Why 2014 is such an important year for video games: Nowak

Sony flies, Nintendo nearly dies

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The coming year is going to be a big one in video games, with the next-generation console battle kicking into full swing. Both Sony and Microsoft released their respective new machines, the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, in November with Nintendo getting a head start last year with the Wii U.

There’s little doubt which company has the momentum heading into the new year. The PS4 has been outselling its main rival from Microsoft around the world – in some cases, as in Spain, it’s been by a wide margin. This, despite the Xbox One having a relatively better slate of launch games.

Without big changes, I’m expecting that momentum to continue as the PS4 looks to be the console of choice for hard-core gamers – also known as mainly young, male gamers – who are particularly sensitive to price. The Xbox One’s $499 price tag, compared to $399, is a deal breaker for this audience. Microsoft is banking on a larger audience beyond just the hard-core, but that’s the wrong bet at this point since it’s really only gamers who buy consoles early in their release.

Microsoft does have perhaps the most-anticipated next-generation game, Titanfall, coming in March. It will certainly give the company’s console a lift, but as the initial launch showed, a great game isn’t enough to get gamers to forgive the price premium. In the meantime, Sony will also be countering the same month with one of its big exclusives, Infamous: Second Son.

The albatross around Microsoft’s neck is its insistence on bundling the Kinect motion and voice sensor with the console, which adds to the overall cost. While it does have some nifty voice functionality, many have expressed frustration with Kinect’s inaccuracy or the need to learn specific phrases. The device’s motion control, meanwhile, is largely unused so far. All told, it is so far an entirely unnecessary add-on that many buyers have already stopped using.

It’s an interesting conundrum for Microsoft since Kinect, when it was originally released for the Xbox 360 in 2010, became the fastest-selling electronics device of all time. Now, just a few years later, the company finds itself in the strange position of having to justify that accomplishment – and to rationalize it in order to get people to spend the extra money on its new console. So far, the value proposition simply isn’t there, especially for consumers outside the United States, who aren’t able to control their TV channels via voice commands like Americans. Making Kinect optional and therefore lowering the console’s cost is the path of much lower resistance.

The clock is ticking. Microsoft is sure to stick with its Kinect strategy and will continue to try and come up with reasons for people to buy into it, but how much time it has to do that depends entirely on how much momentum Sony gains this year. With the way things are looking, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Xbox One sold without the Kinect, and therefore at a lower price, in 2014.

And then there’s Nintendo, which had an absolutely woeful 2013. The Wii U has been an unmitigated flop, with even the older Wii (released in 2006) outselling it for long stretches of the year. The newer console did get a sales bump this holiday season thanks to new Zelda and Mario games, but sales were amazingly lower than last year. That’s surprising because new consoles tend to sell better a year after release, when there are more games for them.

Company executives have already hinted that the writing may be on the wall for the Wii U, meaning that 2014 will likely mean a return to the drawing board. Where Nintendo goes from here is fodder for a separate article, but suffice it to say the company will this year have to entirely rethink how it does business. If it were a typical Western company, that would mean a strategic review, but Nintendo is far from ordinary, so who knows what form its rethink will take.

The wild card to watch in games this year is Valve and its upcoming Steam Machines. The online game distributor made noise in 2013 with a promise to revolutionize the gaming market by jumping from PCs to the living room through open-source consoles featuring a touch-pad-equipped controller.

The open question is whether they’ll be simple and straightforward enough for the average gamer to hook up and use. Nintendo’s stumble and a gamer backlash against Microsoft suggest an opportunity for a new entrant is there. Meaning Valve is poised to become a true gaming powerhouse in 2014. Now it’s all about whether it can execute.

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