The console hardware market was already highly competitive, concentrated and had high barriers to entry by the time Microsoft enter the fray with its Xbox console in January 2001. With $32bn in liquid assets and a market cap of $370bn, Microsoft has ensured that the console business from now on will be one for corporate behemoths only. The cost of entry into this cycle is, as a result, huge with Sony spending $1bn on designing and preparing the manufacturing for PlayStation 2 and Microsoft committing $0.5bn in marketing alone for the launch of its Xbox.
However, by the time Microsoft and Nintendo complete their global launches in 2002, Sony will have built up an installed base of over 25m units compared to 4-5m for the others at best. We believe that this momentum combined with continued, strong developer and publisher support gives Sony an unassailable lead in this cycle. However the purpose of this article is not to discuss the relative merits of and forecasts for the current console manufacturers. Instead we will look at what makes consoles successful and what factors result in failure.
The determinants of success within the console manufacturers’ market are varied, complex and very much interwoven. We have attempted to break them down into 3 principal categories:
Marketing and PR
A children’s market until the early 90s, the mainstream computer and video game userbase is now well into the 18-28 market, thanks to an ageing base of gamers, game aesthetics which a broader range of people can associate with but perhaps most importantly, Sony’s novel concept of targeting an older demographic when PlayStation launched. Sony very successfully tapped, for the first time, a market with substantial latent demand, and achieved this using shrewd marketing and PR. In contrast others have run highly ineffective campaigns that have, arguably, been too broad and too weak (e.g. Sega’s Saturn, Nintendo’s N64 in Europe) or too narrow (Dreamcast’s online capabilities). Developments in the current cycle, however, are more likely to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. There are no obvious untapped markets and with 3 players in the market, differentiation through marketing and PR will be more difficult to achieve.
Hardware comparisons provide useful marketing tools, play a role in determining the graphic and aural quality of software and certainly influence the early-adopter market. However, hardware superiority counts for nothing if high quality software is not written for it as 3DO, Atari and Sega all discovered during the 90s.
Hardware pricing is now a function of how much financial pain a console manufacturer can bear. All consoles are sold as loss-leaders with manufacturers losing up to $130 per unit sold in order to establish an installed base large enough to support a high volume of software sales (from which manufacturers receive their return on investment). The key is how quickly they can redesign their consoles to reduce manufacturing costs and thus permit retail-level price cuts. Such redesigns are typically done every 6 months or so and the aim is to get console prices down to impulse and gift purchase levels (£129 and below). Despite being the most sophisticated machine on the market when it launched, 3DO’s $400 retail price and their manufacturing partners’ understandable unwillingness to sell the product at a loss kept the product out of reach for all but the early adopters.
Software plays a considerably more important role than hardware in determining the long-term success of a console. Few people buy consoles based on hardware alone; most buy consoles based on software releases and a regular flow of high quality software (original products and existing brands/licenses) is therefore essential. For console manufacturers, the most effective software is that provided on an exclusive basis. By securing the exclusive platform rights to key brands such as Gran Turismo, Final Fantasy and Tomb Raider, Sony provided significant incentives for gamers to chose a PlayStation over other consoles. Whilst some (such as Nintendo) are capable of providing a considerable proportion of this calibre of product flow from internal resources, mass market installed bases require 3rd party support and especially in the current, highly competitive console cycle, the ability or inability to engender and maintain confidence amongst third party publishers will not only determine current cycle success but will also influence future cycles. To illustrate this, we need to look at some historic examples.
Having had confidence eroded amongst third parties with the failure of 32X, MegaCD and Saturn, it was no surprise that support for Sega’s Dreamcast was so limited. Publishers’ lack of confidence in Sega’s ability to make a success of its console business resulted in a rapid downward spiral of decreasing investment in original, high quality titles, reduced product flow and, as a result, reduced hardware sales. The reduced hardware sales simply knocked publisher confidence even further, thus perpetuating the cycle.
This is in contrast to Sony for whom strong support played and still plays a critical role in its dominance of the market. Publisher confidence in PlayStation lead to an upwards spiral of high quality title production leading to strong hardware and software sales and, in turn, continued strong third party support etc…
Although there are numerous, interlinked factors that determine how successful a console will be, one has over-riding importance. It is critical that console manufacturers ensure a consistent flow of high quality, exclusive software not just at launch but throughout the first 12-24 months. If confidence dips at any stage during this period, the console manufacturers could face a difficult struggle to prevent a downwards confidence spiral forming. Industry observers should watch the larger publishers, EA in particular, for indications of growing or stagnating confidence in particular platforms during the current cycle.