Did you know that in the history of the videogame industry the most powerful console has never, not once, been the market leader? Why is that? For one thing, the golden rule that virtually every major console manufacturer tends to forget in time, is that software is much more important than hardware. It always has been, and always will be. The consumer just wants to have a good time on their couch, it’s really that simple. So join me as I take a simple look back throughout the videogame industry to show where most companies went wrong.
The Atari 2600 was released in 1977 and was the dominate videogame console of the very first console wars. Did you know it wasn’t the most powerful though? Mattel’s Intellivision, which was released two years later in 1979 was extremely powerful, and yet it failed to catch on. Even the Magnavox Odyssey 2 (released in 1978) failed to make a dent in Atari’s market. So why is that? In this case it’s because Atari purchased the rights to the very best arcade hits including Space Invaders and Pac-Man. How could anyone else compete without having hit software that people wanted to play? In the end there were over 30 million people who purchased the Atari 2600 making it the clear winner.
History would repeat itself in the mid-eighties with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). People don’t realize this but the Sega Master System was significantly more powerful than the NES. It had a much faster processor and featured far richer graphics. Both system hit North America in 1985, but it was the NES with Nintendo’s lock on third parties which enabled it to sell well over 70 million units, while the Master System barely passed 10 million. The Atari 7800 was also released in 1986, and do any of you even remember what it looked like? I didn’t think so. That’s because it launched with 1982’s arcade smash Ms. Pac-Man. Who would want a single-screen arcade game when you could be playing Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda? Exactly, no one.
The famous 16-bit wars officially kicked off on August 14th, 1989 when the Sega Genesis was released. It was followed up by the TurboGrafx-16 in August 29th of that same year. Both were leagues better than the NES, but the NES continually outsold both platforms. Here in North America the Genesis forced Nintendo into releasing what they called the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1991. It was the most powerful system of the generation right? Well, not exactly. See there were other contenders. There was the Neo Geo AES in 1990, the Atari Jaguar (released in 1993), the 3DO (released in 1993), the Sega CD, and the 32X add-on. Each failed to take the market away from Nintendo. It should be noted that in different parts of the world the Genesis and SNES were neck and neck. The end result were sales of about 50 million for the SNES, and 40 million for the Genesis, but neither one was as powerful as the CD-based systems of the time. What about all these other more powerful system? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust comes to mind. Again, software is king. All these other platforms may have been extremely powerful (the 3DO was actually the first 32-bit console years before the PS or Saturn arrived), but each and every one of them failed to deliver compelling software. In some cases the console prices were also outrageous, such as the whopping $699.99 price-tag attached to the 3DO in 1993.
The next console generation had several players, including the Nintendo 64, Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn. Saturn hit first in May 11, 1995, followed by the PlayStation in September ’95. The long-delayed N64 would finally arrive in June 1996, and was far more powerful than either the PlayStation or the Saturn. In the end some very poor business decisions made by both Nintendo and Sega enabled the PlayStation to score heaps of exclusives which eventually led it to dominate the industry unlike any other platform had done before. It went on to sell over 110 million systems, while the runner up, the N64, barely made it to 30 million.
Last generation began with Sega’s Dreamcast in September 1999. It made some serious inroads for Sega, but ultimately was too little, too late and in 2001 Sega would bow out of the console race forever. It was a very sad day. The other contenders were Sony’s PlayStation 2 (released in October 2000), Nintendo’s GameCube (released in November 2001), and Microsoft’s Xbox (also released in November 2001). Both the GameCube and the Xbox were extremely powerful machines, easily able to surpass the PS2 in terms of tech specs, and yet none of them could touch the PlayStation 2. Sony followed the success they had with the original PlayStation by securing countless third party exclusives and in the end the PlayStation 2 would go on to sell over 155 million systems, making it the highest selling home console in history. It is still being sold in some portions of the world to this very day!
That takes us to this generation, where by some incredible force of nature the rule of most powerful console losing repeated itself. The war was fought by the Xbox 360 (released in November 2005), the PlayStation 3 (released in November 2006), and the Nintendo Wii (also released in November 2006). While some would argue that the real war was fought between the 360 and the PS3, both system were outsold by the Wii by a very large margin. Today’s tally puts the Wii at 96 million units sold, the Xbox 360 at 67 million, and the PlayStation 3 at 64 million. So what happened? For starters Sony forgot the golden rule, it’s not about the strength of your hardware, but the games. Sony ended up investing billions into making a system that could take a man to the moon, but software support was lacking. Nintendo created the least powerful system out of the bunch, by actually releasing a console that closely mirrored the technology offered in its previous generation. Instead of system power, Nintendo focused on releasing software that the competition simply couldn’t match, thanks to the innovative motion controller. The Wii became an overnight sensation. Suddenly people in their 80s were gaming. From a technical standpoint the PlayStation 3 was the most powerful system released this generation and will likely end up in last place as it is right now.
So what does this show us, well it shows us that software should be the focus, and not the hardware. While it’s extremely important to make a machine that caters to the needs of gamers, and that’s easy to develop for, it’s the software that will either make or break your machine. That’s it, that’s all. Starting November 18th of this very year the next console wars begin, and even though everyone is already writing Nintendo out saying their hardware is far too underpowered to contend, I’d just like to remind everyone that at no point in the past has the most powerful hardware ever won. Something to think about, wouldn’t you say?