From Generations to Iterations: Part 1

As gamers we have become accustomed to having a new generation of gaming to happen every 5-7 years.  We are used to seeing developers top-out on graphical performance and anxiously await seeing what the next generation will bring hoping to see a huge leap in performance.  Over the past two generations we have seen those leaps become small hops and perhaps going forward those hops may turn into just broad steps.

The first generation started back in the mid-1970s.  This was new ground being broken to have video game consoles in the home.  Arcade machines had already become a phenomenon but having the ability to play games at home was an intriguing concept.  We saw consoles like Magnavox Odyssey, Atari: Pong, and the Color TV Game get the ball rolling. 

The second generation is when the floodgates opened.  Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Odyssey 2, Colecovision, Intellivision, and swarm of other less successful consoles.  With the market flooded with so much hardware we saw a video game crash. Things looked bleak for console gaming going forward.

The third generation we saw console gaming come back with a vengeance led by the commercial juggernaut the Nintendo Entertainment System which brought people back to the dance.  This is when Nintendo really became a household name.  When people would refer to video games in general the first word that would come out of their mouths was “Nintendo.”  People wouldn’t even refer to the NES as the NES, they would just call it the “Nintendo.” 

We saw Nintendo on TV, cartoons, merchandise, breakfast cereal, and even in movies.  The 1989 movie ‘The Wizard’ starring Fred Savage featured many IP references of Nintendo and in a totally unprecedented maneuver (and for the life of me I do not understand why companies don’t do more of this today) revealed a brand-new major AAA title ‘Super Mario Bros 3‘ for the first time.

That was hype.  That’s how you do it.  I hope that Nintendo continues with the World Championships they bought back last year and reveal more new games like this, but that’s another topic for another day.

We also had the Sega Master System and Atari 7800.  There was a plethora of less successful consoles as well, but the strength of success of the NES kept the same fate of the previous gen from happening again.  We also saw beginning of the Sega vs. Nintendo era.

The fourth generation we saw Sega make a strong move out of the blocks with their aggressive marketing campaign for the Sega Mega Drive (or commonly known as the Sega Genesis) touting it’s 16-bit arcade graphics advantage over the aging 8-bit NES with commercials such as this.

So in 1991 Nintendo released it’s follow up to the NES called the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.  Despite Sega having a huge head-start on Nintendo and having more favor with the 3rd party studios (particularly with sports titles) due to Nintendo’s strict and stringent policies that would cause larger problems in the next generation, the SNES was able to match and even eventually surpass the Genesis in sales.  You also had the Turbo Grapx-16 which was the first of the 16-bit consoles to launch.  Despite having a few stellar titles that have carried on with other consoles till this very day, it never really caught on with the public at large.  There was also the Phillips CD-i which was a commercial disaster born out of a very controversial “love-hate” triangle involving Nintendo, Phillips, and Sony which is too complicated to get into here. Lastly there was the NEO-GEO from SNK which was a 16/32-bit console.  The steep price tag of $599.99 with games costing $200 dollars or more made it completely nonviable for any commercial success despite having a great line up of games with cutting-edge graphics at the time. 

The fifth generation saw us enter the 32/64-bit era with the Sega Saturn, Atari Jaguar, Sony PlayStation, and Nintendo 64.  Nintendo alienated themselves from 3rd parties by choosing to stick with an expensive cartridge format rather than go with more affordable, high storage capacity CD formats.  This caused a mass exodus of 3rd party support away from Nintendo led by companies like Square-Enix who convinced other 3rd parties that it was in their best interest to leave Nintendo and go to Sony.

The N64 arguably was the most innovative console to date with much game-play functionally we take for granted as being normal coming from this console.  Despite that, being vastly superior in horsepower, and having many 1st party titles that have become legendary in gaming lore such as Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time, Starfox 64, Super Smash Bros., and GoldenEye007, it was completely destroyed by the Sony PlayStation in sales.  The poor Sega Saturn never really got off the ground with a lot of weary consumers burnt-out over all the adaptations and upgrades to the Mega Drive in the previous generation.  In fact, from 1989-1998 Sega released six consoles/upgrades.  Normally in that span of time at the most you would see two consoles.  That leads into the next gen.

The sixth generation was started with the Sega Dreamcast.  A very popular system with a very robust library of games.  Released in 1998 it gave Sega a chance at a fresh start.  However, it was no match in terms of horsepower or features to it’s competitors consoles which arrived a few years later.  The Sony PlayStation 2 in 2000, and the Nintendo GameCube and Microsoft XBOX in 2001. 

In a very clever business strategy, Sony decided to put a fully-functional DVD player in the PS2.  This drew in more of the casual audience.  People that were looking to have an all-inclusive entertainment device in the home had that with the Sony PlayStation 2. This combined with having the lion’s share of 3rd party support the PS2 became the best-selling piece of video game hardware in history, despite being less powerful than both the XBOX and GameCube.
The seventh generation is where things started to change.  Nintendo decided that they would now adopt the strategy instituted by Sony in the previous generation by making a console designed to draw in casuals.  The Nintendo Wii was a console that was basically and overclocked GameCube with a little more RAM, slightly better GPU.  The focus was the gimmick of the motion-controller the Wii-Mote.  Creating an entirely new dimension in gaming, the Wii quickly because a craze and people who had never played a video game in their lives were now playing games everyday.  Meanwhile, the Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft XBOX 360 choose to focus on HD visuals, online gaming, and enhancing and improving the interface of the operating system giving the gamer options to do much more on their machine than just game. 

While all three console sale totals are high, the ratio of those console sales highly favor that for Nintendo.  For one, the Wii sold at a profit of $48 dollars per unit day one.  Secondly, the failure rate on the Wii was very low as usually is the case with Nintendo products.  So the vast majority of the 101 million Wii’s sold are not return purchases. 

Sony and Microsoft on the other hand had MAJOR problems financially with their consoles.  Both the 360 and PS3 sold at HUGE losses (more-so the PS3 with the asinine launch price of $599.99.)  Sony felt that having the most powerful console and combined with a pack-in Blu-Ray player, the price was justified.  They tried to pull the same trick twice, but it didn’t work.  Sometimes with the right timing, the right set of circumstances, and the right climate you might get something to take off that ordinarily would not.  The PS3 definitely had it’s share of hardware failure issues, but not even as close to as bad as the XBOX 360.  Due to design flaws, an unfathomable number of XBOX 360s failed with the classic errors of the “Red Ring Of Death” and the “E74.”  I personally got the E74 error on mine. 

To add to that, we saw many issues with the online networks from both Microsoft and Sony due to hackers crashing their networks by exploiting more design flaws.

That brings us to the current generation number of 8.  Starting off the 8th gen was the Nintendo Wii U.  In the 7th gen was saw a lot of studios fold up shop because the increasing cost of developing HD games on PPc-based consoles was too much to bare.  Even though you get better results on the back end, it takes far too much time and costs too much money to truly get the maximum potential out of CPUs using Power-based architecture. So they pretty much strong-armed Sony into switching to the cheaper, easier alternative in x86 architecture.  Microsoft followed suit.  Nintendo on the other hand decided to stick with the Power-based architecture (mostly for backwards compatibility) with the Wii U.  Much like Sony did, Nintendo tried to pull the same trick twice, and just like with Sony, it also FAILED.  What little 3rd party support Nintendo had gained in the previous gen due to publishers wanting to have their games on the hot system, they lost entirely this generation with this move.  Not only is the Wii U under-powered, but developers are not about to make a separate game just for the Wii U nor spend the time converting x86 code over to PPc on a console that isn’t selling well.  Not to mention that success for 3rd parties on Nintendo’s consoles is a crap-shot anyway, because of the strength of Nintendo’s 1st party titles.  When you think back to the last Nintendo console which had decent 3rd party support with multiplats on-par with the competition, how often did you buy the GameCube version of that multiplat if you were a multi-console owner?  So the Wii U was a mess.

The XBOX One was a BIGGER mess.  We saw Microsoft try to slip DRM practices into the machine, try to shoe-horn in Kinect, and basically turn the XBOX One into a cable box that plays games.  All that backfired and really stopped the XB1 from even having a real chance to compete despite only being slightly less-powerful than the PS4.

With the Sony PlayStation 4 we saw Sony do everything that was asked of them to do.  They made a console that was affordable to consumers, easy and cheap to develop for with 3rd parties, and selling at a profit for Sony.  The perfect storm has allowed for the PS4 to sell over 40 million units in just 2 1/2 years with no signs of slowing down.  The success of the PS4 has helped Sony dig themselves out of a very steep financial hole.  That being said, Sony is not satisfied with that.  They are ready to take the next step by releasing a more powerful version of the PS4 codenamed “Neo.” 

This is where things get confusing.  Nintendo (perhaps within the next week or so but at the very least at E3:2016) will reveal it’s new console codenamed “NX.”  Microsoft is currently working on a slim version of the XBOX One.Obviously whatever the NX is it will be substantially more powerful than the Wii U was.  The jury is still out on how it matches up to the current-gen or to the PSNEO which will have a substantially more powerful GPU, but the improvements to the CPU and memory are minimal.  We’ve seen companies slim down their consoles and in the process stripping some features away to sell at a lesser cost, but normally with home console hardware we do not see upgrades like this.  Not since the 16-bit era.  Where are we going in gaming?  Is the landscape truly changing?  Are we in the last “generation” of consoles?  I will continue with this in a future blog.

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