Or, How Sony Has Already Won, and You Just Don’t Know It
First off, if you are currently scratching your head and wondering which countries fought in this conflict, the odds are good that you’ve been hibernating for the last two or three decades. It’s hard to walk a block down any city street anymore without bumping the tiny shoulders of at least twelve teenagers – each pimpled face glued to a copy of the latest i-device. But what these young Justin Bieber fanatics are unlikely to know is that all of the immersion, entertainment, and convenience of these oh-so-handy devices began forty years ago, with a humble jumble of circuit boards called the Magnavox Odyssey. And since that fateful breakthrough in time-wasting technology, garage entrepreneurs, former electronics and computer-science majors, and CEOs alike have been locked in a no-holds-barred fight for market supremacy. This post takes a quick stab at chronicling those wars.
The Odyssey’s story alone makes for some great fare. For one, many of us credit the hallowed title of ‘First Video Game’ to Atari’s PONG; but according to David Winter, that’s a mistake. As much love as I’ve bestowed on Atari’s creations over the years, I’m sad to report that their initial success was due to outright IP (Intellectual Property) theft and patent infringement. In fact, when Atari swiped Odyssey’s TABLE TENNIS, rebranded it PONG, and filled pinball arcades with coin-sucking machines, it spawned gaming’s very first law suit! Yes, gaming has been a cutthroat business right from year one. But as much fun as it might be to dwell on the relatively minor clashes between Atari, Commodore, Magnavox, and their ilk during the industry’s infancy, the real drama begins a generation or so later.
Let’s fast-forward to 1985. After the video game market crash of 1977, and Atari’s now-infamous 1983 ‘E.T. Incident,’ the game industry was in critical condition. The needed transfusion came in the form of an incredibly powerful, likably designed, and well-developed-for behemoth called the Nintendo Entertainment System. While other consoles – most notably the Sega Master – participated in this ‘Third Generation,’ nothing could topple blockbuster offerings like Super Mario Brothers, Metal Gear, Final Fantasy, Duck Hunt, and Zelda. For the better part of six years, NES ruled with an iron fist, until a lone blue hedgehog dared to challenge it.
Said hog, of course, was Sonic – the flagship character franchise of Sega. Tired of playing second fiddle to Nintendo’s empire, Sega released the Genesis (Mega Drive) in 1989 to a well-deserved warm welcome. Genesis featured 16-bit architecture, and outstripped the NES in every way. Note, however, that it would be this eager rush into a next-gen market that would prove to be Sega’s undoing in the console market.
Naturally, Nintendo had no intention of taking its new competition lightly, and released the Super NES, or SNES, in 1991. SNES brought the 16-bit hammer down with Nintendo’s largely-intact network of third-party support, and its tech specs slightly surpassed Genesis. Those factors, plus fan loyalty were enough for Nintendo to dominate Fourth-Gen by a 10 million unit margin.
Next came the Fifth Generation of home consoles, and predictably, even more intense competition for the hearts and minds of gamers everywhere. The war of titans raged on, but with a crucial new weapon – gamers now had the ability to follow the longer development periods of new consoles and prejudge their specs. 3D was the name of the game in Fifth-Gen, and gamers expected their hardware to deliver. Enter the propaganda battle.
Earlier, I asked that my reader note the preemptive strategy of Sega, and its ultimate failure to secure the market. The Saturn, and later the Dreamcast, formed the culmination of that tragedy. Both consoles featured much greater technological innovations than their competition, but were pushed out the door with little support from developers, retailers, or distributors. And there ends this article’s coverage of Sega, since we all know they no longer make game platforms.
Fifth-Gen was ultimately won by a dark horse called the Sony Playstation. Released in 1994, it took Playstation no time at all to mass hordes of happy developers. It was a piece of cake to program for, and featured the plethora of storage space that came with a CDROM format. Nintendo’s N64 simply arrived far too late and with too little – after the mass-exodus of developers to Sony’s camp, much of Nintendo’s IP was now first-party.
Playstation and its successor the PS2 were the undisputed kings, until another unexpected foray came; and this time it was from a sleeping ten ton bear who already owned the American market – Microsoft. Having been second into the Sixth-Gen, PS2 still caught a small taste of the one-upmanship that Sega had suffered so many times, but at the hands of the flashy new ‘PC-in-a-box’ Xbox. Xbox could do a lot of things PS2 could not, and stole a significant chunk of North American sales (though PS2 would still ship more units than any other console ever). But in 2005, Microsoft demonstrated that they had not quite learned the lessons of their Japanese counterparts.
Xbox 360 shipped, along with most of the same hardware failure problems as its predecessor. As mentioned before, MS fairly well owned the US market at this point. But with this critical mistake, Sony was able to regain a significant foothold. PS3 took full advantage of its extra year in development.*
It featured a far superior storage format, faster polygon-crunching architecture, and other advantages too numerous to list here. While at a price point nearly double that of the 360, PS3 managed to grab a group of disillusioned American RROD victims roughly half the size of Microsoft’s Seventh-Gen following. And if that wasn’t enough, PS3 has dominated its half-price competitor in nearly every other market. Of course, it is worth noting that the sales figures of Nintendo’s current offering eclipse both PS3 and Xbox 360. But one should remember that the Wii is both incomparably cheap, and targeted at a much different demographic (casuals).
To conclude, with the launch of Vita – an unrivaled portable capable of taking PS3’s experience on the go (though it does have its kinks) – and the evening of base prices among PS3 and 360, it seems logical to expect that Sony will edge ahead in the final years of Seventh-Gen. And by holding to the strategic positions they’ve built I believe that Sony is likely to ‘win’ in the coming Eighth Generation. Not only are they poised to enter second again, but they have not ideated such self-destructive measures as Microsoft for their next console, i.e. blocking used media.
*NOTE: If you still aren’t convinced that PS3 has Xbox 360 beaten, watch this video.