Will The Next Xbox Fall Victim To The Third Console Curse?

Senior Contributor
04.15.13 20 Comments

As we’ve been talking about the next Xbox, the specter of the “third console curse” has reared its head: The belief that every third home console, gaming hardware manufacturers… well, basically they screw the pooch. But how true is it… and will Microsoft fall prey? We look at the third consoles of several major manufacturers, to see what happened.

The Nintendo 64

If you look at the raw numbers, ironically the Super Nintendo is something of a step back for Nintendo, sales-wise. It undeniably won the 16-bit generation, with 49 million sold worldwide, but the NES wrapped up its lifetime sales with 61 million.

So, by that standard, the Nintendo 64 isn’t doing so badly, with 32 million or so sold.

How It Choked: On the other hand, the PlayStation sold over 100 million consoles, not only stomping the former market leader, but setting the stage for Nintendo to really bite the curb with the GameCube, coming in third out of three for home consoles. It also set the stage for Nintendo’s seemingly relentless war against third-party developers: Its refusal to just get with the program and make a disc-based system would bite it hard as the PlayStation took off and cross-platform games became difficult to do.

The irony is that Nintendo in many ways paved the way for modern games: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64 are held to be some of the greatest games ever made, and considering how many franchise slammed into the polygon ceiling never to return, that’s quite an achievement.

The Sega Saturn

For the record, we’re defining console as “entirely new hardware”. We have to, otherwise considering Sega penchant for add-ons, we’ll be here all day.

The irony was Sega was actually well-positioned to cash in. Its arcade business was firing on all cylinders and creating 3D games right when the entire industry was struggling to figure out 3D, and hoovering quarters out of wallets. It had an established brand. There was no way to win.

How It Choked: Sega got beaten out of the gate and gave up too quickly; the Saturn was off the shelves in less than three years and only sold about ten million consoles, and Sega stopped supporting it once it became clear they were going to have to bring a lot more muscle to market.

Adding to the frustration was that Sega followed up the Saturn with the Dreamcast, possibly one of the most beloved consoles to ever hit the market. Sega is still cashing in on Dreamcast nostalgia. But the damage was done, and Sega left hardware after the Dreamcast.

The PlayStation 3

The PlayStation 2 is the single best-selling console of all time: By one count, there were 155 million sold and they only recently stopped making them. As a result, it became the centerpiece of Sony’s technology strategy. The PlayStation 3 was not only going to be a game console, it was going to be the first home supercomputer! It was going to play Blu-Rays! It was going to do everything!

How It Choked: Seven years later, we’re still making fun of the launch of the PS3. The $600 launch price and the staggeringly tone-deaf presentations and marketing put it at a severe disadvantage, although if we’re being honest, the 360 and the PS3 are fighting over second place.

To be fair, the PS3 is only third by a narrow, narrow margin, and it’s still sold seventy million consoles: It’s only a failure in the context of the sales of previous PlayStations. In many ways, Sony should be acclaimed for turning around something that could have ruined the company. But nonetheless, Sony’s waste of a market advantage will remain a business-school case study for years.

The Wii U

One thing we should point out: Nintendo is the only company to bring more than four home gaming consoles to market in the modern gaming era.

Is It Choking?: Good question.

The Wii U’s lack of compelling games is undeniably hurting it. And it’s clear Nintendo was expecting more, much more, out of its odd little system than it’s getting. But the Wii U still moved three million units by the end of 2012, and as the PS3 showed us, a messy launch doesn’t mean doom. Still, it’s clear consumers don’t get what the Wii U is, or why it’s different, and Nintendo needs to explain that quickly.

The Common Theme

Sega, Sony, and Nintendo all were, and are, very different companies, but there is one unifying theme here and that’s a reach that exceeded their grasp. These consoles were either going to play games in ways that games had never been played before, were going to dominate because the manufacturer was the market leader, or they were going to be so, so much more than just gaming consoles. And yet, they wound up being lesser, every single time.

Will Microsoft fall victim? Honestly, quite possibly. Considering that the Kinect needs to be constantly connected, the rumored grand plans for cable integration, the Illumaroom technology, and who knows what else, there’s certainly a lot of ambition on display, but little that indicates anything gamers might be interested it.

Microsoft might want to study those that have come before. There are a few valuable lessons there, if a little hard to swallow.

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