By Greg Newbegin
And so it comes to this... The final chapter in our brief history of videogame consoles. It's been a long two months, but we thank those who stuck around for the whole series, and welcome those who've just joined us at the tail end. Please feel free to comment - there's plenty we couldn't cover, and there may be things we missed! Check out the previous articles below -
Note: This series was written with the assistance of Noel Wheatley, the Stevivor.com TopGeek (@furysevensix), whose vast knowledge of videogame history and large collection of vintage and retro consoles are, in our opinion, second to none.
Generation 7: 2005 - 2012??
There was somewhat of a dichotomy created in this generation, as Nintendo again took a different path to the one their competitors were safely treading. Continuing on their successes in the previous generation, both Microsoft and Sony played to their strengths – and both saw that their strengths lay in connectivity (among other things, but we'll get to that).
Microsoft was known to have been developing the successor to the Xbox as early as 2003, often referred to at the time as the Xenon project. Implementing an ATI graphics chip, and IBM processor technology similar in scope to that which had been employed in Sony machines, the Xbox 360 looked to simply be a hardware improvement over the original Xbox. It could be placed either horizontally or vertically (popularised in the last generation by PS2), and had an interchangeable faceplate – this seemed impressive at the time, but there was little uptake.
Microsoft implemented some new techniques in the marketing of Xbox 360, utilising the Internet to run some viral marketing campaigns. The system was then officially announced in May 2005 (just prior to E3) on an MTV program hosted by actor Elijah Wood. Bill Gates was featured in Time Magazine touting the forthcoming release of Halo 3, and the system was released in November of the same year.
Launch titles were not great – with several titles reportedly rushed to market, and localisation issues resulting in the Japanese market only receiving 6 titles. Still, given the success of the original Xbox, as well as the impressive graphical capabilities of the new system, uptake in the US and Europe was quite steady, with initial shipments selling out in both territories. Japan, on the other hand, continued its trend; sales never really picked up in the region, with consumers there tending towards local favourites Nintendo and Sony.
Initial shipments saw various issues – including the infamous “Red Ring of Death” whereby failing units would flash red around the power button to signify a specific hardware failure. Microsoft approached this admirably, offering all owners a 3-year warranty upgrade free of charge, and replacing units where necessary. A later hardware upgrade eliminated this issue from future iterations, but early adopters often saw multiple failures…
The Xbox 360 did turn out to be much more than just a simple hardware upgrade over the original Xbox though. Clearly, Microsoft had a release timetable scheduled for the Xbox, rolling out features in phases – initially as upgrades to the Xbox Live service, and eventually rolling out upgrades and additional functionality across the board, including Twitter applications and streaming movie and music applications (which are arguably upgrades to the Xbox Live system anyway). Beyond this, Microsoft’s decision to include “Achievements” in all of their games (along with an accompanying “Gamerscore” applied to a players username) proved to be a major boon for the company, with many current users preferring these competitive Xbox features to those of the competition (we do not mention this in order to spark any debate, this is simply an observation). Further, the inclusion of a place to download smaller titles in full—Xbox Live Arcade—has resulted in an additional revenue stream for Microsoft. This was later upgraded to include digital copies of retail titles as well (“Games On Demand”). With new features announced regularly (Xbox SmartGlass, for example, was recently announced at E3 2012), the Xbox 360 continues to be an evolving platform.
Later in its lifespan, Microsoft released a new version of the system, with a smaller footprint and a slightly different design. Referred to as the Xbox 360 S (affectionately, "Slim"), it proved to be a successful venture for the company. Finally, Microsoft had released a system that was able to compete very strongly with Sony’s PlayStation brand - the Xbox 360 is said to have sold more than 67 million units prior to the writing of this article.
With voice and video chat, a robust system for making and following friends, as well as numerous entertainment options, the Xbox 360 is a whole lot more than a simple videogame console – but it’s not the only machine that took this path…
Sony (more accurately Sony Computer Entertainment, but I'll stick with Sony here on out) announced PlayStation 3 at E3 2005; however, they put the machine on display with a radical new controller. Dubbed the “Boomerang” controller as a result of its shape, fans were confused as to what had happened to the controller design that had lasted through two previous generations … Critically panned (for the most part – there are some critics that said it was very comfortable to hold), Sony chose not to go ahead with this design, and the PS3 was released in late 2006 with the Dual Shock 3 controller – the same design fans knew and loved, but wireless.
Following in Microsoft’s footsteps, PS3 shipped with an internal hard drive; however, Sony made absolutely no concessions (at least initially) – the 60GB model shipped with in-built wireless network connectivity (the Xbox required an additional component), multiple USB ports, HDMI ports, and flash card readers. Another model was released at the time (20GB model in the US and Japan, 40GB and 80GB in Australia and New Zealand) which was a stripped down version for a stripped-down cost. By all reports, the 60GB sold more successfully (especially with core gamers); however, future iterations of the system removed some of the highly lauded features – the PS3 slim model first released in 2009 eschewed the flash card readers and many of the USB ports (leaving only 2). It did, however, include a much larger HDD (120GB and 250GB for the first generation and 160GB and 320GB HDD for the second generation slimline PS3).
Beyond the initial confusion though, the PS3 didn’t quite take off as expected. Given the huge sales of PS2, Sony may have entered with an expectation of immediate success. However, given the choice to include a Blu Ray player (a Sony technology that had only recently been released), the system was extremely expensive at US$200-$300 more than the Xbox, depending on the model. Microsoft had chosen not to explicitly support a new media technology at the time, but released an HD DVD player add-on in November 2006, not long after the release of PS3. As time has shown, the HD DVD format did not win the format war, so it will be interesting to see what technology Microsoft puts in place in the next iteration of Xbox.
The system still managed to sell out on release; however, due to manufacturing issues, release in other territories was delayed – the PS3 was released in March 2007 in Australia. While the hardware did fail occasionally (referred to as the “Yellow Light of Death”), failure rates weren’t as high as the Xbox 360 and there wasn’t as much outcry in the community. PS3 sales picked up over time; however (and quite interestingly), even given the similar sales numbers between Xbox and PS3 (which has sold around 64 million to date), many gamers argue that Xbox is the more successful console of this generation - at least between these two heavyweights.
Over time, the PlayStation 3 evolved in much the same way as the Xbox. The PlayStation’s XrossMediaBar (or XMB), which was designed to make system navigation simple and intuitive--and thus was also utilised in the PSP as well as Sony Bravia TVs--has grown to include TV channels and other video streaming services, music applications, photo and video editors, and much more – including a persistent environment for users to interact. Called PlayStation Home, Sony has used this environment as a place to showcase briefings and demonstrations (as well as free games built in to the service), even going as far as including a model of their E3 booth for users to interact with. While it’s not a service that every user utilises, PlayStation Home is a very original aspect to the online experience.
Sony and Microsoft differ slightly in the way they monetise their online services. While Microsoft charges a fee for Xbox Live Gold Membership (which includes online multiplayer in addition to certain other services), Sony chooses to offer online multiplayer for free. That said, Sony does offer a subscription-based service whereby subscribers receive access to monthly titles for free (as well as discounts offered only to subscribers), called PlayStation Plus. Many users have decried the fact that free titles are only active while subscribed to the service; however, this does suit the subscription model. More recent additions to both Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network have included Cloud saves and automatic updates (the latter is only available to PlayStation Plus subscribers).
Nintendo, however, approached this generation from a completely different angle, taking the industry by storm. Based on the belief that there couldn’t be three players all trying to do the same thing, Nintendo followed on the successes seen with the radical ideas employed in the DS handheld system, and tried something very different… And it worked very much in their favour.
Speculation was rife around what Nintendo was internally referring to as “Revolution.” Plans were to announce and demonstrate the system at E3 2005; however, technical issues caused Nintendo to display the console alone at this time – minus the controller. Rumours were rampant around motion control.
Later, at the 2005 Tokyo Game Show, Nintendo officially revealed the controller. Looking much like a television remote, it was something drastically different to the rest of the market, as it brought motion control and other advances to the field. Critics of the time were unsure what to think of the controls, many believing it was somewhat of a gimmick. Beyond that, though, was the name of the console itself – Wii. Nintendo approached this from way out of left field, suggesting the name was to represent the bringing together of individuals to play games. Clearly, they were targeting a new audience here – families and social gamers, and it took the world by storm.
Wii released in the US in November 2006… and sold out immediately. The system was then released in Japan in early December, followed by Australia, and finally Europe (all within several days of each other). Unfortunately, even with staggered shipments, Nintendo was unable to keep up with the demand, with some regions remaining sold out for months (it was difficult to purchase a new machine in Japan for upwards of a year). This kind of success was unheard of in the industry, and saw system availability on sites such as eBay for ridiculous prices.
Much of the success was due to pricing. Wii was released at a pricepoint much cheaper than competitors, and brought with it some new ideas. As a result, it was scooped up by consumers seeking a new experience. Over time, however, core gamers began to criticise the system – specifications were much lower than Xbox and PS3, controls were often unwieldy and lacked the button combinations required for certain titles, and occasionally the motion system was inaccurate. In particular, one launch title that received a lot of attention on announcement was Ubisoft's Red Steel – gamers were excited at the prospect of being able to participate in virtual sword fights using the Wii Remote… The reality, however, was frustrating, as the controls were unable to reproduce the expectations of the community.
In addition, Nintendo had chosen a cautious approach to online connectivity, requiring users to share 12-digit friend codes before being able to connect to friends and colleagues – this connectivity did not include any chat functionality. In comparison to Xbox and PS3, it was somewhat outdated, but appealed to the parents of younger children. Peripherals were available for the system, including a classic controller that resembled a more traditional controller, and the Wii Balance Board – more recently referred to by Satoru Iwata himself as “the best-selling bathroom scale in the world.” While some argued that Nintendo was fracturing their control system, the console continued selling well – as did the balance board, which has reportedly sold 42 million units since release.
One thing that did surprise critics was that the system utilised a standard disc format. Games shipped on DVDs, but Wii strangely could not play DVD movies. For all of Nintendo’s previous attempts to combat piracy, this new step backfired, and the Wii was quickly opened up to pirate channels. Internet rumours cited a low attach rate as a result, but this does not appear to be the case, with Wii users reportedly buying a similar number of titles per system as competitor consoles.
Over time, the system was not updated as dramatically as Xbox and PS3. Some additional “channels” were added (the Wii home screen included a bunch of small "TV screens", which Nintendo referred to as channels), many of which were for specific titles, with some attempts to provide new experiences for users (such as the “Everybody Votes” channel, whereby users around the world could vote on certain topics and follow up demographics). Video streaming channels were also offered late in the lifecycle.
One thing that all three systems offered within this generation, though, was an online store, through which new titles could be purchased. Nintendo focused on their “Virtual Console,” where users could purchase retro titles from NES, SNES, Game Boy/Colour, N64, Sega Master System, Mega Drive, Neo Geo, and TurboGraphx-16. Microsoft and Sony initially focused on offering smaller titles at reduced prices, but both manufacturers offered full retail titles later in the generation.
Seeing the success that Nintendo was enjoying, both Sony and Microsoft jumped on board the motion bandwagon - Sony releasing their PlayStion Move peripheral in September 2010, and Microsoft releasing Kinect in November of the same year. While Sony's hardware closely resembles the Wii in design and functionality, Microsoft clearly had other plans. The Kinect system is a sophisticated camera system that can capture fine body movements - and in reality was likely in development for several long years. While Microsoft appears to have long-term goals for Kinect, it is unclear at this stage whether Sony has a future planned for Move controls...
Over time, sales of the Wii dropped off considerably (still totalling a very respectable 95 million to date), and Nintendo saw losses in 2011 for the first time in 30 years. Some minor changes were implemented within the company, with several executives taking pay cuts, but it was becoming evident that the end of this generation was drawing near. While many continue to argue that there is life left in Xbox and PS3, the Wii appears largely outdated in comparison. As a result, Nintendo announced the successor to the Wii—the Wii U—at E3 2011, and the late 2012 release is set to kick off the start of the 8th generation. At the time of writing, no successor to either Xbox or PS3 has been announced, but speculation is widespread.
Primary changes between Generation 6 and Generation 7
Gen6 – Wired controllers
GEN7 – primarily wireless controllers
POPULARISED: Persistent online personas
INTRODUCED: Multiple online applications
INTRODUCED: HD resolution
INTRODUCED: HD movies
INTRODUCED: Downloadable content (game add-ons, music, video, etc.)
INTRODUCED: Wireless internet receivers
POPULARISED: Motion gaming