A revolution is coming, and I couldn't be happier.
In ages long past, when knights rode about the countryside rescuing princesses from evil wizards and fire-breathing dragons, one company held unquestionable dominance over the video game industry: Nintendo. It was an age of fables and awe, when doe-eyed schoolchildren whispered in hushed corners about the wonders of the NES and its later heir, the Super NES (or Famicom and Super Famicom). Nintendo was at this time truly the king of console gaming -- if one was interested in gaming, odds are Nintendo was their choice simply through sheer domination of the market.
They didn't get that way by chance, of course, but through successful design of both consoles and games. The NES introduced a host of memorable, heroic characters that drew the attention of an idea-starved gaming public: Mario, Samus Aran, Link, Donkey Kong. And as for the SNES, it was the pinnacle of a smooth and refined console between its technological abilities and its excellent controller design. No, Nintendo didn't become king by chance or random fluke; they got there through perseverance and by making good products.
Throughout this time, Nintendo had only one real challenger: Sega, an upstart company that, despite a few peaks here and there, never really offered a truly strong opposition. The company's creativity and innovation were usually hampered by poor business decisions. Despite Sega's solid game design (going so far as to create a character, Sonic, that threatened to unseat Mario as the iconic mascot of video gaming) and killer advertising campaigns (Coffee? Tea? Sega!) that did a brilliant job at marketing their products, the company continually suffered due to the bad business judgments of its leaders. Nintendo remained at the top.
While Nintendo deserved its rise, it didn't deserve to stay there, because there's one basic fact of unchallenged supremacy: it breeds arrogance, laziness, and a careless willingness to ignore the wants of the consumers. Political libertarians often cite the Friedmanesque mantra that "free markets make free people." But free markets, in the form of profit-driven consumer capitalism and the natural competition this system engenders, also make better games and better consoles. Friedman put forth his philosophy because he believed that free markets brought about companies that would give consumers what they wanted, not what the companies decided the consumers wanted. When there's no competition, a company doesn't have to work to earn a consumer's financial support, and they certainly don't have to give the consumers what they want, confidently assuming the company will remain at the top forever and forcing the consumer to accept whatever the company decides to do. Creativity is no longer necessary.
After two successful consoles, this came to pass with Nintendo. Once at the top, they became arrogant (dictating rules and regulations to third party developers and tossing valuable developers aside on the assumption that Nintendo just no longer needed them) and lazy (creating a console that failed to adapt to the changing market and technology, largely sticking with their tried-and-true, but by this point stale, conventions). Sega, on the other hand, continued their role as challenger hobbled by bad business moves. This situation opened the door to a third competitor: technology giant Sony, who introduced exactly what the gaming public had been wanting in the form of their Playstation.
This was almost ten years ago. Sony's successful emergence into the console market with their exceptional technological innovation eventually took down Sega and crippled Nintendo. But before they left the field, Sega tried upping the innovation to unimagined heights -- Sega TV, VMUs, online gameplay, you name it. Their bad business moves continued, though, and they lacked the successful marketing strategies that had set them apart in previous generations, and so they were kicked out of the hardware field.
The situation we find ourselves in today is remarkably like the one ten years ago, except the role of Nintendo is now being played by Sony. Sony's absolute dominance of the market has lead to arrogance on their part, a contempt for the gamers (read: consumers) themselves. Ken Kutaragi, creator of the Playstation, has come completely unhinged from objective reality.
Kutaragi has espoused that consumers will flock to the PS3 regardless of its costs, even going so far as to suggest that they may work more hours simply to pay for it. If this isn't arrogance, I don't know what is. Kutargi has proclaimed the PS3 to not be a game machine at all, but actually a home entertainment console designed to appeal to entire families, saying "The PS3 isn't designed to lean towards games." But if that's the case, why should gamers buy it? In response to complaints about the design of the PSP, Kutaragi responded "This is the design that we came up with. There may be people that complain about its usability, but that's something which users and game software developers will have to adapt to," then adding "I believe we made the most beautiful thing in the world. Nobody would criticize a renowned architect's blueprint that the position of a gate is wrong." This is heavy-handed contempt toward gamers coupled with a hubristic belief that they are now immune from failure or criticism.
Once dominant Nintendo has now become an underdog forced to innovate to survive. Even lacking the PS2's superior software library, the Gamecube was the more interesting console -- GBA connectivity, better multi-player, small discs (promising eventual portability), and the GB Player accessory. Where Sony viewed portability as merely a means to create a technological Swiss pocket knife, Nintendo used the opportunity to create wildly new gaming experiences with their DS. And while Microsoft and Sony view this upcoming generation as nothing more than More (More Graphics! More Tech! More!), Nintendo promises to innovate with built-in wi-fi, a motion sensitive gyroscopic controller, and downloadable access to their vast catalogue of games. They're recognizing past mistakes, accepting criticism, and promising to do better while focusing on gaming and creativity, not technology. These sound business strategies insulate them from the fate suffered by Sega.
The market is cyclical and fluid, and Sony won't stay at the top forever -- their hubris promises them a fall, just as Nintendo once fell. Meanwhile, let's celebrate competition and how it's led Nintendo to create what's going to be the best of the next-gen consoles. Here's to the Revolution.