As the seventh generation began winding down, everyone had high hopes. The Wii had smashed even its enthusiastic expectations, bolstered by a generous library of classics. Microsoft cemented its place as a major player, with successful franchises and the continuing expansion of Xbox Live. The PlayStation 3 managed to pick itself up and race to a close third. Overall, the three together managed to eclipse the sales of their combined predecessors, and as the eighth (and current) generation loomed on the horizon, everyone was riding high waves of success and victory (and income). Those waves have since crashed on the rocky shores of a new land, and those who thought they would stick a perfect landing have had something of a rude awakening.
Everyone has taken a step (or multiple steps) back from their originally-ambitious offerings of a few years ago. Microsoft recently announced a Kinectless Xbox One package (as well as finally announcing free access to services like Netflix), doomsayers are predicting the demise of the Vita, and the Wii U…it really doesn’t need to be said. So far the only real successes are the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo 3DS, both of which seem to be enjoying incredible popularity and acclaim. This feels to me like the strongest example yet of Darwinian gaming, vicious competitors adapting to 1) keep themselves alive a bit longer, and 2) try to gain an advantage over their neighbors, to keep themselves alive even longer.
Almost all of this is attributable to marketing blunders or bad design decisions that went uncorrected. Nintendo’s Wii U seems to be loved by most of its owners, but horrible–even nonexistent in some cases–marketing left many prospective buyers confused about what it was. Even highly acclaimed, well designed games like Wonderful 101, Sonic Lost World, and Pikmin 3 haven’t done much to shore it up against the onslaught of its competitors. Others, like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Batman: Arkham City, have demonstrated the strong possibilities of using the gamepad to augment the user experience, but it hasn’t caught on. More than ever before, Nintendo is relying on its first-party offerings to keep the life jacket inflated.
Meanwhile, Sony has had wild success with the PlayStation 4, but its little cousin the Vita has been struggling. This despite the handheld’s greatest strength: Remote play. The appeal of playing your PS4 over LTE while on break at work is undeniably strong…yet it doesn’t seem to have motivated that many cross sales. Sony has at least seen this and put out a bundle for sale in Europe–but they have no plans to market this in North America. They’ve seen the light, but seem to be trying to look at it from an odd angle, or perhaps in the wrong wavelength.
Listening to Joystiq the other day, an interesting idea was posited: What if Nintendo radically changed their strategy, and changed the Wii U as we know it? What if they dropped the gamepad, made the Virtual Console a subscription service, and scaled down the hardware until it was essentially a “Nintendo Ouya”? Legions of fans would gladly fork over cash every month to play Nintendo classics, that much is beyond doubt. There are still dozens of games that could put huge momentum behind the Virtual Console, but Nintendo so far has failed to tap the torrent. Meanwhile, Sony puts out tons of games each year that are freely accessible, as long as you’re willing to pay a recurring fee, a model that seems to have had resounding prosperity. (Of course, PS+ has far more useful features than just that.) This is something Nintendo could adapt themselves to, and exploit, and probably carry right into the endzone.
But I feel like I may as well ask animals to stop trying to cross the highway.