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On The Art of Console War
“If you know your enemies and know yourself,” Sun Tzu said, “you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.” That his words ring as true today as they did more than two millennia ago in the prolific Art of War might come as no surprise to the man himself—the victor of as many alleged battles. Whether there ever was a real Sun Tzu is up to history to decide, but it cannot be said his influence knew the boundaries of battlefields real and virtual. We know as much that gaming has grown and matured as a legitimate art form, but how the gamer “console wars” are fought may yet be the game industry’s truest art of war.
Ever since the Sega Genesis took on the Super Nintendo, gamers have taken sides and voted with their wallets as companies competed for the industry’s top spot, all over plastic boxes made for our amusement. Of course, tradition would dictate that console wars are waged the way they usually are: between seething fanboys raging in far-flung forums of the Internet. No, console wars don’t necessarily clear “winners,” but the results have decided whether companies remain a part of the industry and, more often, games on store shelves.
No long war would benefit a beleaguered company like Sony still recouping from seven hard years with the PlayStation 3. Their next console launch would have to be swift, decisive, and above all, a monumental show of force. “All warfare,” as Tzu would have us believe, “is based on the art of deception.” So it would fall to Sony to appear its strongest come E3 2013 even while the company was at its weakest. Sony’s message would be the one that began and ended with games; the PlayStation 4 would be a system made by gamers for gamers that was more economical, more powerful, and simply more popular. In what would seem like a single day, Sony would defeat its rivals before war could be waged.
For all practical purposes, it was Sony that talked the talk and walked the walk with everyone, adopting only the hottest global properties under its banner. It’d be social experiences like Destiny and Grand Theft Auto V that, under Sony’s lofty first-party treatment, would do the job of moving PlayStation 4s on any given month. There were no Xbox versions of Shadow of Mordor or Metal Gear; these were the games you played on PlayStation. Period.
And 2014 had something 2007 never did: indies, so numerous and scattered that they’re almost impossible to mention in all. Shovel Knight, Transistor, The Banner Saga; once again, it was the unassuming underdogs guaranteeing a steady diet of creative excellence. And that’s not to shortchange the UbiArt engine’s unlikely offerings, from which we gained Valiant Hearts and Child of Light. Everyone’s on board with them, but no one more than Sony, it seems. For Sony, indies are the platform by which it can humbly say, “Yes, we care about the little guy,” keenly spreading goodwill among developers for nothing more than impeccable self-promotion in return. In a time of increasingly more cynical action blockbusters, it’s indies that answer the PlayStation 4’s desperate necessity of possessing that, “Gee Whiz!” sensibility, god-awful Octodads included.
To say that hubris was the Xbox One’s undoing would be an understatement a year later. “If you do not know your enemies but do know yourself,” Tzu tells us, “you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” Microsoft, of course, pitched XBO knowing itself too well. The Xbox One was paraded as the console to conquer your living room, a system for the multimedia age and deep pockets. That gamers would play the same games for $100 more with a camera thrown in more was its first mistake; that they’d buy one for Skype was its last. Media is the stuff of PCs and TVs, games are the stuff of consoles. Microsoft would learn the wisdom in retreat – and reinvention. Better to fight one battle than two.
Call it a public intervention or self-discovery, there’s likely been no turnaround as fast—or remarkable—as the Xbox One’s. From a glorified cable box to a dedicated game system, the Xbox One would be on a road to forgiveness, and who would’ve thought? Like those dramatic kisses in the rain in only the best rom-coms, it worked. Like the Wii U, first impressions are hard to combat; Internet memes can fester for ages in the Internet’s consciousness, after all. There’s little doubt that new leadership and a new price-tag will have the Xbox One seeing a decent showing, making it clear that, “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
It’s a mystery, then, of whose strategy could be more unpredictable than Nintendo’s these past two years. In the time since its release, the Wii U so eagerly tried to be all things to all gamers. A giant DS connected to your TV, a compact console you could use away from it, a hardcore gaming machine. The latter, it was not. The Wii U would be the one to seek victory, not demand it from its gamers. No matter the promises of Assassin’s Creeds or Batmans, no company profits from prolonged warfare, nor would Nintendo from being the third wheel.
“He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks,” Tzu tells us, and to that end, Nintendo has nothing if not enthusiasm on its side. For the Wii U, morale is the weapon by which it lives and dies, its library of no fault to that. Nintendo Directs surprise like attacks by fire and E3s full-on invasions of company hysteria. Now with Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. and its cornerstones in tow, the Wii U makes a compelling case for turning it into the household standard, second console its predecessor was. That system is a Nintendo system. As the “expert in battle moves the enemy, and is not moved by him,” so goes Nintendo, mindful of what it has and its rivals don’t: heart.
War. War never changes. Especially console wars. Time will tell if these game consoles have come to know us better than they know themselves. For he who listens to the gamers lives long and prospers. And you don’t need to ask Sun Tzu who said that.