Game Changers

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.

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Latest comments (5)

Nick Parker Consultant 7 years ago
Sound thesis. As with all businesses, Microsoft and Sony must look at the overall picture of which battles they must win and which ones they can concede. It's a global battle, not singularly anglo saxon intense competition which is what this article is focusing on. On mainland Europe and Japan, PS3 is in a much stronger position both in terms of sales and greater brand loyalty on which to push for further growth. 3d is too way off to nudge the needle and although motion sensors may become a PR event this year, it is unlikely that they will drive hardware sales significantly before the end of the year. So it's really down to the games, as it always has been on this traditional packaged goods model. There are more disruptive forces at work from new entrants in portable, set top box platforms and digital distribution which could shift the eco-system over the next five years.
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Chris Hunter-Brown IT / Games specialist, BBFC7 years ago
Generally speaking I'm with Sean Malstrom on this one;-

Sony's 'Move' is a defensive co-opting of the disruptive technology Nintendo brought to the table. By emphasising how they will combine it with other technology like 3D and HD, they're essentially just protecting their existing market. The consumers who bought into the Wii did not do so because they cared about these things so in my view, they aren't a differentiating factor that is going to win Sony reams of new customers. Traditional gamers aren't likely to be swayed by motion controls for their games, but Move might save them having to buy a Wii to go with it.

Natal on the other hand is an aggressive co-opting, as in to say the potential is there for it to genuinely differentiate itself from it's competitors. It's the right strategy but the key is in the execution over which I think it's fair to say there is a big question mark. If these pricing rumours are true, even a home run launch title isn't going to move the needle. It needs to be a $199 package or $60 stand-alone with a game for that to happen in my opinion.

I expect things to carry on much as they did before with both Sony and Microsoft doing incrementally better as they go on saturating the markets they intended to target before Nintendo came and expanded things. The game changing event in my opinion would be if Nintendo were to get serious about moving their focus upstream but they seem strangely reticent to invest a lot of time building momentum for the Wii of late and perhaps their focus is on the 3DS.
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Yiannis Koumoutzelis Founder & Creative Director, Neriad Games7 years ago
Nintendo will wait until the whole market is saturated by wii, PS3, XBOX, and then make their next move on the home consoles i think. they kind of always wait until they make sure competition caught up with them :)
On the handheld front it is about time to come up with a new DS and they are doing so. i can't wait for E3 this year it's going to be awesome!

it is very clear that sony and microsoft are catching up and there is no doubt that with games such as uncharted2 and god of war3.. sony had it's moment.

same goes with xbox, natal although expensive if rumours are correct, will make a huge difference in the way people play certain games, especially the "casuals". some say it is pretty much the same as eye toy, lets wait and see. i for one am eager to develop a game for it and i have a couple of ideas already.

it's all about games after all. hardware is just a bunch of wires that enables us to play games :)
super mario galaxy 2 anyone?
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Daniel Hinkles Management/Design 7 years ago
I can't understand how people expected the PS3 to launch and instantly take over the 360. It just never made sense to me that people have such unrealistic expectations. The reason the PS2 is the best selling console of all time, is not because they sold 50m from 2000-2003, it's simply because they sold a further 100 in the latter stages of the consoles life. Sony know the importance of longevity and bluray was always going to be the tipping scales.

As far as Natal goes, I think it demonstrates Microsoft's greatest advantage, their marketing genius or perhaps more importantly, Sony's lack of genius.

The Move has been labelled by most of the press and therefore the gamers as Sony's "me too" technology to the Wii. Meanwhile Natal has largely been promoted as the best thing since sliced bread, a product that will revolutionize gaming and it's hardly ever pointed out that it's capabilities make it a slightly enhanced version the Playstation Eye which has been around for years and more importantly is part of the Playstation Move. Giving the Move very similar capabilities of both the Wii Motion Plus and Natal all combined with the "power" of the PS3.

Case in point. Kung Fu just released for the Playstation Eye. It works exactly how you would expect a Natal game to work and from the reviews I've read, it's very responsive and all round fun but nobody is making a big deal about it. None of the blogs are pointing out that this game will be available to anyone picking up the Playstation Move. The creators are even talking about DLC using the Move controllers as weapons making it the perfect game for Sony to say "Look we can do the Natal thing and then on top of that, a superior version of the Wii Motion Plus thing, oh yeah and it's on Bluray, with 3D". Granted they would probably be exaggerating their Natal capabilities but if people are referring to the Move as the Wii rip off, why can't Sony achieve a similar level of spin with Microsoft device?

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Edited 1 times. Last edit by Daniel Hinkles on 29th May 2010 5:35pm

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Bonobo Mankini Studying HND Game Design, Staffordshire University7 years ago
Yeah I guess. It's all about what people own and what software people are buying. Since the 360 has been ahead for so long I'd guess some people who already have a 360 are getting a PS3 with it, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are going to buy all the PS3 software. They probably just want the exclusives like Trico.

& haven't you heard Sony is going to have a premium service? And haven't you noticed they haven't updated their firmware for months? Definitely a major reform to the XMB this E3. But will it suck?

Also I heard Valve were going to release a PC for the living room, that would let you run steam or windows from the boot menu, and came bundled with like, a super gaming keyboard with analog WASD and a 3D mouse and a lap-desk so you can play from the sofa comfortably for hours, and some Natal rip off. Actually I didn't hear that, but a man can dream. And it seems weird how all these articles completely ignore PC as if it's a seperate thing. I don't buy so many games for my PS3 anymore because I invested in a behemoth.
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