Cruncharcade: Why the Console Companies Are Their Own Worst Enemies

When this round in the video game console wars first began at the 2005 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles, this reporter’s reaction was that one company was arrogant (Sony), one company was desperate (Microsoft) and one company was clueless (Nintendo). Fast-forward to today, and all three of the hardware manufacturers are looking a wee bit foolish. Each has a chance to win this thing – possibly for good – but all they can do is make mistakes and missteps.

First, let me tell you about two years ago. Sony kicked things off with a Monday afternoon press conference, despite the fact that E3 actually would only open on Wednesday. Apparently Sony’s marketing team was convinced that the press would take the time to arrive in LA early just to hear about the PlayStation 3. They were right of course, but then they all they could do was shown canned demos of rubber ducks, and tell us why the PS3 would be a great system when it would arrive in the spring of 2006 (for the record it was late). The message from Sony was that they would always be number one, and the other companies might not even bother.

Things were much different that Monday night at Microsoft. The Redmond software giant had traditionally held a Monday night press conference to beat Sony to the punch, but when Sony moved their press conference to Monday afternoon to scoop Microsoft things got interesting. Microsoft “introduced” the Xbox 360 a week in advance on MTV, making the whole press conference old news. Then at the press event — which ran more than an hour late — featured hired fans on stage to convince the media that this would be the system to back. Hype does not equal buzz, but someone forgot that rule.

And finally there was poor Nintendo. The company once again lacked enough chairs for the millions of people that showed up for their press conference — OK, maybe it only felt like millions. Then Nintendo proceeded once again to ignore technological advances that gamers seemed (at least at the time) to be clamoring to have in their systems.

With this year’s E3 just over a month and a half away, these same companies seem to be continually dropping the ball. At this point it is way too early to even guess who will be out in top when the dust settles, so feel free to post your opinions. But here’s a quick run down of why these companies are their own worst enemies.

Nintendo Wii
The house that Mario built promised in 2005 not to be last to market. Yeah, while we heard that before, and will probably hear it again. Being last to the market is fine, but don’t make promises you can’t keep. Instead make systems! And get those systems on store shelves.

In fairness, Nintendo did a great job of delivering plenty of Wii systems for launch day. But in the months since that brisk November launch systems have been harder to find than Lindsay Lohan on a movie set. Also in fairness, Ms. Lohan will eventually turn up, possibly even sober, but the Wii might be seen on store shelves in mass qualities until 2009! What is up with this supply chain problem? Didn’t the executives expect this type of demand, or were they having doubts as the launched date approached? The company finally has a runaway hit and they’re blowing it (sorry no Lohan comparison here).

By the time the supply issues are resolved the rival systems may actually begin to fall in price, and killer app titles will push sales of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Now is the time for Nintendo to be making sales. Their system is arguably the “other” console that gamers may buy while waiting for a price cut, or something really worth playing on the PS3 or 360. And this is a problem the company had to have seen coming? By the time more Wii consoles arrive, it maybe too little, too late.

Nintendo has always failed to gage the competition ever since they abandoned the CD-ROM add-on for the SNES, which you know went on to become the Sony PlayStation. This might be the one area where Nintendo’s blinders are working to their advantage. People are buying the Wii to play simple games that take advantage of their silly controller. So before this thing goes on life support already, get more games stat!

What we’re hoping to see at E3:
More Wii Sports styled games. The Wii needs more of these to succeed. Skip the Red Steel type shooters. And Mario might help too, and yeah, he’s a fan favorite. But to get that true mass you need games that everyone really knows… and that’s more bowling, pool and simple stuff.

Sony PlayStation 3
Having won the last two hardware rounds, Sony was on top of the world and ruling all it surveyed. Then a strange thing happened… a knight saw another crusade. The knight is Sir Howard Stringer, and as head honcho at Sony he’s betting on Blu-ray. This meant that the Sony PlayStation 3 was delayed while the next generation video format was sorted out last spring.

And it puts the PS3 on two frontlines. One is the console war, where the system is going up against the Xbox 360 and the Wii, while it is also going up against the HD-DVD optical disc format in another showdown. Entering the latter fray could be a lose-lose situation. Movie studios are already looking at digital downloads and other means of delivery for HD content, so whichever format “wins” won’t be ruling for long anyway.

Worse for the consumer, adding the Blu-ray drive has meant that the PS3 carries the hefty $599 price point. Yet at the same time this undercuts other stand alone Blu-ray players. Sony has had trouble get enough systems on the shelves anyway, and as result developers are beginning to pull support. All this would be fine, as the game is early, but Sony then confused matters by pulling the $499 version from the market, releasing a model with a larger hard drive in some markets and hinting at the same model in the U.S. Confused? You’re not the only one.

Sony can take credit for outselling the Xbox 360 in April however. But not with the PS3… no, that would be the PlayStation 2. Sony, unlike Nintendo or Microsoft, doesn’t want to pull support on their older system. On the one hand why should they, they’re still racking in money on it. The system is still selling, and they make a lot of money on third-party game titles. But having that system out there is no doubt convincing many gamers to wait for the PS3. This would actually be a bigger problem with a rival system was on the horizon, but without another rival console for a while (we hope anyway), Sony should be in the clear. Still no sale today doesn’t help ensure victory tomorrow.

What we’re hoping to see at E3:
Sony likes to show off big games such as Resistance: Fall of Man and God of War. But Nintendo is on to something with easy to play mass-appeal games. A good family game would be great. And a word of advice to Sony: “leave them wanting more.” An epic press conference where you show us everything isn’t what we want to see either.

Microsoft Xbox 360
First out of the gate in 2005. Microsoft got the early launch, and what did it get them? Halo 3 is still months away, and developers are having trouble with the system. Plus, unlike Sony, Microsoft abandoned their original console. This increased demand for the Xbox 360, but left a lot of gamers in the dark.

Microsoft was desperate in 2005, and now that desperation has the company making some strange decisions. The biggest mistake is that they listened to the demands big box retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Target, and released two versions of their console. Sony would go on to make the same mistake too. This confused consumers and meant that some gamers have a 360 system without a hard drive. OK, Microsoft was innovative with the Xbox, but went backward with the Xbox 360 by making the hard drive optional. This has caused headaches for game developers, notably for titles such as the upcoming Grand Theft Auto IV.

The first thing to do is make GTA IV a hard drive only game. This will make game development easier, and convince those without one to get with the program. Plus, Microsoft can over charge for the hard drive as another revenue stream. Will gamers complain? Only the few without the hard drive model, and they’ll stop complaining once they realize the benefits.

But the second thing Microsoft needs to do is to stop coming up with other hardware upgrades to the system. The HD-DVD drive add-on is nice, but it doesn’t function as well as a standalone HD-DVD player, and if Hollywood goes all out on requiring HDMI connections for HD movie playback, then the first generation of 360s will be screwed. And that brings us to the next point… if you want to add features such as HDMI do so without re-releasing the system. I know this is a contradiction to what I just said, but this type of hardware upgrade that should upgrade all the systems, and not just be a special edition version. There are some necessary upgrades, but coming up with too many add-ons just screams, “we forgot to put this in.”

And back to GTA IV. If your executives are going to get a tattoo on their arms (shout out to Peter Moore), then the game should be exclusive. If Ken over at Sony can get the same tattoo… or for that matter say, “I don’t need a tattoo to tell you that GTA is coming to the PS3” then don’t do it!

What we’re hoping to see at E3:
Proof that Games for Windows isn’t just a back-up plan in case you decide to exit the console hardware arena. Games for Windows is a valid brand, but don’t treat it like it is brand new either. I know this was a rant about consoles, and the idea of cross-platform play is incredible actually. However, the PC still gets the shaft when it comes to games (those stupid Mac commercials come to mind). And hand-me-down games such as Halo 2 for Vista aren’t convincing us of the power of the system

But talking about Halo, on the console side what else is coming besides Halo 3? What about some of the other franchises such as Mech Warrior and Crimson Skies? Are we going to see these games ever show up for the 360? We also know Microsoft tried mass appeal with Viva Piñata. So enough said on that front.

Finally, to all three console companies:
You’ve done a great job of keeping our interest up. Wars are bad things, and this includes the console wars. Maybe one of these three systems should go away in the future. Freedom of choice is a great thing, but with three companies it seems that you’re confusing the developers. Let them put all their attention on two console platforms (and I’m not even thinking of all the handhelds, the PC, etc.). But if there must be three, let’s not see another new console until 2015. By then I’ll be too old to care.