Opinion – A New Type of Console War

Guys, you’re doing it wrong.

Shocking as it sounds, we’re almost two years into the most recent console wars.  With the PS4 and the Xbox One dropping in 2013 and the Wii U arriving the year before, we’ve had enough time to see some of the trends that shape the current generation.  It is now clear that this generation is drastically different than the one that came before and that the change is largely due to a shift in publisher power.  Unlike the previous generations, the current one is characterized by a lack of exclusives among both the consoles and the generations.

Consoles used to survive and thrive based on the exclusive content they could claim.  Console manufacturers paid publishers and developers to bring their games to the manufacturer’s console.  As a result, gamers who wanted a specific game often had to have a specific console giving them a reason to buy it.  If you want to play X awesome game, you have to buy our system.  This generation seems different.  According to VGchartz, only 8 of the top 30 selling games are console exclusives of which Nintendo developed Wii U games makes 5.  Sony has Bloodborne and The Order 1866 and Microsoft has only the retread Halo: The Master Chief Collection (which arguably fits in the “cross generation” category) to set the Xbox One apart from its competitors.  Compare that to 2007; the roughly similar mark in the last console cycle.  At that time, a whopping 19 of the top 30 games were console specific exclusives (Note: The Wii claimed 13 of those titles).  Of course, console makers would love to have exclusives on their system, so it’s clear that we’re seeing a decline in their ability to lockdown games or franchises.  Publishers and developers are moving beyond the single console market.

Actually, they’re moving beyond a single generation market too.  Publishers are dragging their feet on committing to the current generation in a big way.  In 2007, only 7 top selling games were published to the previous generation’s console as compared to the 11 of 2015.  Some of this is a response to the growing success of “remastered” editions (rereleasing older games with graphics polish), but it’s hard not to see that big publishers are pushing for every extra dollar out of their main franchises.  If they have the money, there is no reason for a publisher to focus on the current console generation when they can still port their game to the previous generation and make money.  This undercuts the need to transition to a new console as good content is still coming out for the old generation and likely represents a drag on sales.

What I find most interesting from this analysis is that the real winner of this console generation is actually the PC.  Though PC sales aren’t tracked, the data does show that 18 of the top 30 bestselling games also came to the PC as compared to 8 from 2007.  The PC is fast becoming the platform that has access to both the major console releases, its own dynamic indie scene, and an enormous backlog of games going back to the 80s.  Having resolved many of its major piracy issues with the rise of Steam, it looks like the PC is the fourth console.  Microsoft and Sony risk ignoring the PC at their peril as it becomes harder to justify a console purchase of any kind if one has a gaming quality PC.

This is not a decisive analysis.  VGchartz has its flaws and I’m only selecting from the top selling games.  Still, it’s telling that we’re seeing a major shift in the development of the once dominant console market.  Publishers and developers now have the means to move beyond the consoles and can afford to ignore the console maker’s money in favor of even greater profits.  Console makers need to start finding unique exclusives for their systems lest they become undifferentiated in the market.

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