Monday, September 01, 2008

L'esprit de l'escalier

In amongst the unnecessarily large (and largely unnecessary) collection of photographs of himself kissing his wife, Richard Ashcroft's Alone With Everybody, features some other equally telling pictures of the album's progress chart. Along with bars representing the various instruments used in each song, there are 8 different vocal tracks listed. Vocal ad-lib to fade. This is completely irrelevant to the rest of this post mind you, but I thought I'd shoehorn in the seemingly obligatory Verve reference early. Get it out of the way.

If you're reading this blog, I think it's probably safe to assume you're aware of dynamic range compression. An interesting (at least to me) parallel can be drawn up with the current argument raging through the video game industry. For the people who don't care about audio fidelity (or indeed aren't even aware it's an issue) read the 'casuals'. For the audiophiles whose raison d'etre seems to be the crusade for better audio quality read the 'hardcore'. The Wii being dynamic range compression itself. As analogies go it's not exactly Harry Hill's allegorical aquarium, but I'm running with it nonetheless. Those who self-identify as the hardcore are quick to complain that Nintendo doesn't care about them, that they turned their back on them with the release of the Wii. They are right, and they need to get over it. 3 or 4 years ago Nintendo found themselves backed into a corner not unlike the one I have just written myself into, but rather than conceding defeat, they came up with the best comeback the video game industry has ever seen.

The figures cannot be argued with, they were well beaten. The ocean called, and it wanted it's shrimp back. Nintendo found themselves in much the same position as Sega did a few years previously. Sega threw in the towel, utterly demoralised by seeing their superior machine destroyed by lesser competition. Many expected Nintendo to do likewise, encouraged it even. But nobody expected what came next. They had something big up their sleeve, their own waggle based Jerk Store. Sony and Microsoft just didn't see it coming, caught up as they were in their own recipriversexclusive marketing practices, competing with each other to define their products as Media Centres, or Blu-Ray Players. The Home Entertainment Hub. They chased after the same target audience with machines with such high functional equivalence as to completely cancel each other out. A niche target audience at that. The Wii went after a different demographic; the casuals.

Eschewing their competitors quest for higher graphical fidelity, for hi-definition, for exponentially increased processing power, they decided to release what is essentially the same machine as the Gamecube. A smaller (more Jonathan Ive) case and the control method the only discernible differences. Where Sony were banking on the millions of people who bought Playstation 2s to upgrade to the Playstation 3, and Microsoft were banking on the same people to upgrade to the 360, Nintendo decided to ape the approach of their DS. Back to basics, fun for all the family.

Dad's doing it wrong.

As a business model, it's flawless. Why fight stronger competitors in a crowded market, when you can ignore the market and target everyone else? Research and development budget went on developing the revolutionary control scheme, not on securing chip sets from Intel or the like. Here's the real genius though; by utilising existing hardware Nintendo are able to sell each Wii at a profit. Despite the much higher price points, Sony and Microsoft make a significant loss on each console sold, hoping to recoup that money through software sales. Tighter licensing agreements mean a higher profit on third-party releases too, something which keeps the profits high as the seemingly unending stream of waggle-based sports and mini-game compendiums stem the tide between Nintendo's trademark molasses slow drip-feed of releases.

But this is where the hardcore aren't happy. They feel betrayed by Nintendo turning their back on them. The familiar (and tiresome) 'Sell-out' argument is one that rages here, and one that does not need to be repeated. Nintendo is a business, why shouldn't they seek to maximise revenue? The video game industry is now stuck in somewhat of a pickle. Do Microsoft and Sony follow suit, and try to eke out a similar market share with their next products, aping the control scheme and other Nintendo innovations, or do they carry on as before with the march of progress, something that the hardcore value above all else?

The most galling thing for them must be that there isn't even any such thing as a Jerk Store.

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