Saturday, July 14, 2012

Growing Up (a) Gamer: Part 3 - Welcome to the Seventh Generation

by J. Adams

Last week we explored the beginning of the Console Wars and the slow demise of Sega as a first-party console seller and the evolution of Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. The seventh generation of consoles has been defined by an almost palpable hostility between fans of Sony and Microsoft, while Nintendo’s offering appealed to a far larger demographic, quietly scooped up market share, and showed many consumers why and how Nintendo had survived so long.

The first of the seventh generation consoles to be released was Microsoft’s Xbox 360 on November 16, 2005. The console had a modest launch line-up of games but it had the strongest stable of third-party developers and publishers who had already been developing on the Xbox.  The Xbox hardware was orders of magnitude more powerful than the original Xbox which gave these developers some real meat to work with. Graphics were getting smoothed out, more action was being seen on screen at one time, and worlds were becoming even more detailed. Before you even got to the games, though, there was an entirely new interface to deal with: the Xbox 360 Dashboard.

The Dashboard was basically a menu-driven information center that allowed you to manage gamer profiles, saved games, the Xbox store, and log into the newly updated Xbox Live service. The service had been available since 2002, but it was extraordinarily limited by both the original Xbox console and limited third-party support. The new Xbox Live service offered two tiers of membership, one of which was free (“Silver”) and included only enough access to the service to download game patches, downloadable content (DLC), or downloadable games (also at additional cost). The “Gold” tier cost $59.99 per year, and allowed full access to multiplayer content (over the internet) on any titles that supported it. Microsoft caught quite a bit of flak from gamers after the announcement that the new Xbox Live Gold would be a premium membership service, but the simple argument was that Microsoft itself would be providing the servers for multiplayer games, not the developers or private consumers hosting dedicated servers.

As the Xbox featured internet connectivity right out of the box, the console also included messaging services and Voice-Over-IP (VOIP) service, which allowed Microsoft to sell new peripherals such as a controller-mounted keyboard and various wired and wireless headsets. I never bothered with the Xbox Live Gold service or the VOIP/messaging because I was still most interested in playing console games more or less by myself. I spent a lot of time playing Dynasty Warriors, Samurai Warriors, Kingdom Under Fire, Crackdown, Halo 3, Halo ODST, Halo Wars, Fable ( II, and III), and various other random titles. At this point, I was married and working full time, so I most definitely wasn’t spending hours and hours on end playing console video games.

Other attractive features of the Xbox 360 included the peripheral HD-DVD drive, HDMI capability (on newer models), and being the first console to offer streaming media via Netflix. I wasn’t watching too many HD-DVDs but I got plenty of use out of the base console’s ability to play standard DVDs.

The Xbox 360 had a full year to gain an insurmountable lead over the next Sony and Nintendo offerings and it seemed to be making good use of it by contracting more third-party developers and getting as many “Xbox Exclusive” titles as it possibly could. When the PlayStation 3 was released on November 17, 2006, it looked like all the work Microsoft had done would be assisted by one of the largest fiascos in the history of gaming.

The PlayStation 3 was an ambitious system, using several new technologies including the Cell microprocessor and Blu-ray format for the optical media. At launch, the hardware caused headaches for production, leading to severe shortages of the system around the world. Systems were selling as high as $2000 on Ebay – for the base system with no software – and the retail price started at $649.99. This price included the aforementioned tech, as well as a 150GB hard drive, backwards compatibility with the PlayStation 2 and the PlayStation, and a piece of hardware that weighed in at about 10 lbs and sounded like an approaching freight train. Despite the high price, Sony was actually losing money on every console sold, leading analysts to question whether or not they’d made a financially sound decision in releasing the console at all. In addition, Blu-ray was still in its infancy and, as a Sony product itself, was going to rely on the success of the PlayStation 3. Many people believed that the Blu-ray/HD-DVD competition was going to end up much like the VHS/Betamax wars, in which Sony (producers of Betamax) lost big. In addition to these problems, many developers who had been provided with the PlayStation 3 Software Development Kit (SDK) were complaining that the PlayStation 3 was a nightmare for programming. This created a delay in the quality games that consumers were expecting and was also a major contributing factor to the loss of exclusive titles.

Within a year, Sony had redesigned the PlayStation 3, lowered the price to a far more approachable $299.99, and offered multiple models with the differentiating factor being the size of the hard drive. PlayStation 2 backwards compatibility was dropped completely due to the cost of including what was essentially the PlayStation 2 hardware package in order to make it work. The machine was also made smaller, sleeker, and much quieter. I waited about two years before I bought mine because
the price was ridiculous right out of the gate, and Blu-ray was finally starting to take off at about the time I decided I’d go ahead and buy it. I also had a lot of interest in first-party titles like God of War III, and PlayStation exclusives like Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. There were far fewer PlayStation exclusives, though, with many developers like Square-Enix, Konami, and Namco releasing their previous PlayStation exclusive titles on the Xbox 360 as well as the PlayStation.

Now we come to the dark horse of this generation, the Nintendo Wii. Nintendo had been quiet about its new console for a long while, probably due to the modest success of the Nintendo 64 and the GameCube. What they did want people to know is that they were making something for all ages, not just kids, and that there would be a lot more involved in playing on the Wii than just holding a controller and using your thumbs. The Wii was released on November 19, 2006, only two days after the PlayStation 3. The clamor for that system was eclipsed by the PlayStation 3 launch, but the Wii itself was also incredibly difficult to find – for an entirely different reason. The Wii was selling like crazy. For almost the first full year after it was released, there were lines for it at retail outlets that stocked it, waiting lists to even have the chance to buy one, and speculators buying systems where they could find them to resell on Ebay as often as they could.

The draw to this new system was the simplicity of the games and the way they were played. Motion sensing games had been tried a few times, notably with the PlayStation 2 EyeToy, but they were seen as an extremely niche genre that really didn’t see all that much success. The Wii, which did not require a camera-type system like the EyeToy (or Microsoft’s future Kinect and PlayStation’s Move), was simpler to set up, simpler to use, and the games that were coming out were, to put it plainly, fun. WiiSports, a game that was bundled with the original system, was a best seller. Nintendo’s core first-party line-up, all designed to make full use of their motion controller scheme, sold extremely well. They also had great success with Nintendo staples such as Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and a multitude of Pokemon games. Third-party developers were a little frustrated at first, as
it was clear that the best-selling titles were almost always developed by Nintendo. The relative lack of power of the Wii when compared to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 also turned off quite a few other developers who wanted to create games that the Wii would simply not be able to handle.     

Despite all this, the Wii has unexpectedly outsold the other two major players in this console generation. It has a loyal customer base that will continue to support it as we move into the next generation and with this support, they will be in a good position to take charge, and take charge quickly. The Wii U, in fact, will be the first console released of the so-called eighth generation (because the release of a new system heralds the dawning of a new generation, of course), with
an expected release date sometime in the 4th quarter of this year. Sony and Microsoft are also currently researching and possibly developing their next offerings, but both companies have said that the release of the Move and Kinect (respectively) have extended the overall life cycles of their seventh generation consoles.

Wondering where the PC has been during all this? The PC has also grown and evolved as a gaming platform over all these years, but at its heart, is still a PC. It doesn’t usually involve a television, but no (extremely amateur) video game writer can just ignore it. Future articles will most certainly involve discussions of PC games, characters, and the PC gaming community – have patience, friends. All in good time.
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