The lights are on
Often, seemingly small decisions have a profound impact. This is true in life, and doubly true for companies that manufacture video game consoles. Since the beginning of this generation, tech experts and journalists have spent thousands of words breaking down the difference between the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 – their internal chipsets, graphical power, online functionality, and storage media.
However, it recently occurred to me that one of the most important console hardware decisions of the past decade didn’t involve internal RAM, graphics cards, or Blu-ray drives; it was Microsoft’s decision to include a cheap little plastic headset in with each Xbox 360 sold. I should point out that there have been a couple of lower-priced bundles that did not include a headset, but by and large, if you bought a 360, you got a headset along with it.
Contrast this with Sony. At the time of the PS3’s release, the decision to use consumer Bluetooth headsets instead of a packed-in and standardized Sony-branded headset seemed defensible. Bluetooth headsets were becoming common (this was in the pre-iPhone days when phones were still used primarily for talking), so why not give consumers the option to seek lower-priced alternatives, or empowering them to use a device they already have? At some level, it made sense.
However, as we’ve seen time and time again – if it’s not in the box, it’s not going to be a mass-market item among console owners. I recently reviewed Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault for PlayStation 3. This tower defense/platformer hybrid places an emphasis on co-op and multiplayer, so I spent a considerable amount of time with both modes. In my very first competitive multiplayer match, I was randomly matched up with someone who had a headset and had already logged some considerable hours in the game. It was a pleasant experience. I copped to my noob status from the jump, so he took pity on me, showing me around the playfield and giving me some tips before mercilessly destroying me with a wave of tanks. That was the only time in all my hours that I was matched up with someone who was actively using chat – something that’s absolutely necessary to even attempt co-op.
I’ve noticed many times how relatively silent PlayStation Network is in comparison to Xbox Live. Sometimes that’s a blessing (I detest the 13-year-old racist trolls who play Black Ops II as much as you do), but I think that the fact that everyone with a 360 started out with a headset has made it a better overall online gaming community. It’s nice to be able to contact your friends and know they have the same basic tools that you do.
Despite all the good things Nintendo is doing to help make Wii U’s online infrastructure better than the Wii’s, it made the same blunder with Wii U. There’s no headset packed in. Even worse, there’s not even an official Nintendo Wii U headset on the market – just a stew of expensive third-party headsets of variable quality. It’s perplexing. For the minimal cost incurred by including a cheap-but-functional headset, Nintendo could have gone a long way towards fostering a vibrant online user base that communicates amongst itself. What would the cost have been? A dollar per Wii U sold? Five dollars? It strikes me as a wasted opportunity.