Game Consoles, Part 1: The War for the Living Room

In the contest to dominate the video gaming landscape, there are three powerful players, each with a magic weapon: Microsoft with its Xbox 360, Nintendo with its Wii, and Sony with its PlayStation 3 (PS3).

Like any great heroes, they each have their strengths and weaknesses, though none, it turns out, has a fatal flaw. For those hapless consumers who haven’t already made a choice, the differences between the three consoles offers up a wild list of pros and cons, and it’s confusing enough to make any gaming newbie give up and start rolling the dice.

To help, we’ve broken out the consoles, what’s going on in the industry, and the key decision points that can shed light into the deepest doubts of this year’s video game console season.

Popularity Contest

In some respects, the best video game console to buy is the one with the largest base of consumers. Why? Because it presumably gives the video game publishing industry a bigger audience to sell new game titles to, which in turn encourages them to create the best games for that particular platform for years to come. Popularity, however, isn’t always a good barometer these days.

In an effort to deliver its latest generation gaming platform first, Microsoft introduced the Xbox 360 in November 2005 — an entire year earlier than Nintendo’s and Sony’s consoles. Did that year give Microsoft a big head start? Yes and no.

In the United States, The NPD Group reports that life-to-date retail sales of the Xbox 360 stand at 11.6 million units. The PS3 comes in at 5.7 million, while the Wii blows both out of the water with 13.4 million units sold. So in that regard, the Wii has the undeniable lead.

“Given the last several months’ sales trends, I would expect that to continue for some time,” Anita Frazier, a video game industry analyst for the NPD Group, told TechNewsWorld.

However, in different parts of the world, some consoles are more popular than others. Worldwide, the Wii extends its commanding lead to 37.26 million, while the Xbox comes in at 23.17 million, trailed by PS3 with 17.04 million in unit sales, according to Video Game Chartz. Either way, all three consoles have healthy sales numbers, virtually guaranteeing a solid foundation for a great gaming experience for years to come.

The Experience

There are lots of ways to describe the differences between the three consoles, but the surfaces will suffice for now. The 360 and PS3 are similar in that they use traditional, boomerang-shaped controllers with vibration feedback, and they have extensive libraries of diverse game titles for a range of users, including both young children and mature, blood-and-gore-lovin’ gamers.

The Wii, on the other hand, uses a motion-sensitive dual controller system that features a remote control-shaped controller and a so-called Nunchuk that plugs into the remote controller. So how is this different from the 360 and PS3?

Other than shape, the entire function with the Wii controller system is opened up by using the controller with motion. For example, to swing a bat in a Wii baseball game, you swing the Wii controller as if you were swinging a bat. Or, to hit a golf ball, you swing the Wii controller as you would a golf club. Early adopters got all sweaty doing this in their living rooms, and some lost control of their Wii remotes, which broke more than a few big screen TVs. Nintendo quickly added extra-strength wrist straps to combat the slippery palms.

The net effect of the Wii system has been to attract non-traditional gamers and engage families with lightweight games that remain surprisingly fun. Hardcore gamers, however, have been mostly disinterested in the Wii games, which are often somewhat cartoonish.

On the inside, the Wii processor isn’t as capable of handling intense graphics as the high-definition-capable 360 and PS3. Its supported resolution is limited to standard definition (480p), though it does have a widescreen mode.

The Game Titles

“In general, the most compelling reason a consumer purchases a hardware system is that it has the ability to play the games they want to play,” Frazier noted.

Some game manufacturers deliver titles for multiple consoles, but the console manufacturers also work hard to create killer titles that are exclusive their own platform. For instance, Microsoft has its “Halo” franchise, which started with “Halo” and “Halo 2” on the original Xbox. Last year, “Halo 3” proved to be a blockbuster, and Xbox 360 reaped the rewards. Sony has its own exclusives, like “Resistance 2,” “Metal Gear Solid 4” and “Little Big Planet,” though none have defined the platform buying decision like Microsoft’s “Halo 3.”

Wii, on the other hand, ships with bundled-in Wii Sports titles — Boxing, Baseball, Tennis, Bowling, and Golf.

“Game titles are important drivers for consoles, especially for the 360 and PS3. The Wii, although software is important, the Wii ‘experience’ seems to be the driver — not necessarily particular titles,” Ben Bajarin, director of the consumer technology practice for Creative Strategies, told TechNewsWorld.

“That being said, consumers are definitely beginning to view their hardware as investments as well, and they are looking for the right investment to fit their lifestyle,” he added.

Beyond the Games

Still, all three consoles have their angles beyond games. “Wii Fit,” which uses an exercise board peripheral, has transformed the Wii game console into a workout partner. The Xbox 360 has Microsoft’s online Xbox Live experience, which provides movie downloads and even Netflix movie streaming. The PS3 comes with a built-in Blu-ray disc players, letting owners enjoy the best possible high-definition movie experience on their 1080p flat-screen TVs.

When it first designed the 360, Microsoft put its money on HD DVD and offered an external disc player for watching movies. The format has since gone belly-up, though the Xbox does have an online marketplace for buying video content, as does the PS3.

“The Xbox 360, and to a lesser extent, the PlayStation 3, have the potential to emerge as dominant entertainment hubs in gamer households,” Van Baker, a vice president of media industry research for Gartner, told TechNewsWorld.

“The availability of multiple forms of media, such as TV shows and movies, enhance the position of these consoles significantly over time,” he added.

Because the consoles are essentially computers capable of Internet connections, they can be updated to offer new software-based features. The Xbox 360, for instance, just got a new interface facelift with snazzy new avatars that Microsoft hopes will generate more 360 love.

Sony has been adding video content to its own online service, while the Wii Menu offers weather forecasts and news feeds.

“For all three consoles, it is the online experience dimension that consumers have been picking up on,” Bajarin noted.

Price Wars

Despite all the different features of the three consoles, price is an important decision-making factor, as always.

“We have seen an uptick in sales when price moves are implemented by the manufacturers, which speaks to the impact of that marketing lever,” Frazier said.

The Wii was for long regarded as the least expensive console, coming in with a base price of US$249, though Microsoft’s low-end Xbox 360 Arcade model is now down to $199. It’s Pro and Elite packages cost $299 and $399, and a wireless network adapter for wireless Internet access costs another $80-plus. The PS3 starts at $399 and ramps up to $499.

This holiday season, the big three manufacturers will likely look to spur sales through special deals.

“Bundles will be the biggest promos,” Bajarin said, though he noted that he didn’t think any particular bundles were hot enough to tip the popularity scales.

Game Consoles, Part 2: An X-Ray of the Xbox

Game Consoles, Part 3: A Peek at the PS3

Game Consoles, Part 4: A Window on the Wii

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