Move, Natal, 3D, Blu-ray, Live - which technologies will define the console battlefield in the coming years?
Every year since the launch of the PlayStation 3 has been confidently touted, by one commentator or another, as being Sony's Year. Perhaps it's difficult to let go of the idea that Sony is the market leader, or perhaps the company is better at wining and dining analysts than its rivals, but either way, the reality has never quite matched up to those expectations.
On the contrary, these regular pronouncements have become something of a joke among gamers and industry alike - with Sony's self-appointed cheerleaders having now cried wolf so often that they'll find it pretty difficult to be taken seriously even when they're actually right.
As such, it's not entirely surprising that most people seem to be taking a hefty pinch of salt with Strategy Analytics' report this week that the PS3's global market share comfortably outstripped the 360 in the first quarter of 2010. The facts aren't really in question - the PS3 is absolutely doing better than it was previously. The lasting impact, however, is trickier to calculate.
In the quarter covered by the report, after all, the PS3 was still in the afterglow of the launch of the PS3 Slim and accompanying price cut, not to mention benefiting from the arrival of key software titles such as God of War 3 and Final Fantasy XIII (a multi-platform release, but a franchise with a strong attachment to the PlayStation brand).
By comparison, the big hitters for the Xbox 360 are heavily loaded into the back end of the year, with Halo: Reach due in September, and Natal arriving in time for Christmas, probably a few months after Sony's PlayStation Move system appears on shelves. The possibility of a redesigned, slimmer Xbox 360 being unveiled at E3 remains a wild-card, much like the chance of autumn price cuts from either manufacturer.
It's likely, in other words, that Sony and Microsoft will go toe-to-toe on "special events" which influence their sales - exclusive titles, redesigns, new hardware and price cuts. It's a tit-for-tat approach to the console battle, a war of attrition in which it's unlikely that any major points will be scored on either side.
To truly tip the sales balance in favour of either side would take an unexpected, major event - for Move to be quantifiably, obviously superior to Natal, for example, could tip several million sales in Sony's direction. That is, however, highly unlikely - both systems will almost certainly be perfectly competent at their own fields of specialisation, both will be graced with decent if not world-shaking software, and neither will genuinely cause Nintendo executives to lose any sleep.
The possibility of such seismic shifts in the patterns of sales make for exciting, if ill-informed, headlines on blog sites, but they simply aren't how the market generally plays out. There are, however, a number of interesting underlying factors which could signal gradual shifts in how the console race moves in the coming year.
Natal and Move are, of course, two of those factors. It's unlikely that either will make a serious impact in 2010, but both systems offer the opportunity for the HD console manufacturers to claw back some mind- and market-share from Nintendo. Crucially, the installed base of HDTV sets has grown massively since the launch of the Wii, and while avoiding the expense of HD graphics made perfect sense for Nintendo at the time, there's a strong possibility that the firm is now vulnerable - even in the mainstream market which it has won for itself - to incursions from the now heavily discounted, motion control enabled HD consoles.
The limiting factor, as I've said many times before in this column, will be software. Nothing truly compelling has yet been shown off for either Natal or Move, and I'm dubious that any of the first generation of software will have the sort of impact which Wii Sports managed. However, E3 may bring surprises on this front, and either way, the chances are that by mid-2011 developers working on the second wave of software for the motion control devices will be doing some genuinely impressive things that will get the market excited about the possibilities.
One to watch is what EA Sports Active's development team does with the technology - the potential to tap and even exceed the Wii Fit market certainly exists. Another is the attempts being made, largely by Sony, to embrace the existing hardcore market with Move - a tough sell, given the general resistance to motion controls, but if a game like Killzone 3 turns out to be more fun and more precisely controlled with Move than with a joypad, that will be an important victory for the tech.
Outside of motion controls, however, there are two interesting areas in which Sony is making headway, either or both of which could deliver a significant competitive advantage to the PS3 over its rival. The first is Blu-ray - a much-maligned technology among gamers, but one which is rapidly gaining traction as a film medium. There were fears, when Blu-ray and HD-DVD were fighting out their slightly daft battle a couple of years ago, that any victory would be a Pyrrhic one - with Blu-ray emerging as the physical format champion just in time to watch downloaded movies become the true heir to DVD's success.
That hasn't quite happened. Downloads are a large and important market, certainly, but the reality is that broadband isn't quite fast or widespread enough yet, consumers aren't quite sold on downloads or educated about their possibilities at the moment, and there are huge problems with proprietary DRM, pricing models and so on which have yet to be tackled in a successful way. There's a window of opportunity for Blu-ray, and thanks to rapidly falling prices - which in recent months have started to rival DVD prices from only a couple of years ago - the format's sales are taking off. This delivers a major advantage to the PS3, of course, and has led many to wonder if Microsoft will swallow its pride and release a Blu-ray add-on for the 360 in order to remain competitive.
The second area is a rather more difficult one for Sony to capitalise upon, but could yet become a major differentiator for the PS3, and that's 3D. In the film world, few topics are more divisive than 3D - for every true believer who was wowed by Avatar, there are plenty of naysayers who regard the technology as little more than a gimmick. Not so, however, with games. Certainly, there are believers and non-believers, but by and large, the primary difference between the two groups is that the believers are those who have actually seen 3D games in operation.
The technology is expensive, certainly - even allowing for the price of a television upgrade, the glasses themselves are ridiculously pricey. For the next two years or so at least, 3D will remain firmly an early adopter technology. However, if Sony can get the technology in front of enough people - if the firm can actually get people experiencing 3D games - then it will reclaim the PS3's position as a powerful, cutting edge console, a position which has been done no favours by a litany of third-party games which simply don't look as good on Sony's hardware as they do on Microsoft's. 3D has the potential to create an extraordinary buzz around the PS3, even if it isn't something that most consumers will actually get up and running for a number of years - and for those that have seen it working, there's absolutely no question but that 3D is the future of games, even if it is something of a gimmick for films.
In terms of market differentiation, however, Microsoft still holds the most powerful card in this battle - Xbox Live. While Sony's PlayStation Network has improved greatly since the console's original launch, and being free to play is an advantage on many levels, it is still by far the inferior service. Live is a slick, well-considered and well designed service which adopts many of the principles of social networking to make the Xbox 360 into a compelling console - making the experience of playing even single-player games feel like more of a social event, and using people's friendships and relationships with other players to keep them "loyal" to the Xbox ecosystem.
This may merely be the battle for second place; it may even be the battle for second place in a console market that's rapidly being outpaced by nimble rivals in other areas of gaming. For Microsoft and Sony, however, and for the publishers and developers who thrive on their platforms, this is a serious battle over the shape of the future. Thus far, Sony has done little more than keep pace with Microsoft, but the first quarter figures change that - so while anyone describing 2010 as being "Sony's Year" is chancing their arm, Microsoft certainly needs to do more to demonstrate its vision for the coming years if it wants to stay ahead in this race.