Owain Bennallack, editor of Develop magazine and long-time friend of International Hobo has written three opinion pieces for Next Generation on the Xbox 360, PS3, and Revolution. I wrote a commentary earlier this morning... but some kind of crash took it out, and I (carelessly) failed to save a draft like I usually do.
Basically, I agreed with Owain that the current competition between Microsoft and PS3 is in many ways a single battle in the war for control of the multi-media home box (which is probably still ten years away...). This hypothetical object would be the device with a big hard drive to which you can download TV, movies, games and music - and from which you can pipe the media to any room in the house. This is why Microsoft is so willing to haemorrhage cash with the Xbox, which is an over-engineered boytoy. They may have sold slightly more units than Nintendo, but the made a loss in the process, whereas I'm pretty sure Nintendo are still in profit.
Oh, and despite what you may have heard, Sony is kicking Microsoft's ass in every concievable measure right now. Microsoft proudly announces coming "second". Which means they have sold considerably less than a quarter of the 90 million units that Sony has shipped of the phenomenally successful Playstation 2.
As Matt Mower has observed, Microsoft have an eye on the long term - the plan is probably for the third entry into the market to succeed, everything that goes before is experimentation and securing a beachhead. But it must be said, it's hard to see how the Xbox 360 is going to make any headway against the PS3, since they are practically the same console in different livery, and the only exclusive Xbox has of any significance is Halo - and even that has exaggerated importance thanks mostly to Microsoft's incredible marketing and PR people who managed to make it sound as if Halo 2 was somehow as or more significant than Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (a game which will sell more than three times as many units as its alleged rival). Seriously, you'd have to be a real Microsoft supporter to rate the importance of either Halo game, neither of which register in the top twenty (possibly top fifty) best-selling games of all time, above the importance of a game that is on the fast track to the Top Five bestselling games of all time.
Meanwhile, Nintendo knows they can't take the same market share, so as Owain says, their battle is to hang on in as a relevant home console. The key issue in this battle is the still ambiguous controller for the Revolution. Owain conjects:
Everyone likes speculation: to record one for posterity, how about a gyroscopic (tilt sensitive) controller, where the tilt controls the in-game camera? Nintendo has always pioneered with cameras...
Only last night I suggested that gyroscopic camera control was a likely element of the new Revolution controller... it could help Casual players to not have to wrestle with complex twin stick controls. At the time, it sounded plausible, but then I started thinking about what you would do to turn around 180 degrees... I guess you tilt and the view rotates around, but the player's initial instinct may be to fling the pad around 180 degrees. You'd probably get used to it, though.
However, Shigeru Miyamoto has given us our only clue about the Revolution controller (see this quote from Eurogamer):
"Nothing's set in stone yet, but the interface we're creating for the Revolution is well suited to Pikmin," Miyamoto told US magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly. "I think it would be a good match."
Now Pikmin has no camera issues, but it is fundamentally an RTS-style game, suggesting a touchscreen or something similar might be on the cards. Although the touchscreen will have to fit in with a full suite of standard controls, as Nintendo have already said the controller will support all existing console control schemes:
"We designed the controller so it can play any of the different conventional [gameplay] styles," Miyamoto said.
I have to say, I am really enjoying the rampant speculation and intrigue about the new features in the Revolution controller. I can't remember the last time I found myself caring about something that was to yet to be announced in the games industry... I remember Microsoft building up expectations about big news about the Xbox when that was on the way, and you know what, I have no idea what theose big announcements actually were. Looking back, I just don't remember anything of note. Does anyone? The Xbox's only real innovation was an expensive (in terms of the manufacturing cost of the console) hard-drive. Unless you count it's capacity to double as a coffee table.
Nintendo does certain things very well, and one of them is innovate in controllers. As far as I can ascertain, every advance in controller design, from analogue sticks, to forced feedback, has come from Nintendo. Everyone else just copies their successes. And even Nintendo's semi-failures - the N64 controller was too arcane for many casual players - are still fascinating interface devices. This is why I hope (and trust?) Nintendo can maintain a foothold in the console market.
Not to mention that the ergonomics of Nintendo controllers tend to be far and away the best on the market. I love the GameCube controller - yes, even the Z-button. It's ideal for functions you don't want to trigger by accident, such as map - the problem is developers using it in stupid ways. The button itself is fine, in my opinion. And because there's only one of them (there's not a button on the left and right of the top of the controller), you don't get confused as to which button does what, which I believe is a real asset. Too often with the PS2 controller I find myself hitting shoulder buttons randomly when I start playing, trying to remember what does what.
I suppose the question is, when is it going to be strategic for Nintendo to make an announcement? They can't hide it forever - developers need to start making games for the Revolution soon. Most likely it will happen at this year's Tokyo Game Show (September 16-18th). Sadly, I'm not going this year, but I'll be keeping my eye on the reports. Only six weeks to go...