System Sellers – Fact or Fiction?
“System seller”. It’s a phrase we’ve all heard. It’s a phrase I’ve used scores of time when writing about new consoles. System Seller is often bandied about during the lead up to a consoles release or in the following months after until said console is deemed to be established. But what exactly are we talking about? Is there such a mythical beastie and if so how does one quantify one? Also, should we really care?
With the advent of the Wii U and it’s impending launch the words System Seller are being used with alarming frequency. “Will Zombi U be the system seller that the console needs?” or “Surely Nintendo can’t see Nintendo Land as the system seller that Wii Sports was” are all out there in the wild. This is not a new concept. Since before the launch of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System journos, retailers and suited corporate types have all asked the question “do we have a system seller to push the hardware out the doors?”.
The theory behind the system seller is sound enough. A new console is an expensive chunk of cheap plastic and power guzzling components until someone writes a piece of software that is so great, it’s essential for gamers to own. Thus they have to spend the early launch cost prices to be the first to play Super Mario 64, Aliens Vs Predator, Toshinden or Halo. A system selling piece of software might seem like a mythical beast until you consider Wii Sports. Sure the Wii had novelty value and the Nintendo brand name attached to it but that would have only gotten it so far. For it to become the household dust catcher that it is Nintendo needed a hook – a bit of software that captured the imagination of a mass crowd.
Yes Wii Sports was probably the first essential system seller since Pacman or Space Invaders on the 2600 that not only appealed to the baying dedicated gaming fans that normally pick up these early titles and consoles. It managed to cross the divide and become an essential purchase for couples, families, for your parents, your grandparent and for drunken after club challenges of bowl before you puke. A system seller can take an age old console manufacturer like Nintendo, running on the fumes that their handheld business could supply, and turn them back in to a profitable and generation leading force.
So, the system seller does, in fact, exist. Surely the Wii Sports phenomenon proves this? Well, no, I don’t think it does. To my mind the age of the System Seller has past. What happened with Wii Sports was a fluke, a perfect storm. Mass media were finally bowing to the pressure that video games were an entertainment industry to be reckoned with. The generation that had grown up with games in their lives had started to transition in to positions of cultural influence. Video games were making strides to come out of the bedrooms and the realm of the “nerd” and come in to the limelight they richly deserved. Nintendo just managed to hit that sweet spot between banal mass appeal and commercial relevance. In a similar way that things like Facebook had been around in one form or another for years but it was Zuckerberg’s product that finally got your mum, gran, technophobic significant other to use a computer or smart phone on an hourly basis.
Evidence of the System Seller can be seen through the generations though. Monster Hunter on the PSP, Pokemon on the GBA, Brain Training on the Nintendo DS. Starfox, Zelda or Mario 64 of the N64;Pacman on the Atari 2600, Shadow if the Beast, SWOS, Worms on the Amiga. Countless classics like Starfox, Super Mario Kart, Suepr Mario World, Super Street Fighter 2 on the SNES. The litany of Sonic titles on the Sega Megadrive/Genesis. Wolfenstein, Ultima Underworld, Doom, Quake, Far Cry on the PC. I could literally just keep going and going here. Heck if you want to get picky then Uncharted and Rayman were both of system seller quality in the Vita’s launch window – yet it still failed to make an impact.
So how can I doubt the validity of a system seller when evidence suggests otherwise? Well, if you cast your mind back, very little of these titles were available in the launch window for these consoles. In many cases these titles arrived mid-lifecycle, when the console had reached a more realistic and consumer friendly price point. Think of it this way – Uncharted 2 was a system seller for the PS3 – but it was well in to the life cycle of the console, it had dropped to a more reasonable price too. Or another example of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Sold scores of Xbox 360s but it was well in to the life cycle and the price had dropped on the console. Or how about Halo on the original Xbox. The console only really got a 2nd shot because Microsoft got a taste of the good times with Halo – but again this was late in the life-cycle and the console was cheap.
Which leads me to my conclusion here. It’s more that the software reaches a crescendo on the platforms. A wave of great software builds and manages to tip the scale. But for 80% of the consuming public this won’t happen until a certain price point is breached. This varies per person, but a general rule of thumb appears to be when a console is within the budget of the average Christmas or Birthday present spend. Or can be justified as a month or two of belt tightening from a monthly wage. Sure there are die hards and fan boys who will pick up the hardware early and put up with poor software whilst waiting for the good stuff to kick in after a year or more.
The prospect of a single “killer app” is behind us – these days people look at games console purchases in the terms of “what can this give me as a return on my investment”. With so many devices all vying for the same purchase coin many systems are branching out in to areas that they don’t traditionally compete in. Look at the Xbox 360. On launch it was the epitome of the gaming console. It was built to play games, join friends up and get people playing online. As time progressed though the gaming functionality peaked and ,to compete with media centre PC’s and the strengthening multimedia beast that is the PS3, Microsoft started cramming more and more media functionality in to their box. So much so that as it stands today the Xbox 360 is less a machine for the hardcore gamer and more a media box for the family.
As this tide progresses you find market share stealers coming from various directions. You have smart phones that rival even the most well established handheld brands. You have televisions that can not only do the same media streaming your console can do, but they can also play Java games and even incorporate motion technology for controls. With each step console makers make they are being hounded by another sources for that service. Why bother with buying a games console at all if you can stream Netflix, Spotify or the latest video game directly from the TV you already own. Perhaps Sony will be the last ones standing after all!
The system sellers of the future will be the features the manufactures can offer us that go above and beyond what you can get from services you already own. Many have eschewed the fall of the traditional handheld and labelled the 3DS and Vita as probably the last traditional handheld consoles to be marketed. To my mind we will be have these discussions about home consoles as we reach the late stages of the Durango and Orbis – might seem like a crazy notion but we’re talking 8 years time at least here. Then a system seller will refer to which digital games service you’re going to subscribe to, rather than what chunk of plastic you’re going to invest in.