Game Marketing Tips, Analysis, and News

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Wii U vs. Xbox 360 vs. PS3: Not as Powerful?

The tablet controller feels pretty good, in my experience.
I've been talking to some developers working with the Wii U, and they've told me that in their opinion it's just not as powerful as the current generation of consoles. (I go into that in depth in this article on GamesIndustry International.) Do I believe them? I believe that's their opinion, and they have experience in many different consoles. Determining "power" isn't all that easy, though. You can't run the same benchmarks on different consoles. Raw spec comparisons won't help too much, as the processors and GPUs are different. Then you get into polygon count, textures, fill rates, bandwidth of the graphics bus... until you can compare the same game running on each console you can't really be too accurate. Even then, it will depend on the tools the developers used, and how familiar they are with the hardware, and what design decisions were made in creating the game (for instance, how the texture maps are created).

All you can really do is have a fairly general comparison. It's readily acknowledged that the PS3 and the Xbox 360 are roughly comparable, though you will find people who will argue particular points that mean one platform is "better" than the other. Almost everyone will agree that the Wii is significantly less powerful, not even putting out HD graphics. The Wii version of a game doesn't look as good as the same game on PS3 or Xbox 360.

I expect that the Wii U will fall somewhere in the range of "a little less powerful" to "a little more powerful" than the Xbox 360 or the PS3. We won't know for sure until the hardware is out and has been dissected by the hardware geeks. (Right now, any pre-release hardware can still change some things, like clock speeds or RAM, that could significantly affect performance.) And I expect there to be plenty of arguments.

I still think the clearest indicator of the Wii U's power level is not what developers say, it's what Nintendo says. Nintendo's statements have very specifically stayed away from talking about power, and have focused on game play, innovative mechanics, and just being fun. That's a good position to take, I think; the most important thing is how much players enjoy playing games on your console, not the number of polygons per second. It does imply to me that Nintendo knows the Wii U is not significantly more powerful than a 360 or a PS3. Why? Well, if it was, they'd be saying that over and over again. Raw power is an easy thing to market; "You get twice as much (whatever) for the same price" is a strong selling point. Nintendo's not using it, which means to me it isn't the case.

Some rumors have been floated before about the Wii U being 2x more powerful, or 4x, or even 8x. I don't believe those, because I see no reason why Nintendo would not have been saying or implying that for months if it were true.

The odd thing to me is how so many people get, well, religious about their devotion to a console or a manufacturer. Personally, I wish them all well. I have friends at many companies, and I hope they all succeed. I enjoy playing games on the Xbox, PS3, and Wii; they all have their good points and bad points. I do feel it's my job to point out problem areas ahead, and when I think somebody's making a mistake. In that light, I don't think Nintendo is making a mistake so far with the Wii U; OK, maybe with the name, which I think is weak for a number of reasons. But in general I think Nintendo's new console should not compete on power, and should offer one or more innovative features that drive adoption and make for compelling games. Which they seem to be doing, though until we see actual games it's hard to say if the tablet controller will be as successful an innovation as the Wiimote and motion control have been. (My guess at this point is no, because the tablet's not as simple and approachable as the Wiimote, but I could certainly be wrong.) I think pricing is going to be critical to the success of the Wii U, along with the games. A Wii U at $399 is going to flop, I think. A Wii U at $299 will have some convincing to do. A Wii U at $199 would be a big hit if there's some good games (a hi-def Zelda title would sell systems).

I suspect the Wii U will debut at somewhere between $249 and $299, and that Microsoft and Sony will probably drop their prices to give the Xbox 360 and the PS3 a stronger competitive position against the new kid on the block. Nintendo's going to have to market hard because Microsoft and Sony will be, too. If Nintendo doesn't have a more compelling software lineup than they did for the 3DS, they're going to have a very crappy Christmas. Hopefully they've learned that lesson, but you never know. It would take a lot of guts to delay the launch of the Wii U several months if the hardware was ready but that Zelda game just wasn't finished. Nintendo might well say, heck, we'll sell some units to the fanboys regardless of the software, and after the good titles come out sales will turn up and everyone will forget about how bad the launch was. It worked for the 3DS, didn't it?

Maybe. But the market keeps changing, and the competition isn't snoozing. Nintendo's going to have to be innovative in their business models eventually, and that's where they have really fallen behind. Announcing the Nintendo Network is a good step, but the real trick is making it work well. Nintendo's going to have to work hard to get back on top of the console business.

Because like the Stark family says in Game of Thrones, "Winter is coming." Microsoft and Sony will probably ship new consoles next year, and then the Wii U will be clearly behind once again in terms of power. (Which is yet another reason not to base your marketing on raw power right now, because in 18 months you'd lose that argument anyway.)

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