E3: Sony, Microsoft stuck in the now, Nintendo already in the future

Posted by Wolfgang Gruener

Opinion – We have listened to the visions of each of the three game console companies out there and the information begins to sink in. While we always have to wait how each strategy will actually work in reality, I am fairly sure that Sony will soon be in big trouble in a market that is rapidly changing. Microsoft is caught in a trap of compromises and Nintendo will define our future of video gaming. Here’s why.

I can’t really recall any other announced vision for the future of a certain technology that was similarly disappointing than today’s keynote from Sony at E3. I am somewhat biased as I do believe that the PS3, the only next-gen console I own, has tremendous hardware potential that just can’t wait to be unlocked. Sadly, and at least after having listened to Sony’s Jack Tretton, Phil Harrison and Kaz Hirai, there is in my mind very little in sight that would make the PS3 the best gaming platform on the market – a platform that appeals to today’s and tomorrow’s majority of consumers.

Let’s take a step back. A few months ago, it was fairly simple to decide which console would fit your needs best, provided you believed the promises Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo had made. If you wanted the most sophisticated game experience and cutting edge technology (and money was no object) your platform was the PS3. If you were interested in family fun, the obvious choice was the Wii. If a good selection of game titles was important (and you couldn’t get a PS3 or a Wii in the stores), then you most likely would have bought a Xbox 360. If I had to bet which console would win the 3rd gen race, I would have placed my bets on the PS3.

Today, I’d make a different choice.

Early today I read a headline and the first few paragraphs of an article from another media outlet that got me thinking. I can’t recall the exact words, but the author - referring to Microsoft’s E3 keynote - criticized the company for focusing only on the current gaming market and not on what the future may bring. Guess what: This guy is right.

If you look at it, Microsoft is investing an enormous amount of energy to grow its revenues this year and apparently is directing all of its firepower at three gaming franchises - Grand Theft Auto, Madden NFL, and Halo 3. Yes, there was the announcement that the company will be offering more movie downloads and there are two game titles that address a market Nintendo has opened with games such as BrainAge. Scene it and Naruto: Rise of a Ninja go after those gamers who really would never have played a traditional video game.

It is absolutely clear that Microsoft wants the Xbox 360 to be everything, a high-end gaming machine, a casual gaming platform, a movie server, a social networking guide and if it were possible, Microsoft would build a microwave into the case as well. But that approach has made the Xbox a compromise that tries to bridge the worlds that have been created by the Playstations and the more social Wii. From what we saw at E3, that is not going to change anytime soon and the Xbox 360 could soon be suffering from an identity crisis: It isn't the HD high end platform the PS3 is and Microsoft only shows a half hearted effort to involve the whole family into the gaming experience: Will Scene it be the killer app that all families will jump on? Unlikely.

My guess is that Microsoft will have some tough decisions to make: Titles such as Halo may be a $1 billion franchise today, but how long will it last?

Well, you may argue, the available game titles determine the success of a console and most gamers as well as all three console companies will agree with you. So as long as Microsoft can come up with games such as Halo and secure other blockbusters such as GTA, everything should be fine, right?

I am not so sure. The gaming world is changing. There are many people out there playing games today, who did not play games a few years ago. The gaming world is more diverse, it has different requirements and needs. Yet Microsoft and especially Sony appear to be stuck in the past and the today. Listening to the Sony keynote today and what the PS3 will bring, then I now know that it will mostly bring a lot of bloody games. The more bullets and the more blood, the better.

There was not a single highlighted game title (exceptions: the briefly featured and rather strange EchoChrome and the highly anticipated Gran Turismo 5) that would showcase the graphics and CPU horsepower of this console in any other way than ripping bodies apart with countless bullets, knifes and Sci-Fi weapons.

After breezing through a bland GT5 trailer, the game that closed the Sony keynote was Killzone 2, which admittedly offered stunning graphics. But after more than an hour of demos in which often the goal appeared to be killing your enemies, the story began to feel boring and I felt convinced that Sony is walking on thin ice with its PS3 game strategy. And no, I do not think that the graphically impressive Home application will change that.

Let me ask you this: A PS3, after buying the console, the HDMI cable, a couple of games, and paying for the taxes can ring in for close to $1000. So who is buying this thing, especially if you complement that console with a $3000 TV and a $500 or more sound system? It is mom and dad and not a kid or teenager, generally, I would say. As a dad of two small children I can tell you that the last games I want my children to play are Killzone 2, Unreal 3, Call of Duty 4, or Metal Gear Solid 4, no matter how great the graphics are. I am still confused about the fact that this country has absolutely no issue with showing violence in its most extreme and sick forms while showing a pair of boobs will get a publisher a million dollar lawsuit.

Apart from new ways how to kill your enemies in more realistic ways, the PS3 has zilch innovation to offer for the next few months. The console so desperately needs an improved controller, it so desperately needs innovative ways to move into social gaming and Sony appears to be hoping that we will keep enjoying mostly violence – judging from the time that was dedicated to game demos at E3. The paradigm of gaming is shifting: In a time where Nintendo is conquering new grounds in social and plain fun gaming and Microsoft is at least catching up on the trend, Sony needs to get its act together. Quickly.

Rather than focusing on securing exclusive game titles which more and more causes angers among gamers, as some game titles are only available on the PS3 and others just on the Xbox 360, perhaps both Microsoft and Sony should have a closer eye on Nintendo.

Where the two big guys are focused on the traditional gaming titles and a little bit of social gaming, Nintendo appears to be shifting towards social gaming dramatically, while offering just a few titles where it is violence that creates tension.

If one of the three game companies can be called innovative, it certainly is Nintendo: The company takes the maximum out of its game controller and comes up with stunning applications that are so common sense that few doubt their success: The Wii Fit software and Balance Board follow simple thoughts and so perfectly fit in our time that you have to wonder why no one else has come up with that idea before. Just the thought about the Balance Board to enable full body control in video games could create a whole new world of gaming experiences.

Sure, high-end graphics on a 1080p TV is a stunning experience. But it not always means that it is fun all the time. Nintendo has a convincing strategy to excite everyone out there for video gaming, while Sony and Microsoft are still focusing on an existing and limited market.

There is no doubt in my mind that Nintendo has found an important key to unlock another completely new market for its Wii console and has caught both Microsoft and Sony sleeping. Nintendo’s approach feels like a breath of fresh air in the frenzy of new game announcements that, if you look at it, really don’t offer a lot of variety. It doesn’t happen very often that someone comes up with a radically new application for a game console application, so my hat is off to the company for taking the risk of being different.

Bravo!