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The changing face of the Console War

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Video game critic James O'Connor investigates how console makers have moved beyond marketing tactics to promote lifestyle and loyalty. 

Within 10 months of release, the Nintendo Switch had already outsold its predecessor, the Wii U, worldwide. The Switch has shifted 14.86 million units since launching on March 3 last year; by comparison, 13.56 million Wii Us have been sold since it launched in November 2012 and production has long since ceased.

Comparing the consoles can immediately give insights into why. The Wii U came with a bulky, uncomfortable controller that houses a 6.2 inch 480p screen in the middle, with limited range from the base unit. You could play a game on this screen while someone else used the TV, but you might not be able to leave the room. It was an awkward compromise, a portable console with a short invisible tether that let you play games on a screen that already felt outdated at launch.

The Switch, on the other hand, fulfils a desire for home-console quality gaming on the go that no other machine has properly fulfilled. Sony’s PSP and PS Vita might have come close, but the Switch fully bridges the gap by functioning as both a home and portable console at the same time – stick it into the dock and play the game on your TV, remove it and play your game wherever you want. The popularity of portable consoles waned somewhat when smartphones emerged – the Nintendo 3DS sold well, but nowhere near as well as the original DS or the Game Boy – but playing the latest big-budget Zelda and Mario titles on your morning commute is extremely enticing.

The differences between Wii U and the Switch, and how they have performed, illustrates the importance of consoles having clear defined goals and personalities. Nintendo remained popular during the Wii U’s tenure, but few saw the value of the machine compared to the other consoles on the market. The fact that it had numerous great, exclusive games was irrelevant – the console itself wasn’t attractive to players. This has been a problem for many consoles in the past – Sega’s Dreamcast is perhaps the paradigm of a console with a great line-up of games that simply didn’t appeal to customers, who instead largely flocked to the much ‘cooler’ PlayStation 2 (which remains the best-selling console of all time). Games are important, but a console’s value to players goes beyond that – the console itself needs to appeal or be trendy in some way.

In each console ‘generation’, the major manufacturers face different expectations and challenges to ensure that they stand out over the competition. As consumers, many of us can’t help but track the sales numbers with grim fascination; as a critic, unless you specify otherwise, most review copies of multiplatform games tend to arrive for whichever system is most popular at the time. Last generation it was the Xbox 360, and now it’s the PS4, unless the game is available on Switch.

Console manufacturers have taken numerous different approaches to sell their machines and position themselves uniquely in the market, with varying degrees of success. For a while, it seemed like consoles focussed on reinventing the lounge room. The Nintendo Wii was responsible for a lot of fun at family lunches, and the machine’s predominant narrative was that it was designed to bring gaming to non-gamers – anyone could pick up the motion-controlled Wii Remote and immediately know how to play tennis or baseball in Wii Sports, the ingenious pack-in game that sold the system to millions. Microsoft tried something similar with its Kinect motion sensors for Xbox 360 and Xbox One. They sold well but were ultimately less successful, in part, because they required that you set up an ideal space for them rather than fitting into your existing set-up. For now, though, it seems like most gamers have drifted back towards wanting a machine that doesn’t necessarily reinvent how they play games – the PlayStation 4, by far the most popular console on the market, has become the ‘default’ machine for many after the Xbox One’s disastrously unfocused pre-launch campaign (at one point Microsoft announced that the machine would require a constant online connection and would not play preowned games, two stipulations that were removed from the machine before launch).

The divides between different consoles, in form, function and brand, mean that many of us get attached to specific consoles for reasons that aren’t always rational. The term ‘console war’ became prominent during the 1990s, when the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive (known as the Genesis in the US) competed to win over prospective gamers. Sega’s infamous advertising phrase, ‘Genesis does what Nintendon’t’, is indicative of the playful animosity between companies that was often taken quite seriously by the company’s customers.

When I was growing up, the console was a status symbol. This was mostly a matter of economics, whether we recognised it or not – you were lucky if your parents agreed to help you buy a games console, or got you one as a present, and deciding which one to commit to meant convincing yourself that you were making the best choice possible. This is where the concept of the ‘console war’ comes from for many of us – the competing advertising of different companies trying to convince us, as children, that their device is the one that will make our young lives more complete.

The gaming magazines at the time, like N64 Gamer, leaned in heavily – if you were a Nintendo fan, you liked to be told that the machine’s 64-bit power and cartridges made it inherently better; PlayStation fans were told that theirs was the more mature, adult console. When the PlayStation first launched, with its games in CD cases that would better fit among a player’s existing disc collection and its game catalogue full of racing games, fighters and huge RPGs, it didn’t take long for it to become the ‘cool’ console. But if you had pledged allegiance to another brand, this was easy enough to ignore, and the popular console-specific magazines had an element of propaganda to them, devoting page space to the superiority of the system you owned reinforced your choice and kept you buying the magazine. Console choice has always been sold as a lifestyle choice – but now, part of the Switch’s appeal is that it will fit into your existing lifestyle rather than reinventing it.

The iconography of controllers has also been an important part of console enthusiasm. PlayStation’s marketing has often focused on the circle, triangle, square and cross that adorn every iteration of their controllers, which have been refined every generation without radical reinvention. In 2018, Microsoft is bringing back the Xbox’s original ‘Duke’ controller, which was replaced worldwide by the smaller, easier-to-use ‘Controller S’ that had come with the console in Japan since launch. Even a controller that was widely hated at launch now inspires a certain nostalgia. There’s a symbolic aspect of the button layout on your favourite controller, or even the shape of the device – people are inherently attracted to symbols, and the physical object of the controller has an immediate pull if you’re loyal to a certain brand or device. The competition between consoles means that players are convinced to grow very invested in these symbols, the same way a sport team’s logo, or even a national flag, might inspire loyalty.

In 2018, the three major console manufacturers are all pursuing slightly different paths. The PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X are both allowing for greater fidelity and more stable performance, but are, right now, luxury items – the console you buy if you’re absolutely dedicated to the best possible gaming experiences and have the TV to match. Sony seems to be comfortable with the PlayStation 4’s position as the default console you have in your house, while Microsoft is pushing subscription models hard – pay $10 a month for Xbox Games Pass and you’ll have access to a huge back catalogue right away, including all first-party titles published by Microsoft (such as the upcoming Sea of Thieves) on the day they release.

Meanwhile, the Switch’s next big focused push, the Nintendo Labo kits, looks like it might reconfigure the relationship between player and console yet again. These kits ask the player to construct various toys out of cardboard – a little piano, a fishing rod, a full-on robot costume and more – and then, using the detachable Joy-Con controllers and the Switch screen, play games with them. It’s not something you can take with you on a plane or guiltily play on the toilet – it’s an experiment that tethers the Switch somewhat, but it’s still something that the other consoles cannot do.

As an adult with a disposable income and limited free time, the ‘Console War’ concept now seems trite to me, and the marketing departments at Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo tends to take fewer digs at the competition (it’s not uncommon for the official Xbox or PlayStation Twitter accounts to congratulate the other when a big exclusive launches). But consoles, and the companies that make them, are still capable of inspiring loyalty and pride. As a lifelong Nintendo fan, seeing the unambiguous commercial and critical success of the Switch inspires a strange, excited feeling in me that goes beyond simply loving the console itself.

James O'Connor is a journalist, critic, and teacher from Adelaide. His work has appeared in Hyper, GameSpot, EDGE, Waypoint, Overland, The Conversation, and various other places.

If you want to see how consoles have evolved over time, stop by our permanent free exhibition Screen Worlds.