Day by day, the tides of war continue to swell. I’m talking about the beloved console wars. Yes, the beautiful wars raging across website comment sections. These wars boil down to calling someone a fanboy of the “Other Guy” if you say anything harsh against a console, countered by accusations of being a fanboy of “This Guy” if you say anything positive for a console. Allegiances are declared and former ties are abandoned, yet above the din comes the cry “This console will dominate. Brand loyalty, man. Brand loyalty”. Past sales of past consoles are drummed up. Fluffy marketing data is sometimes – though rarely – linked. Then, people begin the argument anew.
Let’s talk about brand loyalty. Can we look at loyalty to 7th Generation consoles (PS3, 360, Wii) to help us determine who will emerge the victory in the upcoming console wars?
In a word: no. In seven words: have you ever looked at videogame history?
The annals of our beloved hobby is littered with examples of when brand loyalty was usurped by numerous other factors to the point where I wonder if console brand loyalty is actually a “thing” in gaming. Loyalty to a videogame franchise? Sure. Loyalty to a developer or a publisher? Yeah, it’s there. But loyalty to a console company? That loyalty isn’t as prevalent as some might lead you to believe, and the further we look into history, the more reinforcement we find to support the idea that brand loyalty does not matter for a large portion of gamers. Nintendo not only dominated with the Nintendo Entertainment System, it revived an entire market, and the former champion – Atari – was forever left in the dust. Atari was never again able to capture a respectable chunk of the market.
Despite Nintendo’s early dominance, it didn’t stop SEGA from swooping in and stealing a huge portion of the market with the Genesis/Mega Drive. SEGA, mind you, had no claim to fame outside of the tiny userbase carved out by the Master System and the few arcade games it had released into the wild. SEGA managed to steal a large piece of the NES fanbase and kept pace against the Super Nintendo for several years, especially in North America and Europe. EA’s lopsided support for the Genesis coupled with SEGA’s aggressive ad campaign both played a part, but at the end of the day, the Super Nintendo sold over 10 million units less than its predecessor.
We all know the story of Playstation. Sony had published several console games prior to the PS1, but their rise to dominance was in no way based on “brand loyalty”. In fact, the only brand to ever maintain and increase its fanbase from one console generation to the next is Playstation, but other than the shift between PS1 and PS2, brand loyalty has never guaranteed a winner. The PS2 managed to sell more than the PS1, but that was not an accident and it was certainly not due only to “brand loyalty”. Sony launched the PS2 at a competitive price, they continued their onslaught of 1st party and 3rd party exclusives, and the system launched a full 18 months before either the Xbox or Gamecube had a chance to hit the market. Certainly, the early launch played a role, did it not? It certainly helped the Xbox 360.
This upcoming generation of consoles will have its own rules and its own determining factors. Brand loyalty is way down on the list. In my eyes, it’s not even on the first page of the list. At best, it’s a scribbled note in one of the margins.
“What are these factors?” my intelligent reader asks. What about price? In the UK, for instance, the Xbox One will launch at the same price as the PS3 did. Can anyone tell me with a straight face that price will not play a key role when a customer is deciding between two consoles? Some might cite the Red Ring of Death debacle as an example of brand loyalty. After all, though it had a crippling failure rate, the 360 still managed to keep its lead over Sony for several more years. However, we need to dig a bit deeper. The 360 had massive failure rates, true, but what was the alternative? Gamers had the choice to either pony up $600 for a PS3, abandon their entire game library, and deal with an inferior online infrastructure or to bite the bullet and keep gaming with their friends online on the 360. It was a bad position to be in, but the choice was pretty obvious.
Online, as mentioned above, is another factor. Peer pressure and community are often a more powerful force than brand, and if all your friends from Xbox Live have decided to jump ship over to Playstation Plus, most people are going to follow the crowd. Add-on services like PS+’s free games may also be a factor, though that remains to be seen. Perhaps a good chunk of gamers will stick with Xbox Live. Xbox Live is a reliable service with a lot of users. Still, that decision comes down to the quality of Xbox Live, not the brand name. Live, for those who remember, utterly flopped on PC.
Long-term support is yet another factor. People are only loyal to a brand for as long as it caters to their desires, especially if it’s an entertainment device. The Wii is a fantastic example. I don’t buy the line that “the casuals” abandoned Nintendo. Rather, Nintendo abandoned them. Post-2009 (the year Sports Resort and New Super Mario Bros Wii came out) the landscape for casual-friendly motion control games on Wii was barren. Sure, there were a few extra Nintendo franchise games for the fans (like Kirby, Legend of Zelda, and the phenomenal Donkey Kong Country Returns), but for those families that bought the Wii for Wii Sports and Mario Kart? Nothing. It was no surprise, then, that Nintendo’s attempt at grabbing this crowd by cramming “Wii” into the Wii-U title failed. Nintendo had already abandoned them. Why would they stick around?
Brand loyalty is not a magical, dominating force. Customers are loyal to a brand for very specific reasons, and if those reasons vanish, so does their loyalty. We saw that happen with Nintendo, SEGA, Sony, and now Microsoft (if pre-release discontent is anything to go by). While a small segment of gamers may stick to a brand, the majority of the gaming market is fluid. With the exception of the shift from PS1 to PS2, every generation brought about a sizable shift in installed base from one brand to a competitor’s. The notion that brand loyalty is going to guarantee a console success is the same sort of short-sighted thinking that “guaranteed” the Playstation 3 would dominate the market. Brand loyalty simply does not exist to that degree.
Add to the equation the fact that brands change. Fanbases change. Desires change. It is very difficult to keep a fanbase happy. Often, a gaming company chases after a different audience or a new audience. Look at what happened to Nintendo’s Touch Generation on the DS and their “Wii Would Like To Play” campaign for the Wii. Look at Microsoft’s vigorous pursuit of that same audience with Kinect. But with these new pursuits come new risks. Sony shoehorned Blu Ray in an attempt to grab the movie-watching crowd and that didn’t exactly pan out how they wanted. Nintendo targeted the tablet market with the Wii-U and the result of that gamble should be evident. Microsoft is the most recent example: it would be safe to say that their reveal of Xbox One on May 21st wasn’t exactly met with open arms by the gaming community.
In our hearts, we all have brands that we love. I love Mario. I love Metal Gear Solid. I love Mount & Blade. But I am a die-hard gamer. I am not the majority. My habit of blind fanboyism is not indicative of how the majority will behave. As we can see time and time again throughout history, the majority of the gaming market is not nearly as loyal when it comes to console brands, and to assume brand loyalty will determine a winner – before the gaming generation has even begun – is silly.