GamesIndustry.biz: The Phoney War

2006: A year of sabre-rattling and uncertainty.

Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz' widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial is a weekly dissection of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer a day after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.

Winston Churchill called it the "Twilight War"; to the French, it was the "drole de guerre", the "funny war"; British newspaper hacks of the era dubbed it the Bore War. Even the Germans had a pun for it, calling it the "Sitzkrieg" or "sitting war". The months after the invasion of Poland and subsequent declaration of war between the Allied and Axis forces in 1939 were a peculiar period in history, when everyone knew there was going to be a fight, everyone was tooling up for the inevitable conflict, and nobody was quite prepared to commit to throwing the first punch.

Looking back over the last 12 months in the videogames industry, this has also been the year of a Phoney War. Plenty of sabres have been rattled; propoganda campaigns have been launched, and relaunched; some wild shots have gone over the bows, but as the year comes to a close, it's increasingly clear that the war we expected in 2006 has taken a rain-check. Instead, we've been left with a messy year, a year more beset by rumour and hyperbole than fact, and a year where the winners and losers in this industry are as indistinct as the accomplishments or failures which elevate them to that status.

It's traditional, at this time of year, for journalists to make their best thinking-deeply faces, chew contemplatively on the end of their pens, and bash out a few rosters of the year's most laudable and most reviled. The companies and individuals who get the thumbs up and thumbs down are trotted out for pre-Christmas plaudits (often, like any back-slapping exercise, heavily weighted not according to those whose accomplishments were finest, but according to those whose marketing budgets would be most appreciated in the coming year), we all reflect on what a fine year it's been, on how much progress videogames have made commercially and culturally, and then we lock the door of the office and disappear off to munch mince pies, wrap presents, quaff champagne and butcher Auld Lang Syne.

But who "won" this year? Taking the long view on the year of 2006, cupping our crystal balls in the hope of some insight into how this should-have-been-revolutionary year will be considered five years hence, the answers simply aren't there.

Take Microsoft, for whom 2006 should have been a triumphant march through the streets of the capital before the defending army even has a chance to roll out of bed in the barracks. The Xbox 360's head start over the PS3 grew by weeks and months as the year progressed - by May, it was clear that Microsoft had a full year in the bag. By October, a 15-month head-start in Europe was on the cards, and Sony's launch supply in Japan and America was looking utterly anaemic.

During that period of time, Microsoft ramped up shipments of the Xbox 360 to the point where we're reportedy looking at 10 million units in the next couple of weeks. Some senior industry figures will tell you that that figure is a stunning accomplishment and an almost cast-iron guarantee of future success. Other, equally senior, industry figures will tell you that it's a worryingly low figure which Microsoft has struggled towards, suggesting that the company has still failed to break out of the hardcore niche which the original Xbox occupied. Fanboys will make up their own minds, of course, regarding which interpretation they prefer - informed observers really have no idea where the truth lies.

In a few years' time, if Microsoft has done well in this generation of consoles, 2006 will be seen as a pivotal year in that success, and we'll write things like "Microsoft's strategy of launching a year in advance of its rivals proved decisive, as it built up a significant head-start which convinced third-parties to weigh in behind the system." On the other hand, if Microsoft fails to build on its market share over the coming years, we'll regard 2006 as equally pivotal - except that in that case, we'll write things like "Despite giving itself a full year head-start, Microsoft failed to exploit this opportunity - and a dearth of AAA software for the Xbox 360 during 2006, including a period of over six months with no first-party releases and a Christmas with only one major title on the shelves, negated much of the company's effort in delivering its system to market early."

The point is that we simply don't know which of those assessments will be applied to Microsoft's 2006, because we can't see enough of the picture yet to work out what's being painted. The same applies to Sony - I can imagine, in 2010, writing about this year as being a turning point which saw the tide turn against the PlayStation brand after long delays, a high price point, and a leaking of negative attitude over the firm's well-documented arrogance and cringe-worthy marketing slip-ups from the specialist press and blogosphere into the mainstream press and public consciousness. Equally, I can imagine dismissing 2006 as a blip on the radar, a set of particularly painful teething troubles which were all but forgotten within a year of launch and did little to stop the Japanese giant from striding forward to victory.

It's at points like this that I'm very glad that I can describe myself as a commentator,who merely journals events in this industry as they occur, as opposed to an analyst who claims to be able to predict future trends. 2006 has been a year in which comments and speculation from analysts have dominated the headlines like never before, quite simply because in the absence of facts, speculation will expand to fill the gap. In the presence of confusion, people who claim to be able to see futher than the rest of us will always grab headlines, even if their methods are little more than the statistical equivalent of tea-leaf reading. Not that I imagine the analysts are having much fun with their newfound profiles - I don't begrudge anyone the job of predicting trends in an industry which defies prediction.

In a year which Sony and Microsoft could just as easily come to describe as an annus terribilis as an annus mirabilis, a year in which the third-party publishers kept their heads down and tried to keep out of trouble, in which the media, the development business and every other major sector continued to slide along the rails of existing trends and waited for the platform transition storm to pass overhead, the only company which I feel I can single out as having a positive year is Nintendo. The DS is selling in numbers which should make everyone who dumped Nintendo stock the day the PSP was announced shed bitter tears, the Wii has just seen the world's first genuinely successful, well-delivered global console launch, and right now, in the post-launch afterglow, the media seems to be lying back with a genuinely contented look on its face regarding the performance of Nintendo's latest. To top it off, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess may not be the innovative marvel some had hoped for, but it's still far and away my personal game of the year, and likely to top many other lists as well.

In future, I have no doubt that we'll regard 2006 as a great year for Nintendo - but it's worth remembering that the success of the Wii is far from cemented, and there's always the nagging concern that the public may be treating the cheap and quirky console as little more than a snack between PlayStations. Much will depend - and here, once more, is the crux - on how Nintendo performs in 2007, when the software line-up for the console, its ability to leverage the goodwill accrued by the DS and the strength of the firm's marketing will decide whether 2006 was a temporary resurgence, or the beginning of a revolution (no pun intended).

So there you have it; not quite the simple honours list of thumbs up and thumbs down candidates which an end of year summary should be, but to cast an eye over the last twelve months is to cast an eye over uncertainty and confusion. Increased competition, a drive towards innovation as a basis for commercial success, and heavy investment in both software and hardware are all strong undercurrents to the year; but 2006 has, unquestionably, been a Phoney War. It will be another twelve months, at the very least, before we can see this year's events in context and make any sense from them.

On which note, I'm going to lock the door of the office and disappear off to munch mince pies, wrap presents, quaff champagne and butcher Auld Lang Syne. Happy Christmas, and a peaceful, prosperous and perhaps less confused New Year, to all of our readers!

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