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Friday, September 23, 2005

Why Nintendo Gets It, or Why Sony Should Start Trying

Why Nintendo Gets It, or Why Sony Should Start Trying

"Not convinced? That's OK, neither is Chris. He wrote a response in his article, Revolution and the Next Generation, or Popular Belief and the Gaming Industry. Check it out.

And I thought they had logged out:

It blows my mind that Nintendo has so effectively proven that they "get" it. How so? The Revolution controller. What? Yeah, that magic wand thing probably is the future of gaming. And furthermore, in the "next-gen" launch lineup it is starting to look like Nintendo is the only company that will deliver a truly next-gen gaming platform. Compared to the Revolution, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are simply expensive upgrades to existing platforms.

Nintendo "gets" it. Microsoft and Sony don't understand that a new generation of gaming machine does not automatically beget a new generation of gaming. A "next" generation requires a significant change in gaming itself. Gamers care about hardware and hardware generations only insofar as those generations mark major changes in the way games are made and played. Gamers care about framerate only insofar as framerate is connected to the limit of a player's reflexes. The interaction of technology and creative expression and experience is complex terrain, which often understood in a highly intuitive array of impulses on the part of gamers. This intuitive understanding of the relationship between tech and game leads easily into fetishization of game hardware: Witness the hip NES controller belt buckles sold in mall shops worldwide or the Xbox 360 faceplates. All tech-dependent art forms fetishize the mechanical aspects of their practice: photography, computers, sports, music. In each case one can see similar devotion to the objects and implements of the practice on the part of the practitioners.

Deep down, however, gamers are ambivalent about this coming generation of gaming hardware. A part of that ambivalence, whether conscious or subconscious, is the feeling that games are not going to be significantly different. Gamers are often after the next, newest, more engaging, more immersive experience. But in order to sell this new hardware cycle to many gamers, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo need to think big. Graphics are already pretty. Sound is already awesome. Online gameplay is already fairly optimized. What's next?

But to really understand where I'm coming from and where I'm going with this, let's take a brief trip back through major generational shifts that have come before in gaming history.

Know your roots

Let's revisit some historical generational shifts: If we assume the Odyssey (1972) and Pong (1975) were first generation, then we can cite the Atari 2600's (1977) advancement of removable game media, which allowed the whole game publishing industry to be created apart from the hardware manufacturing industry. The Atari 5200 (1982) is viewed as an upgrade, and although systems such as Colecovision (1982) and Intellivision (1980) came out during the heyday of Atari's popularity, we generally speak of all of these systems as being in the same "generation" of gaming.

The next major evolution is the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES - 1985). Nintendo revived the American games industry (currently the largest market in the world for games) with a fresh take on game design accompanied by a major technical upgrade that facilitated better graphics. Insofar as technical enhancements allow new kinds of game designs, they contribute to new generations of gaming. This generation was also populated by the Sega Master System, which was the largest competition for Nintendo and lagged far behind.

In the first formal generational shift, the NES was followed by the SNES (1991). We gained four new buttons on the controller, and Sega followed suit adding more buttons to the Genesis (1989) controllers. Games became better looking and smarter, and because we had so many more options for control, games as diverse as Actraiser and Mortal Kombat are possible and become popular. This change brought a whole new level of physical and conceptual complexity to console gaming. Role-playing games became much more complex and early 3D experiments are born.

There were many attempts to push a generational shift to the CD-era, including most notably the SegaCD (1992) and Panasonic's 3D0 (1993). But it wasn't until Sony launched the PlayStation (1995) that the concept of CDs took off. This led to game design developments that have shaped much of the current gaming landscape: Cutscenes became more beautiful and cinematic, appreciated as works of art in their own right. The ability to include a lot of dialogue and video led to the general movement of "games as cinematic experience" design. The early addition of an analog joystick to the controller was first seen in the Nintendo 64 controller, and gamers were especially sold on it after Mario 64 demonstrated a 3D approach to platform gaming. But it was Sony's Dual Shock controller that made dual analog joysticks and force-feedback a standard feature of console controllers. Games continued to become more complex and textured, and the number of gamers continued to grow. In this generation the Nintendo 64 (1996) stayed with their cartridge-based format, which, in the end, cost them the number one spot in the gaming industry. Cartridges just didn't have as many advantages as CDs – the ability to store so much data had become crucial to game design and development, and gamers quickly grew to love these new qualities of games." [more]

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