Editorials

A little collaboration never hurt anyone — Lessons of the gaming industry

Competition is the driving force of any industry, and the gaming industry is no exception. However, I think that a bit of a collaborative mindset could make each hardware manufacturer, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, more competitive than they already are. Now, that doesn’t mean that I think that Microsoft and Sony should join forces to make a console– but simply that each of the big three should take a hard look at itself in the mirror, and take lessons from the competition; using the strengths of other machines as a reference point to bolster individual weaknesses. While each ecosystem is essentially a walled garden, there is much that each platform can learn from observing what is happening over the fence.

If the walled-garden metaphor was to be expanded further, Sony’s proverbial walls would be the highest. At the moment, a lack of collaboration is PlayStation’s biggest weakness. Cross-play isn’t a pipe dream anymore, but a practical feature that games such as Fortnite and Minecraft are already making use of. That is, across PC, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. Forgoing participation with the other systems doesn’t make Sony look dominant; it makes the company look stagnant, and drives people away from the platform to seek other, more flexible ecosystems to game in. Sure, PlayStation is on top now, but to use that as an excuse for Sony’s stance on the topic is an incredibly short-sighted one. What happens if Sony butchers the launch of the PS5, and the majority of players purchase the next Xbox or a Nintendo Switch instead? Well, perhaps Sony adopts cross-play then, in which case it looks weak; making a concession that it was unwilling to make when the PS4 was the coolest console on the block. Or, the team at Sony sticks to their guns, in which case they look stubborn to the point of self-harm. Sony needs to take some initiative here and rectify the issue before it becomes a bigger problem down the road.

Microsoft, while fully on top of modern gaming features such as cross-play, is missing a key component: exclusives. Exclusives are the lifeblood of any console, and without them, there is very little incentive to purchase one box over another. To speak anecdotally, I was happy with the Wii U as my only eighth-gen console– that is, until Star Wars Battlefront was coming out. Choosing a PS4 over Xbox One was merely a factor of me wanting to play, on top of Battlefront, Uncharted 4 over anything Xbox One was offering exclusively. Without a strong core of exclusive titles, your system’s value is seriously damaged. Just look at Nintendo; that company is living proof that exclusives are vital. Microsoft’s aggressive list of studio purchases at E3 will hopefully amount to a better exclusive lineup than it has had recently. Gears of War and Halo simply aren’t what they used to be– it is time for a fresh crop of titles to usher in a new era of Xbox.

Nintendo is no doubt doing very well with the Switch, however, it’s seriously lagging behind the competition in one key area: online play. Both Microsoft and Sony figured this out a decade ago- it is time that Nintendo catches up. The company is planning on rolling out a dedicated online ecosystem in September, but there are already serious objections to the service; from its scant selection of free titles to its boneheaded commitment to utilizing a smartphone app for voice chat. This is a very basic aspect of modern gaming that Nintendo simply needs to work out. Without these features, not only are certain games much harder to bring to the system, but lacking competent online play could be a serious factor driving potential consumers away from the Switch. With rare exception, the most popular games all have online components, or operate exclusively online. Nintendo cannot afford to be left out in the cold here.

However, while these are the three biggest hurdles each company needs to overcome, there are still many more valuable lessons that can be learned. It would be foolhardy to claim that if each company simply fixed their greatest weakness they’d no longer need to adopt other foreign practices. There is always room for improvement. While the following aren’t all necessarily weaknesses of the magnitude that we’ve discussed up until this point, these still represent, at minimum, areas in need of improvement. Which, coincidentally, could be helped by looking to the strengths of rivals.

Lessons Microsoft Can Learn

Speaking purely from the position of interactivity between the player, the machine, and the game, it would be hard to tell the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 apart. Both consoles offer essentially the same experience when it comes to actually playing games. So, when Microsoft combined a rather middle of the road console with a subpar group of exclusives, it’s fairly obvious why the Xbox One couldn’t compete with the PS4. When the two machines are so similar, everything comes down to games. When the games cannot cut the mustard, expecting to stay super competitive is unreasonable. When Microsoft releases its next Xbox, the company won’t be able to block out the next four years of first-party content with any degree of certainty, but what it can do is make the hardware itself more compelling than that of its rivals from day one.

Nintendo, with the exception of the Wii U, has been able to consistently pitch new ways to play that, even without software, appeal to the consumer. I wouldn’t ever expect Microsoft to adopt the type of “blue ocean” strategy that pushed over 100 million Wii systems, but I do believe that Microsoft could create a machine with its own unique concept. Not a misguided vision, as with the planned Xbox One, but a vision that directly benefits gamers. Nintendo managed to tap into this just recently with the Switch, and there is room for Microsoft to do the same. The next Xbox shouldn’t merely copy the hybrid design of the Switch, but instead, leverage Microsoft’s great digital initiatives such as Xbox Play Anywhere or Game Pass to release a modular device that straddles the line between console and gaming PC. This would put Microsoft in a very strong position by creating an identity separate from that of the next PlayStation. If it released a device that was upgradable with better specs through interchangeable parts instead of buying a new machine, in addition to consumer-first programs such as Game Pass, Microsoft could have a bona fide hit on their hands.

Another large part of why Microsoft simply cannot compete with Sony this generation is its total lack of a foothold in Japan. Sony is able to successfully operate in both Japan and America, whereas Microsoft simply cannot. Speaking merely geographically, Sony has an inherent advantage over the competition. Selling to two markets is naturally better than one. This is something that Microsoft should try its best to rectify before launching its next Xbox. Japan is a crucial gaming market, and being unable to capitalize on this front puts the next Xbox in a precarious position. If the next Xbox fails in the United States, Microsoft is short a major market to fall back on.

Going forward, Microsoft should aggressively target this region to try and optimize its sales potential. It would be difficult to change the perception of the brand wholesale, but improving the company’s abysmal standings in the East is easily attained through more aggressive marketing plays. Microsoft needs to take a “one foot in front of the other” approach in this regard. We won’t wake up tomorrow to headlines that Xbox Ones are flying off the shelves in Japan, but we could wake up to headlines showing a modest improvement. Optically, that would certainly be a better look than articles about the system’s failure in the region. Even more so, the potential financial rewards from a larger presence in Japan are undeniable. It will be slow-going, but Microsoft has to start somewhere.

Lessons Sony Can Learn

On the other side of the coin, there is just as much for Sony to learn from Microsoft. Chiefly, Sony should look at the way in which Microsoft listens and responds to its player base. Microsoft is constantly making moves based on what the fans want, a perfect example being original Xbox backwards-compatibility. Sony, on the other hand, seems to put little emphasis on key fan issues such as PSN name changes, or the aforementioned issue of backwards compatibility. If the company was a bit more dedicated to solving less crucial, but nonetheless fan-pleasing, problems the PlayStation brand would be stronger as a result.

Sony can learn an equally important lesson from Nintendo: the value of diversifying the first-party. Nintendo does a really nice job of spreading its exclusives out across various genres and art styles which helps each franchise feel unique. Of course, Nintendo has a general “house style” which unites its projects, but it is not so stringent as to pigeonhole any particular idea. There really is something for everyone in Nintendo’s vast library of IP. By contrast, Sony’s first-party, while very high quality, feels overly homogenized. I can’t help but feel that more variety, particularly from the gameplay side of things, would do a lot of good. With the exception of a very few key titles, if I didn’t know better, I’d say that Naughty Dog makes all of Sony’s exclusives.

A wider array of experiences would, in turn, appeal to a wider array of consumers. As it stands, Sony’s stable of games mainly appeal to the same demographic. Feeble attempts have been made with titles such as Knack and the reboot of Ratchet and Clank, but you cannot deny that these initiatives seriously lack follow through; particularly in comparison to the major effort put behind titles such as Uncharted or God of War. Specifically and aggressively targeting the family-friendly and local multiplayer gaming sectors could be quite successful, especially since Nintendo is largely uncontested in those areas.

Lessons Nintendo Can Learn

On the flip side, Nintendo should take note of Sony’s handling of the PSN Store. While no means perfect, the discovery on that platform is much better than on the current Nintendo eShop. From the frequent, deep flash sales to the constant spotlight on select games, Sony is always actively promoting different titles. The eShop, as it stands, is very basic and lacks a real means to find games that didn’t release the previous week, or that continue to sell month after month. The importance of this area is fairly evident. The more games put in front of consumers, the more revenue will be brought in. If a game isn’t being advertised to me, I can’t buy it.

Likewise, Nintendo spotlighting a game would lend it a certain credibility that the game may not have otherwise. There have been several instances in which I’ve seen a game, but considering it wasn’t highlighted and there aren’t user reviews, I’ve just passed on it, instead choosing to spend my money on a surer bet. The lack of a refund system doesn’t help this issue either. Of course, this type of engagement from Nintendo also rewards the developers. We’ve learned anecdotally that a game simply getting exposure on the “Great Deals” page significantly boosts sales, so getting a release featured would certainly do the same, but to a larger extent. In turn, high sales could incentivize further ports and new releases on Switch from the developer in question. There really is no reason not to overhaul the storefront.

There isn’t a gaming company around that wouldn’t benefit from adopting Microsoft’s Game Pass practices; but out of everyone, Nintendo would benefit the most. Its back catalog of titles is simply unrivaled, and having titles ranging from NES to GameCube classics (anything after that system gets a bit more complicated to bring over than simply dumping the ROM) on the Switch would make the hybrid irresistible. While Nintendo could technically get away with charging for games individually once more, it is important to remember that a lot of people are getting very tired of this pricing structure. At this point, it is fairly safe to say that the same group of people will rebuy Super Metroid on every system. But, that group doesn’t grow; if anything it declines. The bottom line is, that demographic is certainly a minority. Nintendo needs to offer their legacy content in a Netflix-esque service.

This would be great for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, from a consumer standpoint, having a huge chunk of Nintendo’s history in one place is a great thing. We’ve never gotten all of these titles collected on one machine before. There are years of great content to experience, which in turn would also seriously help alleviate first-party game droughts; not to mention the obvious benefits of being able to enrich your gaming prowess with some of the best that has come out of the industry. But, this would greatly benefit Nintendo as well as the consumer. Think about it pragmatically for a moment; very few people would turn up their nose at even $15 a month to get access to innumerable masterpieces. As it stands, how many people in 2018 are spending $15 dollars a month on Virtual Console titles, let alone every month thereafter? This model would bring in scores of new consumers that wouldn’t have otherwise spent $180 a year on Virtual Console games, thusly raking in serious cash for Nintendo.

As it stands, each console offers things that its competition simply doesn’t. I would never ask or even hope that the three companies simply feature the same suite of options. It is the differences between the big three that fosters friendly, and at times unfriendly, competition. The endless struggle to one-up and undercut rival hardware only benefits the consumer; after all Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo are vying for your dollar, and will do everything in their power to entice you to hand it over. But, that doesn’t mean that notes shouldn’t be taken. Pull from the strengths of the opposition and internalize those aspects- don’t simply copy but adopt. If just a bit more of this happened, the industry would be a better place.

Abram is an aspiring games journalist with a soft-spot for titles published by a particular company that starts with N, and ends with -intendo. When he's not playing, or writing about, video games, Abram is most likely ranting to no one in particular about various films he's seen, or breaking out the old colored pencils to do a bit of drawing.
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