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Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Gaming Landscape 2000 to 2009 Part 2: Nintendo & Sony, or A Tale of Two Companies

At the dawn of the decade, things were looking grim for Nintendo.  The Nintendo 64, which had launched to such fanfare and excitement in 1996, was increasingly outclassed by the Playstation and was receiving fewer and fewer new games.  Their handheld system, the Game Boy Color, sold in great quantities but desperately needed to be replaced soon, as it was based on outdated technology and also showing its age.

Meanwhile, Sony's position was never better.  Their Playstation had made a major dent in the console wars, gathering exclusives, buzz, and excitement.  They were gearing up the hype machine for the hotly-anticipated Playstation 2.  All looked rosy for Sony.  By the end of the decade, the companies' respective fortunes would drastically change places.  What happened?  Why did one company rise while the other fell?

In a way, both companies mirrored each other throughout the decade in the console race.  After the N64 limped to the finish line, the Gamecube launched and emphatically underperformed from start to finish.  There were lots of bright spots along the way, like Metroid Prime, Zelda: Wind Waker and Smash Bros. Melee, but lots of flops too.  On the Sony side, while the first Playstation was still walking tall, the PS2 launched and trounced all competitors from start to finish.  There were a couple of dark spots along the way, like the underwhelming Final Fantasy XI and rampant disk read errors, but there were far more successes than failures.

If the console race was all that mattered, Nintendo would have had to leave a while ago, taking the Sega route.  However, Nintendo's strategy included their extremely profitable handhelds, which propped up their entire company.  In the space of 10 years, Nintendo saw the Game Boy Advance sell 100 million units AND the Nintendo DS accomplish the same feat.  Both systems were cheap to make, easy to program for, and had a reach far beyond the typical gamer.

Sony, obviously, wanted in on this.  It would appear that's when the wheels started to come off.  The PSP was launched to much fanfare, but there were a few issues.  First, the original model had problems with one of the buttons being a little too close to the screen.  It made the button somewhat unresponsive for some users, which led to a redesign of the PSP.  Piracy started taking off on the PSP, so Sony had to try and redesign again to avoid it with the PSP-3000.  It didn't stem the tide, so they had to release the PSPGo to try and staunch the bleeding.

In effect, what should have been a cheap, easy cash-in for Sony turned into a long, headache-y mess. They didn't have the easily accessible puzzle games and brain games that gave Nintendo's handhelds such a head start. They had to redesign repeatedly to combat issues with piracy. They had to sink so much money and resources into their handheld that it would appear they missed the boat on the PS3. They released a system with a lot of really good ideas, but one that wouldn't be able to capitalize on those ideas for years.

In many ways, the Wii and the PS3 really show two completely divergent philosophies. The Wii introduced a whole new style of gameplay that captured the hearts and gaming dollars of a large audience. There was some concern that the core audience wouldn't take to it, and by and large they haven't. However, Nintendo has been extremely profitable in a way that they haven't seen since the NES.

Sony's idea was "more is better." Better graphics, some of the best of the generation. A Blu-Ray drive for maximum high-definition TVs. Their own half-thought-out motion controls with the Sixaxis. And, of course, more money. Sony seemed to subscribe to the philosophy of "if you want to have the best, you have to pay more." Most people have stayed away in droves from the PS3 until only recently, even though it's developing an outstanding library and has become cheaper to make.

Nintendo, meanwhile, always focused on profitability. Even when the Gamecube tanked, it was never a loss for them. Nintendo doesn't have the luxury that Sony and Microsoft has. They only have one division: Gaming. There's no operating systems or portable music players, no TVs or mobile devices to fall back on.  If their system isn't profitable, they have nothing else. Nintendo knew that and planned accordingly.

The switch in position between Nintendo and Sony was a rapid and drastic one, but as we can see, not totally without cause. Sony has tried to emulate some of Nintendo's design principles but couldn't quite nail them. Nintendo played along with the rest of the industry for several years, but found themselves on the outside looking in. They changed their philosophy and are now the leader.

Makes you wonder what the next ten years will bring, doesn't it?