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Analyzing Console History, and Why Your Predictions are Probably Foolish
Isn't this fun? We're on the cusp of a new generation! You know what that means? It's time for rampant predictions and speculation! Most of which will be around "who will win the generation?" "Who will be the most powerful?" "Who will have the best online?" "Who will lose the most money?" "What the hell is that thing at the top of your blog?" (I'll get to some of these.)
Now, this is all well and good. Fun conversation, and the like. But I see a lot of rather ignorant moments where people are making predictions that, really, have no bearing on reality. "Sony needs to release first, because they don't want to play catch-up again." Well, the Wii U released first, so both Sony and Microsoft will be playing catch-up to someone.
Then, of course, there's the talk of who's going to be the most powerful, as if it matters. I've got shocking news for you--it has never mattered.
I've noted before the history of game console generations, and this is why I still find it so peculiar that people still think it matters to launch first or to be the most powerful. Winning a console generation, so to speak, is not, nor has it ever been, about raw power or releasing first. It's about a solid game library, and a friendly, easy to use, and generally affordable console. Sony fully understood this with the Playstation 1 and PS2. Both were simple, straight-forward machines, both had great libraries, and both were very affordable in their times. Odd, then, that they should do everything the exact opposite with the PS3. Not a friendly price, not logical hardware, ridiculous attitude at release. It's like Sony was somehow jealous that the Xbox was more powerful than the PS2, and they decided to fire back by making their next machine way more powerful (essentially), regardless of the fact that all that Xbox power meant nothing. The PS2 still sold about 130 million more units than the original Xbox.
Here's why hardware doesn't matter. First off, being the most powerful is a pointless endeavor. Third party games are going to be developed on whichever system is weaker and/or has higher sales, to optimize for said console, and because it's going to be faster and simpler to port a weaker game to a more powerful system than vice versa. Case in point: Resident Evil 4 gave Capcom a notable challenge when they went to port it to the PS2, after optimizing the game for superior hardware on the GameCube. During this generation, the PS2 was the top seller, and weaker than both the Xbox and GameCube, thus making things very easy on 3rd party developers.
This is why is doesn't matter to be more powerful hardware. Who's going to utilize it? Almost no one outside of a few 1st party devs, and even most 1st party devs are unlikely to push the hardware to it's limits. Look at the Wii. We scoffed that the Wii was some kind of backwards, ancient hardware. But it had a lot of power in it. Nintendo showed this with the absolutely fantastic-looking Super Mario Galaxy games and later, when they cared enough, with Monolith Soft's brilliant and jaw-droppingly gorgeous Xenoblade Chronicles. But outside of these, and maybe a few others, Punch-Out!! perhaps, even Nintendo didn't bother to push their own system to it's limits.
First! This is how pathetic you look when you post "first!" in the comments section of an article.
Being the most powerful hardware is a wasted endeavor. As you can see, almost no one will use it. Here's another example: It's taken 6 years for Sony to show us that, yes, "the PS3 is graphically superior to the Xbox 360. Check it out in The Last of Us and Beyond: Two Souls." For the entirety of this generation, the PS3 merely looked on-par to the Xbox 360, sometimes performing worse as is the case with pretty much all the Bethesda ports.
Launching first is also generally pointless, but before I get into more wordy detail, let's do a rundown of console history, starting with the second generation:
Gen 2:First release: Fairchild Channel F (pictured above, yep, it was the first cartridge-based game console with games on the cartridges, rather than technical switches in them)Most powerful: Mattel Intellivision, ColecovisionMarket leader/Best Seller: Atari 2600
Gen 3:First release: NESMost powerful: Sega Master System (TurboGrafx-16 sometimes goes here as well)Market leader/Best Seller: NES
Gen 4: First release: TurboGrafx-16 or Genesis depending on where you place TG-16Most powerful: Neo-Geo Market leader/Best Seller: SNES
Gen 5:First release: Panasonic 3DO, followed by Jaguar, and then SaturnMost powerful: Nintendo 64Market leader/Best Seller: Playstation
Gen 6:First release: Sega DreamcastMost powerful: Microsoft XboxMarket leader/Best Seller: Playstation 2
Gen 7:First release: Xbox 360Most powerful: Playstation 3Market leader/Best Seller: Xbox 360/Wii
Look over that list carefully. Take note of how many times the most powerful console was the market leader. I'll make it easy. It was zero. Zero times. Now take note of how many times being first to market put a console in the top sales slot. Once. It was once, and it was the NES--and it wasn't because they were first to market. It was because Nintendo was still evil and secured most 3rd party publishers in extremely strict development contracts so they couldn't support other consoles.
So what the hell defines the top console of a generation?
Affordability, familiarity, gimmicks, and ease of use. And this is not an exact science. Often, a console will receive strong third party support merely by having great hardware to work with. The SNES was a notable "easy" console way back in the day. As was the original Playstation. You know what weren't? The Saturn and N64--both were notoriously difficult machines to use, and hated by many developers. Rumors purport that the Saturn was originally going to be a 2-D machine, and Sega just half-assed "doubled" the motherboard, creating a messy structure no developers used. That, and it was the only console to--pretty much ever--to base it's 3-D polygonal games off quadrangles rather than triangles. Talk about weird.
It should also be noted that hardware power changes dramatically as the technology advances. The Mattel Intellivision was the first 16-bit hardware, way back in the early 80's. Let's look at how time improves something like this:
The one on the left is Dungeons & Dragons in the Intellivision, and the one on the right is Doom on the SNES.
The same numbers may appear time and time again, but it's the overall evolution that brings things forward. For instance, the 3DS is roughly the same power as the Wii, but is far newer (especially given that the core of the Wii was developed around 2000 for the GameCube's 2001 release, and that the Wii is merely a supercharged GameCube), and as such, the 3DS can perform, especially graphically, a lot of feats that the Wii could not. Normal and bump maps, for instance, are something the 3DS can do that the Wii couldn't.
Efficiency and ability change over the years,even for somewhat similar power. Now, the SNES certainly has a lot more extra bells and whistles than the Intellivision, but that doesn't change the fact that both are 16-bit consoles--the SNES is just a 16-bit console after a decade of improvement.
Now, as for releasing first? It's a huge, huge gamble. The common mindset seems to be "first means more sales before the other guys come out." This is flatly asinine. First often means more mistakes made. First often means a lack of innovation over the previous generation. First often means launching before people are ready to care about another generation.
Let's look at the last "first," not the most recent one: The Xbox 360. I've felt for a very long time that this current generation was entirely rushed. All three hardware makers had hardware issues, breakdowns, failures, and brickings. This kind of crap would never have been acceptable during the 16-bit era. If your console died, you didn't get sales.
The Xbox 360 is the embodiment of everything that can go wrong with going first. The most obvious part of this is the Red Ring of Death fiasco which racked up an absurd 40% failure rate for the system. That it even still sells is tantamount to either a miracle or some kind of excellent brain-washing of consumers on MS's part. Then of course were the games. The Xbox 360, like all console launches, was plagued with ports of last-gen games, most of which were generally reviewed worse than their PS2/Xbox/GameCube counterparts. The next year, the Xbox 360 generally failed to show us it was anything more than a high-def version of the same old thing as before, until Gears of War and Halo 3 finally launched--which was about a full year later. Finally, of course, there's the sobering fact that it didn't tear up the charts in sales, and was outsold by the Wii within about 10 months of the Wii being released. Now, at the end of the generation, it's barely ahead of the PS3--and that's with the consideration that no console was re-purchased by consumers more than the Xbox 360 (I analyzed this myself with a poll in the forums here on GI's site in the General Game forum--I'd post a link, but the forum appears to be broken right now...).
Launching first arguably did not help the Xbox 360. Did launching second hurt the PS3? That's a tough call, because the PS3 violated many of the concepts that made the PS1 andPS2 so popular. Developers complained about the hardware (well, to be fair, they did about the PS2 also), and then of course there was the elephant in the room: That price. Regardless of when the PS3 launched, that $650 price tag would've prevented them from any amount of market dominance. The PS1 it should be noted, was the most affordable console for it's power and quality at the time. It grossly undercut the Saturn and the Nintendo had to cut prices on the N64 to keep it relevant as it launched at $250 at a time when the PS1 was about $200 already.
There is always more to consider here, too. Nothing is ever so black-and-white. Sony has to do a lot more than just "launch before Microsoft" to be successful. Hell, launching after might be the right ploy for them.
Looking back, there are other reasons the Playstation had no problem dominating the industry. They learned how to make a great console from one of the best--from Nintendo, back when the Playstation was originally going to be the Nintendo Playstation. Sega, at that time, spent ample time making ludicrous mistake after ludicrous mistake. It wasn't just the slapped-together innards of the Saturn. It was a combination of things. Rushing it to market when no one was ready, the high price point ($400 at the time), the unevolved controller, Sega's then-recent history of making too much hardware that didn't get supported. Remember, the Saturn launched less than a year after the 32X add-on for the Genesis, which itself saw 3 hardware revisions and two versions of the CD add-on.
Sometimes a console is successful because other console makers can't stop screwing up. Take the Jaguar and 3DO. The 3DO had a lot of promise--lowest licensing fees of any console at the time, which gave it the name--it was "3 Dollars Only" to make a game on the thing. But this meant it was absolutely flooded with crap titles, and even then, was the most expensive console in history at $700. (My 3DO actually still has the receipt in the box from when it was purchased new by it's original owner, the guy spent nearly $900 that day.) The Jaguar was intended to be extremely powerful, but was so badly designed that no one wanted to make games on it, and what was on there was often mysteriously inferior to supposed weaker systems. The Jaguar port of Doom is actually technically inferior to the SNES version, and for that matter, so was the 32X version!
I've seen a lot of people also saying things like "the Wii U will be Nintendo's Dreamcast." The only way one could make this kind of stupid comment is to look at the screen in the controller, the potential screen in the controller of the Dreamcast, link them metaphorically, then flush all logic and reason down the toilet with the rest of their intelligence.
The Dreamcast was Sega's swan song. Their last hurrah. Their desperate attempt to snatch success after years and years of defeat. Remember, Sega never held a position as a market or sales leader. Not once. And after the success of the Genesis, it was nearly a decade of constant terrible decisions and awful hardware. The Dreamcast launched as Sega was spiraling down into complete failure--when they were at their lowest. The Wii U has launched when Nintendo is at their highest point--ever. They are more successful now with the Wii and DS than they were with the NES, SNES, and even the Game Boy. You think Nintendo will go 3rd party after this? You're a complete buffoon. Put down the joint, and reboot your brain.
Just be aware, that when you try to analyze the upcoming generation, be aware that it's never as simple as "powerful hardware" or "firsties." Everyone has been very successful this generation, especially Nintendo. Going off that, everyone will likely be successful next time, though I have my reasons for thinking that the next generation won't sell as well, overall, as this one did. The only company that's having any difficulties right now is Sony with the Vita, but they seem uninterested in even acknowledging that it's not selling.
At the very least, we all need to get over these shallow one-off points about why a console succeeds or performs. Sometimes coming second allows a company to capitalize on what worked for the other guy, but to do it better. No doubt, this was true of the SNES.