The PS3's made a massive leap in the gaming market over the past year, earning it's title of 'most wanted console' for this holiday season. Where did the formerly-leading Xbox 360 head off to? What are its plans? Will it ever be able to beat the PS3 before the end of this console generation?
Exclusives are a huge factor in determining which console gamers buy, but the strategies used by the two rivalling companies are as contrasting as night and day. Looking back at 2009, the PS3 has had almost 10 exclusive games. All of them earned close to a 90% average on Metacritic, but it doesn't stop there. Sony is continuously investing in their first-party studios, churning out quality exclusive after exclusive. On the other hand, the 360 has had... around three exclusives, and Microsoft has been shutting down many of their first-party studios. The outlook for next year is slightly better, but with most 'exclusives' planned for PC releases as well, one has to wonder what Microsoft's strategy is for pushing the Xbox 360.
With few exclusives to gain consumer interest and a price cut being unlikely, the Xbox 360 will remain in last place for now. An explanation for Microsoft's seemingly unhealthy moves is Natal. From everything they've said, they're COMPLTELY banking on it to be the next big thing, with no plan B to lean on if it fails. This explains their studio closures; they won't need first party studios. Why waste money on their own, expensive development studios when others will do it for them? After all, Natal isn't on PS3 or PC (though that's bound to happen sooner or later), and several large publishers such as EA, Activision, and Ubisoft have stated that they're either experimenting or already developing Natal games. Microsoft has a tendency to sit back and relax, and put in minimal effort while allegedly still bringing in more profit than Sony, who sweats to pump out as many exclusives games as they can, which undoubtedly benefits the gamer more.
My opinion is that Natal-exclusive games cannot support quality titles. One of the biggest handicaps of this technology is the lack of control options compared to the standard gamepad. Also, judging from live tech demos (and not touched up demos released during E3), response time is slow and the movement detection is limited and imprecise. Features such as head-tracking can be implemented into games along with standard gamepad controls, but that's not enough for third-party developers/publishers to justify its exclusivity to the Xbox 360. This peripheral has yet to impress.
Yet, Natal is guaranteed to be a hit next fall. If there's anything we've learned about Microsoft, it's that their marketing will get anything sold. There's a reason the Halo and Gears of War series breaks sales records. Who is going to buy Natal? Probably the majority of the Xbox 360 install base. Microsoft will have many interesting ways of showcasing this technology to satisfy people of all ages and preferences. The marketing probably won't always be truthful, but nevertheless, it will get people to purchase Xbox 360s and Natal units. Add the release of Halo Reach (with potential Natal support) and Microsoft's got a hell of a 2010 holiday season. Sony will have to think big next year to compete sales-wise. Their motion-sensing wand, labelled 'Sphere,' releases early next year but has a lot less hype compared to Natal. Recently, Ubisoft confirmed 10 new IP games in development for Natal as opposed to 5 for the Sphere.
So... by the end of all this, Microsoft will be satisfied with their sales and the piles of cash they'll be sitting on. A constant revenue stream from Xbox LIVE subscriptions, high sales for Natal, and predictable record-breaking sales from Halo Reach is more than enough to keep them content. The more casual audience will also be content with the Wii-styled games on the platform, but what about the core gamer? Considering that the casual audience is where publishers/platform holders tend to earn the most profit, Microsoft will support their core audience only up to a narrow extent. 343 Industries will be developing Halo games for the next several years as long as there's demand, and their other few first party studios, such as Turn 10, will continue to produce AAA exclusive titles, but overall, I don't see the future of the Xbox being very bright for gamers like me.