Will Nintendo Become The Next SEGA?
Could Nintendo, one of gaming’s most powerful companies, suffer the same terrible fate as the once-great Sega?
Recently, it has come to light that Microsoft has some pretty strict rules about games they allow to be on their console; namely they must have the same release date and content as other versions of the game. If these conditions aren’t met, Microsoft can deny that title’s release on the Xbox 360. This applies to both retail games and Xbox Live Arcade games. Sony has responded claiming that Microsoft “is protecting an inferior technology”. All of this made me realize that I had heard of a company doing something similar before.
Back when they were truly the dominant company in video games, Nintendo had a similar policy. In the late 80’s, the NES had a near monopoly on the video game market and Nintendo had strict rules for third party developers. They had to sign a contract saying they would develop only for the NES, and would only make five games a year. Also, Nintendo had a authentication chip installed into every console and game cartridge it licensed. If the two didn’t match, the game wouldn’t play. Nintendo also fought against companies who would change the code of the games released for the NES with third party accessories, such as the Game Genie and Pro Action Replay.
Because Nintendo had such power over the industry as a whole, many developers agreed to the conditions. Competitors in the market such as the Atari 7800 and the Sega Master System were left to rely on their own first party titles to drive their systems as well as the few third party developers who didn’t agree to Nintendo’s policy. Today, although they don’t have as much power as Nintendo did, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 is the console for hardcore gamers this generation. The Wii doesn’t have that install base and the PlayStation 3 is only now gaining momentum. Part of the reason for this (maybe the main reason) is because Microsoft appeared to have a strong relationship with third party developers.
As they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Going back to the NES, some publishers (including Atari under the name Tengen) started releasing games for the NES without Nintendo’s permission by finding ways to trick the authentication chip. One way was by connecting a licensed game onto their game by means of a dongle like connection on the game cartridge itself. Another way was by simply disabling the chip by means of a voltage spike. Eventually, publishers started to defect to other consoles and when the Sega Genesis was released, it proved to be a worthy opponent to the NES, and later to the SNES. Another one of their policies was their position on violence in video games. The release of Mortal Kombat to both the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo showed that gamers wanted the game unfiltered, and the bloodless SNES version was outsold four-to-one by the ultra-violent Genesis version. Nintendo had to stop their strict policy and be more catering to third parties. Unfortunately, Nintendo has become less inviting to third party developers since the Nintendo 64. As such the N64 suffered from a lack of quality games from third parties and although relations have improved slightly, Nintendo still suffers from third party support in all of its platforms. All of the best games from the Nintendo 64, GameCube, and Wii are either first party or second party games.
It appears that history is trying to repeat itself. By no means am I a fanboy of Microsoft, but the Xbox 360 is my favorite console this generation and I think it’s one of the best consoles ever. If these policies are the way they are getting these games onto the platform, then Microsoft is going to be in trouble come next generation. Developers don’t want to be stymied by rules and will eventually move onto another platform. Nintendo learned this the hard way and appear to still be trying to figure this out. Even Sega failed to learn this lesson, albeit in a different way, due to the failure of the Sega Saturn, and now they are no longer in the hardware market. This is not to say these policies altogether are unnecessary.
Standards are essential in video games. Allowing a mountain of crap to befall your console will damage the integrity of it and will do more damage than the good titles can repair. It happened to the Atari 2600 and that’s why these policies are in place. However, when you have too tight a grip on your own platform, you lose out on good titles. There are other factors, sure, like the architecture of the console itself and whether it’s easy to develop for or not. Good business relationships are the backbone of any arrangement in video games. As such, this is why the PS3 has great games for its challenging platform. I just hope Microsoft finds a way to loosen its grasp on developers so they can make great games for everyone. We don’t need two Nintendos in this industry.