It's time to decide; Who won the 7th generation console war?

After eight long years, the 7th generation of consoles is finally drawing to an end. And what an experience! While every succeeding generation brought with it significant advancements for the ever emerging gaming industry, the current generation revolutionized the market beyond what any of us could have imagined. Where before new consoles simply boasted better graphics and processing power, the current gen connected gamers around the world and turned our consoles into all-out media hubs. We’ve seen industry changing innovations, new ways to play, incredible online experiences, and greater versatility than ever before. But perhaps more importantly, the current generation legitimized games as a medium worthy of being taken seriously. Before, video games were seen as mindless, if not pointless, time-wasting fun for children and teens. As the latest best-selling game, ‘The Last of Us’, has proved, that has changed.

It’s been quite a roller-coaster for the three console giants, full of ups and downs, terrible mistakes and astounding successes. But as the 8th generation quickly approaches, and the WiiU already on sale, it’s time to ask that oh-so flame inducing question. Who won the console war?

This may be more difficult than we think, as ‘who sold more consoles’ may not suffice this time around. In fact, there are very compelling arguments that any of the three consoles could be classified as the winner. We’ll explore them all.

The Nintendo Wii

Talk about taking the console market by storm. If we were to go purely by sales alone, the Wii didn’t just win, it blew its competitors away. Thus far, the Wii has sold just shy of a 100 million units, leaving Microsoft and Sony in the dust. In fact, if Nintendo shaved off 20 million units (worldwide Gamecube sales), the Wii would still be ahead of its competitors. When the Wii launched in November 2006, it had two things going for it; it was new and exciting, and it was cheap. The Wii offered something different, something that stood it apart from the (at the time) utterly conventional Xbox 360 and PS3. It didn’t just grab the attention of gamers, it grabbed the attention of everyone. And with a launch price of $250 (a full $350 cheaper than the PS3 launch!), MS and Sony didn’t stand a chance. Indeed, up until mid-2007 the Wii sold more units than the 360 and PS3 combined.

But high sales is where the good news ends.

In every other aspect, the Wii lost. Its hardware was simply inferior, unable to even produce HD quality games and video. Its network infrastructure was atrocious, especially compared to its competitors. And although plenty of third-party titles were made available for the Wii, they sold very poorly. Here’s an astounding fact; fourteen of the top fifteen games are first-party titles. Only Ubisoft’s ‘Just Dance 2’ squeaked into the top fifteen (just barely). ‘Core’ gamers simply weren’t interested in the Wii, which had the stigma of being associated with kids and moms. This, for the most part, suited Nintendo just fine. Microsoft and Sony split the core gamers down the middle, leaving Nintendo to mop up those millions of casuals all for themselves. But the problem with casual gamers is…

They eventually stop playing. Despite the Wii’s initial success, the console soon fell far behind the 360 and PS3 in monthly sales, and never caught up. The excitement wore off and the casuals went to smartphones, leaving Nintendo with only its hardcore fans as its main user base. And according to Nielsen ratings in 2009 (the most recent I could find), the percentage of the Wii’s active users (people who regularly use their consoles) was an abysmal 5.9%, behind even the Nintendo Gamecube (8.8%). Yes, that was back in 09’ and things could have changed, but given the lack of sales and its stark decline in popularity, it’s very unlikely that the Wii’s current active user percentage even approaches the 360 or PS3.

So while the Wii sold a ton of consoles from the start, the problem is people aren’t playing them. Still, all things considered, Nintendo did sell the most consoles. And in that aspect, claiming them the victor is only natural.

Xbox 360

Easily the most versatile of the big three, the Xbox 360 has smartly adapted to the ever changing market environment, evolving as our world evolves, often leading the charge in innovation. After eight years not only is the console still relevant, it’s arguably the most current, despite being the first to launch. The 360 championed what its predecessor pioneered (online play), and is generally perceived to have the best online experience of any console. With amazing third-party support, terrific online capabilities, superb software, continuously robust sales, a wildly successful 2010 Kinect launch, and nearly 50 million users connected 24 hours a day, the Xbox 360 will indeed finish this generation very strong.

In terms of sales, it didn’t touch the Wii, but it went toe-to-toe with its Sony competitor (both sold 77 million units), despite having little success in the Japanese market. The area that Xbox 360 truly shines is in innovation. Where Nintendo and Sony have remained largely static with their systems, Microsoft has undergone drastic changes to their software and user-interface, keeping the aging console up-to-date and fresh. In fact, the 360’s online service grew 18% from last year, and has doubled its members from 2010 alone. Microsoft was able to achieve this feat by offering exclusive deals on games, movies, music, television, and apps that weren’t (or still aren’t) available on other consoles. Simply put, in the online arena, Microsoft is leading the pack. Sony and Nintendo are hobbling along.

The Kinect and Smartglass app are just more examples of how Microsoft ‘reinvents’ their system. Searching the web with the console (a previously dubious task) can now be done easily with any smartphone, and the Kinect offers not only a new way to play, but new ways to navigate through the dashboard too, whether through hand gestures or by voice. Indeed, the amount of things you can do now compared to when the console launched is quite stunning, and speaks volumes to the system’s adaptability. The beauty about the Xbox 360 is that it gets better as time goes on.

But not everything is sunshine and roses. The Xbox 360 is notorious for its hardware failures. In 2009, electronics warranty provider SquareTrade estimated Xbox 360 failure rates to be as high as 23.7%, compared to the PS3 (10%), and the Wii (2%). In fact the failures got so bad that it prompted the Vice-President of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business to write an open letter recognizing the hardware problems, while detailing a new three-year warranty implementation. Thankfully, it seems that the Xbox team fixed these issues with its later models. But the stigma that Microsoft makes bad hardware still persists, and has undoubtedly pushed many of its former users into the Sony camp.

The Xbox 360 is the oldest 7th generation console, yet it still dominates US monthly sales and continues to push the gaming industry forward in new, innovative ways. And with Microsoft’s promise to support the Xbox 360 servers for the next five year, it’ll probably outlast the other consoles as well. Remember, this console is eight years old, but it doesn’t feel that way. That’s amazing.

Playstation 3

From the start the Playstation 3 was marred with problems. Although the PS3 was unique in that it had bluray capabilities and undoubtedly the best processing power, those things came at a cost. Sony launched its new console in November 2006 at $600, the most expensive console (to my knowledge) to date. At the same time, the Nintendo Wii launched at a mere $250. With its competitors selling for significantly less ($350 less than a Wii), and with no obvious benefactor (bluray wasn’t a big deal at the time) the PS3 had a pretty terrible launch.

But, things began to change. For one, Sony managed to bring their price down closer to the Xbox 360, its main competitor. Its better processing power drew in more core gamers who up until then held off because the system was too expensive. And, perhaps most significant for getting the console on its feet, Bluray became much more prevalent. Many people purchased the PS3 simply for the Bluray capabilities alone. Suddenly, Sony didn’t seem so foolish betting on the new media format. The Playstation 3 was catching up.

Another big factor to the PS3’s gradual rise was its free online multiplayer. Unlike the Microsoft’s paid subscription and Nintendo’s laughably limited online play, Sony offered great multiplayer for all its games at no expense to the gamer. There were caveats to that—Microsoft used its Xbox Live revenue to get great exclusives that the PS3 never had—but many, if not most, core gamers simply didn’t care. Core gamers want to play games; leave the additional media to other family members. In fact, the Playstation team has done an excellent job in positioning the PS3 as the ‘gamer’s console’. Sony has only reinforced this idea with arguably the best third-party support and more exclusives than its 360 competitor.

And although the PS3 launched a full year after the Xbox 360, the two consoles are now at a virtual parity in terms of world-wide sales (roughly 77 million). That’s an amazing feat for sure, and shows quite definitively that having a large part of your user base to be core gamers is only a good thing. If there is one major criticism to the PS3, it’s that the console is the most conventional of the big three. It didn’t do anything groundbreaking or offer much innovation for this generation, instead deciding to ‘go with the flow’. Still, the PS3 is far from outdated, and its focus on games has pleased the core gamers to no end.

Verdict?

Why are you asking me? What do you think?