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Failure to Launch: What's Wrong with the 8th Generation?

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By Nelson Schneider - 05/12/13 at 05:38 PM CT

The 8th Generation has been sitting on the launchpad for two years now, led boldly into the future by Nintendo’s 3DS in March 2011. Nearly a year later, in February 2012, Sony followed suit and released a successor to the failing PlayStation Portable in the form of the temporarily-pirate-proof PlayStation Vita. Nine months later in November 2012, a full year and eight months after the release of their 8th Generation handheld, Nintendo released with WiiU, the first actual console of the 8th Generation.

What all three of these 8th Generation pioneers have in common is that they have spectacularly failed to get off the ground in their early lives. Instead of streaking toward new heights in both profitability and the betterment of gaming culture, the 8th Generation has burned great quantities of fuel only to end up with a lot of smoke and no thrust. But unlike the catastrophes born from early rocketry research during the 1950s, videogame consoles are not rough prototypes, blazing new technological trails with each component, but a well developed technology that typically follows the beaten path.

Sure, there are still trails to blaze in videogaming, such as the first steps toward virtual reality being taken by the folks working on the Oculus Rift headset… but the three 8th Generation machines we have so far – the 3DS, PS Vita, and WiiU – don’t really do anything revolutionary. A 3D effect that requires the user to hold the entire device at a specific angle and NOT move their head (if they can even see the effect at all)? A touchpad on the back? A tablet controller? Each of the three 8th Generation devices has its own gimmick, but are any of the gimmicks really revolutionary? Do the promises of ‘better graphics,’ the Kinect 2.0, and x86 architecture coming from Microsoft and Sony sound any more revolutionary?

We have seen unspectacular launches before. The N64, the PlayStation, the Gamecube, the PlayStation 2, the Xbox, the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3 (Geez, has Sony EVER had a good launch?): All of these consoles had dismal launches and the hardware didn’t really go anywhere until a year into its lifetime. Most of these launch failures recovered, disregarding long-term implications for their creators. These weren’t launches that suffered from obscurity through obscurity and served as ultimately abortive attempts by other manufacturers to get into the console hardware arena with devices nobody had heard of, cared about, or understood. Nor did these launches serve to create a Sega-style death spiral of perpetual last-place finishes. These were the consoles built by the companies whose names are engraved in the very foundations of gaming at large.

What changed during the last few hardware generations that has made it more difficult than ever for new hardware to launch? It certainly isn’t an awareness issue, as the Internet makes it possible to learn about and track the progress of hardware as obscure as the Ouya and OnLive. While many, including myself, would like to place the blame on low software availability on new hardware, that has historically been the issue that led to slow-burning launches – it’s nothing new.

What has changed is that the very same Internet that now allows everyone to keep an eye on obscure developments is also filled with industry watchers, journalist bloggers, and economic pundits who have been setting up the industry for failure with unreasonably high expectations. What has changed is that platform homogenization and an incredibly slow pace of truly noteworthy games being released in the 7th Generation has delayed adoption to the point where most people feel like the 7th Generation is still new and ‘good enough.’ What has changed is the fact that the entire world is on the verge of economic collapse and, no matter what anyone says, videogames are a leisure activity that relies on people spending their disposable income. What has changed is that videogame publishers no longer set out to make a great product first, and money second, but the other way around, incorporating predatory ‘features’ like expensive DLC, always-online DRM, and micro-transactions in an attempt to recoup their games’ outrageous development costs and pay their CEO a multi-million dollar bonus as well.

Console launches have a long fuse. While the hardware may be sitting on the launchpad, the ‘launch’ date is actually more analogous to the date of lighting that fuse. There has been, and always will be, a delay before a critical mass of system-selling software accumulates, allowing the hardware to blast-off. Yes, there have been exceptions to this rule: Most recently the original Wii took off immediately and suffered from long-term hardware shortages, as Nintendo’s manufacturing infrastructure was unable to keep up with unexpected customer demand. But it needs to be emphasized that the Wii’s explosive launch was an exception, a fluke, a non-standard occurrence.

The desire for rapid post-launch sellouts is driven primarily by scalpers who want to resell the hottest new technological toy on ebay for stupidly inflated prices. Because it happens with iPhönes and because it happened with the Wii, the greed-driven sector of the industry expects this type of thing to happen every time. Even more telling, numerous game developers have been returning WiiU development kits unopened. Are they doing this because the WiiU is terrible and destined to fail? No, they are returning those dev-kits because they are too lazy and too financially strapped to worry about making games for a new platform when they are barely able to squeak out a profit developing multi-platform games for 7th Generation hardware. Just consider the number of developers that went out of business in the 7th Generation! There is no pressure to make new games for new hardware when the old hardware is just finally starting to hit its stride and post impressive sales numbers. Even the starved 8th Generation pioneers are just beginning to come into their own, as the 3DS has finally accumulated a large enough library of decent-looking titles to not be the laughing stock it was at launch. It’s possible that Sony will follow suit with the Vita (though Sony’s track record with handhelds is far more dire than Nintendo’s), and probable that, once Nintendo is happy with the stability of the 3DS, they will focus on stabilizing the WiiU. Relying on third-parties to be motivated enough to help boost new hardware is a thing of the past, prior to the solidification of the game-publishing monoliths. The onus is entirely on Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft to make their platforms desirable to own before the third-parties will come to them.

Thus the reason new hardware has seen increasing difficulty in creating a successful launch is almost entirely driven by the overwhelming greed and inflated expectations that come from the transition of videogames from a niche hobby to a mainstream media/entertainment industry. The entire modern economic system is driven by predatory investors who want to create unsustainable bubbles in order to skim profits, not caring about the ultimate aftermath of their manipulations, nor the effects their depredations will have on the industry they have chosen as their prey. When real-world sales numbers don’t meet these fantasy-world expectations, the entire system collapses under its own weight.

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