Archive for June, 2005

Battling for the Sacred Living Room

Friday, June 24th, 2005

(This article first appeared in the June 6, 2005 issue of Jon Peddie’s TechWatch)

With a couple of weeks to ruminate on the unveiling of the Xbox 360, the Sony PS3, and the Nintendo Revolution (if one can call showing us a pretty box and telling us what’s inside is a mystery an unveiling, that is), it’s time to take a look at the big picture.

Microsoft infamously stated they want a billion consoles out there, and post-E3 elaborated that they didn’t really mean a billion Xbox 360s, but instead a total of a billion game consoles of varied origin.

Sony and Nintendo also paid lip service to the concept of a console in every living room (or something close it).

What’s missing is how to achieve such noble goals. Well, the so-called Big Three in video game console makers have all decided that in order to achieve more market penetration and hit their lofty goals, they need to overcome the stigma that their products are:

  • Ugly
  • Messy (lots of cables)
  • Testosterone oriented
  • User un-friendly
  • Family un-friendly
  • Women un-friendly
  • So gee-whiz-wow that it’s a must-have

Based on commentary during and after the various unveilings, the Big Three indicated that the key to getting into the living room pretty much boils down to convincing the stereotypical woman of the house that a next generation console is a “good thing” to have – no, that it’s a “must-have good thing”. And overcoming the stigma above is apparently the way to do that.

However, based on what all was shown at E3, they have a darned long row to hoe to even get close. Making pretty looking boxes in multiple colors or skins, with smooth curvy lines doesn’t cut it. You need to make the content appealing – something all three paid lip service to, but so far have failed to deliver.

Microsoft suggested that the prototypical female Xbox 360 user (a.k.a. “VelocityGirl”) might enjoy playing card games and making t-shirts to sell in the Xbox 360 marketplace. That stereotype thrilled TechWatch editor Kathleen Maher, sitting next to me at the Xbox 360 kick-off to no small extent. Not!

Nintendo proposed that its non-aggressive, alternative genre games, such as Elektroplankton and Nintendogs, might be a way to cultivate a greater female following for its products. When I suggested this to my non-video gaming wife of many years, she laughed hysterically, bluntly informing me that she still doesn’t get the attraction of game playing, and even something cute like Nintendogs or socially oriented like The Sims is a non-starter – if she needs pets to train or interact with she has our two dogs, two kids, a cat, a bird, two hamsters, and me. She questioned why would she want to bother with a video game when reality is busy and captivating (and occasionally annoying) enough? And by the end of the day dealing with her job, the family, and life in general, if she wants to be entertained, passive television watching or reading is far higher on her list than playing electronic games. Other friends’ wives I’ve surveyed are pretty much in concurrence on this. Mind you, my survey group consisted of married woman, ages 32 and higher, most with children and/or pets.

It doesn’t help that all the new games being touted for the Xbox 360 and PS3 are loud, violent, and when featuring female protagonists, such are wearing +10 thongs of eye catching, +17 armored silk demi-bras of deflection, and all sorts of other unrealistic accoutrements and body shapes a la Vargas. Nor that Microsoft touts the t-shirt making VelocityGirl as its female role model.

Example of a “well armored” female protagonist (From E3 and Blizzard’s forthcoming StarCraft: Ghost)

What I don’t get is why the Big Three don’t get that not everyone – male, female, transgender, etc. – is carved out to be a video game player, no matter what the video game. The gratification that those of us who play games and make it past the bosses or difficult puzzles or battles feel translates to annoyance and distaste in others who don’t share the same interest in gaming.

Likewise, I can’t stand Survivor on TV, as I think it shows the basic shallowness and poor social morality of ones fellow man – things I would just rather not think about because they are so depressing, but my wife (and countless other millions of people) will watch such dross, and gleefully yelling at the characters on TV when watching and then discussing the show in painstaking detail with their friends after the fact.

You can’t please everyone, and assuming you can simply leads to disappointment for yourself as well as those who might be the proper targets for your product which has now been dumbed down so much that it’s useless pabulum.

Let’s take a look at some of the stigma again, in the context of the new consoles.

First, we have ugly and messy. All of the Big Three have new, sleek, sexy boxes (and in Nintendo’s case, it’s apparently all they have). The Revolution is still pretty boxy, but it’s also small (probably because there’s nothing inside it yet). The Xbox 360 is white – a contrast to the typical black or silver television, incidentally – and has concave curved surfaces. The PS3 is also curvy.

Smooth, curved surfaces are theoretically supposed to be appealing to women. All three next gen consoles can be stood up, tall and erect. That too is supposed to subconsciously appeal to woman, I guess. However, most home entertainment furniture has about 6-8 inches clearance for home entertainment components, so these boxes are likely going to be using horizontally or require a complete redecoration of one’s living room. (I am personally planning on just building a second living room, just for all my next generation consoles and the almost required multiple HD displays.)

The messy factory is supposedly addressed by not needing wires to connect controllers to the consoles – they will all be wireless. However, you will still need wires to charge them, and wires to connect the console to your TV and stereo system. And with wireless controllers, the ability to misplace a controller in some place like a bathroom, kitchen, patio, car, or bedroom, is pretty high – at least in my experience with remote controls and my children.

While games targeted at the traditional post-pubescent male market make the biggest waves, and carry M or T ratings, they are not the biggest sellers, according to the Entertainment Software Association. However, that doesn’t stop console and game makers from using such violent and dark themed games as their primary promotion vehicle for video gaming. Sure, there may be the FragBabes, and some other women/girls that like to play such titles, but the primary audience will be decidedly young and middle aged males. And for those males who are married, the video game console becomes competition to a non-game playing spouse, which only offers the woman of the house a bigger reason to detest violent action games. And certainly she doesn’t appreciate how non-family friendly such games are (unless you have a family of psychotics).

With respect to ease of use, the number one feature that so far every game console and even DVD players lack, is true “Instant-On” capability. TV is instant-on, as is radio, and real set-top boxes too. Game consoles and DVD players take measurable time to start up to spin the disc up to speed, determine its format, and then start reading data. DVDs compound the start-up delay with annoying previews, the FBI warning, and perhaps animations before you get to a menu.

Game consoles also suffer from such start-up delays, typically needing to show the splash screens for the half dozen developers, licensees, and publishers who were involved in developing the game. Then you need to go through all the right menus to load a saved game (if you were able to save one). The only folks that seem to have done this more or less right are Sony with the PSP (you can shut off during a game at any time and immediately resume from the same point when you power on) and Nintendo with the DS (same scenario). Having to make several minute commitment to starting up a game when you may only have a few minutes to play is very user un-friendly, and it’s not known whether any of the new consoles will overcome this issue.

Additional complaints about ease of use heard from my wife are that the controls for games my son wants to play with her when I am traveling are far too complicated and non-intuitive. I know Microsoft made a point at the Game Developer’s Conference about trying to get game developers to unify their use of the various controls and buttons on game controllers so that transitioning from one game to another would be easier and more intuitive. We will see when the next generation games ship if they were successful.

I should point out that DVD players work for women like my wife because they are simple to use, non-intimidating, and they are used to accomplish a particular purpose – namely watch a show or movie or even an exercise or yoga lesson.

Game consoles, used for things other than playing DVDs don’t have the same appeal, from what I can tell from my informal survey.

All that said, the only game title my wife may want to “play” in the coming months is EyeToy Kinetic, which features interactive exercise, including Tai Chi. It runs on a PlayStation 2, requires the EyeToy Camera accessory, and a properly lit large room to use it (which fails to describe most living rooms). But is that really a game?

Demonstration of EyeToy: Kinetic in Tai-Chi mode at E3

It’s such non-traditional uses of video game systems – making them do non-game, non-whiz-bang things which is the most likely way to garner at least some interest from the large population of disenfranchised woman, non-game playing males, and even the elderly.

Until the Big Three start really thinking outside the box, all they will have a is good looking box with nowhere to really call home.

Update: Added pictures to the article which were missing from the original posting.