In a 2005 Esquire essay, Chuck Klosterman talks about the cultural betrayal we feel when others don’t agree with our tastes. The essay was inspired partly by a passage from Gina Arnold’s Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana, in which Arnold describes her excitement at hearing Smells like Teen Spirit on the radio. “Nirvana being on the radio means my own values are winning,” Arnold wrote. “I’m no longer in the opposition.” Klosterman, upon reflection, found that most people think the same way about most every personal decision in their lives. “They don’t want people to merely hold their values,” Klosterman wrote, “They want their values to win.”
And so it goes every few years with console videogames. It’s not enough to buy a system and enjoy the games available; we want the system we buy to win. More than that, we want our chosen system to dominate the market, utterly and completely, like the Atari 2600 and NES did way back when.
Sure, millions of people bought the Xbox and the GameCube and no doubt spent a good deal of time playing the many games available on each. But a significant portion of these players spent just as much time on the internet, decrying the fact their system wasn’t the most popular. The injustice! It’s in our nature to want our personal choices validated by popular culture; to be afraid of picking wrong and somehow being on the losing side of a popularity contest.
And here we are, in early 2007, at the start of the most hotly contested battle for videogame market supremacy since the days of the SNES and Genesis. Three consoles have never had equal chances to win the hearts of gamers. Never before has the likelihood of a truly equitable, three-way market split been plausible. Never before have more people paid attention to the back-and-forth horse race of sales numbers and analyst speculation that makes up the core of the console war.
Who’s in the lead so far? It depends on who you ask, but some general patterns are unmistakable. Microsoft has parlayed the Xbox 360’s first-to-market advantage in North America and Europe into a significant worldwide sales lead. The system’s unchallenged incursion into previously untapped markets like India has only helped in this regard, and plans to launch in China will only enlarge the system’s footprint.
But Japan still holds the soul of gaming for many, and Microsoft has failed to improve upon the original Xbox’s tepid performance in the land of the rising sun. Despite some recent interest in the high profile Blue Dragon, Microsoft has trouble selling 2,000 Japanese units in an average week. The reasons for this poor performance have been endlessly debated – the internet has it that it’s either Japanese nationalism or Microsoft’s inability to adapt to non-Western audiences. But whatever the reason, Japan remains Microsoft’s Achilles’ heel. The Japanese game market may be a relatively small part of the much greater worldwide pie, but Microsoft’s comparative failure in the country gives its competitors an opening.
Nintendo is exploiting that opening to full effect. The Wii took Japan by storm – the system overtook the year-old 360 after just five weeks on the market. The system’s quick growth tracks the amazing success of the Nintendo DS, which in the last year has become a must-have item among Japanese youth. Wii shortages have gotten so dire, Japanese gamers are sometimes paying more for a used system than a new one.
The Wii’s early success has been mirrored in America and Europe, where extreme system shortages have similarly lasted for months after launch. Anecdotal evidence from retailers suggests they can’t keep systems on the shelves, and people are still lining up outside stores to get their hands on the console, even now.
Nintendo’s explosive first months have been contrasted by the PS3’s contemporary implosion. As the undisputed winner of the last two generations’ sales battles, Sony definitely had the most to lose in this new round of the wars. After 10 years of utter dominance, anything less than a commanding start would be seen as abject failure.
Even without the high expectations, the numbers Sony has put up thus far are disappointing by any standard. Production issues with the system’s blue laser diodes caused a European delay and ensured the system would be hard to find during the American holiday season. The shortage cleared out just as the holiday rush was ending, leading to widespread reports of stores loaded with the once hard-to-find system.
Right now, Sony’s great white hope is Europe. The company has already stockpiled one million systems for the March 23 rollout, and the strong European brand identity of system exclusives like SingStar could boost sales on the continent. Still, Sony will have to deal with millions of European consumers who have already invested their gaming dollars in a competing system.
Of course this is all speculation, which is more abundant than hard facts at this early stage of what is sure to be a multi-year battle. This hasn’t stopped analysts from throwing out wildly divergent guesses on who will eventually take the crown. Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft all have their boosters among the pundit class, and the justifications for each system’s impending dominance seem relatively well-founded. The 360, as the first system to reach 10 million units sold worldwide, has proven to publishers it can provide a massive market much sooner than its competitors. Nintendo, with the innovative Wii controller, has a product that seems poised to catch on with a new market of casual and non-gamers. Sony, despite early stumbles, still has brand recognition and big-name exclusives like Final Fantasy XIII and Metal Gear Solid 4 coming down the pike.
But each company has potential pitfalls to overcome, too. Microsoft has its relative inexperience with console transitions and the shadow of the Xbox’s underwhelming sales performance. Nintendo has the small but growing impression that their control scheme is a gimmick that will soon lose its novelty. Sony has a historically high price for its high-powered system and a bad reputation engendered by a series of PR blunders.
But in the end, whoever ends up selling the most systems, you can bet some players who chose “wrong” will treat everyone else’s choice as a personal affront. But those more in control of their humanity will decide not to tie their self worth to a piece of electronics. They’ll happily while away their free time playing games they like on a system they like, ignoring the rants and raves around them. They’ll be the real winners of the console war. At least until they read a message board.
Kyle Orland is a videogame freelancer. He writes about the world of videogame journalism on his weblog, Video Game Media Watch.