Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Videogame Wars

At long last, everyone seems to have noticed the videogame industry. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the reason has less to do with the games themselves (still falling far short of the potential of the medium) than it does with the exciting dynamics of the industry's cyclical hardware transition. There are two reasons for this. The first is that, by traditional industry standards, Microsoft has done everything right and Sony has done everything wrong. The second is that Nintendo's bold new strategy has taken opinion-forming industry insiders by storm and has positioned the company - derided all too recently as something of a has-been - for a remarkable return to form. The result is a three-horse race with a lot of huge bets riding on it - a far more entertaining situation for the media than the previous generation's image of the Sony gorilla batting away a couple of irksome biplanes.

If, like me, you've never been a particular fan of Sony's videogame presence, their downfall (such as it is) will elicit a pecular sensation of schadenfreude. Sony has never shown much inclination to actually treat videogames as seriously or as innovatively as its competitors; it has always been following the money. It only got into the industry in the first place because it happened to find itself with the right technology on its hands after Nintendo pulled out of a joint venture to develop a CD-based successor to the Super Nintendo; the resulting PlayStation only won out in the following console war because of Nintendo's overwhelming arrogance in support of the N64 and Sega's utter incompetence with the Saturn. Since PlayStation, Sony's innovative additions have either been the banal ones of the electronics giant (DVD playback, full backwards compatibility) or shamelessly nicked from their competitors (analogue sticks and rumble from the N64, internet functionality from XBox Live, and now a bafflingly rubbish motion sensing functionality from Wii). the EyeToy might be an honourable exception, but the innovation it represents remains peripheral to Sony's strategy. Sony specialises in a complacent attitude towards gaming that accepts things as they are, and never seeks to push any boundaries other than graphical ones. Their home consoles are ugly, their advertising baffling; the real mystery is why they've done so well for so long.

Microsoft, in contrast, didn't enter videogames with an eye to making easy money. Where Sony's videogame division has been propping up the rest of the company, with Microsoft it's the other way around: their videogame division makes a huge loss. But Microsoft have taken their PC savvy and fashioned a console - in the original XBox - that was, essentially, a PS2 that was designed for people who liked games. More powerful yet easier to code for, it pioneered online console gaming in the form of XBox Live. Microsoft's long-term strategy became clearer when it unveiled the XBox 360 last autumn. Launching on an ambitious timescale that would cut short the lifespan of the XBox prematurely, it was clear that Microsoft wanted to get to market first with a machine that was, essentially, little more than a refinement of the XBox - one that was more polished and more powerful, but essentially the same thing. Able to weather the initial supply shortages by virtue of its first-mover advantage, Microsoft is now well established in the next generation, and looks to be beating Sony at its own game.

Sony, meanwhile, is stumbling badly. The PlayStation Portable (PSP) has signally failed to take the handheld world by storm in the face of Nintendo's remarkable DS, and Sony found itself faced with an awful dilemma by Microsoft's early launch of the 360. Should Sony cut years off the profitable lifespan of the PS2 by launching PS3 early to take on the 360? Or should it wait, rake in the cash, and hope that the 360 will turn out to be a new Sega Dreamcast (another console that did well initially, but was ultimately crushed by the considerably more powerful PS2)? In the end, Sony got caught between the two.

It decided on a March 2006 launch, just 5 months after 360 - a short enough timeframe to be able to compete effectively. But such a strategy belied a remarkable arrogance on Sony's part with regard to the technical hurdles it faces, and the result has been a shambles. The decision to build a Blu-Ray disk player into the machine had nothing to do with videogames and everything to do with Sony winning its next-generation DVD format war with Toshiba. This didn't have to be a problem for its videogame division - except for the fact that the Blu-Ray technology wasn't ready. Nor was the Cell chip, the expensive proprietary technology that will drive PS3. Taken together, these manufacturing problems have led to the console's launch being delayed from March 2006 to November 2006 in North America and Japan, and March 2007 in Europe, with the quantities available at launch being slashed. Now Sony launches with just 93,000 consoles in Japan, a territory which gobbled up two million launch PS2s in less than a day. These shortages will hurt - especially since the console is ridiculously expensive (again largely the fault of the Blu-Ray player), at $600 (versus $250 for a Wii, or $400 - soon, surely, to be cut - for an XBox 360). Humiliatingly, Sony has been forced to cut the price of the lower-specced version of the PS3 even before launch (even while boosting its capabilities).

And what of the rewards from Sony's technical idiocy? 360 doesn't look noticeably worse in the graphics stakes, and its online functionality is considerably better. And Microsoft has now released, with a smirk, an HD-DVD playerr add-on for 360, an afterthought that reveals how unimportant movie playback will be to the ultimate success or failure of the console.

Sony, in short, has been arrogant and overambitious, and looks destined for a large and justified fall. In the meantime, Nintendo goes from strength to strength, and Sony's travails serve to paint the smaller Japanese company in the best possible light. Whereas Sony's next-gen announcements have often been met with disbelief (initial videos of PS3 in action that later turned out to have been mock-ups) or even ridicule (motion-sensing in the new PS3 controller), Nintendo's have been met with breathless hyperbole in much of the gaming press. The company is going for Cheap, Fun and Easy: the diametric opposite strategy to the expensive, hardcore arena that Microsoft and Sony are slugging it out in. The controller is like a wand! It just looks fun to play. The resulting anticipatory buzz is largely positive. Nintendo have stuck to their guns over a properly planned hardware launch date, and their decision to launch head-to-head with the mighty PS3 - but with 6 million units instead of 500,000, and worldwide instead of just in Japan and North America - means that Nintendo will come across as reliable and straightforward simply by virtue of the negative press surrounding Sony at the same time. Wii has now sold out its initial allocations in Japan and North America, giving it a lead in the number of hardware units sold going into the new year. In the meantime, Sony's dramatically curtailed numbers of available units has persuaded games publishers to put off releasing some of PS3's most anticipated games for months, giving Nintendo (and, especially, Microsoft, which will now get some former Sony exclusives at the same time as PS3) the lead in software as well.

It really is masterful. Wii could have been a catastrophe, and it could now still fail, an outcome which would knock Nintendo out of the home console market for good. But that looks less and less likely by the day. With Microsoft doing everything right but failing to capture the imagination, and Sony stumbling badly, this could well be Nintendo's moment. If they can capture the imaginations of existing gamers, while opening up gaming to new people through their fun and innovative approach, then who knows? PS3 could even come in last. Now there's a story worth writing about.


The Oxford Trip

One can think of graduate recruitment - at Oxbridge, at least - as something resembling a ball. Not a raucous, alcohol-fuelled undergraduate ball, you understand, but rather a ball of the more genteel, Jane Austen-type variety.

The students play the role of the yound ladies, fluttering nervously behind their fans, unsure of themselves but keen to maintain an attidtude of discernment as they sift through their various suitors. The recruiting firms, in turn, play the part of the suitors, strutting their stuff handomely in a bid to woo the prettiest girls they can get their hands on.

In this situation, the different types of recruiters hew to the various stereotypes. The law firms are like the inevitable parade of Officers, giving it their all in an attempt to seem dashing and exciting, and by far the most enthusiastic. The investment banks are the suavely wealthy, slightly older suitors - more self assured, less exciteable - who can rely on their deep pockets to draw partners to them. The accountancy firms are the bores who no-one wants to speak to, but who some will marry anyway. And the consultancies - and, to a certain extent, the corporates - are the slightly shabby chaps who you hear are awfully clever - with excellent prospects - but who are somehow never that bothered to try.

Having sat through so many law firm presentations - with magic circle careers presentations standing tall as the gold standard of how to do such things properly - it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I returned to Oxford a few weeks ago to present my current employer to the Oxford Engineering Society. Accenture is significantly larger and richer than even Clifford Chance, but it doesn't put anything like as many resources into Oxbridge recruitment.

Issues with the presentation aside, the evening was interesting to me because it was my first trip back to Oxford since I bade farewell to the city in June. Towards the end of my time there, I had come to think of the standard Oxford undergraduate degree as something of a standard narrative. You start off as a fresher, you do Prelims or Mods in the first year, you spend your second year on all sorts of interesting adventures on the side, and then you drop everything for the ultimate, intense climax of finals, followed by a sorrowful but satisfied denouement before moving on. The visit last week served to rather confirm that a return to the university would inevitably feel like an afterword. The setting was entirely familiar, but I had moved on.

After attempts to catch various friends still in the city fell through, I was reduced to wandering around somewhat forlornly, bumping into a cople of people by chance on the streets and enduring the catching up conversations that my changed circumstances have made suddenly distant. Even the inevitable kebab didn't taste right.

I may well find myself heading back again - especially if the consultant suitor can find some nicer clothes and start being a little more interested in the prettiest girls at the ball - but the Oxford era is now well and truly over for me. I've moved on.


Scandal at MIS

Drunkenness is something that happened every so often at school. It was fun back then, when it seemed an innocent pleasure, back when it didn't result in headaches and exhausation, back when it wasn't necessary to drown out the blearyness of the generic English bar surroundings, back when it was Augustiner and Smirnoff Ice - tequila and skittles - not tasteless lager and cheap wine. Drunkenness now is often boring and painful; back then, being tipsy was exciting and new.

Unfortunately, one of the constants that I always felt at school was that I could rely on the people around me to take care of each other when bad things happened. There are now question marks over whether that still holds true at MIS today: the allegations of sexual assault on the part of MIS students currently swirling around the Bavarian press both give the school a bad name and cast doubt on some previously happy memories. (Read the TZ article here, and the Sueddeutsche one here.)

I've long since gone off being drunk. A drink or two can lubricate an evening, but when there's nothing more to the evening than alcohol, the appeal of going out at all evaporates rapidly. Hopefully I won't go off some of my nostalgic memories of school as well.


First entry in the notebook (from a couple of weeks ago)

Strange things are afoot in the world of Nat.

She gave me a notebook.

"When you have good ideas, you write them down?" A wave of scandal engulfs her face as she realises the answer even before my falteringly inadequate reply. Mere seconds later, she presses a pink volume with rabbits on the cover into my hands. "Is this one too girly?" It's ironic; she has one of the least girly rooms I've ever seen. No frilly bits, no piles of shoes or handbags. Books on Plato. Books on Freud. Books of National Geographic photographs with family stories of Papua New Guinea and Kenya and shark attacks and Mossad to go with them. I crave things; her inexhaustible fascination is drawn from personal experience. It's like I suddenly want to bury the vapid City person I've been trying to become for the last three years. It's like meeting Aunt Augusta at mother's funeral; and if Chicago was the seaside, we've yet to even set off for Istanbul.

I haven't kept a notebook for ideas since middle school; no diary since the 12th grade. What happened to that person? I used to thrive on wowing Mr Madden with Nat's Book Review, on delighting Ms Bishop with picking apart Hamlet and Donne. After all their warnings - Orwell, Camus, Zamyatin - is this me really the one that's turned out? Why did I really decide on Politics anyway, back in Tanzania? Was it so that I could do this with my life?

"Nat!" She calls from the balcony as I depart. "Write it down!" She doesn't stop waving til I'm around the corner, out of sight. And so, on the bright top of the bus, as dreary London slides by outside, I begin.

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