Winners and losers of the gaming rat race

Gaming consoles are here to stay, but their market is ruthless and defined by bloodshed. With each successive generation, new competitors come on the scene, but there’s only so much elbow room in this club, so stragglers are inevitably left for dead, victims of an industry that takes no prisoners. Atari was the first to get the axe, a blow delivered by upstarts Sega and Nintendo. Then Sony made its gaming debut and helped seal Sega’s fate. Next Microsoft entered the fray followed by Apple, and it’s only a matter of time before another body, likely one we’ve come to know and love, hits the floor (thanks, Drowning Pool).

A place at the table is anything but assured in this game, and that’s never been truer than today with so many companies vying for relevancy — and two major players setting a break-neck pace.

Apple’s ahead of the pack

Apple’s one of those movers and shakers, and it’s had a massive, game-changing (literally) effect on the industry lately. In just five years, the Cupertino-based company has pushed casual gaming to the forefront (Nintendo’s Wii gets some credit here, too), breaking sales and transaction records again and again with its App Store and iOS devices. And its formula for success is striking in its simplicity: A majority of consumers want to tote as few devices as possible, so of course they’ll embrace all-in-one-type devices like iPhones, iPads, and iPods over separate, more-limited handhelds like Nintendo’s 3DS or Playstation’s Vita. Sure, the latter provide a richer gaming experience, but convenience trumps that in the minds of most, the company rightly figured, especially when those people have dedicated gaming consoles at home.

But Apple’s gaming reach goes beyond the casual, solitary crowd, and its Xbox Live-like Game Center, though half-baked and hobby-status for the moment, is a sure sign of the bigger, more-social things to come. And I mean soon. When Apple’s next operating system, OS X Mountain Lion, debuts this summer, it’ll introduce Game Center to Macs, not to mention Airplay Mirroring. The combination could be devastating to Apple’s competition.

apple gamecenter Winners and losers of the gaming rat race

In just months, hardcore gamers, a group mostly neglected by Apple, will be able to download a title from the App Store to their Mountain Lion-powered Mac, connect with other gamers through Game Center, and beam the whole experience to their AppleTV-equipped big screen. And if they want to take that experience on the road, there’s reason to believe the upcoming iPad 3 and its Retina displaywill oblige.

Before long, and once it partners with game publishers, Apple could go head to head with the likes of Steam. And I wouldn’t be surprised if such a deal is struck in the near future. In fact, I fully expect a gaming-specific media event from Apple down the road, and I can easily imagine a future where the company counts on gaming as much as music for revenue.

Redmond’s nipping at Cupertino’s heels

But Apple’s not the only big dog around. Microsoft casts an equally huge shadow, and for my money, it’s more in tune with gamers’ ever-evolving tastes than anyone. Consider the way it’s pioneered two distinct niches with Xbox Live and Kinect — models Apple and Sony later seized on and ran with. And as former class leaders Nintendo and Sony struggle for position and beat one another bloody with handhelds, Microsoft has floated above the fray, steering clear of portable gaming and riding higher than ever on the power of Xbox 360 and Xbox Live.

It’s also reinvented itself as others seem to stagnate, most recently introducing a tiled UI for the 360. Not only is that UI better than anything the competition has come up with, it’s soon to be very familiar, too.

microsoft ui Winners and losers of the gaming rat race

When Windows 8 debuts for PCs, tablets, and smartphones later this year, and as more of the company’s Windows Phones are snatched up by consumers, Microsoft will have established the type of unified experience that only Apple can rival, and one that’s sure to help lock in existing consumers while attracting still others.

Speaking of tablets and smartphones, if Microsoft fleshes out its Xbox Marketplace with games that each can take advantage of, it could conceivably go toe to toe with Apple’s bread and butter. And that’s not a long shot. Windows Phone 7 already has built-in support for Xbox Live, so it’s not unreasonable to think its successor will take the concept even further.

Can Sony and Nintendo keep up?

And this spells trouble for Nintendo and Sony. Where once they reigned supreme, their dominance largely unquestioned, suddenly the West with its measly decade-long gaming resume is leading the charge. Sure, the Japanese duo will stick around for another generation on the power of their brands, but if they hope to stop the bleeding and carve out a more permanent place, they’ll have to get with the program and target the phone and computer markets.

mario graphics evolution Winners and losers of the gaming rat race

Sony gave it a shot with its Xperia Play phone, a sort of PSP-smartphone hybrid that does neither job especially well, but it needs to try harder. Meanwhile, Nintendo is putting all its eggs in the Wii U basket, which hangs its hat on a tablet-like controller that promises to provide a bit of gaming on the go. I say a bit because the company has neglected to bake in a phone, and I seriously doubt the casual gaming crowd will bother lugging around a bulky, relatively one-dimensional peripheral when they could get a similar experience from an average smartphone, albeit on a smaller scale.

Not only do I think Nintendo missed a major opportunity to reinvent itself, I fear that by failing to do that, my old friend, the one that has carried on valiantly through multiple console wars, may have punched its own ticket to the console graveyard.

And that’s not to say the company would evaporate into the ether. Like Sega before it, Nintendo could retire gracefully as a game developer. In fact, regardless of how the Wii U shakes out, the company ought to explore offering some of its wildly popular titles on the competition’s hardware. With Microsoft set to release a version of Office for Apple’s iPad, it wouldn’t be the first to supply the enemy, and it could ensure years more of relevancy.

Whoever goes the way of Sega or Atari, gaming’s not going anywhere. It might come in an unfamiliar digital package, or be peddled by newcomers, or be more portable than ever before, or branch out with strange new hardware, but it’s here to stay, even if it’s evolving every step of the way.

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