Microsoft and The Perils of The Third Console – Feature

A feature I wrote for the website www.square-go.com

For those of you who have been living in a box wrapped up in a bag stuffed into a tent inside a cave sealed with a giant boulder in Siberia during the winter without wifi, you may have missed the news of the New Xbox, the Xbox One. This news was greeted with the following;

  1. Wailing and gnashing of teeth
  2. Rumour followed by half hearted clarification which caused more rumours and disinformation
  3. A hell of a lot of Call of Duty Dog parody gifs
  4. Dismay

But who here is surprised? Not me, because this was written in the stars. Fate decreed that this Xbox was always going to be a disappointment because we’ve been on this merry-go-round before and doubtless will do again. Because, and whisper it, whenever anyone has released their third console it’s always been a bit pants. Don’t believe me? Fine. Let me run you through some historical precedents that will confirm this statement as a righteous truth.

The N64 – No Really, Cartridges Are Awesome.

There was a reason why Nintendo was referred to as the 300lb gorilla: from the wreckage of the Great Video Game Crash of the early eighties, Nintendo dominated everyone with the release of the NES. This was followed up by the SNES which, despite Sega’s best efforts, still ruled the roost. The anticipation for this next console was almost painful, the drips and drabs of information wetting everyone’s appetite. And then there it it was with a controller boasting fancy 3D graphics, a new fangled analogue stick and…cartridges?

This was only one of the problems. In the time it took them to get the N64 to market, an upstart company by the name of Sony had released their PlayStation. A machine that had it’s origins as a CD drive expansion for the SNES, it had eschewed cartridges and had it’s games on discs. What this meant was that the cost of producing a game was much lower than for the N64. Like with the NES and the SNES, Nintendo controlled the manufacturing of the cartridges and pushed those costs onto publishers. Not so with the PlayStation, now all you needed was to burn some discs and there you were. Not only this but the storage space for CDs was much greater that cartridges which meant bigger and more complex games, games that couldn’t easily be reproduced on the N64. Couple this with a slick marketing campaign that made the PlayStation brand the coolest on the planet and soon Nintendo was on the backfoot, a position they would remain in for nearly a decade.

The Sega Saturn – Sega’s Folly

In the heady days of the early nineties, Sega was for the cool kids. No really, with Sonic and a sleek black console they were the first to play on the ‘Nintendo Is For Kids’ schtick that would dog them forevermore. Whilst the Master System had wilted in the shade of the NES, the Mega Drive/Genesis went head on with Nintendo and honours were pretty much even. The cracks started showing when they released the Mega CD and the Mega 32X, half hearted ways to try and extend the life of their console. But they were getting ready to start the next generation with a console that would blow their competition out of the water with it’s top notch graphical capabilities.

The problem was that these graphics were based around 2D design which was blown out of the water by (here it is again) the 3D muscle of the Sony PlayStation. Cue Sega panicking and crowbarring extra processors into the Saturn which only succeeded in making it much harder for developers to make games for. It didn’t help either that the more powerful PlayStation was released $100 dollars cheaper. Great games were released for the machine but the Saturn was a total disaster for Sega. Poorly designed, poorly marketed and poorly received it was the beginning of the end for them.

The PlayStation 3 – Before A Fall

Sony had won. They had won. The PlayStation pushed Nintendo off the top of the video game heap but that was only a preview for the all conquering PlayStation 2. This machine saw off both the Nintendo Gamecube and the first Microsoft Xbox. Over the course of it’s life it had one of the best selection of games on any machine with names and franchises that would come to dominate pop culture.

The third console was announced at E3 with a ridiculously large list of features; the CELL processor to power the amazing graphics, backwards compatible with the PS2, a blu ray drive, a new fangled PlayStation Network and…

$500. This would cost you $500 dollars. To put it into perspective, the PS2 launched six years previously at $300. The price was such an issue that Ken Kutaragi, the Father of The PlayStation, said that people should work more hours to buy one which did not go down at all well with anyone.

The PlayStation 3 was all about bloat; the research and development costs of the machine were huge, the production costs even higher (it’s estimated Sony were initially selling the machine at a loss of around $300 unit), the initial simultaneous release dates were put back due to problems making it. All of this opened the door for Microsoft to sneak in with the Xbox 360 and do their best to put Sony into second place; their machine was easier to develop for, it’s online services were better and it was cheaper as well. Sony tried to compete by taking the first version of the PS3 and ripping most of the guts out (including PS2 compatibility) to make it cheaper before it was redesigned not once but twice to bring the costs down to try and get some ground back against the Xbox. Of course, none of this really mattered as the Nintendo Wii snuck past everyone but that’s for another article.

So what does this mean for Microsoft? What can they learn from history? The main thing appears to be to try not to be arrogant, to assume that you know what the audience wants and that they will just buy anything with a certain brand on it. Watching the Xbox Reveal video, with it’s endless talk about TV integration only available to certain markets and games that so far only seem to involve either Sports or shooting people, it would seem that Microsoft are firmly following in the footsteps of history. Unfortunately, based on past evidence, this ends up either with several years in the wilderness or one last go before oblivion.

Will either of these be the fate of the Xbox? Hopefully by the end of E3 that’ll be a little clearer.

Originally published June 3rd 2013

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