GIITTV on gaming: The Console Battleground.

Mike Jennings 06/08/2007

So, where's gaming going? An important question, no doubt, for those concerned with the industry - one, indeed, that's making more money in the UK than cinemas. It's a huge topic, and so I'm going to start with the most competitive arena in the gaming world today: consoles.

It's a three horse race, and one that is fought just as much in the gleaming, minimalistically trendy boardrooms of marketing consultancy companies up and down the country as it is in the workshops of games developers far and wide. I'm talking about, of course, the war being waged by the three behemoths of console gaming - Sony's PlayStation 3, Microsoft's Xbox 360 and the Nintendo Wii. But which one of these is set to become the dominant force and a fixture in living rooms across the country and the world?

Nintendo's innovative brainchild, the Wii, is certainly one of the most exciting and revolutionary concepts to appear in the gaming world in the past few years, but can it last? The concept has been experimented with before - strange new controllers have always seemed to have a hint of 'flash in the pan' about them - but never on such a large scale, never so successfully, and never with such a fundamental part to play in the fortunes of the machine it's controlling - and the curious audience of traditional non-gamers that the Wii has picked up as loyal followers are a testament to the impact that Nintendo's latest is having.

Since the launch of the machine, amid much hype and fanfare - and record-breaking sales across the globe - the Wii has carved out a niche towards a more family-friendly end of the market. Reports abound of grandparents swatting children into defeat with a flick of the wrist in Wiisports and previously sceptical relatives rushing out to buy Nintendo's new box o' fun. But the emerging of an entirely new market of eager Wii buyers has exposed a potentially dangerous hole in Nintendo's plans for the machine: embrace the casual crowd that the machine has appealed to so far, and they risk turning away the people who drive the industry: long-term, hardcore gamers. The gimmicky nature of the Wiimote doesn't endear itself to the more traditional, pad-in-hand players who, long-term, drive the industry forward, and the Wii risks being tossed away when it's owner loses interest rather than becoming a critical part of their home entertainment rig. It's a dangerous game, but Nintendo seem confident: the stream of games that rely on the innovative control system for much of the integration - rather than more traditional games that demand the Wiimote be held on it's side, resembling a more familiar pad - seems to show the direction in which Nintendo want to take the console. It's a strategy that, despite the obvious risk, has served them well in the past - just look at the cartoon-esque beginnings of Mario, through to the colourful N64 and Gamecube. If we're to look at it like that, with Nintendo is a machine more suited to a younger or a family-orientated audience, rather than at a hardcore gamer - that's not to say it's an unworthy machine at all, just one perhaps not suited for a gamer looking for something a bit more mature - then the battle for console superiority becomes, at least above the age of 15, a 2 horse race.

So, what of the Xbox 360? It's apparent that after the hit-and-miss affair of the original Xbox, which was Microsoft's first foray into console gaming, the computing giant is learning. The 360 is currently the market leader in Europe and the United States after having sold record numbers at launch and continuing to be a strong performer - despite reports of technical glitches appearing almost immediately after the launch (the dreaded 'red ring of death' that renders a console useless) - as well as many of the machines being sold on auction sites to eager gamers willing to pay way over the odds for the console that enterprising consumers were simply buying them to sell on.

The console has, however, continued to grow, backed up by quality, exclusive games as well as cross-platform titles - Dead or Alive 4, Call of Duty 2 and Gears of War are three releases that captured the imagination of gamers, with 77% of those who bought a console at release taking home the Call of Duty sequel. This success has, undoubtedly, contributed to the growth of the console, the forerunner of which was shoved into second place by the PlayStation 2 several years ago.

If the Wii is a brand aimed at families and young children, then Xbox (and PS3) encompasses the more hardcore gamer with a more accommodating line-up, and titles on the Xbox 360 reflect this. It's definitely had a strong launch but, for me, the one question mark that still hangs over Microsoft's console department is it's ability to cope with competition - when the original machine launched it just simply couldn't stand up to the Sony challenge, and it'll be interesting to see what happens this time around.

This is because of several reasons. The original Xbox had little chance to compete with the PlayStation 2 - Sony's rival machine was, already, too far ahead to be considered on a level playing field with Microsoft. This time, however, the PS2 has seen a slower launch. Modest sales have allowed Microsoft to pull ahead but Sony, the more experienced player in the gaming and console market, surely won't let this situation remain. A $100 price drop in America has seen sales rocket by 129% in a month, and a new pack - complete with more control pads and games for the same price - has launched in Europe, backed with heavy advertising. Sony also believe that their machine will pick up speed as time goes on as the calibre of games for the new console picks up. That's not to say that the offerings we've seen so far - Motorstorm, Resistance and Oblivion are hugely popular, for example - aren't good games. But the real 'Killer Apps' - the games that will define a console and, potentially, devastate the opposition - are yet to come.Pro Evolution Soccer 2008, unless something goes drastically wrong, will be a huge multiplayer hit. Tony Hawk's Proving Ground will be an important, big selling title. But these are both cross-platform and will sell just as much on Xbox 360 and Wii as they will on PlayStation 3. Haze and Assassin's Creed, two exciting and influential next-gen hopes, are appearing on multiple formats, albeit with differing release dates. It's here that the Wii has a potential point over both Sony and Microsoft - they can entice buyers with innovations for the Wiimote, bringing a brand new and vastly more interactive element to the game in question. It's already tried this with Manhunt 2 - but whether or not that controversial title gets released is another question entirely. And a matter for another column.

The key for both of these consoles, preparing to battle each other in this highly competitive marketplace, is exclusivity. Grade A titles that are only appearing on one console are like catnip to a potential buyer - if your favourite new game is only being released for one format, you're going to buy it. Exclusivity contracts are argued over for millions of pounds, but PS3, it seems, is winning the battle. Xbox 360 does have several tasty exclusives - look no further than Forza Motorsport 2, Gears of War 2, Halo 3 and Project Gotham Racing 4: some of the big hitters from the original Xbox days. PS3's list is far more extensive - boasting online spy adventure The Agency, long-running series Driver's new game, Final Fantasy XIII, God of War III, Gran Turismo 5, Killzone 2, Metal Gear Solid 4, Ratchet and Clank Future, Tekken 6, Timesplitters 4 and Warhawk. Each of these games has the potential to be a global smash, and I'm sure each of them strikes fear into the heart of an Xbox Xecutive. However, Microsoft has another weapon - market position. There's also another factor that can't be factored in until we know more information from a company who are relentless in their micro-managed drip-feeding of information to the eager consumer - Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto 4.

So, the stage is set: it appears to be a three-way battle. Wii has the younger market, for certain - it's just the young contender versus the experienced campaigner. But who will win? Only time will tell - and, personally, I can't wait to find out.