Doug's Column: Three -- the number of (console) hubris?

hubris_column_graphic I happen to think Microsoft could run into some issues this hardware cycle, and for no other reason than because it’s their third generation in the console wars.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the history:

  • Nintendo’s third home console was the Nintendo 64
  • Sega’s third home console was the Sega Saturn (or, if you so believe, the 32X and Sega CD)
  • Sony’s third home console was the PlayStation 3

Sensing a pattern here? Nintendo, Sega and Sony each broke into popularity with their first console, and climbed up into positions of power in the industry prior to the launch of their third. For Nintendo, the NES was a breakout worldwide hit, and the Super NES cemented that position; for Sega, the Master System was a quiet success, while the Genesis brought Sega to the position of being the second power and a strong challenger in home console gaming (the SG-1000 doesn't count, it lasted two years in Japan). Sony crashed Nintendo and Sega's party with the PlayStation, and had full grasp on the conch with the PlayStation 2.

Each of these manufacturers took a step back -- to varying degrees -- with their third systems.

The Nintendo 64 saw Nintendo’s hubris at an all-time high, as they stuck to expensive, size-constrained cartridges for their new 3D juggernaut. Japanese developers like SquareSoft and Enix fled, bringing their properties to the CD-based PlayStation. Previously, Nintendo was synonymous with the wide videogame market; the NES and SNES both featured strong first and third-party support. The blunder of the N64 set the tone for its successors -- Nintendo consoles today are purchased for their first-party titles, with few other worthwhile games. While the Wii was a mega-hit, it never attracted the level of third-party publisher interest that its Sony and Microsoft contemporaries enjoy.

Sony found themselves in a similar position with the PlayStation 3. The PS3 launched too far behind its main competitor, Microsoft's Xbox 360, it was expensive, and it suffered from feature overload. PSN was no help, the service was a mess early in the generation. Sony’s finally settled things down but are still only a close second-place to Microsoft, with little hope of regaining their leading position within this generation. (That said, I’m personally high on Sony's recovery -- more details as to why at a later date).

Sega’s story would be the most tragic, if it weren't glaringly self-inflicted. They launched the Saturn early in America with few games and less fanfare -- it was a shock E3 announcement in an era where that wasn't a benefit. This wasted much of the remaining shreds of goodwill earned by the Genesis. Their credibility was already suffering thanks to the Sega CD and 32X add-ons, as the value of each ranged between laughable and cringe-worthy. But the final nail in Saturn’s American coffin was Sega's lack of foresight -- the console was geared for advanced 16-bit pixelated games, rather than the polygons supported by the PlayStation and N64. While the Saturn was popular in Japan, it sank in America. Sega tried in vain to correct their mistakes with the Dreamcast, but it was too little, too late.

With these failed three-quels in mind, is the coming Microsoft system cursed? Not necessarily. But given the very real mid-life crisis faced by Microsoft as a whole, the omens certainly aren't good. Microsoft’s proud of their achievements with the Xbox 360, and with good reason, but pride always comes before the fall.