Sony’s Darkest Hour, And Nintendo’s New Horizon

on Tuesday, Apr. 26th

There are two big stories in the realm of video games today, both illustrating just how far the market has shifted in the past few years.

Sony’s Playstation Network was hacked last week, and the revelation today that the breach involved the accessing of gamer’s personal information– possibly even credit card numbers– has made national headlines. Just one console generation ago, the disruption of online service for a week would have been viewed as a major nuisance.

This has played out more like the end of the world.

Two major releases with heavy online components — a reboot of the Mortal Kombat franchise and the highly anticipated Portal 2 — both launched last week. The disruption of PSN has left gamers unable to take full advantage of their purchases, and could drive customers with the option to pick up those games on Microsoft’s rival 360 console.

We’ve come a long way from the days when the most important experience for a gamer was the single player campaign. The ability to play online with who you want whenever you want is now a basic expectation. Sony made the subscription free nature of their PSN service a competitive selling point when comparing their console to that from Microsoft.

Long lagging behind has been Nintendo, whose online services have long been used as punchlines for jokes in gamer circles. The Nintendo way of social networking has involved baroque numerical IDs known as “Friend Codes.” Their presence has long been interpreted as the actions of a company concerned with maintaing a family-friendly image in a media environment that often equates online video games with sexual predation.

Yet, the future of video gaming is so clearly a social one that some of the most credible rumors about the new console Nintendo will be debuting at this years Electronic Entertainment Expo centers on the system’s social aspects. Veteran game journalist¬†Sam Kennedy, Editorial Director for 1UP, ¬†published a long piece that stitched together industry rumor, press leaks, and speculation to paint a picture of what project codenamed “Cafe” will be all about.

Kennedy envisions an evolution of the Nintendo Wii’s “channel” system into a active social interface:

Imagine seeing your friend’s game in one of the screens. You click on it, and — provided you have the game too — you then seamlessly join his or her game. No waiting until the next match and no buffering to sync up consoles. Just a seamless online experience, exactly as Nintendo would want it. And the beauty of this is that the concept extends to not only new games, but potentially Nintendo’s back catalog of classics. Got a friend racing the AI in Super Mario Kart? What if the game was retrofitted so that you could hop right in at any given moment? That, my friends, may well be the promise of Project Cafe.

That the battle ground of the next console generation has gone from graphics to user experience is a testament to how much the gaming market has matured. The dominant player in the field this time out was Nintendo’s lower powered Wii, much to the chagrin of hardcore gamers who embraced the power of Sony and Microsoft’s platforms.

As a mainstream experience, the vast body of gamers- and potential gamers- want experiences that “just work”, to borrow a phrase from the wizard of Cupertino. They’ve spent the past five years voting with their wallets, making mobile phones and the iPad the most lucrative spaces for new development.

Strangest of all the gamer in me, who tends to identify more with the “hardcore” part of the community, sees Kennedy’s vision of Nintendo’s future as far more compelling than the slick new graphics engines that were shown off at this year’s Game Developer Conference.

With the balance of power having shifted in the market from raw computing power to user experience, we can only imagine the depth of pain this outage must be causing Sony.

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