When Nintendo revealed that it is to unveil the Wii’s successor at E3, it was the first indication that the longest ever wait for a new static console in the history of the modern games market is coming to an end.
Between the introduction of the Sega Mega Drive in 1990 and the launch of the Sony PlayStation 3 in 2007, the UK benefited from the introduction of a new format, on average, every 17 months.
They were the adrenaline shots that got the heart of the games industry pumping every time it threatened to flatline.
The longest gap had been between the debut of the original Xbox in March 2002 and the Xbox 360, rushed out in December 2005 – a barren spell of just three and a half years.
There’s also the question of whether or not a new console from Nintendo will actually represent a new technological high watermark for the market.
Whatever the firm comes up with may well be revolutionary, it could quite conceivably change the way people play, but it won’t necessarily be a whizzier piece of kit than the 360 or the PS3. Launches are traditionally about leapfrog, but Nintendo always plays its own game.
The ever-positive Rod Cousens, CEO of Codemasters, has more historical perspective than most, and doesn’t see the gap between home consoles as a huge problem.
“In the period we’re talking about, the overall global market has grown,” he says.
“There have been some local and regional shifts in the traditional games sector, which has been impacted by a decline in specific hardware formats and a reset after the spike in rhythm action software. But there is noticeable growth on HD consoles as well as opportunities in digital offerings, which are extending franchises on traditional consoles and opening up new segments, emerging regions and high margin business models.”
At retail, certainly within the traditional retail sector, there aren’t so many positives to fall back on. Digital distribution, social gaming, micro transactions, subscription models – none of these are sops to counter balance the ongoing absence of a new platform.
Retail has, of course, had other boons to help fill the gap, most recently and notably the motion peripherals launched late 2010, PlayStation Move and Xbox 360 Kinect, plus associated software.
HMV’s head of games, Tim Ellis, says: “These accessories have been a welcome development, and the market for such products has shown significant growth. But, obviously, they can only go so far in generating the kind of growth levels you’d expect from a full-blown new console launch.”
Asked to quantify those levels, Ellis replies: “It’s hard to put a precise figure on it, but obviously they can have a hugely galvanising effect – in part, also, because the ensuing media coverage helps to put a massive spotlight on games in general, placing them at the very heart of our popular culture.”
FRESH PRICE CUTS
Capcom Europe COO David Reeves was once, of course, the boss of SCEE, so he has an interesting perspective on the current situation.
He says that Xbox 360 and PS3 “have one or two price cuts left in them”. He also talks about the increasing importance of firmware upgrades and the distorting effect this has had in the traditional console lifecycle.
Reeves continues: “It’s true to say that there’s nothing like a hardware launch to invigorate the market for retailers and publishers, but then there’s also nothing like a hardware launch to lose two billion dollars in two years. My guess is that the manufacturers, specifically Sony and Microsoft, want to delay it as long as possible, whereas retailers want to see it as soon as possible. What will actually determine it will be the competition between them all, and anyone else who comes in, Koreans maybe, I don’t know. That’s what will make someone put a stake in the ground and challenge their rivals.”
Nintendo, of course, has made the first steps towards doing this but, as Reeves implies, that might not be enough to draw Sony or Microsoft’s fire.
Along with other publisher bosses, Capcom’s Reeves isn’t hanging his business exclusively on the tent-poles provided by regular hardware launches.
A SHIFTING INDUSTRY
The market has moved on. The five year-plus gap that will separate the launch of the PlayStation 3 and the next Nintendo console isn’t just a scheduling issue. It’s about technology, not timing.
It’s not a long gap in the traditional hardware cycle, it’s the beginning of the end of the traditional hardware cycle. The idea of two or three manufacturers taking turns to launch new boxes that cost billions to develop, each of them generating their own finite ecosystems will probably seem archaic in 10, 15 or 20 years.
The industry will not be reliant solely on these costly kick-starts. And, almost paradoxically, it will benefit from more launches, not suffer from less.
With more companies, different devices and new technologies, these will all add up to a rethink of what a ‘launch’ actually is and what constitutes a platform.
There will still be big days. There will still be significant product introductions and there will still be a few more pictures featuring a manic looking punter at the front of a queue holding his newly purchased and just launched piece of kit in the air whilst cameras flash around him.
But there will also be a much bigger picture.