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The Winds of Change, Can You Feel Them?

It’s about that time again. Game console manufacturers are preparing for a marketing blitz, underpaid workers are toiling away assembling motherboards and graphic cards, and gamers everywhere are chattering on message boards about pretty much anything related to the next generation. That’s right; it’s almost time to say goodbye to our favorite consoles and embrace with open arms the sleeker, slimmer, sexier models heading our way in just a matter of months. These are exciting times, as seasoned (i.e. old) gamers everywhere certainly know just how topsy-turvy things can become during the leap from one generation to the next. It only took one generational jump to see Nintendo fall from the top, dethroned by an upstart with no real history in the game industry. Another leap saw the fall of a veteran console manufacturer, forcing the company to create games for its once-bitter rival’s system.

So, the question I propose is: could we be in for another shake-up? And answer is simple: you betcha.

I know what you are thinking—is this guy actually alluding to the fall of Sony from the top spot in terms of total videogame consoles sold worldwide? Absolutely not; I’m flat-out telling you that Sony is going to fall from the top spot, and the company that will unseat them is going to be Microsoft. Now that I’ve disgusted Sony loyalists, emboldened Xbox fanatics, and offended Nintendo fanboys, give me the rest of this article to explain my reasoning for this “bold” assertion.

Microsoft’s coroprate vice-president J Allard muses on all meanings of the phrase “open up a can of whoop ass”

First off, Microsoft is releasing their next-gen system, the Xbox 360, on November 22nd of this year. That means they have the whole holiday shopping season as the only “high-end” videogame console available on the market. Naturally, Sony will likely try to combat the 360 with a price cut for their PS2 system, but a multi-million dollar marketing campaign and the growing clout of the Xbox brand will mean big sales for Microsoft’s next-gen unit. Sony says they are planning to release the PS3 “Spring 2006,” but the lack of concrete information coming from the company (even in the Japanese media) points to a launch occurring much later than that. Five years ago the PS2 got a year (and 10 million unit) head start over the Xbox, and that lead, combined with the frenzy surrounding the PlayStation name, proved insurmountable. But, over the past several years Microsoft has squeezed their way into the consciousnesses of both hardcore and casual gamers, making this upcoming battle a vastly different beast.

Indeed, the PlayStation name has lost the magic that it once carried. Over the past five years, both hardcore and part-timer gamers have come to accept that 95% of the time, the best version of any multi-console release is on the Xbox. This isn’t even debatable—in most cases the Xbox iteration looks better, loads faster, and features more bells and whistles. In an industry where consumers clamor for the bigger, the better, and the prettier, Microsoft’s Xbox has become the system that delivers. To many, superiority has become attached to Microsoft and the Xbox, and this mindset will carry over into the next generation.

And Sony certainly hasn’t done themselves any favors by failing to follow up on several critical promises and allowing questionable corporate rhetoric to push away their fan base. Back in 2000, Sony made grandiose predictions for the PS2. They said it would revolutionize gaming. They said it would be an all-in-one entertainment hub for the living room. They said it would produce next-gen visuals unlike anything we had ever seen. As it turns out, the PS2’s hardware could simply not support the bold statements made by Sony. Later, Sony promised a hard drive add-on to the PS2 that would allow for faster load times, downloadable content, and other benefits. It literally took the company three years to bring the hard drive to western markets, and when it finally did come it was vastly underused. Meanwhile, the Xbox, which shipped with a hard drive, offered everything that Sony promised and then some. How are consumers supposed to believe all of the hype surrounding the PS3’s “Cell” chip, when Sony has a history of not delivering on promises?

It’s obvious that Sony is nervous about the Xbox 360, but their dubious response to this threat has yet again hurt them in the eyes of the gaming public. At this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, the biggest videogame show on the planet, Microsoft officially “unleashed” the Xbox 360. They had plenty of videos and a few demonstrations (shown off by developers) available for many anticipated 360 games, all of which were shown running on actual Xbox 360 hardware. Sony also used E3 to unveil their next-gen system. They showed stunning videos for PS3 games that looked like CG movies, and people went crazy. These PS3 videos made the 360 stuff look rudimentary in comparison. Later, Sony admitted those E3 videos were CG movies, rendered on high-end PC’s. The entire PS3 unveiling was smoke and mirrors—the system was a preliminary shell, the controller a mock-up, and the “gameplay” videos fakes. The fact that Sony would go through all the trouble to stage a counterfeit unveiling shows both a disassociation with their consumer base and lack of common sense on the part of key corporate bigwigs. Microsoft has spent the last five years building a trusting relationship with consumers, and Sony has chosen to actually burn bridges.

Sleek, sexy, desirable. And then there are those fake PS3 units in the back too

Now, there are a few issues that could obliterate my predictions stated here. For example, if the Xbox 360 has major hardware problems on launch, that could shake people’s confidence in Microsoft’s ability to provide a next-gen console worthy of their $300 or $400. Also, if Sony somehow manages to release the PS3 early, like in February or March (a highly unlikely scenario), that wouldn’t allow the 360 to gain sufficient momentum. The Xbox 360 will still sell poorly in Japan, but that won’t matter much—the European and North American regions combine for 80% of the overall worldwide videogame market anyways. As mentioned at the outset of this article, barring any improbable happenings, Microsoft will end up shipping more Xbox 360 consoles than Sony will ship PS3’s during the upcoming generation.

So this only leaves Nintendo and their next-gen system, tentatively dubbed “Revolution.” Judging from the innovative nature of their new console and its “3D mouse” controller, Nintendo will retain a strong grip on their already devout consumer base. They will come in third (once again, in terms of total consoles sold worldwide), but that won’t indicate failure by any means. Their hot-selling first party titles and stranglehold on the handheld gaming market will continue to keep the company profitable. In short, they won’t be transforming into a third party developer anytime soon.

NOTE: This editorial article is the opinion of one individual only, and doesn’t represent the views of Thunderbolt as a whole.

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in May 2003. Get in touch on Twitter @Joshua_Luke.

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