Saturday, March 17, 2012

Console Wars: Let’s forget the Past

            This will be a three-part series where I analyze the state of consoles and the so-called console wars. In this first part we’ll be looking at the initial launch of the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii and how it has fared until now. The second part will cover this year and what’s possibly in store for the future. In the last part of this series we’ll go beyond and look at the next generation.

            The Xbox 360, the first console of this generation, launched in November 2005, a time that doesn’t feel too long ago, and was a hit. In fact, I remember when people on Gamespot were clamoring because they couldn’t pick up a box from the initial shipment. I somehow secured one before the end of the year and boy was it a pleasant surprise. My original Xbox had died the year before and I didn’t know what to do with my games. Luckily the system was backwards compatible with most of my games, including Halo 2, so I was well-pleased.

Despite the hardware being such a hit the launch line-up was a bit lackluster. Sports and racing games made up virtually half of the launch titles and the remaining games weren’t so hot. However, they were definitely unique and delivered that HD experience the previous generation couldn’t before. Despite some hardware defects that cropped up months after the launch, the system was a beast and set some groundbreaking features that players nowadays can’t live without.  Xbox Live was even more integrated into the Xbox 360 and gave the system life through the downloading of demos, themes, and pictures. The “Blade” dashboard actually gave reason for people to not just use the system for games since they could use it for videos, music, and more. The Xbox 360 wasn’t just a next-gen gaming console; it redefined the entertainment space and essentially molded it to where the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are at today.

The Original Xbox 360

            If I didn’t know better, and I didn’t at the time, I was thinking that the Xbox 360 was going to win this generation. Now, I have to spend hours and hours thinking about which console is better and to many people it’s actually a simple question. Why? It’s mostly because people judge consoles on personal criteria. However, to the hardcore gamers and professional analysts, it’s anything but a simple question. So, what are the criteria that I’m going to use? I will judge the consoles for software, innovation, and service. These criteria might sound strange but it really isn’t. I mentioned earlier that the Xbox 360 was the first console launched. The Xbox 360 set the standard and the foundation for what the gaming hardware would eventually develop into and honestly represents the best guideline for what makes a great console. Now this doesn’t mean straight up that the Xbox 360 is the best console. Instead the Xbox 360 had ideas that it was shooting for and therefore outlines best criteria for defining the best console.

            Having said all that, let’s move to the primary competition to the Xbox 360, which is the PlayStation 3. Sony’s PlayStation 3, launched in November 2006, is a technical beast. It’s so much stronger than the Xbox 360, many thought its sheer power would bulldoze right through Microsoft’s console. However, this thought couldn’t be farther from the truth. If you thought the Xbox 360 launch titles were lackluster, the PlayStation 3’s line-up was even worse; not only that but it was a smaller library than what the 360 had. Now if the games were better then this wouldn’t really matter that much. However, the games weren’t better with the exception of perhaps Resistance. Despite lacking the software, the system showed off its power assuring its fans that the system was indeed the stronger console. The PS3 had an integrated dashboard much like the 360 but was not as robust. The Cross Media Bar(XMB) offered a slick UI but wasn’t as easy to use. Multiple icons that lead to more menus and more menus made navigating a lot more difficult than it should’ve been, plus the numerous bugs or glitches that plagued the system software made it worse. Of course, this was all fixed by the time Sony released the PS3’s redesign. Still, while the XMB hasn’t changed much since its launch, it has received numerous changes and updates making the experience much more streamlined. 

Cross Media Bar. Ain't it purty?

Moving away from the system software, just like the Xbox 360, the PS3 needed a dedicated online system. Unfortunately, the PS3’s online capability wasn’t great. The PlayStation Network didn’t allow for a personal gamer profile that could be easily shared, there was no achievement system, nor was there cross-game chat support. These are only few of the features that Xbox Live implemented. Sony had to play catch-up to Microsoft and even in the present, Xbox Live remains to be the better online service, even if you are paying $60 for it. The great thing about PSN was the subscription fee, which was none. It allowed for gamers to get straight into the online action and really pushed the PS3 forward. Other online offerings outside of PSN include Netflix and Hulu Plus which allows the PS3 to be more than a console. More than a dozen times I use my PS3 to watch movies off of Netflix. It’s a real handy system to have and definitely offers more than you think it does.

Games are all here! While the PS3 took it really slow in delivering excellent exclusive software, when they came it was great. Titles like Uncharted, God of War, and Heavy Rain really developed powerful experiences. Most of this has to do with the graphics. The detail of each individual objects in these games are phenomenal and most likely cannot be replicated on the 360. This isn’t to say that graphics win games; that’s certainly not the case. However, the graphics did enhance the experience and delivered a much more compelling game. The gameplay of Uncharted stands as one of the best in the industry offering great setpiece moments and tight shooting controls. God of War is regarded as one of the best action games this generation giving players all the power of an angry dethroned god. The games PlayStation 3 boasts about are certainly no weaklings; these are hard-hitting contenders that give the 360 games a run for their money.

The left is the older model. The right is the slimmer new model. 

Overall, I would have to say the PlayStation 3 is an excellent console in almost every regard. Currently, the system has worked out almost every problem that hindered it in the past and progressed to a fine piece of machine. The games are there, the services it offers are great, and the innovation to change from a gaming machine to an entertainment one is wise. Like I mentioned before, many of the problems that the PS3 faced were only in the beginning and once the boat left the harbor it seemed like it was a pretty smooth ride.

The Nintendo Wii launched the same year as the PlayStation 3 and in fact they were one week apart from each other. Now, one would think that the launches being so close together would eat each others’ sales numbers but surprisingly it didn’t. Maybe it was the fact that it was Christmas season had something to do with it. Regardless, both systems sold quite well, though one did much better than the other. I remember lining up on November 18, 2006 at 11:05 p.m. in front of my local Super Target. It was freaking freezing, and mind you it was Texas. I was number 40 something in line and there were double the people behind me. It was a long line and a long night. For everyone in line that bought the Wii, they would say it was worth it. In fact, anyone who actually managed to get a Wii that year was lucky considering how well the system sold. Every single time a store would receive a shipment of the Wii, it would quickly sell out resulting in a massive Wii shortage for many months. Even though the sales were ridiculous, and even in retrospect it’s still ridiculous, I don’t think it’s a testament of an excellent console using my criteria.

The Nintendo Wii is a little harder to describe in terms of the criteria partially because it’s so different from the 360 and PS3. I mainly say this because while the 360 and PS3 greatly innovated by not being just a gaming machine, the Wii pretty much stayed… a gaming machine. I will say from the get-go that the Wii will be last and a failure in terms of the criteria that I am using, however, it’s only in that. In terms of success, profit, and other criterion the Wii is a much better console. However, why is the Wii last? The software isn’t there. There are first-party games that come out for the Wii but those are the only games that tend to be good. Sure there are the exceptional few such as Xenoblade but it’s rare that a developer creates an excellent game for the Wii and as a result, the overall library of great games for the Wii is bad. Normally I would say that quality of games far outweigh the quantity but in this case, it doesn’t really apply since there are just too few excellent games.

The Nintendo Revolution begins

In terms of service, the Wii absolutely fails. If I had to be blunt I would have to say that the Wii U will fail if Nintendo doesn’t change how they serve its audience. This mostly has to do with Nintendo’s online service and entertainment offerings. The Wii Shop Channel is an absolute mess to navigate and as a result makes it frustrating to even consider buying anything off of their store. Not only this but the diversity of content that is offered by the Nintendo is unacceptable. Being able to buy videos, demos, music, podcasts, and so much more is the standard on both the PS3 and 360 yet the Wii is nowhere near that. Sure the Wii now has Netflix and Hulu Plus but they have a long way to go in order to have a robust online system.

In terms of innovation, it’s a given that the Wii would pass with flying colors. In fact, this is one aspect of the Wii that the 360 and the PS3 will never achieve as great a success. Nintendo had a brilliant idea, implemented it, and succeeded in making it work. However, just making it work isn’t good enough, they went above and beyond proved to the world that gaming wasn’t just for a niche audience. The innovation that the Wii showed through its controller and the Motion Plus unveiled a new type of gaming. While the Kinect and Move are excellent devices, it doesn’t quite accomplish the feats that Nintendo did. I would be doing a disservice to Nintendo if I didn’t praise their designers for creating such an ingenious piece of hardware and make it a hit. Sure, the software and service isn’t really there, and perhaps this will be fixed with the Wii U, but Nintendo succeeded in what they set out to achieve: bringing games to everyone. 

The power of innovation

I described briefly what the Xbox 360 accomplished but let’s take a better look at it. In terms of software and trying to really push gamers into the HD era, the 360 succeeded. Games such as Halo 3 and Gears of War really broke into the industry saying that “HD is the next big thing.” Not only this but the games offered gameplay that had no real equal. Exclusives on the 360 appeared to be better and even the multiplatform games ran smoother on the 360 compared to its PS3 counterpart. It was hard for a lot of PS3 owners to swallow their pride and admit that the 360 is much more suitable for games. Every year, Xbox 360 exclusives or multiplatform games that ran better on the 360 would be nominated for Game of the Year on many sites. While the start of the 360 was great, recently, it seems as though Microsoft is abandoning the 360. A lack of exclusives compared to the PS3 is putting the 360 in a bit of a troubling state. This doesn’t mean that the 360 is not a great console; people just have more incentive to buy the PS3. In addition, the gap between the multiplatform games have been growing smaller as the 360 and PS3 versions are almost identical now.

It’s hard to ignore the impact the 360 had in terms of service. Microsoft tried real hard in convincing people that the 360 was more than a gaming system, rather it was an all-in-one entertainment system. With the 360 you can watch movies, play games, listen to music, buy new content, and more. It was revolutionary since this was only possible on the computer. It’s hard to ignore how the 360 acts as a primary media hub in homes. This was all possible due to Xbox Live. While you can only initially play games online and download arcade games in the previous console, the 360 allowed for something much more. Stream videos, rent movies, watch sports, download games, download music, and etc. Because of how feature-filled it was, Sony had to play catch-up for years in order to get up to Xbox Live’s standard. I can go on and on about how amazing Xbox Live is, despite having to pay a subscription, but it would be redundant.

Early adopters of the system should remember this. Aw... The Blade.

In terms of innovation, the 360 only did so in the service front. Adding features like Netflix, Hulu Plus, ESPN, Skype, Facebook, expansive robust online capabilities using Xbox live, and more are only a few of the things. The Xbox 360 evolved and innovated itself constantly so that it can be distinguished from the PS3. However, Sony realized the success that the 360 was having due to its innovation and also pursued the same goal with their “It only does Everything” campaign. It’s hard to deny the impact that the Xbox 360 had in the gaming industry and the entertainment industry as a whole. It’s widely regarded as a piece of hardware that can literally do everything. Of course, that would be an exaggeration but it’s not too far from it.

The Xbox 360 is great piece of hardware and really delivers on all fronts. Sure there are a couple of tweaks that can be made in order to further enhance the experience such as making the Kinect more worthwhile, doing away with the Xbox Live subscription, and releasing more exclusives. However, even with these faults it’s hard to overlook what great leaps the 360 took in order to advance this current generation.

This was back then. On the original Xbox. Wow...

After analyzing each console with the criteria I laid out earlier, it can become a little difficult to judge which of the three console is the best, though the term best is subjective. Software, innovation, and service can be an exclusive category but if you look at it a bit closer, they are all interconnected somehow. Great service can lead to better software, innovating can be through software and service, and software can be innovative or deliver something new. It’s not through the mutual exclusivity that this criteria works but through the interconnectivity. Because they are all connected it’s an excellent indication of which console is superior. At the same time it makes it harder to judge.

In terms of software it’s hard to indicate which console is better. Due to the sheer amount of quality games for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, these will be the main contenders for this category. While the Xbox 360 led for a long time in delivering excellent software, recently the PlayStation 3 has caught up with their own brand of games. However, if I had to choose I would have to give it to the Xbox 360. Oddly, it wasn’t the exclusive games that decided this category but rather the multiplatform. Both sides have great exclusives and appear to be equal to me. Since I couldn’t judge using that, I had to move on to the multiplatform. Most of the games run much better on the 360 and as a result the PS3 loses. Unless there’s an incentive for the PS3 version of the game I usually end up buying it for the 360.

Innovation is a hard thing to judge and this category boiled down to the Wii and the 360. The Wii is an obvious one and the PS3, while it did have some original ideas, played catch-up to the 360 half of the time. Many of the entertainment features we enjoy on the PS3 are due to the 360. It’s a bit disappointing to me because I really wanted the 360 to win but the Wii wins this category. This is mainly due to how the Wii really innovated the gaming space. Motion gaming was thought to be stupid but them Nintendo really proved to gamers that it was viable. Not only this but it also managed to bring in the average person to play games. The 360 achieved so many things to make this generation a wonderful experience but gameplay trumps all and the Wii nailed it.

The sleeker new Xbox 360. How does it compare to its competition?

The last and final criterion was service. The Wii is automatically out for obvious reasons I mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, the PS3 also loses due to the number of services that the 360 offers. It goes so much more than just Xbox Live. ESPN, Netflix, Skype, Hulu, Facebook, and more. It’s all there and while it may not be the most convenient way to use those services, the fact that Microsoft is trying to make the 360 and all-encompassing service machine is admirable. However, this doesn’t mean that the services offered on the PS3 are bad. They’re not. In fact, Sony has come a long way since its initial launch but in comparison to the 360, it loses.

The PlayStation 3 has come a long way since its inception. However, it’s because the Xbox 360 has trailblazed forward that the PS3 has a road to follow and personally speaking, I don’t think the PS3 would be where it’s at today had the 360 not been released at all. Both systems are great and offer a variety of entertainment. I have both systems hooked up to my TV and I interchange between the two because I prefer sometimes one over the other. It saddens me to say that the Xbox 360 is the better console, but only by a small margin. The Wii doesn’t even compete to the 360 and PS3 but that’s only because this criteria doesn’t work for it. Still, the Wii changed how the 360 and PS3 view casual gamers and their respective companies went on to tap that audience. So, for now at least, the 360 will be the best console up to this point. Check back next time for the second part of this series discussing the future of the console wars for this generation. 


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