You know what I hate most in the video game industry? Well, okay, that’s probably a tie between on-disk and/or day one DLC, but that’s a topic for another day. A close second is the very concept of a “console war,” the mentality it creates, and the potential it has for very negative ramifications for gamers. Take a look at any article on a large gaming site or gaming-related video on YouTube (or, hell, just open your mouth for two seconds in your local GameStop) and you’ll find an almost inevitable barrage of childish name-calling, slurs related to your sexuality, fanatic-like declarations of support for a specific company, and rude comments about your (presumably lovely!) mother. Welcome, dear gamer, to the console wars. Enter at your own risk.
The first thing you need to understand about competition in the video game industry is that it’s largely a great thing, and it benefits everyone. It’s a basic law of any industry that a monopoly, or a lack of competition, is terrible for the consumer. It creates higher prices, leads to a decline in service, and eliminates the need for creativity and innovation. So while it’s a great thing to love Mario, Master Chief, or Nathan Drake, wishing for these characters’ respective companies to ‘win the war’ against the competition is essentially asking for higher prices, crappy service, and repetitive and stale game design. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at what competition has done just in the past generation.
Xbox 360 launched in 2005 and set a new standard for dedicated gaming devices. It was the most powerful home console on the market by far, had a healthy online structure, and used 8GB disks, eventually adding support for playing HD DVDs as well. Microsoft made a serious commitment to putting a beast of a console on the market. So, what did Sony do? They launched an even more powerful console the next year. PlayStation 3 packed even more of a punch (although its complicated hardware made it a bit difficult to get every last bit of juice) that played 25GB Blu-ray disks. This not only made more things possible in the video game world, but also popularized Blu-rays, driving down the price and helping the television and movie industry make the jump to a new and improved format as well.
Fast forward to just last year, and we see that the competition between Microsoft and Sony to offer the best product is still pushing the industry to new limits. Xbox One was planned to have 8GB of RAM, but PlayStation 4 had only four, albeit arguably a better type of RAM for gaming. As of the day before the official reveal of PlayStation 4, all the dev kits had 4GB of RAM, and everyone believed that’s what they would have to work with in this generation. But when Sony realized they were going to be giving developers less RAM to work with, they doubled theirs to match it.
It’s not just the arms race by Sony and Microsoft that shows the positive effects of healthy competition; Nintendo is a good example as well. With Sony and Microsoft both preparing to launch powerhouse consoles in the mid-2000s, Nintendo took a much different route, instead launching a cheap, creative console geared toward an entirely different audiences. As a result of this new take on gaming, Nintendo’s audience (and the gaming audience in general) grew drastically last generation. GameCube only sold an estimated 21.7 million units, but Wii has sold over 100 million to date, attracting people who never considered themselves ‘gamers’ before, and helping video games make the next big jump as a mainstream form of entertainment that anyone can get into. This is also true of DS, which popularized touch screen controls in gaming and sold over 150 million units.
The ripple effects of Nintendo’s last generation can be seen in both Sony and Microsoft as well as the boom in mobile gaming and the indie scene. Nintendo popularized a new way to re-think the controller, and Sony followed suit with Move, while Microsoft took it a step further and eliminated the controller altogether with Kinect, a voice and motion controlled camera that integrates with various games, services, and apps. Meanwhile, the DS popularized touch screen gaming, which led to an absolutely insane boom of smart phone and tablet gaming to the point where mobile gaming is now a more profitable market than handhelds ever were. With an increased interest in smaller, simpler games that don’t come with a $60 price tag attached (caused by both the rise in mobile gaming and services like Steam), there has been a rise in independent game development, allowing fantastic titles like Shovel Knight, Castle Crashers, Guacamelee!, and countless others to become popular. As cheaper games become more popular and popular games become cheaper, we’re slowly starting to see more and more AAA games drop the standard $60, because it’s becoming obsolete as a competitive price. This has led to ideas like PlayStation Now, essentially a digital ‘rental’ service which gives consumers access to games cheaper than buying them.
This is what healthy, good ol’ fashioned competition does for the industry. It drives companies to see what others are offering and find a way to match it, top it, or just go in a completely different direction and offer gamers something they didn’t even realize they were missing. However, when fans stop asking companies to compete to win them over and instead start competing and fighting amongst themselves on behalf of their favorite companies, it stops being a healthy environment for gamers and starts becoming a ‘war’ that, like most wars, isn’t really good for most of the parties involved in the end. The most important point I can stress here is that video game companies should be loyal to their customers, not the other way around.
As illustrated in the three part South Park saga about the console wars, fans can be overzealous about their support of a company that ultimately just wants their money. No, I’m not trying to paint video game corporations as evil empires looking to take advantage of you, but the very nature of business is to earn money, not to make friends. Being loyal to customers by making a genuine effort to provide them with the best products at the best value in the most convenient ways ensures that customers keep coming back, but if a business can keep them coming back some other way for less money, they’re going to do it. If you support a company and regularly buy their products because you believe they provide you the best overall value, then more power to you. However, if you support a company out of brand loyalty alone, you’re encouraging them to lower the bar. If a video game company wants your loyal patronage, they should earn it by continuously providing the best content, services, and value.
It is said that “necessity is the mother of invention,” and that holds true in the gaming industry. When one company comes up with a great idea for a new feature, service, or game, the value of their product rises, and it’s up to the other companies to find a way to compete. When video game companies compete against each other, gamers win. So the next time you declare that you can’t wait for your favorite console to crush, annihilate, or murder the competition, think about what that really means. Think about what your favorite platform out of PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo would be like today if there weren’t other companies coming up with great new ideas that in turn force them to come up with great new ideas. The next time you’re ready to pick out a new console, look at the overall values being offered rather than the brand name. If you’ve already made the $300-$500 investment in a new console, take a look at what the competition has to offer, and shoot an email to your favorite company asking them what they have planned to offer you a similar or better competitive value on their platform. Make them cater to you, and not the other way around.