided to focus on those who weren't even playing games, who weren't on the radar."
Yarnton thinks that the Wii is "inclusive, not exclusive" and that it will drive sales outside of the usual "teenage boys." However, one thing that may hinder Nintendo's home run this Christmas is that even if everyone wants one, no one can seem to find one on the shelves.
So how are game-industry analysts handicapping the ongoing console war? Michael Pachter of Wedbush Morgan Securities believes that the PS3 is going to come out ahead in this cycle--eventually. He explains, "I believe that the Blu-ray functionality built into the PS3 has greater value to a wider number of consumers than does Xbox Live or the fun factor of the Wiimote... Had all three launched at the same time and price, I think the PS3 would have been ahead from the beginning."
However, Pachter puts his odds on the Wii winning this holiday season, simply because of the price. He told GameSpot, "Wii will win this Christmas, because of price. Xbox 360 will finish second, and PS3 a not-so-distant third, again because of the price."
Colin Sebastian of Lazard Capital Markets agrees that the Wii is likely to have the merriest Christmas. He said, "For this holiday, the Wii clearly has a lot of momentum." He stated that the console will end up on more lists to Santa because of its cheaper price and strong marketing and because it reaches a broader market than "traditional" consoles like the 360 and PS3. He continued, "Clearly, many consumers are showing that they place a higher value on accessible and straight-forward gameplay and less on high-definition graphics and leading-edge processing power."
However, Sebastian doesn't believe that the race is predictable beyond the immediate future, and he thinks that at this stage any of the three consoles could still end up on top. He said, "It's very early in the cycle, so calling a winner in the console battle may be somewhat premature... Looking ahead to the remaining years of the cycle, we could see a more distinct segmentation of the video game console market. That is, Nintendo selling into a larger market of casual gamers, while Sony and Microsoft battle it out over the traditional core gamers. In terms of market share, I think it's safe to say we will see an even playing field versus the domination of Sony the last time round."
All three consoles have their fans and detractors within the industry. The platform that seems to have gathered the most opinions on both sides is Nintendo's Wii, which has been at the front of the firing line due to its runaway success. Electronic Arts was one of the first companies to come out and say that it regretted not supporting the format more heavily from the start.
John Riccitiello, EA CEO, commented, "[This transition has been] harder because of the complexity, and much harder because, unfortunately, we bet a little bit on the wrong horse in focusing so much on the PS3 and Xbox 360, and to a lesser degree on the Wii. And let me assure you that almost all of us in the industry made the same judgment. So after so many transitions of guessing exactly right, we got this one a little bit wrong, and we're dealing with that now with strong investments on the Wii."
Square Enix president and CEO Yoichi Wada has gone on the record about his own opinion of the Wii. He believes the console has changed the gaming environment completely and called consoles such as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 "overengineered" and "too complex." He said, "There are too many specs--and you also need a high-definition TV, a broadband connection, and a deep knowledge of gaming. These consoles are mismatched to today's environment. In a year or two years, they will fare better."
However, not everyone has been so kind about Nintendo's little console. Sega's US vice president, Scott Steinberg, said that he was "concerned about the depth of the Wii pool." The Sega executive expressed concerns that developers would run out of ideas and that the console might be just a fad. He said, "How much value can developers and creative folks get out of this wrist motion two years from now, or five years from now, or 10 years from now? The Wii will start to look really dated in a couple of years when developers get more value from the 360 and learn more about the PlayStation 3." However, Steinberg later "clarified" his statement by saying, "I'm not just putting the responsibility of innovation on Nintendo. It's on Sega and all the publishers and developers as well to carry that flag."
Possibly the most famous Wii skeptic is Developer 9 founder Chris Hecker, who gave his controversial opinion at this year's Game Developers Conference. He told the stunned audience, "Everyone loves the Wii. 'Oh, God, the Wii, we love the Wii so much...' The Wii is a piece of ****. Nintendo have uncovered the secret to Wii manufacturing. The way you manufacture a Wii is you take two GameCubes and some duct tape." He then continued on his tirade to accuse Nintendo of not caring about games as an art form and praised Sony and Microsoft for taking them seriously.
However, Hecker later issued a statement retracting his comments, saying, "I do not think the Wii is ****." Hmmm...
Gary Chambers, creative director at Introversion, told GameSpot his personal favourite is the Wii, because, "You can say the controller is just a gimmick or whatever, but I think it adds a lot to the console, and games like Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition are just fantastic. I can't imagine playing them on any other system. I'd love to develop a game for the Wii. I think there is incredible potential for some very unique games, even if it hasn't completely been realised by the industry yet."
However, the developer admitted that although he personally liked the Wii, the PS3 was, in his opinion, likely to ultimately win the war. He said, "The PS3 will win this generation, just as the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 did before it. The Wii is doing incredibly well all over the world, and the 360 got off to a great head start, but ultimately I think the vanity of the modern gamer is going to win out and the PS3 is going to be the console providing the best visuals. As soon as the price drops to a range which the average person can afford, I think we'll see PS3 sales skyrocket right past the competition."
David Jaffe, cofounder of Eat Sleep Play and creator of Sony's God of War series, is also cautious on the Wii, believing that although it is currently the console du jour, things could shift in favour of another very fast. He told GameSpot, "It's easy to say today who the winner is, and that would be Nintendo hands down. But you're starting to notice the winds are blowing in other directions these days. Whether these winds will be strong enough to shift the leadership position in the marketplace is hard to say."
Famed game designer American McGee is more secure in his opinion. He casts his vote decisively for the Wii and told GameSpot in an interview, "From the beginning of this most recent (re)cycle, I've had my money on the Wii. In my opinion, Sony and Microsoft didn't do anything truly innovative this last time around--just your standard hardware upgrade. The success they've seen with online downloadable content was, by their own admission, an unexpected fluke. But Nintendo made a distinct statement about what constitutes a games console, game controller, and play experience. In a sense they removed themselves from 'the war' and created their own playfield." As to second place, he thinks that will go to the 360. He said, "This is mostly because I think Microsoft established a strong early lead with sales and content, and Blu-ray will ultimately fail as a standard."
ALL HAVE A PLACE
A fair few people chose to sit on the fence and show love to everyone. Miles Jacobson, managing director of Sports Interactive, told GameSpot, "I think all three machines are really good, and all of them are going to have exclusive titles on them that you'll want to play... I'm very fortunate in that I've got all three consoles at home, and they all get played. The Wii tends to get played when friends who are nongamers come round, the 360 tends to get played by me, and the PS3 tends to get played by my mates who are gamers because they haven't got one yet... The real winner in the console war is the consumer--how cheesy is that? Well, as long as they can afford to get all three, I suppose."
Jonathan Smith, development director at TT Games, has much the same opinion. He told GameSpot, "The 'console war' is over, and the winner is gamers, who now have more choice than ever."
Turbine Games executive producer Jeffrey Steefel agreed, saying, "What's interesting with the consoles right now is that they're so different. In the past, the console wars have been perceived as just nine versions of the same thing. But they really are this time, completely different, and I think each one draws a different crowd... So now you've got stratification of the consoles, which I think is great for the consumer. It's never existed before."
Ed Daly, studio head at Zoe Mode, also prefers a diplomatic approach. He said, "I hope that across different territories and with different audiences, all three can compete healthily, which is good for consumers and good for developers... At Zoe Mode, we've worked with Sony on Sony platforms, and I've never bought into some of the negativity around PS3. With the likes of Home still to come, I feel the ambition and vision of PS3 could exceed a lot of current expectations." But for Nintendo, "The hard question is whether Nintendo's strategy and Wii software sales can continue to succeed over the lifetime of this generation. Personally, I hope it does."
'THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE'
Some developers think that the current system war will end in a stalemate, with no single format being named a clear winner, contrary to previous hardware cycles.
Denis Dyack, president of Silicon Knights, put the idea forward during his talk at this year's Leipzig Games Convention Developers Conference. Dyack explained to the audience that he believed it to be inevitable that there would eventually be a generic "video game machine," much the same way as there currently are DVD players.
Dyack called the process commodification, and he believes "all technology, under any circumstance, becomes commodified." He explained that there was no clear winner in this generation's system war and that this was leading to problems for developers. He said, "Nintendo has come out of the gate much faster than everyone anticipated, but how about longevity? The 360 is doing well in America, but not so well in Japan. The PS3 is off to a really slow start but they have a good brand name, so the truth is, no one knows... And trying to make a game on all three systems is very challenging, and I don't know many, if any, people that are doing that right now."
After his keynote address, several other members of the gaming industry admitted that they, too, would sleep easier at night if there were just the one console to contend with. Electronic Arts' head of international publishing, Gerhard Florin, also advocates a single, open platform and commented, "We want an open, standard platform which is much easier than having five which are not compatible." However, Florin thinks this is a ways off, giving the timeline as up to 15 years.
Katamari Damacy director Keita Takahashi also agrees, and he told GameSpot, "I want to see only one major console being retailed on the market, and everyone actually making games for just one console, and bring the price of that console down from what the three currently cost right now."
JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS
2008 looks set to be a huge year in gaming, with a wider range of choice open to consumers than ever before. Video gaming is no longer a niche industry, and its sales are making a noticeable impact on economies all over the world.
It remains to be seen which console will come out on top, or if different consoles will trump different regions, or whether all three will manage to somehow peacefully coexist. Perhaps, even, as Denis Dyack predicts, one day soon the term "system wars" will be irrelevant as a generic "video game machine" comes to market, and developers will have to worry about developing for only one platform, ensuring that everyone with that platform has access to every game.