This column is doubtless more ironic given my far tamer thoughts on the Xbox One – and console wars in general – I shared with Ben Hoyt just a few days ago. But then E3 happened, and E3 changes everything. Sony is ascendant in the court of public opinion, though by the time I hit “Publish” that could have changed. In a way, though, this Culture Clash column is about a different, subtler clash of cultures than the usual gaming world/nongaming world: gamers who watch and gamers who don’t. All the major companies in this business depend on the majority being gamers who don’t – consumers who don’t follow the industry, don’t study trends, and don’t make decisions based on complex topics like DRM and licensing. Those are the ones who line up in their thousands outside of Best Buy each new console release; those are the ones who move the product, and because they don’t watch, because they don’t care, those are the ones on which Microsoft and Sony alike depend to move their products. Gamers who watch are suspicious. Gamers who don’t may not realize what they’ve put their foot in until all the GameStops shut down. Enjoy!
By Matthew Sakey
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
An oft-recited joke in the business world: “A horse designed by committee is a camel.”
Kind of unfair to camels, which look ridiculous but are hard to beat from a functionality standpoint. Part of the reason camels get the short end of that comparison is that the notoriously cranky and standoffish beasts don’t do much to further their own case. The quip isn’t meant at the expense of camels, but of committees. There is no such thing as wisdom of crowds. Consensus and compromise are best at creating clumsy, kludgy solutions, but ones everyone can live with. Thus another oft-recited joke in the business world goes “success is when everyone walks away unhappy.”
Right now we’re in a generational console announcement cycle, and it looks like a whole lot of committees went into conceiving both the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One.
It was 2006 the last time I wrote about a console launch in this column. So long ago! So much has changed! Steam existed but nobody liked it; the service had only just started selling games other than Valve’s. The first iPhone was a year away. Only 17% of U.S. households had a high-definition TV set in 2006, and of those, only 34% were actually getting HDTV. Now it’s 2013 and we learn that the PS4 and Xbox One will require 720p sets with HDMI. Oh, things have changed.
It’s E3 as I write this. As of this morning, Sony has taken the PR upper hand and Microsoft is hard at work cutting off its own nose. Don Mattrick – in a staggering display of Microsoftian sensitivity – dismissed the entire community of people who can’t get online every 24 hours by telling them to buy Xbox 360s. Thanks for your service, troops! As a reward, you can use the old crap the company will be dropping support for shortly.
E3 only just started, though. Everything could reverse in an instant. Last generation, Sony made all the mistakes Microsoft is currently making. It priced the PS3 too high, reacted arrogantly when questioned, and issued one of the dullest launch libraries I’ve ever encountered. Its salvation was, ironically, Microsoft – which released a device so badly engineered some estimates put its failure rate at one in three. Heck, my seventh (one two three four five six seven) failed a few months ago.
But despite it all, they both wound up doing fine. The Wii was the numerical success story of the last generation, though its star faded rapidly and the Wii U is a non-thing, but all three consoles were triumphs. And I’m guessing that this generation will do fine too, despite oddities in the PS4’s design, despite Microsoft’s PRISM-esque approach to consumer privacy violation, despite every imbecilic thing every executive will say this week.
Because Microsoft, Sony, EA, Activision – they know their stuff. They are employing a proven strategy that only seems strange to you and I because of who we are. Peter Moore said as much in a recent Polygon interview, when challenged on the Xbox One’s phone-home and trading limitations: “I think that is deep in our world. I think the broader world is saying, ‘it’s E3, let’s see some games’ and ‘why should I buy a new console? Show me.’” [emphasis mine]. Moore’s “that” refers to issues about consumer rights, DRM, always-on connectivity, and everything else that’s consumed the industry news cycle over the past couple weeks. He is saying that most people, most consumers, not only don’t know about these issues, they don’t particularly care. And he’s right.
Price, now price is a hard stop. Everyone knows what $500 means. That’s what hurt the PS3 most, and if the Xbox One suffers early it’ll be because of its price tag, not obscure controls on borrowing games. Most people don’t follow the industry like we do, they’ll look at price, nothing more. Most people don’t notice when an executive makes a moronic remark that contradicts everything he and his company has said and done for the past 18 months, like Yves Guillemot just did when he schizophrenically remarked that used games are good for the industry.
Each generation, consoles get more like camels and less like horses, be it in hardware or functionality or both. On one hand, greater functionality is a competitive advantage – the Xbox One’s theoretical ability to act as the nerve center of your entire entertainment network is desirable. PS4’s touch thingy and footage sharing are desirable, at least to some people who aren’t me. To the developers, these are selling points. Even phone-homes and region locks and such are “features” from a certain, non-consumer perspective. All the NES did was play games. It was simple and I could make a case for that… especially since that system would probably cost half what these camels do. But realistically I have to admit that until it died for the seventh (that’s one more than six and seven more than forgivable) time, my 360 was responsible for much more than playing games and I really appreciated that. Now the PS3 does it, differing only in that it hasn’t broken seven (7) times.
When they were inventing the camel, somebody said “it should be able to carry a water supply.” Somebody else said “it should be able to spit, like, a ridiculous distance.” A third person said, “it should be a toed ungulate so it gets traction in the sand.” Result: camel. A readily-mocked but versatile animal, if you look at it right. Horses – elegant and fast but also fragile, skittish, mind-numbingly stupid – were apparently designed by one person. Everything has its negatives, and the message here is that when it comes to a console cycle, the negatives have less real impact than we want to think, and the manufacturers know it. For all their mistakes and arrogance and inexplicable design, all their price tag stupidity and contempt for consumers, all their childish verbal salvos, these companies may suck at building consoles, but social engineering they can do.
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