The past two months have seen the release of two new motion gaming systems intended to compete directly with the Nintendo Wii: Micrsoft Kinect and the Sony Move. Each of these new systems are ultimately just add-ons to the existing Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 hardware. What I find most interesting about them, however, isn't so much what they're doing for gaming, but what it says about the gaming market right now because it's clear the real goal with these products is to prolong the current generation hardware for as long as possible.
There was a time where if a manufacturer went more than five or six years without a new console release it probably was no longer in the business of making and selling game consoles. Between the NES, Super NES, Nintendo64, Gamecube and Wii, Nintendo has never gone more than six years between new console releases. Sega released three consoles between 1986 and 1996 before they exited the console business, stage left. Sony's Playstation debuted in 1995, with follow-ups in 2000 (PS2) and 2006 (PS3). Microsoft is still the relative new comer in this market and it took them just four years to go from the Xbox (2001) to the Xbox 360 (2005).
So here we sit at a point in the console cycle where at any time in the last 30 years we'd be gearing up for a new generation, but instead we're getting add-ons targeted at broadening the market beyond the core game devourers of the last decade. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a new strategy given that, historically, game console add-ons rarely succeed. (SegaCD anyone?)
Part of the reason is that Microsoft and Sony bet big on this generation and have paid a stiff price for doing so. Microsoft's console has sold well for the last five years, but hardware defects in the first generation hardware were so prevalent the company ended up spending over a billion dollars supporting hardware failures through its warranty program. (Go ahead and Google "Red Ring of Death." I'll wait.) Sony debuted the PS3 a full year after the 360. It had superior hardware, headlined by a Blu-ray drive, but it was also considerably more expensive, both to produce and to buy. Sony, who dominated with the Playstation 2, thought brand recognition would be worth its weight in gold. Sony was wrong, and if it somehow makes a profit on PS3 hardware before all is said and done I'll eat my hat. (The PS3, to be fair, is one heck of a Blu-ray player.)
Nintendo has been the real winner this generation. It forewent HD video, made a cheap console based around a design gimmick that it could still sell on the cheap and was able to sit back and watch the money flow in. It's ridiculous how well this generation turned out for Nintendo, given how the Gamecube finished the last one, trailing both the PS2 and the original Xbox. Given all that, it's understandable Microsoft and Sony looked to motion-driven gaming to make this generation last just a little longer.
The real question is whether this gamble pays off. The Move is as obvious a sign of submission to Nintendo's way of thinking as you're going to see in this business. It's a "me too!" product in every conceivable way. That said, the core PS3 hardware is finally priced to -ahem- move, and it has the processing power to combine HD graphics with motion technology in ways that the Wii can only dream of. The Move may not sell like gangbusters, but if it gets even modest support from AAA game developers, we could see some interesting titles emerge over the next couple years.
Credit where it's due, Microsoft looked at what Nintendo was doing and said, "Let's do that, but let's do it our way. And cooler." Enter the Kinect. I haven't decided if I'm going to pick up this hardware yet, but the entire notion of "your body is the controller" offers limitless possibilities. Well, it would if Microsoft would get off its marketing slogan long enough to realize developers could do far more with the Kinect if a controller were involved.
To be fair, the technology powering the Kinect has applications far beyond both this game console generation and gaming. It's an opening salvo. In the here and now, however, aside from being picky about the size of your living room, Kinect's big hurdle is that it's really hard to do a lot with games when the only means of control is finding new and inventive ways to contort your body in a limited 3D space. In the short term, I expect the Kinect to do extremely well, but if Microsoft wants it to keep the 360 breathing for another five years it's going to need some games with some meat because what Kinect offers right now is novelty gaming. That won't keep the ship afloat all on its own.
Sooner or later it comes down to the games and, if Microsoft and Sony really want to prolong the current generation hardware, then both the Move and Kinect need to prove they've got more shots in their bag beyond aping the kinds of games already available on the Wii.