Nintendo worldwide president Satoru Iwata pledged to create ‘deeper game experiences’ at the company’s E3 presentation. The struggle between traditional games and 99-cent mobile games will be a key battle of 2012
The next generation of videogames is finally coming, although it isn’t arriving all at once. Instead of mounting a shock-and-awe campaign, next-gen gaming is sneaking up on us. 2012 is likely to see an industry still taking baby steps forward.
With last year’s weaker-than-expected launch of Nintendo 3DS Console and the quick drop-off in sales of PlayStation Vita in Japan, dedicated portable game systems are fighting an uphill battle, though not necessarily an unwinnable one. Nintendo is releasing Wii U this year, which will be the first of the next generation of home consoles — but from all appearances it will only draw up to the Xbox 360 pro and PlayStation 3 break in terms of processing power, not surpass them significantly.
So 2012 may not be a transformative year, just another step down the road that the gaming industry has already set itself on. Here’s where the industry stands, as I see it, at the dawn of 2012 and where it’s likely to go over the next year.
Portable Gaming: Nintendo vs. Sony vs. Everyone
As the leading maker of traditional game hardware, Nintendo has found itself under the most pressure to compete against … well, whatever it is Nintendo believes itself to be competing against. It continues to insist that it is not actually in competition with mobile games and that the rise of 99-cent iPhone games is not really impacting its portable-game business.
Well, something impacted it. Nintendo made no bones about the fact that sales of Nintendo R4i 3DS were more sluggish than it expected, which led to a massive price drop only a few months after launch. That, coupled with the one-two punch of Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart, stimulated sales quite a bit over the holidays. It also put Nintendo on track to what would be its first-ever annual loss.
Was the $250 price tag the only thing holding 3DS back, or were its holiday sales just given a temporary boost by the more attractive price and major titles? That’s what we’ll find out in 2012. Look for Nintendo to continually improve its downloadable games and other connected services, especially as packaged retail games are likely to remain slow to arrive on shelves. In Japan, Nintendo has dropped demo versions of retail games onto the eShop, big titles like Resident Evil: Revelations and Theatrhythm Final Fantasy.
Sony will unleash the PlayStation Vita
in the U.S. and Europe this February. Sales of the machine in Japan have dropped off significantly since it launched in December.
Speaking of downloadable games, PlayStation Vita is out in Japan, and I’ve been playing with my launch-day unit. I purchased one cartridge game (Uncharted) but don’t see why I’d ever want to do that again. Having to carry around a case full of games is old and busted, and having all of your games saved to a memory card is the new hotness. So the fact that every PlayStation PS3 game will be available via the digital store is music to my ears.
Here’s the potential flipside of that. By splitting up retail games (about $40 each) and downloadable ones (about $3-8 each), Nintendo has established a system in which downloadable games are sold at something of an impulse-buy price point. Not as cheap as 99-cent iPhone games, but still.
Sony’s Vita game library, currently, is mostly filled with downloadable games that cost upwards of $40, about the same as the retail Cartridge Heaters. That is very much not an impulse-buy price. I’m curious as to how Vita’s downloadable game library will change and grow over the next year: Will there be a race to the bottom, price-wise, as we saw on the App Store?
I’ll write more about Vita later, but the thesis of any such piece will likely be something to the effect of: Vita is a really neat portable game platform, but who needs it? It was extremely forward-thinking of Sony to put a Blu-ray player into every PlayStation 3, which saved it from a fate worse than the bad fate it ended up with. But Vita doesn’t really have anything similar: It’s just a game machine, and right now it doesn’t exactly have a killer app on the level of Nintendo’s pair of Mario games. PSP never found one after 5 years on sale. Can Vita? And if 3DS tanked at $250, why wouldn’t Vita? The Kindle Fire at $200 is a serious competitor.
Meanwhile, Angry Birds sold 6.5 million copies on Christmas Day alone. There’s no reason to believe that the games market on iOS, Android and other such devices won’t continue to explode in 2012. One of the big questions is, will the attractiveness and depth of the games on offer continue to entice more and more hard-core gamers away from spending money on 3DS and Vita software (if not even home consoles, too)?
Nintendo announced its Wii U console
, with a tablet-like controller, at E3 in 2011. It will release the machine this year.
Photo: Jon Snyder/Wired.com
Home Gaming: Wii U vs. No One
“I think there’s zero chance of a tease from Sony for PlayStation 4 and only a 20 percent chance from Microsoft that they’ll tease the next Xbox,” top gaming analyst Michael Pachter told Forbes recently. “Neither console is launching in 2013, so there’s no reason to tease them in 2012.”
If Pachter is to be believed, Microsoft and Sony are essentially poised to cede the next-generation console war to Nintendo for at least two Christmases. Of course, this is only the case if you think Wii U is a next-generation console, which is still something of an open question at this point. What third party software makers said at E3 last year was that by and large they would port their existing Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games to the Wii U. In that sense, this machine is the “Wii HD” that Pachter predicted for years (but that never really materialized, at least in the sense of a Wii whose only update was high-resolution graphics).
But Wii U is really about the tablet controller, which introduces a new way of playing games in the home without throwing out the old ways. This year’s E3 is when Nintendo has to show that the controller was a good idea, by way of showing exciting software and not proof-of-concept tech demos. With a year to come up with fancy new ideas, software makers had better deliver — Nintendo especially.
If Nintendo has indeed been properly chastened for its heretofore lackadaisical approach to digital content, perhaps Wii U will benefit from this as well. Starting a new hardware platform from scratch, rather than upgrading an existing one with new firmware, means that Nintendo has the opportunity to introduce novel ways of buying and selling games online. There was a rumor of highly dubious origin a while back that Electronic Arts would put its Origin service on Wii U. This was backed up by the fact that EA CEO John Riccitiello showed up at E3 and talked about how much he liked Nintendo’s plan for an “open” online architecture. So there is a good reason to believe this may be happening.
Similarly, I believe whatever Microsoft and Sony come up with next will be driven by services, not processing power. Watch for Microsoft to continue to come up with new content deals and apps for the Xbox 360. Not for gaming, of course, heaven forbid! For television, and movies, and music and social networking. I would not be surprised if Microsoft even introduced another version of the Xbox hardware that was marketed towards the sort of person who would otherwise buy a Roku box.
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Kinect has helped 360 run roughshod in the sales charts over PlayStation 3, and in bringing the camera controller to Windows Microsoft is banking on it as being something bigger than just a gaming accessory with a short shelf life. But it definitely could use some better games, so I expect to see higher-quality Kinect software again being a focus of Microsoft’s publicity efforts in 2012.
And for those of us poor suckers who bought an Xbox to play regular ol’ videogames? We’ll survive on whatever scraps we’re thrown.
PlayStation 3 will play second fiddle this year, with Sony having to concentrate its efforts on launching Vita. What the old Wii console will be playing this year would not even be second fiddle. Third oboe? Fifth triangle? At least Nintendo listened to fans’ demands and put the role-playing game Xenoblade Chronicles on the schedule. Otherwise, I’m not sure what we’ll really be doing with our Wiis anymore. Any major Nintendo software will be on Wii U, and if there’s anything in the hopper that isn’t, it’ll be moved there (cf. Super Paper Mario, announced in 2006 as a GameCube swan song but shifted to Wii).
Sales of boxed PC games are far below those of their console counterparts, but that doesn’t much matter these days when so many sales take place through digital delivery services like Steam. The anything-goes uncontrolled nature of the PC software market has let sellers experiment with putting games on sale, giving games away for a limited time, etc. The freedom that comes with essentially being able to sell games yourself without having to go through several middlemen will continue to attract developers and publishers to PC, and console makers will have to adapt to survive.
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