Who Is On Top: Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo… Or Valve?

Now that the gravy-covered turkey has been consumed, the presents exchanged, and the New Year celebrated, the games industry is preparing for 2014. In tiny underground bunkers in undisclosed locations, executives of Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony and Valve are placing their figurines on battle maps while running through drills for key strategic scenarios that will take place in the coming months. Some of the opening moves have already been made: Valve fired its opening shots at CES with Sony countering with the unveiling of the latest addition to its stockpile, the PlayStation Now streaming service.

While these video game companies assess their positions and plan their future manoeuvres, one can’t help but feel excited for the twelve months ahead of us. While the consoles were released late last year, 2014 is going to set the tempo for what we can expect in the coming years. The time of rumour and speculation is at an end – the next-generation is now here, meaning attention will come away from the hardware and instead linger on the most vital part of our industry as a whole: the video games themselves.

But as we head along into this exciting new future, it’s strange to see how much the landscape for the industry has changed in such a short period of time. The last three years have been slightly weird for gaming, most especially for how it transitioned us from the old battlefield to the new.

Which one will come out on top?

Which one will come out on top?

Here is the scene as it currently stands. Sony, for all of the last-gen of consoles, was on the back foot. The overpriced PS3 and its lack of easy-to-use UI allowed Microsoft to market the Xbox 360 as the more persuasive purchase. And purchase it people did; Sony’s PS3 was always in second – or third, depending on the period – place in North America. But the PS3 didn’t disappoint them, either, and has been one of the only beacons of hope for the company during its dire financial straits.

But in a twist, however, 2013 was when Sony became the favoured son once again. During last year’s E3, people chanted their names as they trounced Microsoft at nearly every turn – and that lead has stuck with them. The PS4 – for now, at least – has a sales lead on Xbox One. What Sony now needs to do in 2014 is keep up its momentum. The games are coming; Final Fantasy XIV, PlanetSide 2, and numerous indie titles will be released this year. It could be argued that these are more comparable to sweeteners as opposed to system sellers, though.

Barring any surprise reveals later this year, the real jewel in the PS4’s crown will thus likely be Infamous: Second Son. The question remains, however, if it will catch on in a big way and break out of enthusiast circles. Sony is infamous – no pun intended, but isn’t it just glorious all the same? – for how many of its well-received titles nearly constantly underperform in terms of sales expectations. Second Son will sell consoles, but it could sell more if Sony manages to market it properly. The PS4 is selling very well, but so did the Wii U in its opening months and those sales could slow down if Sony doesn’t maintain its momentum.

Sony will need to apply the same principle to how it comes out swinging at this year’s E3. That means firing off on all cylinders and presenting a raft of new titles for 2014 and 2015, composed of both classic franchises and also new ideas.

On the handheld front, things don’t bode as well. The PS Vita seems primed to become is an extension to the PS4 itself, but it’s looking less likely that it will break out of its niche circles. In essence, it seems like Vita doesn’t have a sense of identity as a traditional handheld platform and, while Sony is altering the reason to purchase it and software will definitely release for it, there seems to be no hope of a 3DS-like turnaround.

Can Sony save the Vita?

Can Sony save the Vita?

But enough about the Japanese giant. Let’s focus on Microsoft. I don’t really know what happened to Microsoft last year. Who takes all the goodwill they’ve built up with consumers over the years, pours gasoline on it, and lights it on fire? Thankfully, someone sensible saw their pre-order figures and decided to cancel the self-celebratory champagne and marching band to reverse-engineer the Xbox One. However, that took so long, and Microsoft’s messaging has been so off, that the Xbox One has launched with reported less-than-ideal functionality, even for basic things that the 360 excelled at, such as party chat.

That being said, it’s also surprising to see how competent its launch titles are, given how many had been derided and written off at one point or another. Now that its Waterloo is behind it, much like Sony, Microsoft needs to be on the offensive. Titanfall is impressive and, in many ways, has become synonymous with the meaning of next-gen. It is just the shot of adrenaline Xbox One needs to forget its troubled production. But like Sony, Microsoft needs to also impress at this year’s E3, as well as before and after it. While Xbox One has sold well, it is in second place and it will continue to be if its software – and yet-to-be-implemented-functionality – doesn’t continue to capture people’s hearts and minds.

The one thing Microsoft has going for it is its marketing department. As a European, the Old Continent has been long considered Sony’s home-turf, but while watching television these last few months, do you know what Europeans were treated to during their commercial breaks? Nearly an hourly reminder – brought to you by very famous soccer stars – saying Xbox One and FIFA 14 were out in stores. The only PS4 advert I managed to see was one poster, written in English, in a country where English isn’t people’s first language.

Though this is anecdotal evidence, nearly each and every Microsoft flagship title received monstrous amounts of marketing support. For example, it created a popular Halo web-series that garnered millions of hits on YouTube! Not only that, but it was known for how it managed to associate emerging trends in the games industry with the Xbox brand.

And that legacy reminds us that Microsoft can catch up and even surpass Sony in terms of sales because, in the wide scheme of things, one million isn’t that large a number for lifetime sales. If it offers a wide range of titles that catch on with the larger market and if it manages to tie Titanfall down as a non-exclusive as it did with Call of Duty, Microsoft may very well retake first position.

And what about Nintendo?

And what about Nintendo?

But with all this talk about Sony and Microsoft, what about Nintendo? Much like a proverbial James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, Nintendo doesn’t seem to be playing by anyone’s rules. It’s content to sit in the corner, cigarette dangling from mouth, while its first-party titles do their magic. The 3DS family is selling extremely well while the Wii U is slowly picking up steam. Though the latter will never be the atom bomb of sales that the Wii was, it’s hardly a write-off – but it will be if it doesn’t begin to garner to sales this year.

Nintendo can’t compete with Microsoft and Sony in terms of power or graphical fidelity and thus, they’ll simply have to resort to what they’ve always been good at: making games with fantastic art styles. It’s shown that they can compete; in a year where two new consoles launched, Nintendo’s exclusives remained some of the most-discussed titles in terms of GotY awards. The Wii U is an attractive console with a good range of services, impressive titles, and free multiplayer online. The likes of Super Smash Bros. and the newest X/Xenoblade title both look impressive and, with Nintendo making a supposed come back at this year’s E3, it will have some big things to show.

But more than any other company, Nintendo needs 2014 to go well for its console. Both Sony and Microsoft have released their newest platforms, which are gobbling up sales left and right. 2015 will be too late for Nintendo to salvage the Wii U, because by then, the potential consumers left for it will be fewer and fewer. It is quite literally make or break.

And finally, Valve. For the longest time, Valve has been like the Spy from Team Fortress 2, sneaking through the shadows, operating on the fringes of gaming space, but still a fearsome force to be reckoned with. It has now emerged and respawned as a Heavy, giant mini-gun in hand and loaded with every bullet in its arsenal. It is perhaps the most interesting company of the big four because of how bizarrely unique its strategy is. Forget a single standardised console – Valve is instead offering you a wide range of third-party hardware, which can be as expensive or as cheap as you want it to be.

The dark horse?

The dark horse?

If you already have a big custom rig, you can purchase a small device that enables streaming to your television. If you want to enter the world of PC gaming but only want to play indie games, you can buy a lower-end model. If you want a monstrous rig, lo and behold, you can pay for one, too. There will be machines that are designed for television while others may simply be a normal PC. Uniting it all is Steam itself – meaning that whatever purchase you make, Valve will see its cut. And with all of its sales, Valve is likely to see a good chunk of its revenue grow.

However, if Valve wants to see this strategy pay off, it needs to ensure two things: Firstly, it needs clear and crystal messaging. At this year’s CES, Valve announced thirteen third-party Steam Machines, all of which ranged from $500 to $6000. People are confused as to what the idea of a Steam Machine is, because there is no central picture to focus on. That alone could mire messaging, but not if Valve remains clear about it all.

Secondly, these Steam Machines need to be functional with living room gaming. Valve needs to refine its store, Big Picture Mode, and the general UI experience so that it’s simple to navigate and understand. Consoles thrive on simplicity and if Valve’s software doesn’t cater to that, it will simply be a less attractive investment for your average person.

Gabe Newell and company have time, though, and it’s likely that their foray to capture the living room space will take place over multiple years. 2014 will be the year where consumers can be really wowed by the concept and prove to them that a Steam Machine is as much an attractive investment as your traditional console is.

The board has been set, and the pieces are moving. Regardless of which company comes up on top, it’s clear that we, the consumers, are the real big winners!

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