Just who is expected to buy this year's new motion controllers?
It is no great surprise that, despite Microsoft's slowly building focus on Natal, Sony is likely to beat it to market with its PlayStation Move motion controller. The noise and heat generated by the rumbling PR campaigns behind both technologies occasionally mask the reality - that this is, on one level, a battle between a company usually seen as a technological imitator which has unexpectedly taken on the mantle of cutting-edge innovator, and a firm which has prided itself on high-end engineering R&D suddenly embracing the "disruptive" ideal by employing cheap, tried-and-tested technology.
Both companies are arguably outside their comfort zones. Natal is technologically ambitious, which is not something Microsoft attempts often. PS Move is a low-cost, robust approach, which is equally alien to the neophiliac, technology-obsessed culture which has dominated Sony for decades. Even with both firms playing away games, however, Move's simpler technology was always likely to be first to market, and may well end up sporting the cheaper price tag of the two.
Does this matter? Probably not. It's yet to be confirmed whether Move actually will beat Natal to market (this is simply the relatively sane assumption that's being drawn from Sony's bombastic GDC performance this week), but even if it does, it's likely to be only by a handful of weeks, since Sony has committed itself to "autumn" and Microsoft to "before Christmas".
First mover advantage doesn't really apply here, since neither company is the first mover. Natal, being a much more distinctive technology, has a better excuse, but the reality is that both of these efforts are slinking into the back of the classroom halfway through the lesson - while Nintendo, the prize student, turned up five minutes early and has been sitting up at the front earning gold stars all along.
That reality isn't just important for snarky journalists sniping from the sidelines, however - it's also something that the consumer will be keenly aware of. It speaks to just how badly Sony and Microsoft's cages have been rattled by the Wii that they're willing to take the inevitable reputation hit involved in following meekly in their competitor's footsteps - both firms having decided that the risks of failing to do so justify the hefty servings of humble pie involved.
The extent to which Sony, in particular, is aping the approach of its corporate rival a handful of hours away on the bullet train is particularly notable from the software line-up hinted at in the company's GDC presentation. Looking through the list of supporting publishers, there's no doubt that some of them are going to attempt more hardcore-style titles using the Move technology, but with the notable exception of SOCOM 4, Sony's showcase was a direct response to the Wii - attempting to answer the "where is PlayStation Move's answer to Wii Sports?" question by, er, developing a range of motion controlled sports and party games. Subtle.
In the interests of fairness, it's worth pointing out that most people who've gone hands-on with the PlayStation Move software in San Francisco this week seem quietly impressed. The games sound slick and well-conceived, even at this relatively early stage, the hardware itself is pleasant to use and the motion controls themselves are responsive, accurate and lag-free - just as you'd expect, given the mature technology they employ.
None of this, however, answers the key question which the industry has been asking itself since PlayStation Move (and, to a lesser extent perhaps, Natal) was announced - who, exactly, is going to buy this?
The cards Sony has placed on the table this week suggest one answer to that question. It sees PlayStation Move as being an upgrade path for Wii owners - an invitation to the tens of millions of consumers who have invested in Nintendo's platform to swim upstream to the more powerful, HD-enabled system. Yet even Sony's most optimistic view of the market will be tempered by a dose of realism here.
How likely, exactly, is it that a consumer who has already bought a Wii for its motion controlled games is going to invest in another, more expensive console just because it has a similar motion controller to the one they bought a Wii for in the first place? Some consumers probably will, especially given the right software line-up (software, as ever, is absolutely key to the success of both peripherals), but it's unlikely to be a Road to Damascus conversion for a significant proportion of the Wii's installed base.
What's more likely - and what Sony are probably quietly hoping to achieve a significant proportion of the Move's success through - is that the technology will expand the appeal of the PS3 in the family setting. The Wii has garnered a unique degree of "living room cred" - it's the console that the whole family can engage with, which ensures that it's not banished to a bedroom or study, but has pride of place under the TV in the living room. Move could, in theory, broaden the appeal of the PS3 to encompass not only core gamers, but also the downstream and family Wii audiences - a process already begun by products like Singstar, but somewhat stalled by the Wii's runaway success in this market.
The ideal scenario is this - that PlayStation Move ensures that households which already have a PS3 are encouraged either not to buy a Wii, or to stop buying kids' and social games for their Wii, and to spend that money on PS Move games instead, thus boosting Sony's revenue and its share of the software market. Meanwhile, the success of Move would add another significant string to the console's bow, making it into an easier sell to families. It's a logical move for a console whose key marketing pitch has been that it "does everything" - Sony will hope that in cases where "it's a Blu-Ray player, a movie rentals box, a hardcore games console and a karaoke machine" didn't work out, "it's got Wii-style user-friendly games too" will tip the balance.
And what of the hardcore gamer? Here, the strategy falters, for both Move and Natal. Ideally, it would be nice to get hardcore gamers to invest in the hardware and get publishers to support it in their software, and both Sony and Microsoft make noises in that direction regularly - but both firms know that while there are tons of upstream gamers who enjoy and engage with motion controls, the self-identifying "hardcore" have a strong resistance to the concept, and are most likely to remain welded to their joypads.
How that will pan out over the coming years is impossible to guess. It could be that great software finally brings that part of the market (which is lucrative, but not as lucrative as it is outspoken) over to the motion control camp. Equally, it could be that with the exception of some noble attempts, Natal and Move end up being firmly the preserve of family, social and kids games.
For now, at least, Sony and Microsoft will court the hardcore gamer. Their enthusiasm and support will be very helpful in the early months of both products' lifespans, after all. But in the long run, if the hardcore continue to play PS3 and 360 games on joypads, Sony and Microsoft will be happy enough. The people they want to convince with Move and Natal aren't the existing gamers sitting on the couch playing Modern Warfare 2 - they're the other family members in the household, for whom the PS3 or 360 is presently a closed door, and the Wii a much friendlier option.
The result is that how we measure the success of each peripheral will have to be carefully considered. Neither is hugely likely to sell console hardware in large volumes; while adding a family-friendly aspect to the machines will help sales in some respects, it's hard to see motion controls as a killer application for driving purchase in a market where the Wii already has such a large installed base. Rather, their success will be in driving software sales and broadening the userbase. If Move and Natal are working, look for an uptick not in console sales, but in tie ratio - and if they're not working, of course, listen for the sounds of laughter from Nintendo's headquarters in Kyoto.