Inside Track: Winning from the Middle

Copyright: GC Advanced


Source: Advance Media Network

Casey Ayers said:
First things first: Everyone just calm down. I know that the information surfaced by our esteemed colleagues at IGN has caused many of you to soil yourselves. As such, I’ll wait- go take a shower and change into some fresh underwear, and then cozy up for the next few pages.


Eye to Eye

In the PC realm, specs are everything. Your “super rig” that you poured thousands of dollars into is suddenly old hat if ATI tacks an additional “100” onto the chip’s model number or if AMD boosts chip speeds by one or two hundred megahertz. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I am not a PC gamer.

The simple fact of the matter is that Nintendo is…well, right. Processing speeds have finally reached a golden plateau of sorts; even the saddest E-Machine available at your local big box retailer can reliably handle Microsoft Office, playing movies and basically anything Web 1.0 can throw at it. And while you or I may be able to notice the subtle difference between 32 and 40 texture-passes, say, using our trained eyes, the fact of the matter is such things are inscrutable to the vast majority of people.

I wanted to test this theory, so I sat my father down to play some Battlefield 2 on our ho-hum Hewlett Packard desktop. Only a P4 2.6 GHz with a mere 512 MB of RAM, the only standout specification was a relatively new graphics card, an NVidia 6200-series. Next, I played through a few minutes of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes on my dear old Gamecube as he watched. After a few minutes of that, we headed down to the local Best Buy. I presented him with the Xbox 360’s Call of Duty 2. After allowing a few minutes for him to observe the game, I asked if he noticed a difference. The answer? Yes, he did, but “not much…they all looked good.” He then asked me to repeat the price of the 360 several times; I think $399 for a videogame console seemed more than a little exorbitant to him.

The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of gamers lay in this range. The strong 360 launch, as well as the next three or four month’s worth of sales are going to be comprised of the gaming hardcore, the same people that more often than not have more than one current-generation console. After that, software will take over as the system-seller. If you want an outlook on the precarious future Microsoft might face, look at the launch flop the 360 just experienced in Japan. Unlike Americans, and even more so with this American-made machine, the Japanese gamer is looking for content from day one.

If Microsoft times it right, with a wheelbarrow full of AAA software systematically released six months or so from now and with Halo 3 launching the same day as the PS3, I still believe that Microsoft can be the victor between the two.

But where does this leave Nintendo?

The Illusory Numbers Game

The dirty little not-so-secret of the gaming industry is that no consumer understands technical specifications. Even you and I can’t begin to comprehend 485 million computations within a clock cycle, which happens to be the speed of the Gamecube’s processor. This is why Nintendo has refrained from releasing tech specs for the Revolution- it really really doesn’t matter to the consumers, anyway…they just think it does.

If Nintendo wants to impress consumers, they can spin specs left and right as much as they please. Let’s say, hypothetically and merely for the sake of the argument, that the Revolution features a single-core, 1.25 GHz PowerPC processor. How does Nintendo market such a “low” number against the 360’s three 3.2 GHz processors, you ask? They simply claim that the processor is “More than four times as powerful as the PlayStation 2!”. Disc space inferior to the PS3’s Blu-Ray? “More than double the disc capacity of the Gamecube!”

And how does Nintendo compete with a line about Microsoft “ushering in the HD era”? It’s rather simple:

Learning from the DS

Nintendo’s been wrong plenty of times, but so far every move they’ve made with the DS has been right on track. The slogan above is written very carefully, and in order. The strategy used on the DS- gameplay first, graphics second, price third- must be applied in that order if Nintendo wishes to succeed. With the Gamecube, the price was the foremost quality, and it ended up cheapening the image of the console. Putting graphics first would likely be a dumb move, as they will certainly be bested by at least one of their competitors on that front. Gameplay as the main feature, however, is what the Revolution will be able to feature in spades. Thankfully, Nintendo has already positioned itself to capitalize on this entirely.

Looking back, I was right but for most of the wrong reasons. A year ago, I claimed that the DS would win mostly due to Sony’s failures, and while Sony has certainly failed with the PSP on almost every front (and is determined to railroad any possible success on the homebrew front), the DS’s victory is as much to Nintendo’s credit as Sony’s. The software scheduling for the system was pure genius, perfectly aligned to systematically deconstruct the competition. The system launched with one “gimme” hit, Super Mario 64, followed shortly by many arcade-like games meant to showcase the DS’s gameplay possibilities. Titles like Wario Ware, Yoshi’s Touch & Go, Pac Pix and Feel the Magic are each relatively shallow titles, but they all highlighted features exclusive to the DS. This allowed the mainstream population to gradually get used to the idea of touch-screen gaming.

Just when the PSP’s biggest draw, Grand Theft Auto, finally hit the scene, Nintendo had polished AAA titles ready to go. Mario Kart DS and Animal Crossing, not to mention titles like Mario and Luigi and Advance Wars, have begun to hit in scientifically measured intervals to do the most possible damage to the PSP. I believe that the delay of Metroid Prime: Hunters to early next year was to prepare for the possibility that GTA would succeed against Mario Kart. In such a scenario, holding Metroid back allowed for at least one solid retaliatory strike. In addition to all of this, Nintendo managed the ultimate “tech specs” coup by launching the Wi-Fi Network with Mario Kart and magically enabling a feature that millions of gamers likely never knew existed in the first place.

The Lesson Learned

To summarize my point, does anyone know the clock speed of the DS’s processors without racing to Google? I know I’m more knowledgeable than the average gamer, and even I only know that the processors are an ARM7 and ARM9 offhand. People only deal in specifications to score marketing points; if there is truly a noticeable difference between one product and another, it will show in the results and not on the white paper.

Aside from muscle versus gameplay, the other lesson learned with the DS is how to properly manipulate third parties. By making the DS so radically different from the competition, Nintendo all but disallowed ports to mindlessly infest the DS. It’s a rare day that a port from another portable hits the DS, and normally it is so poorly done that even the most ignorant gamer notices and punishes the guilty (third) party by spending their money on something else.

Even though Iwata and Co. have had great success with the “exclusive-only” approach on the DS, Nintendo realizes that console games are far and away more difficult and expensive to create than the typical portable title, and has therefore made the job easier for third parties by providing what appears to be the current-generation developer’s dream come true- a Gamecube with vastly expanded capabilities, both in processing prowess and gameplay. With developer kits akin to the Gamecube’s, the Revolution is friendly territory from day one, unlike the arcane Cell-architecture offered by Sony or even the comparatively simple three-core Xbox 360. Nintendo’s apology to third parties for making the controller so different is keeping the development process so similar to the Gamecube’s. All of this extra horsepower offered by the competition will not matter if developers cannot figure out how to harness it; it’s no secret that the 360’s launch library only harnesses one of the system’s three processors.

The other thing to look for is the software schedule for the Revolution’s launch. I’m still not sold on the idea that Nintendo won’t somehow enhance Twilight Princess when played on the Revolution. Even so, Smash Bros. and Metroid Prime 3 will be for the Revolution what Super Mario 64 was for the DS- not necessarily the greatest games (okay, they will be), but a great way to show off the system’s power and control system. Next, look for “B-List” franchises like Wario Ware and Pikmin to take the stage, along with a solid third-party title, more likely than not of the Star Wars persuasion. A Pilotwings title isn’t out of the question. The Mario and Zelda masterpieces undoubtedly in development will likely launch within six months of each other, with the first launching perhaps as early as launch day.

If Nintendo can create compelling gameplay experiences first and foremost, and then offer those at an absurdly low price, they’ll never be the console of choice.

That’s right, never. I’m making sure that you’re still paying attention.

The great point here is that the Revolution is going to win from second-place. It’s going to be so innovative and so cheap that no self-respecting gamer will do without one. If, say, a third of PS3 owners and half of 360 owners buy a Revolution, and another few million people buy a Revolution exclusively, suddenly the Revolution is the top console. Because of this shared userbase, the console race will look like an old Venn Diagram from elementary school where the middle was larger than what was left of either circle.

Before you know it, third parties will notice that the Revolution is somehow or other in 60% of gaming households. Combine the obvious financial advantage with the easier development, lower costs, higher innovation potential and the absence of the corporate bullying that Sony ironically learned from Nintendo and the Revolution begins to look like something stronger:

A virtual coup.

Casey Ayers is Editorial Content Director for Advanced Media. Though most of the time he works behind the scenes coordinating our various opinion columnists, you can always expect to hear from him when big news hits the presses.

This article is interesting. I don't totally agree with it, but the insight is really something.

Puttin this out there so we all can be informed about the good stuff. :D
That sure was a long read. But I do have to agree with most of what he said. Nintendo did put too much focus on the price.