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Monday, January 23, 2006

Console wars

It’s about that time in the games industry again, when PC enthusiasts start fearing the demise of their beloved gaming platform, when irrational arguments are had between loyal ‘fanbois’ (and girls) of every age, race and creed regarding which flashy new piece of gaming hardware best deserves to grace their living rooms (despite never having played on any of these machines). Yes, it’s time for the ‘next gen’ of game consoles to hit the market and become the ‘current gen’. The truly ridiculous thing about these argument is that they tend to be extremely subjective, and based mostly on the individuals’ experience with currently available systems from the same manufacturers. I am in the same boat as most of these gamers, having not had the privilege of playing on an Xbox 360 or on a PS3 or Revolution mockup or devkit, so in many way’s I am in no better position to argue than they are, however I like to think I’m a little bit more objective. Whatever the case, I feel like ranting about the impending next gen, which is partially current gen, since Microsoft’s Xbox 360 has now been on the market and available (in theory) since November last year. I will look at it from a uniquely South African view, since that is what I know and what affects me.

The Here and Now

First off, let me summarize my experience of the current generation of consoles in South Africa. Officially there are two competitors in the market - the Nintendo GameCube and the Sony Playstation 2 – since Microsoft did not deem the South African market ready for another competitor and chose not to release the Xbox here. In reality, the picture is somewhat different: it is true that one can only buy the GameCube or PS2 from major retailers, but the Xbox is actually readily available from importers for those that really want to get their hands on it, and games can either be bought from these retailers (at an exorbitant markup) or import them directly from websites such as (at prices lower than what console games retail for in South Africa!). In addition to this ‘underground’ availability of the Xbox, the marketing and advertising of Nintendo’s GameCube is considered by many to be something of a joke, which has kept the ‘Cube from ever becoming a serious contender in this country and is in stark contrast to the aggressive marketing employed by Ster Kinekor, the sole official distributor of PlayStation products in South Africa. As a result, the PlayStation 2 has an even higher percentage of the console market share in this country than it’s already high share in most other countries, with both Xbox and GameCube scrabbling for scraps (and I would not be entirely surprised if the Xbox market is actually larger than the GameCube one).

Having owned both a PS2 and Xbox, played quite a bit on a GameCube, and having developed for all three, I would personally choose the Xbox as my favorite machine of this generation. The limited library on the GameCube, as well as a controller that I don’t enjoy and the absolute lack of any multimedia capabilities would put it on the bottom of my list. There have certainly been some sterling titles for the machine, such as Zelda: Wind Walker and Super Smash Brothers: Melee, but not enough to win me over. The PlayStation 2 offers a much wider variety of games, including a massive number of platform exclusives, and has (in my opinion) a very good design in the Dual Shock controller. The fact that the system doubles as a DVD player, and has some great peripheral titles such as the EyeToy and SingStar series really do add to the appeal, especially if the machine will be used by children as well. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), I do not have to share my console with children, and the only peripheral gaming I really enjoy is that involving dance mats-ie titles such as Dance Dance Revolution. As such the library of games offered by the Xbox (which very obviously aimed at an older audience and is short on ‘younger’ titles) suits me just fine, and the technical superiority of the machine appeals to me with generally better graphical and audio quality. I also find the S Controller to be the most comfortable controller device of the three. I have unfortunately not experienced Xbox Live, since I do not have a broadband connection, so I can’t let that influence my choice, but the Xbox’s additional media capabilities such as recording CDs direct to the hard-drive and using them in some games is great, and the incredible simplicity of setting up multiplayer LAN sessions is great! The machine obviously also offers great additional functionality, if you are willing to ‘chip’ it.

Tomorrow, tomorrow..

On to the next generation of consoles, and what I think about them, and their chance for success in this country. I will discuss elements I consider important in the discussion, and mention my guess for a ‘winner’ for each element. I will not discuss hardware or games at this point, since it is futile to discuss either before all three systems are on the market.

First to market

One of Microsoft’s trump cards in this generation has been their massive head-start on the competition (this was also one of the things that worked to Sony’s advantage in the previous generation), with the Xbox 360 almost simultaneously released in all three major regions, and projections of the PS3’s release estimating that it may appear as late as 2007 in some major regions, there is a huge amount of time in which Microsoft can push it’s product to consumers, and weaken the PlayStation brand. The Revolution is rumored to be due for release as early as the second quarter of 2006, and this may further help to loosen the grip that the magic PS logo has on consumers’ minds. How will South Africa be affected by this? Well, until the release of the PSP in this country (a few short days after the system’s release in Europe), PlayStation products typically only got released here 6-12 months after their release in other territories, if the PSP release is an indication of future treatment, we may be lucky enough to see the PS3 in stores about the same time it appears in London high street retailers. Microsoft has already indicated that it intends to release the Xbox 360 in South Africa, and it appears that discussions are already well underway with potential distributors. Estimates place the release of the system around the middle of 2006. The only total unknown here is the Revolution. Since Nintendo products are typically released here significantly later than anywhere else, we can only assume that the same will happen this time around. My guess would be that if it is released here, it will be at least six months after it hits Europe, so let’s say about the same time as the PS3.

Winner: Xbox

Brand recognition

This is an easy one to call. As far as the majority of South Africans are concerned, gaming is synonymous with PlayStation. There simply is no other console that has an established marketing presence in this country. What little reputation Nintendo has is marred by stories of bad after-sale service, difficult to get hold of software and ridiculously expensive game pricing. Unfortunately the big ‘N’ is a big ‘No’ in SA. Microsoft on the other hand is unknown to the broader public as a console gaming competitor, but extremely well known as a PC brand. Just as PlayStation has a hold on console gaming here, Microsoft has an almost absolute monopoly on home and business computing, with Mac being all but unknown here. This brand could be built on to push the 360, much as it was to push the original Xbox in other territories.

Winner: PS3


South Africans are underpaid, that is to say they earn far less relative to their peers in developed countries. Basic necessities in South Africa are also often far cheaper than in other countries. These factors, combined with high distributor and retailer markup (relative to international standards) and the sensitivity of luxury prices to currency fluctuation make gaming a far less accessible pastime than in many other countries. Whereas a $40 game in the US is a small percentage of an average salary, a R500 game in South Africa is a significant chunk of an above average salary. If we then consider the pricing brackets aimed for by the various manufacturers, the most expensive products will obviously suffer. Hardest hit by this would appear to be the PS3, which is estimated to be coming in at about $465, with the Xbox not far behind, with a price tag of $399 and $299 for the full and budget packs respectively. The revolution on the other hand is rumoured to be coming in at a very low price point, possibly in the region of $200-$250 which would give it a distinct advantage in this country (especially if the games are cheaper than the absurd $60 being charged for Xbox 360 titles).

Winner: Revolution


Gaming in South Africa is not at the same level as elsewhere in the world, especially console gaming. The audience for games in this country is decidedly younger than in the US, UK or other major markets. This is made painfully clear by the shelves of unsold copies of GTA:San Andreas for the PS2 to be found last year in any South African retailer, at a time when the game was impossible to find in retailers In other territories. As such, systems that appeal to a younger audience may well have an advantage in this audience. The Xbox 360 seems to be taking the same road this generation as it’s predecessor did, with the focus firmly on more mature titles, if this continues I suspect that may play against it. The PS3, as with the PS2, has the support of a wide variety of developers and will most likely have a fair selection of younger titles, though I get the impression that there will be more mature titles on it than in the previous generation. In this category, I expect Nintendo to win hands down. Not only do they typically appeal to a younger audience, they are actively trying to attract a new market of casual gamers, rather than depending on an established hardcore (and casual-turned-hardcore) base.

Winner: Revolution

Additional functionality

While this is difficult to discuss, since the multimedia functionality for the unreleased Revolution and PlayStation 3 are uncertain, it’s worth trying. Microsoft has ushered in a new era of living room integration for consoles with the multimedia and networked interaction of the Xbox 360. Besides compatibility with just about any media gadget on the market as well as Windows XP Media Centre Edition, the Xbox brings with it an easy-to-use online service that allows users to communicate, compete and buy services and additional items. Unfortunately, South Africa’s dismal broadband infrastructure may make this functionality impossible to access for all but the most affluent of consumers. Media devices such as iPods are also less common in this country than elsewhere, rendering that particular functionality useless as well. The Revolution will apparently include the ability to download games originally released on older Nintendo systems through a Live-like service, again, this may well be marred by a lack of broadband connectivity in the country. While the PS3 is not known to offer any online services at this point, this may well be made available later. The system will also play the new Blu-Ray media format, which might make it an attractive buy if the format ever becomes successful in this country.

Winner: Xbox

While the above may seem to indicate that the PS3 will be the loser in this war, one must realize that the strength of the PlayStation brand in this country is incredible, and I personally believe that while the other two systems will make a massive dent in it’s market share (more so than in other territories) it will remain the king of the hill for the next generation.



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