It used to be the console war was a question of getting out the sliderule and measuring comparative polygon thoroughput. Now, however, gamers – and even developers – are much more likely to try to measure the relative performance of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo by the online features their consoles offer.
Few have as good a viewpoint on that particular battle as Todd Northcutt, GameSpy’s director of technology. Thanks to the company’s position as the exclusive online partner for the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, as well as its middleware licensing agreements with Sony and Microsoft, Northcutt works closely with each manufacturer.
"I don’t think you’ve seen the same pace of innovation from Microsoft as you have from Sony recently," he told Develop in a pre-E3 briefing. "It’s been steadily improving the PlayStation 3 as an online gaming device and an entertainment device while the Xbox 360 has had its half yearly updates but there’s nothing groundbreaking that’s been released, other than a couple of changes to the marketplace."
"We have a really good relationship with Sony and it’s great to see the evolution of the platform. I think it’s experienced a lot of evolution and in some places PlayStation 3 is definitely beating out Xbox."
As for the conventional wisdom that Nintendo’s lagging well back in third place when it comes to online features for Wii, Northcutt says, that’s just because of the company’s fundamentally different approach.
"We’re working very closely with Nintendo but the vision is all about how to make the online multiplayer environment less scary to its audience," he explains. "Nintendo is very sensitive about that and it’s refreshing. It applies a critical lens to the issue.
"For example, with Mario Kart Wii, there’s not a high-score list. Instead your ranking is shown on a much more friendly distribution curve so you’re not a number. You’re not 451,479th best player in the world. You’re somewhere in the middle of the bell-shaped curve, maybe a bit better than average, which is important because most players aren’t going to number 1 in the world and don’t care about that. But they might care about being the second highest rated player amongst their friends or the best player in their zip code."