Fearful of its implications, I have seen a lot of gamers express concern over the notion that the gaming market may return to an era of one-console domination. Whether citing Sony’s arrogance with the PS3 or Nintendo’s restrictive policies on the SNES, there is genuine interest over whether one console dominating is a good thing or a bad thing.
Be mindful that – as with all of my articles – I am simply one man with one opinion. My goal is simply to explore as many different angles on a topic as are possible, so if you loathe the idea of a one-console generation, then let’s talk about that. If you’re excited for the possibility, let’s talk about that. If you want a chance to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of a one-console generation, let’s talk about that, too.
Although a “one-console dominating” generation is painted as a gaming apocalypse by some, history shows a very different picture. Some of the best eras of gaming took place when one console led the pack by a wide margin. The examples of note are the PS2, the PS1, the NES, and Nintendo’s handheld line. There are many different reasons why gaming flourished during these times, but I think the biggest reason boils down to a lack of hardware competition.
“Competition is good for the industry,” I hear my intelligent readers say. Yes, that is true to a degree, but what sort of competition are we talking about? Are we talking about the sort of competition that drove SEGA out of the hardware business forever? Is that the sort of competition you want? Or are we talking about the sort of competition that gave rise to Devil May Cry, God of War, and Ninja Gaiden all in one generation? Isn’t competition between games – not hardware – what gamers benefit from the most? Sure, there is competition between the “system sellers”. Those are the big headline titles for each system meant to seduce you into buying the hardware, but what happens after that? The highest-quality games tend to emerge on systems with incredibly high installed bases.
I am a firm believer in software – not hardware – competition. If you need a shining example of this principle in action, look no further than the PC. When it all boils down, there is no hardware competition on the PC market. Sure, Nvidia and AMD want to sell you their graphics cards, but there aren’t games exclusive to those cards. Sure, Seagate and Western Digital compete to be your hard drive of choice, but neither can offer exclusive DLC for Starcraft 2 or League of Legends. The PC environment requires games to compete on their own merits instead of being propped up on a pedestal as a “Nintendo exclusive” or something of that sort. The PC is home to some of the world’s most innovative videogames, not to mention the PC was the impetus to the current indie-gaming boom that is benefiting gamers of all tastes and preferences. Did this come about because PC had to compete against three other types of desktop gaming platforms? You tell me. Nintendo DS is another great example. It is the highest-selling game handheld of all time, and the result? The result was an unmatched library both in depth and breadth across almost every imaginable genre.
Squaresoft is yet another prime example of what happens when games compete against one another on the same console instead of across consoles. When Genesis was facing off against the SNES, it was no contest as to which system had the most and the best RPGs. And so, we saw a great deal of competition on the SNES between the various RPG makers. Was that competition a good thing? You tell me, Chrono Trigger and Breath of Fire fans. On Playstation, Squaresoft and its rivals had no competition from either the N64 nor the Saturn, and what happened? Gamers not only got headline titles like Final Fantasy 7, Breath of Fire III, and a Star Ocean sequel, but we also got a lot of brand new RPG franchises like Suikoden, Xenogears, Legend of the Dragoon, and Parasite Eve. The same sort of lopsided RPG domination occurred on the PS2 as well.
When hardware competition was more or less taken out of the equation, software competition is what ruled the day. I don’t know about you, but I will gladly take software competition on a dominant platform instead of hardware competition resulting in several smaller, splintered, weaker, less-diverse libraries.
I’ve heard the rebuttal: “But Brian,” my intelligent readers say. “If there is no competition, then a company gets arrogant. Look at what happened with the PS3”. And to that I must reply, have you seen the PS2? Yes, Sony became arrogant with the PS3. Sony blundered with the PS3 and assumed people would pay anything to get the system based on brand loyalty alone (and their overestimation of brand loyalty should be a lesson to all). But that has little to do with the discussion, because the PS3′s blunder did not erase the PS1 and PS2 eras.
At the very worst, a single console dominating runs the possible risk of the company getting a bit arrogant during the next generation. However, that does not negate all the benefits of a one-console generation. Did Lair make the the excellent RPG library on PS2 vanish? Did the $599 price of the PS3 erase the two God of War games on PS2? Did Ico and Shadow of the Colossus cease to exist because of the lack of rumble in the Dualshock 3? No, of course not. Businesses have ups and downs. Businesses get arrogant. Businesses have bad ideas and they have good ideas. Businesses make mistakes all the time. Were the 32x, the SEGA CD, and the Saturn the result of SEGA dominating the console market? Of course not, because they never truly dominated, and yet SEGA’s mistakes are well-known. As we saw with the proposed Xbox One policies, you don’t have to dominate to be arrogant. Arrogant mistakes can come about in many different ways. Gamers should not fear one console dominating the market simply because it runs the risk of the company getting arrogant down the road.
The idea of software competition on a single, dominant console has been proven by history, and it’s just common sense. Think about it this way: if you’re fighting tooth and nail for the attention of the FPS fan, you have to make sure you keep pace with what the “other guy” is doing lest your console falls behind. We saw this numerous times last gen with timed-exclusive DLC. Console manufacturers tried every trick in the book to grab that Call of Duty crowd, and what happened? We got endless Call of Duty clones, year after year. When a gaming company is fighting for that general audience, they do not have time to branch out and chase other niche markets. Consider all of the bizarre and quirky games that came out in past generations compared to the genre stagnation going on right now. When a console has already won the sports crowd, racing crown, and shooter crowd (just to give a few examples), then it allows room for gaming companies to invest into other genres and other ideas. If a good installed base is set in stone, 3rd parties feel more confident in branching out. When the installed base constantly fluctuates between three consoles (like what happened between Wii, PS3, and 360), third parties have to play it safe.
Other factors may play a role in one console dominating above the rest. In our struggling economy, I believe that the number of multi-console owners will decrease rather dramatically compared to last gen, especially since 360 and PS3 will still be on the market for years to come. This may have a snowball effect: gamers flock to one platform, and so publishers target that platform, which causes even more gamers to get that platform (since it has all of the games they want), causing even more publishers to focus their efforts on one platform. For the publishers, this also makes good financial sense. Remember how publishers have complained about rising costs and used games and all that stuff? The Xbox One’s now-defunct policies were meant as a way to put more money in the pockets of publishers. With that gone, publishers are still going to be looking for ways to save some cash, and if focusing on one or two (instead of all three) consoles can save a few million, you bet they’re gonna do it.
Throughout gaming history it has been demonstrated over and over again that if one console dominates, software innovation increases exponentially. Am I saying that I want one console to dominate this generation? Yes. Am I saying it will happen? I don’t know if it will happen, but it seems far more likely than it did seven years ago. What gamers need to realize is that when one console dominates, we all win.