In The Box: If You Want Gamers To Use It, Include It

by Matt Helgeson on Jan 04, 2013 at 07:00 AM

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.

It’s been proven time and time again that if it’s not in the box, it doesn’t matter. Whether it was the NES’s Power Pad, the PlayStation Eye, Wii Speak, PlayStation Move, or Kinect, aftermarket peripherals might enjoy strong sales for a while, but they don’t become a part of the gaming vocabulary of the masses.

I’m not saying that Kinect, for instance, is a failure. Microsoft certainly created a buzz, sold some units, and provided us with interesting gaming moments. But it didn’t become something that was widely used by developers. Sure, some Kinect-oriented games found success (most notably Harmonix’s Dance Central), and a few novel-but-inessential uses of the technology in mainstream games (like Mass Effect), but overall it doesn’t affect the core gamer on a daily basis. For Sony’s PlayStation Move, even that moderate level of relevance has proved difficult to achieve.

I’ve read rumors that Microsoft intends to integrate Kinect into its next-generation Xbox console. If the company is serious about motion-control gaming, I hope it’s true. Despite my criticism of Nintendo’s headset, I give the company credit: on both the Wii and Wii U it decided to make unique control mechanics and integral part of the console. Every person who purchased a Wii or Wii U has to engage with motion or touchscreen controls. If Microsoft and Sony want the Kinect and Move to be an important part of their next-gen systems, they should do the same.

Relying on consumers to buy a peripheral after their initial console purchase is a fool’s errand. In January of 2012, Microsoft said it had “shipped” (which is not the same thing as “sold”) 18 million Kinect units to stores. At the time, over 66 million Xbox 360s had been sold to consumers. Even if all those shipped Kinects made it into the hands of consumers, game publishers could only depend on around one out of every four 360 owners having access to motion control functionality.

Every feature you put into a game costs money and (more importantly) time. Every minute your developers spend working on implementing motion control features is a minute they are not spending on improving the game’s core functionality. As time has shown, most developers aren’t willing to devote significant resources to creating something that (at best) only one-fourth of the audience will use.

The strength of game consoles is that they provide a standardized, accessible platform for consumers and game developers. Aftermarket accessories, while useful to a few, only serve to subdivide what should be one standardized market. I don’t know what unique technological functions the next Microsoft and Sony consoles will offer. I do know this: Both companies need to include everything they want consumers to use and experience in the box, or all the time, money, and resources they spent developing them will have been wasted.