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Why Nintendo Gets It, or Why Sony Should Start Trying
editorial
posted by: Shawn Rider
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date posted: 10:19 PM Sat Sep 17th, 2005
last revision: 12:24 AM Tue Sep 20th, 2005


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Click to read.Not convinced? That's OK, neither is Chris. He wrote a response in his article, Revolution and the Next Generation, or Popular Belief and the Gaming Industry. Check it out.

And I thought they had logged out:

It blows my mind that Nintendo has so effectively proven that they "get" it. How so? The Revolution controller. What? Yeah, that magic wand thing probably is the future of gaming. And furthermore, in the "next-gen" launch lineup it is starting to look like Nintendo is the only company that will deliver a truly next-gen gaming platform. Compared to the Revolution, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are simply expensive upgrades to existing platforms.

Nintendo "gets" it. Microsoft and Sony don't understand that a new generation of gaming machine does not automatically beget a new generation of gaming. A "next" generation requires a significant change in gaming itself. Gamers care about hardware and hardware generations only insofar as those generations mark major changes in the way games are made and played. Gamers care about framerate only insofar as framerate is connected to the limit of a player's reflexes. The interaction of technology and creative expression and experience is complex terrain, which often understood in a highly intuitive array of impulses on the part of gamers. This intuitive understanding of the relationship between tech and game leads easily into fetishization of game hardware: Witness the hip NES controller belt buckles sold in mall shops worldwide or the Xbox 360 faceplates. All tech-dependent art forms fetishize the mechanical aspects of their practice: photography, computers, sports, music. In each case one can see similar devotion to the objects and implements of the practice on the part of the practitioners.

Deep down, however, gamers are ambivalent about this coming generation of gaming hardware. A part of that ambivalence, whether conscious or subconscious, is the feeling that games are not going to be significantly different. Gamers are often after the next, newest, more engaging, more immersive experience. But in order to sell this new hardware cycle to many gamers, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo need to think big. Graphics are already pretty. Sound is already awesome. Online gameplay is already fairly optimized. What's next?

But to really understand where I'm coming from and where I'm going with this, let's take a brief trip back through major generational shifts that have come before in gaming history.

Know your roots

Let's revisit some historical generational shifts: If we assume the Odyssey (1972) and Pong (1975) were first generation, then we can cite the Atari 2600's (1977) advancement of removable game media, which allowed the whole game publishing industry to be created apart from the hardware manufacturing industry. The Atari 5200 (1982) is viewed as an upgrade, and although systems such as Colecovision (1982) and Intellivision (1980) came out during the heyday of Atari's popularity, we generally speak of all of these systems as being in the same "generation" of gaming.

The next major evolution is the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES - 1985). Nintendo revived the American games industry (currently the largest market in the world for games) with a fresh take on game design accompanied by a major technical upgrade that facilitated better graphics. Insofar as technical enhancements allow new kinds of game designs, they contribute to new generations of gaming. This generation was also populated by the Sega Master System, which was the largest competition for Nintendo and lagged far behind.

In the first formal generational shift, the NES was followed by the SNES (1991). We gained four new buttons on the controller, and Sega followed suit adding more buttons to the Genesis (1989) controllers. Games became better looking and smarter, and because we had so many more options for control, games as diverse as Actraiser and Mortal Kombat are possible and become popular. This change brought a whole new level of physical and conceptual complexity to console gaming. Role-playing games became much more complex and early 3D experiments are born.

There were many attempts to push a generational shift to the CD-era, including most notably the SegaCD (1992) and Panasonic's 3D0 (1993). But it wasn't until Sony launched the PlayStation (1995) that the concept of CDs took off. This led to game design developments that have shaped much of the current gaming landscape: Cutscenes became more beautiful and cinematic, appreciated as works of art in their own right. The ability to include a lot of dialogue and video led to the general movement of "games as cinematic experience" design. The early addition of an analog joystick to the controller was first seen in the Nintendo 64 controller, and gamers were especially sold on it after Mario 64 demonstrated a 3D approach to platform gaming. But it was Sony's Dual Shock controller that made dual analog joysticks and force-feedback a standard feature of console controllers. Games continued to become more complex and textured, and the number of gamers continued to grow. In this generation the Nintendo 64 (1996) stayed with their cartridge-based format, which, in the end, cost them the number one spot in the gaming industry. Cartridges just didn't have as many advantages as CDs ? the ability to store so much data had become crucial to game design and development, and gamers quickly grew to love these new qualities of games.

And that brings us to the present

The current generation is marked by the release of the Microsoft Xbox (2001), Sony's PlayStation 2 (2000) and Nintendo's GameCube (2001), which are all disc-based systems. Online play was a mantra for Microsoft and Sony, both of whom managed to make that pay off to a greater extent than ever before. However, at the same time, gamers didn't flock to online play the way they flocked to Final Fantasy VII (often cited as a crucial title in the rise of gamer's expectations of graphical and cinematic quality). All of the platforms have benefited from another increase in technical power, allowing more enemies, more complex AI and game behaviors, and, most visibly, better graphics. The graphical fidelity achieved in the current generation of 3D modeling and animation has eliminated much of the need for artificial game design mechanisms (such as the ubiquitous sparkle as illustrated in games such as Resident Evil) ? now the game graphics are so clear we can just see the game-world objects we might be interested in.

Nintendo's rejection of the online arena has just added to their image as an eccentric tinkerer who makes toys of the highest quality. The problem is they aren't very fast, and sometimes they are just plain weird. The idea of connectivity and connecting the Game Boy Advance to the GameCube never really caught on. And the only bright spots in Nintendo's last few years have been some standout first-party titles for GameCube and their handheld gaming hardware, which continues to dominate the handheld side of the industry.

The current generation of game hardware has largely been a letdown. There have been some amazing games created, but the vast majority of games still doggedly pursue the cinematic approach to game design and confusing pervasive gaming with game-themed marketing. Every time Microsoft wants to sell us anything it creates a game. And it's painfully ironic that the genre of alt-reality games (often lauded as a critical darling and game design breakthrough) has mainly been used to sell us more games and game hardware.

Online gameplay has failed to really take off. Sony's online games have been plagued with various cheats and hacks, and the network adapter has not sold through to as many PS2 owners as the company would have liked. Microsoft is in a similar position, fully acknowledging that the vast majority of Xbox owners have never logged into Xbox Live, in spite of critical raves about the quality of service. In part, game design has not really figured out the parameters of online console gaming, and in part online plans have been too focused on providing a few extra maps or skins as enticement to keep playing. Heck, not much has happened in the way of unique online gaming ideas since Doom. Rather than pursue an innovative game design model, game publishers have followed an expansion and enhancement model of business which has generally been a warm-up to full-fledged console-based e-commerce in the coming generation. The problem is that online shopping has very little to do with the evolution of game design.

Combine all of this with an incredibly conservative atmosphere in the mainstream gaming industry, and we can easily understand why the industry is like it is these days. Most games that come out are sequels to proven game design concepts. A majority of games are based on franchises native to other media formats ? movies, comic books, cartoons, celebrities, TV shows. With over $7.3 Billion at stake, the industry is loathe to take risks. And with a firm grip on a target demographic most industries pay through the nose to access, game publishers have little reason to try to expand their audience. It's a classic example of the economics and rationale of the industry working against itself, just as we've seen in the music and film industries and their struggles to deal with online distribution and marketing.

The "next" generation

Regardless of Nintendo's lagging position in the current home console race, in the next-generation of home consoles it looks more and more with every announcement like Nintendo is poised to regain a much more competitive role in the industry. Of course, the biggest hurdle Nintendo has to get over is the ballyhoo hurdle. In many ways games can learn from the history of other media forms, and the showmanship (aka balyhoo) of 1950s cinema provides an example of how gimmicks might entice audiences for a short time, but ultimately cannot become longstanding conventions of the form. Think of 3D movies, Cinerama, or Smell-O-Vision. A classic example is The Tingler (1959, dir. William Castle) which used buzzers inserted into the seats of theaters to add a "shocking" real-world special effect to the movie. This, of course, didn't catch on to become a staple of the cinematic experience.

But sometimes innovation happens. The whole reason behind 1950s cinema ballyhoo was a drive to make the theater experience different from TV. Experiments like Cinerama (an extreme multi-channel projection that gave a "surround-view" effect) eventually evolved into what we consider "widescreen" or the theatrical aspect ratio. It can be argued that the widescreen format is more immersive, that it better emulates our natural field of vision. Less charitable analysis might conclude that it was simply one of the ballyhoo techniques that was easiest to accommodate in production and distribution of films (it's much easier than wiring theaters with seat buzzers). And it seems clear that part of the reason widescreen format has caught on for television and videogames has a lot to do with the small screen's gradual mutation into a very private large screen, and an aspiration of television and games to be as "good" as movies. So in this case, we can see things coming full-circle into the birth of a well-defined convention: the aspect ratio of the future is 16:9, no longer 4:3.

But I digress.

Nintendo needs only to make their system do all the work of translating stock gaming commands from the other systems in order to make multiplatform releases painless to port to Revolution, and then they must provide developers with an easy kit to take advantage of the more complicated interactive potential offered by the Revolution. As we've seen with the NES, SNES and PlayStation One, a new controller design is definitely a viable avenue for game hardware innovation. It is no mistake that every controller on the past five home consoles manufactured in the 10 years since Sony launched the Dual Shock controller has featured two analog joysticks and rumble features.

Microsoft has never been an innovator in the area of games. They have been a standardizer and an optimizer, and in such a role they have helped create a clear set of conventions in the industry, mainly imitating the best qualities of all their rivals and adding to it their expertise in home computing. The Xbox is more versatile, more powerful, and by all accounts is one of the easiest platforms to develop for. Plus, it has the added benefit of easily porting to Windows and various Windows-derivative platforms. Windows is THE gaming platform for PCs. We often forget that in many ways Microsoft has already won in another games-industry war for domination.

Granted, games have been developed for Xbox that are brilliant, but even a look at the flagship franchise for Xbox, Halo, reveals the quintessential lack of innovation inherent in the vast majority of Xbox titles. That lack of innovation stems from the hardware itself. Halo is a game about saving Earth from impending destruction. Who wants to destroy Earth? Some aliens. At its best, Halo is a wonderful reprise of very old science fiction plots, much like Indiana Jones is a wonderful reprise of very old adventure plots. At its worst, Halo is a much prettier version of Space Invaders: shoot, shoot, dodge. What Halo offers is not any innovation in game design; Halo is just extremely well-made. If it innovates, it innovates in how well it integrates with the rest of your life: You can track games and stats online, create whole websites dedicated to clans using Bungie.net's free tools, and have game stats and invites messaged directly to your cell phone or MSN-aware smart device. Halo has loads of options for multiplayer and has received plenty of post-release attention in the form of both free and pay-for-download map packs and game expansions. All of these are enhancements of longstanding game design models.

In all reality, this is what Microsoft promised, and this is what it has delivered: Easy for developers to make games for. And if a developer has a good idea, it can work well on the Xbox ? it's easier to make, quicker to get out, looks great. The hard drive in the Xbox has not facilitated great advances in game design as was initially hoped ? it's been used to speed up load times and offer more post-release enhancements. As I mark it, those features fall squarely on the optimization end of the spectrum. The Xbox 360 does not look to deviate from this: Everything that is already on the Xbox will return in a better form, and we can look forward to at least one more new device: the Xbox 360 camera. But not much is known about this, and the game press assumes this device will be used for Eye Toy-like game control. Again, not an original innovation, although a welcome addition which Xbox 360 will hopefully make great use of.

Microsoft is looking strong to maintain its second-place position in the industry. With luck, that share will grow somewhat. Gamers can appreciate optimization and convenience, and are always very discerning about overall quality. Xbox has always delivered on this (for the most part).

No, the company that needs to be looking over its shoulder is, obviously, Sony. It's lonely sitting on such a big, giant peak, and there's only one way to go from there. With two big competitors coming out swinging, Sony needs something more than a boomerang controller redesign. Thankfully, the company has recently announced that the PlayStation 3 controller will likely change before release. Will it become a motion-sensing pointer/wand? That seems unlikely. But the PS3 will need something more than online shopping integration to pull this one out. Many gamers have stuck with PlayStation because of the wide variety of niche titles available: The bigger selection of quirky games has helped Sony stay on top. But if those game developers start working more with Nintendo, and if Microsoft delivers the better "traditional" gaming experience, the market could make a major shift.

The PlayStation platform does enjoy the benefit of having led to two major game controller innovations already: The Dual-Shock analog controller and the Eye Toy. Both of these were after-market add-ons to existing systems (the Dual-Shock for PS1 and Eye Toy for PS2). Future plans have been announced to add a "wand" to the Eye Toy control scheme in order to compensate for the issues caused by varying room quality. And I should admit up front that I'm stepping out somewhat to call the Eye Toy a true gaming innovation. My reasoning goes like this: Cameras and machine vision are unavoidable future components of any computing system, so even if Eye Toy never comes out with a truly perfected version, the idea of this technology is here to stay.

It is increasingly looking like Nintendo might just be next year's Sony and next year's Sony might look a lot like this year's Nintendo. Or perhaps Sony can pull out something to surprise us all. This is definitely a two-console market at this time. Most gaming households will own at least two gaming consoles. There is a better chance they will upgrade to the next generation of the system they currently own, so Sony has a great advantage there. And in the end, economics may dictate user's decisions more than anything else, which would play a role in people's decisions about which next generation console to buy. And a modestly priced Revolution, with retro games to appeal to parents and an approachable controller to appeal to non-gamers, could do well is such economic climates.

To further complicate predictions either Microsoft or Sony could decide to create an after-market peripheral that adds the same functionality as the Revolution controller. We also haven't really seen much of Sony's PlayStation 3, so we can't be completely confident in our analysis of its hardware. But it's clear that Sony is really the only company that has anything to lose in the coming console war. And its clear that Nintendo is not simply rolling over in submission as so many have predicted they would.

We won't know for sure about the Revolution or its revolutionary controller until we get it in our hands. The tightness ? the "goodness"? of the control will undoubtedly be the deciding factor in the success or failure of Nintendo's grand experiment. Anything less than 100% reliability and impeccable responsiveness will be unacceptable to gamers. But it's good to see that one of the big three are finally thinking big about gaming. It's high time somebody put the games ahead of the marketing tie-ins. If your idea of gaming enhancements is supporting high-end movie discs or touting your online shopping site, then you need to get new people to think about gaming for you. Yeah, I'm looking at you Microsoft and Sony ? the gauntlet is down. What do you got for us now?

[NOTE: Thanks to readers who wrote in about the mistake regarding the Dual Shock controller. And thanks to readers who wrote in to correct the Sega 32x reference; I meant Sega CD. Both of these errors have been corrected. -- SR]

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