I've been gaming for close to twenty years and it's only this console generation that I can say I've been an active and informed participant. I got my first ps3 in the beginning of 2008 and have played a number of titles for it since. Not a huge number mind you, but a lot of great games none the less. I missed out on the PS2 generation as I was late to the party getting my PS3 in 2003 and I spent a good chunk of that console generation living in England as a dedicated PC gamer. It was only after my return to North America in 2007 that I really got into PS2 games. It was during this time in England that I really got into reading reviews and editorials in my spare time. This served me well as I was working in video game retail at the time, but I did it because I was genuinely interested. I still follow gaming news and read/watch reviews for a lot of games, even ones I have no interest in playing. In this way I consider myself well informed, despite not being the kind of gamer that plays the latest releases. I would be a more active participant in this console generation but I have a lot of funny ideas that may have a lot to do with both my Genesis, SNES, and PS gaming roots, as well as time spent as a dedicated PC gamer. Funny ideas like $60 dollars being too high an asking for a new game of any length, that it's better to wait for a version that bundles in all the DLC rather than buying the original release, and that the single player narrative is the best part of any game. Even stranger is the belief that buying pre-owned doesn't take money away from the developer, rather it makes the original sale count since I won't trade it in
With the Wii U around the corner responses from Sony and Microsoft are likely deep in development by now. It's certainly not over by any means but we are working towards the end of this console generation. It has brought gamers a lot of fantastic games and more than a few headaches. Mistakes have been made and success has comes from places nobody could have guessed. I'm going to spend this post to offer my thoughts on the big three console makers. More specifically what I think they have done and are still doing wrong and what I think they can do to make things better. I will state for the record that I have never owned a Wii or a 360. All my thoughts on the current Nintendo and Microsoft platforms has been gained over the years through observations of people I know who own the systems, watching reviews, reading editorials/news, and general observations of their respective fan bases. None of this is in any way a definitive analysis of any platform, these are just my observations and thoughts.
Where, oh where, do I to begin? Of all the big three I'd say I see the most wrong with Nintendo, both in terms of hardware but also general business practices. More irksome is that in Nintendo's case it's not just mistakes but incredible potential and public good will going to waste. Nintendo seems to have painted themselves into a corner on a number of fronts. For one they have chosen to release all their consoles, hand held or otherwise, based around a gimmick of sorts. It worked, for the most part, with the DS and developers found ways that used it in meaningful and/or fun ways. But then they released the Wii and while the initial sales and publicity blitz must have been fantastic, it's long over and the Wii is a joke. Well, maybe not so much a joke as it is a barren wasteland of a platform filled with shovelware, mini game collections, and kids software. When I say kids software I mean games that you play(ed) as a kid but realize to be garbage once you play something on another platform. You know, the kind of things they are releasing as Kinect titles these days. Dotted about this barren landscape there are a number of refuges, a smattering of great games. But if you were to take away first party games (which I'll talk about shortly) what are you left with? No More Heroes, Madworld, Muramasa: The Demon Blade, Xenoblade, The Last Story, and a couple others. It's not much but they are there and they are all fantastic games; the problem is that they are few and far between. No matter what I or anybody else can say about the Wii from a hardware standpoint it's main issue is that if your not a fan of Mario, Zelda, Metroid, or any other core Nintendo franchise, the software lineup isn't worth owning the system for. Everybody I know that owns a Wii loved it at first but found themselves having to dust it off whenever they got an actual game for it down the line. I'm not just talking about adults looking for a linear FPS or a generic JRPG, I'm talking about the kids and the seniors who made the system a smash hit upon release. Most popular game for the Wii is still Wii Sports which comes with the system. This is a problem that Nintendo should have done something about. But they aren't doing anything about this; instead they are releasing a new console based around another gimmick. I find it interesting to note that Nintendo seems dead set on pushing the norm (aka: taking a gamble) on new technology or ideas with every system they release but they've propped them all up with the same franchises they have been using since the NES.
The weak game library is a continuation of a problem that started with the N64, continued with the Gamecube, and came to a point here with the Wii. Back in the late 90s Nintendo wouldn't allow 2D games to be made for the 64 which alienated developers that wanted to make that kind of game for aesthetic, or stylistic reasons. That, along with several other bad decisions and polices, drove many developers to abandon Nintendo and run to the open arms of Sony and their crazy CD based Playstation console. There are a lot of great games available for the N64 but a lot of them are first party titles and almost all of them are platformers. This bad blood between Nintendo and various developers continued through the Gamecubes lifespan though it certainly wasn't as pronounced as the N64. I would go so far as saying that the Gamecube is best Nintendo home console since the SNES. So much so that I think the backwards compatibility function on the Wii is one of that systems greatest assets. Something I'd like to draw your attention towards is the lack of RPGs on both the N64 as well the Gamecube and that the trend continued with the Wii. So much so that when a decent RPG was actually released fans got together and begged Nintendo for an English localization. There are tons of great RPGs released in Japan on Playstation consoles but you don't see North American owners of Sony consoles banding together to get them localized. I feel that this is mostly because there are tons of great RPGs, and great games in general, available for Playstation systems in North America. Playstaion and 360 owners aren't starved for good third party games.
What Nintendo has done about this is to play to their strengths. Their strengths being the powerful nostalgia attached to growing up in the late 80s to the mid 90s when Nintendo really was on top of the world. They've done this through Wii ware and having lots of c lassic games up for download, and by releasing lots of first party titles that play on nostalgic memories of Mario or Link while being great games on their own. Nintendo can and will prop up any future hardware, no matter how bad it is, by releasing first party games that the Nintendo-core have to own. They don't mind that (aside from Metroid) that the core mechanics of any Nintendo franchise hasn't really changed since the 90s. They will buy it because it's a Mario game, or a Zelda title, or because it involves Pokemon. Charging full price for a slightly upgraded or tweaked version of what you already spent good money for; Nintendo is becoming the Apple of the gaming world. The key difference is that Apple products do more than one thing while Nintendo is still making dedicated gaming devices. Both Sony and Microsoft know that users want to do more than play games so their consoles can do things like play music and movies. Nintendo's growing problem is that they are making dedicated gaming devices that will only be bought by a limited demographic. This is likely the biggest problem with Nintendo because the casual market will buy the system and maybe one or two games and then let it collect dust. The Nintendo-core will buy anything that lets them play another Mario game but in reality they are a very vocal minority in the gaming world. Finally, the kids will love it at first but it's only a matter of time before they abandon it for richer or more mature games on a more diverse platform made by the competition. This demographic is not large or stable enough to build a competitive business model on and it's for similar reasons that SEGA chose to stop developing hardware in favour of developing software.
Regardless of what I've said about it's software problems and the fact that the system is based on an interesting but failed gimmick, the Wii hardware has some sound ideas behind it. It wasn't designed to offer cutting edge graphics, but that made it infinitely more affordable in comparison to the competition for the first few years. That same low spec design should have a) shifted developer focus from "gritty realism" to all forms of artistic stylization, and b) made it easier to design games for. This would have quite possibly been the case for developers had the motion controls been optional. But the decision was made for motion controls to be a must and there were only a handful of studios outside Nintendo that actually made use of the unique control scheme in ways that weren't annoying in the long run. Think about it, how often have you read something along the lines of "plays best if you use the c lassic controller" or "sadly there is no option to use the c lassic controller" in reviews for Wii titles? Perhaps the greatest thing I can say about the hardware itself aside from it's fantastic backwards compatibility is that it doesn't feature issues with reliability. That last one is actually quite important and likely tied to it's modest system specs. The Wii is the only console this cycle that doesn't have problem with heat and isn't giving uses a light of death after X number of years.
So, what can Nintendo do to "get back in the game"? They can release a new console that uses a controller identical to the Gamecube but is also compatible with the Wiimote+. This system should have modest specs to keep it cheap, should be easy to develop games for, and not require developers to use motion controls in any way unless they want to. This console should have some kind of internal storage that allows it to download c lassic titles from an online Nintendo store that extend back to the NES and stop with the gamecube. This console should have a free network similar to the PSN that offers online play without something like a friend code. To top things off Nintendo should activly go after indie game designers and offer to publish their low spec/high concept games through this nintendo network/store. If Nintendo can do that and get third parties to make great games, preferably exclusives, they would havea winner of a console after a few years.
Unlike recent Nintendo consoles, the Xbox platform has always had lots of games actually worth playing on it. The biggest problem Microsoft has is that almost all of those great games are also available on other platforms, which made and makes investing in the hardware less than worthwhile for some of us. Think about it, what exclusive Xbox games are actually worth playing? Well Halo ODST and 3 spring to mind, Gears of War 2 and 3 are also there, Crackdown, and then there is Fable II. That's about it, so if you don't care about any of those titles there really isn't much point in picking up a 360 and the original Xbox had the exact same problem. Back when the Xbox was competing with the PS2 you could argue that games looked better on Xbox but it probably wasn't worth it for most gamers to plunk down a few hundred dollars so they could play a slightly prettier version of GTA: San Andreas. Microsoft has also paid for supporting the failed HDDVD format with their expensive add on drive. Newer versions of the console haven't featured a blu-ray drive and I think that's largely a pride thing. I get that as blu-ray is a Sony idea and it wouldn't look good for Microsoft to start using Sony's disc format. But using the blu-ray format would extend the life of the system and allow developers to do more with the console. Casting off the limitations of DVD space would make room for visually richer experiences and since blu-ray drives are fully compatible with DVDs there shouldn't be a problem playing the current library of 360 titles. That's pretty much all I can say about the Xbox platform in general. Aside from the high failure rate the hardware is sound, offers access to a lot of great games, and if you want to pony up the cash you get a slick online experience. It's a good platform, it just doesn't offer anything meaningful that Sony or your windows PC is offering outside the handful of aforementioned exclusives.
What can Microsoft do to keep themselves relevant? Well aside from releasing Halo games they can marry the Xbox to the PC to make something wonderful. The big problem with portable gaming right now is the question of "why am I paying $40 for a game that runs on a device that only plays games when I can buy a fun game for $0.99 on my phone"? This is an important question and Microsoft can take advantage of this. They can release a line of PCs, running Windows OS, that play console games as well. Basically a WindowsBox PC or something like that. This WinBox should be manufactured by Microsoft, use standardized hardware, and should feature a blu-ray drive. It should come with a wireless mouse, keyboard, and controller in the box and the Live service should be fused with the OS. Xbox Live and Windows Live should be spliced together to form a new Live service that works a lot like Steam. The most important thing for the WinBox would be to ensure that it doesn't have the hardware reliability issues that have plagued the 360. If the user gums everything up by downloading toolbars from porn sites that is their fault. But the hardware itself should be sound and not give users a light of death after a few years of regular use. This would do for home console gaming what Android and iOS are doing to portable gaming. Hardware standardization would eliminate hardware compatibility issues that trouble PC gamers and a console that is also a PC would sell because while a gaming console is a luxury, everybody needs a PC in this day and age. Why would I drop hundreds of dollars on a Playstation 4 that only plays movies, music, and games when I can spend a little more on a WinBox that does all that and anything else a PC can. I can install Steam on my Winbox and get access to everything that service has to offer. My WinBox is also compatible with decades of PC gaming history. I can play Halo 6, Baldur's Gate, Gears of War 4, Command & Conquer 2, the pc or 360 version of the Mass Effect trilogy, Call of Duty 9, and Fallout 2 all on the same machine. It's brilliant and it should happen, because it would be the future, and because I would buy it without hesitation.
Thanks for reading this far and if you're interested and your eyes aren't bleeding yet I've posted part two. I'd link directly to it but Gamespot won't allow me to do so at the moment.