November 2014 NPD: Much Ado About Nothing
I’ve never seen or read Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, but thanks to a reasonably thorough high school education, I’m aware that it was written in the latter half of the Elizabethan Age, and is likely not a play about videogames. If somebody were to wipe my memory and erase this knowledge, though, I might guess instead that it’s a dramatic recounting of the November 2014 NPD Group sales results.
On a micro level, it’s certainly not as if nothing interesting happened this month, and I’m willing to acknowledge that. The Xbox One’s unprecedented (and possibly anomalous) performance represents a brilliant coup on the part of the platform’s executive management, and eliminates about a third of the gap between it and the PlayStation 4 in one fell swoop. Though some sources claim a mere seven to ten-thousand differential in sales totals between the two, they’ve been more or less debunked. Until official numbers arrive, it’s fair to say that Sony’s lead is slim, and that gaming’s two hardware titans may very soon be tied.
Same Old Story
Though this is all fairly exciting, I can’t help but feel that November’s events earn that label in only the very dimmest sense of the word. We’re now entering the third successive console cycle in which Microsoft and Sony trade alternating blows, each rising and falling like the tide while simultaneously trying to strangle the other. The Xbox One launched to embarrassing numbers and bad PR, while PS4 shattered records and earned gamers’ undying love. This year, Sony’s games met lackluster fates critically and terrible ones publically, while Microsoft (with the exception of shaky online performance in The Master Chief Collection) essentially restored its reputation by retracting shady launch practices, offering stellar deals, and releasing great exclusives like Forza Horizon 2 and Sunset Overdrive. Ooh, let me guess what’s next — sometime during 2015, Microsoft will flub again, and Sony will surge! Ah, but wait — soon after that, Sony will make a mistake, and Microsoft will sell more Xboxes. In many ways, it’s the polar opposite of excitement. It’s the same thing over and over.
This is concerning not because I expect Shakespeare-calibur drama from corporate entities, but instead because of the unbearably dull sense of repetition. For an industry as young as interactive entertainment, we’re seeing the same patterns repeat themselves startlingly often. PS2 dominates, Xbox finds its niche, 360 dominates, PS3 makes a multi-year recovery, PS4 dominates, Xbox One fast-tracks itself to near-parity in terms of sales. Is it really that difficult to guess what will come next? I have no ill will against Microsoft, absolutely none. But the PS4’s dominance excited me. It excited me because finally, something unique was happening, and it looked as though a shift away from what will soon be a multi-decade stalemate might actually occur. Instead, we’ve already returned to an eternal heavyweight boxing match. Each fighter delivers a knockout punch every one to three years, but the receiving party, without fail, wills itself conscious just before the referee can count to ten.
Software sales represented the most refreshing material contained in NPD’s report, and unlike the monotonous gridlock just described, hinted at trends of progress or even justice weaseling their way into game-dom. Grand Theft Auto V on PS4 and Xbox One placing at number two is a near-insupposable feat, and proves that quality always wins, even if your game is a year old and counting. Ubisoft’s games still placed, but lower than normal — bugs and bad press dragged Assassin’s Creed Unity (perhaps deservedly) down to number nine, whereas Black Flag placed third the year before. Smash Bros., to the satisfaction of myself and many, managed to nab the number three spot, even if that does represent 3DS and Wii U sales combined.
Growing Gaming Together
Which brings us to the poor, impoverished Wii U. Its library of exclusives couldn’t possibly render it more of a must-have than it already is, and yet it saw a mere 10% boost from last year, clocking in at 242 thousand units sold. And you know what? I’m OK with that. This is a trend that is different. It’s interesting. Last generation Nintendo dominated, and this generation their console, despite great games, has so far been a retail flop. Abysmal numbers and need for revenue and mindshare forced the creation of amiibo, the approval of collaborations like Hyrule Warriors and Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem, the funding of Bayonetta 2, and likely more in the coming months. I can only imagine the strokes of brilliance Microsoft or Sony might procure if faced with actual, prolonged adversity, and Xbox One has shown flashes of it in the past year for exactly that reason. Unfortunately, the threat is very nearly over, the stalemate will soon be restored, and when that happens, will Phil Spencer and his crew continue to innovate at such an impressive pace? This is where I usually get pessimistic, but in this case, I’m hopeful.
After sleeping on it and viewing November’s NPD info with fresh eyes, I’ve realized there’s at least one piece of genuinely delightful news. PS4 and Xbox One are outpacing their predecessors by nearly 80% at the same point last generation. The chaotic hive NeoGAF would have you believe the world is ending every time one console-maker outdoes the other, but at the end of the day there’s still blue ocean to be had: despite outpacing them monetarily, games are not nearly as mainstream as films or TV.
Until that day comes, I think a focus on simply growing the pie rather than fighting to the death for larger slices of it would do everyone involved a world of good. The big three will always clash over market share, but that doesn’t mean gamers have to provide company cheer-squads free of charge. If you must cheer, cheer to keep that 80% growth rate alive, or better yet, boost it by investing in a second console. Life’s too short to miss out on great games, and I’d rather help expand the industry than direct my dollars toward delivering a death blow to a significant part of it.