Game console players set themselves apart at GDC

Posted by Mark Raby

San Francisco (CA) - Opinion - In the past week, we've seen all three video game consoles become more polarizingly differentiated than ever before.  Microsoft pushed an independent developer-friendly message, Nintendo emphasized a non-straying family gaming approach, and Sony maintained an heir of superiority over both that may or may not be justified.

At this week's Game Developers Conference, we got the first big look at where all the platforms stand and where they are headed as they each slowly transition into the mature stage of the fragilely short console lifespan.  GDC always sets the stage for where all the players are headed for the rest of the year, and this time we got a pretty clear vision of how each console is diverging on what was once a homogeneous path.

Xbox 360: The YouTube console

The Xbox 360's announcement this week was quite possibly the most innovative update to the platform since its 2005 launch.  For the first time, users will be able to create console games at a level of ease comparable to PC games.

It opens up a community of worldwide game creators really never seen before.  If executed well with enough public interest, this could be one of the great milestones in gaming history.

Microsoft should be praised for being on the cusp of the newest tech generation.  The Xbox Live community is the closest thing any of the consoles has to Myspace-esque social networking, and the Live Video Marketplace has become a critical part of the high definition video market.

Now with Xbox Live Community Games, the Xbox 360 has essentially become the YouTube of gaming consoles, allowing for the first time ever on a console platform, the ability to share your own game creations without going through an enormously cumbersome middleman process.  

Just imagine the possibilities.  All it takes is enrollment in the Xbox 360's "Creators Club", and you can begin sampling games that your peers have posted.  These are people brimming with imagination, craving to get their ideas out to a mass audience.  
It's the perfect opportunity for a society that is becoming more and more opposed to things that represent the "establishment", like giant game publishers and other big businesses.  It's much more of a culture where people are interested in seeing what other people like them have created.

Above all that, you can post your own game creations.  Granted this is a little more of a specialized field than just shooting video and posting it online.  However, the fact that Microsoft is now marketing it as a "free-for-all" platform means that it is already less intimidating to console owners, despite their level of experience.

For the first time ever, game creation is going to be targeted to the masses.  When you look at the track record of some of the more popular games that started out as one guy with a cool idea, the Xbox 360 is going to become a hotbed for creativity.

PS3: Picking up steam

The Playstation 3 has been an interesting product to watch.  From the beginning, it was essentially an Xbox 360 with better visual and hardware support but with an inferior game lineup and online gaming platform.

For a long time, the PS3 has been the console that tried to impress everyone rather than being the console that did impress everyone.  Sony may be filling that gap now.

While it has certainly taken a while, but the PS3 is now beginning to find its voice.  Sony didn't really make any earth-shattering announcements at this year's GDC, but just from looking at its booth, along with some of the smaller pieces of news we took away from the company, the PS3 is heading towards a solid direction.

At the front of the Playstation booth, Sony had its next-generation PS Eye technology on display, which I have been fully impressed with since it launched in the middle of last year.  There is potential here, far beyond what even the loftiest goals of the PS2's EyeToy set to achieve.

Additionally, Sony impressed us with its online potential.  Right now its broadband gaming system leaves a lot to be desired.  There's not a seamless integration to the Playstation Network like Microsoft has with Xbox Live.  Sony is beginning to make a place for itself, though, by creating an immersing online experience.

We checked out Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds, the long-awaited PS3 entry into the Sony-branded golf series.  One of the most creative features of the game is its online mode.  Instead of just waiting in a lobby for other users to set up a match, essentially taking you out of the game, you enter a virtual golf club filled with other users.  It becomes almost like a massively multiplayer online game, but without the intimidation that genre always brings to casual players.

Also this week, Sony announced it would be bringing a major update to the PS3 Home Beta any day now.  It's very easy to forget about this ambitious online platform, which was supposed to be launched to everyone last year.  However, don't under-estimate the power it will be able to bring to the console.

So while Xbox Live aims to be the online service in which anyone can pick up and play, the Playstation Network can move in as the platform for people who want a more personalized and immersing experience.


Wii: Innovation doesn't last forever

Ironically, quite honestly for the first time, the Wii took a back seat at this week's event.  Nintendo did not give a single keynote, announced virtually no new titles, and yet again did not even say an official word about online multiplayer.

Nintendo's big GDC announcement was a firm rollout schedule for WiiWare, a service hyped as being ideal for independent developers.  Unfortunately, this was kind of dwarfed by Microsoft's much more widespread initiative.  We heard from Square Enix talking about WiiWare and it had a mountain of problems finding an ideal fit for the upcoming game download system.

And don't forget the considerable weaknesses Nintendo already has on this front.  First off, WiiWare seems identical to the Xbox Live Arcade and PS3 Playstation Store.  Secondly, those competing services have already been out for well over a year, and finally the Wii's internal memory capacity is a joke.  Only 512 MB is packed in the console, and that includes all the space you have for game saves, menu channels, and system information.

Nintendo told us at last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo that WiiWare games are not all that limited in size because console owners can expand their memory with SD cards, but it would seem like a cumbersome process to need to switch out SD cards to access different games.  It sort of takes away from one of the fundamental advantages of digital downloads - having the content constantly and immediately accessible.

In short, Nintendo really had nothing new on display, making its booth little more than a side attraction.  That's quite a difference compared to the E3 just a couple years ago, when attendees were waiting up to five hours just to get five minutes with some hands-on Wii time.

NPD analyst David Riley told us in a previous interview, "The Wii gives gamers what they want, and nothing more."  We are approaching the point where gamers want more.  It's no longer about making a great idea.  It's about continuing to come out with more innovation and more functionality.  

This era of console gaming is all about updating and personalizing your game experience, not just from an overall point of view but also with individual games, thanks to downloadable add-on content.  The Wii is by far the most stale console, and that is starting to chip away at the other advantages it holds in the market.

The problem with the Wii now is that it seems to have plateaued.  Gaming novelties have historically been like any other fad - able to ride the high tide for a while but then fall flat on their face.  Nintendo absolutely needs to revitalize the Wii.

Not only that, it is beginning to run into the same problem the Gamecube faced.  Nintendo's last-gen console had some great titles...but they were all published by Nintendo.  Third-party support has been notably lacking on the Wii, especially in the more recent months with Super Mario Galaxy and Super Smash Bros Brawl taking all the attention away from everything else.  Meanwhile, at least one of the top five selling and highly rated titles on the Xbox 360 and PS3 are from external publishers.

Conclusion

At one point, every console was striving for the same goals - appealing to every developer, having a great online service, and be able to capture the fascination of everyone.  But now they've all realized that it is impossible to catch all of those ideals.  Yet at the same time there is a realization that they can all live together in a competitive battlefield, because gamers want different things.  The PS3 is there for the technology geeks, the Xbox 360 is the most widely appealing but does little to go beyond the scope of imagination, and the Wii is fit for everyone else.