Playstation All-Stars Shows That Sony’s Greatest Strength Is Their Greatest Weakness
Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale was Sony’s answer to Nintendo’s Smash Brothers series. This is not to necessarily say the game is a rip off, but clearly Sony was looking at the success of Nintendo’s prized fighting franchise with green eyes when they decided to pursue their own fighting game franchise. Whether the game is a rip off or not is a matter that’s already been debated to death, and not something I’m going to talk about here. While I’m not going to compare the mechanics or art style of the two games, there is one element I’d like to point out that is worth consideration; the two game’s respective rosters. In comparing the rosters of the two games, we can see a major difference between the two companies and their overall software development philosophy.
Nintendo’s most recent Smash game features 33 Nintendo characters (not including Sheik or Zero Suit Samus as separate characters, counting Pokemon Trainer as one entity and not counting Snake or Sonic). Of these 33 characters, 21 came from franchises that started on the NES or pre NES systems. 11 characters were born from Super Nintendo era franchises. No characters came from franchises born during the N64 era (the Pokemon franchise launched just prior to the N64 in Japan). One character came from a franchise that originated in the Gamecube era. No characters came from the Wii era, although this is understandable as Brawl began development before the Wii was released.
Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale features 14 Sony characters (not including Toro or Evil Cole*). Of these characters, 4 of them came from franchises that came from the original Playstation. Five of those characters came from franchises born in the PS2 era. Five characters came from franchises that sprung to life on the PS3.
In general, these characters represent the biggest of each company’s franchises (although some franchises like Gran Turismo or Animal Crossing were omitted because they were ill suited for fighting games). There is a clear difference here between the two companies. Nintendo’s Smash Brothers and Sisters came disproportionately from Nintendo’s early years. All but 1 character in Smash Brothers comes from a franchise that was made before 1997. Olimar is the lone representation of Nintendo’s later years. Sony’s All-Stars are spread pretty evenly throughout Sony’s time in the video game era. This speaks to Sony’s greatest strength as a game developer, but also shows off their greatest weakness. Similarly, Nintendo’s roster also speaks to their greatest strength while opposing their greatest flaws.
*A couple of notes about my counts. I counted Toon Link but not Evil Cole because Toon Link is a distinct character from a different game and time period while Evil Cole is the same character. Rob was a gray area because I don’t believe he was an actual character in Gyromite or Stack Up, but I included him in the NES section. Pokemon came out in Japan before the N64, but after the N64 in the US. I counted the Pokemon as coming from SNES era franchises. You may wish to classify these characters differently than I did, but that wouldn’t really change the trend.
Sony’s Strategy: Quick We Need More IPs!
Sony’s strategy in terms of game development is quite clear. Sony creates franchises, and lots of them. Even now, as the Playstation 3 is entering what will likely be the last year of its pre-PS4 life cycle, Sony has is still investing in new franchises. Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale itself is a new franchise to an extent, and this year will see Sony release the Last of Us, and Beyond: Two Souls. This is not a new phenomena for Sony. As the PS2 approached its end, Sony was still releasing games. Some of Sony’s finest games, such as Shadow of the Colossus and God of War, came towards the end of the PS2 generation. This is a sharp contrast to Nintendo’s strategy. Without grassroots efforts to bring games like the excellent Xenoblade to the US, the Wii’s last year would have been bereft of worthwhile titles.
The benefits of Sony’s strategy can be seen as you look at its sales throughout the years. Sony’s PS3 was a distant third in the home console market for several years, but has been coming on strong in the latter half of the console cycle. The PS3 is on track to wrest the second place spot from Microsoft’s clutches, and will have momentum on its side for the PS4 launch. I believe that Sony’s success can largely be attributed to their steady stream of new IPs. The only way to reach out to new audiences is with new products.
However, Sony’s method also has its drawbacks, and the sales of Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale, which has sold right around 500,000 units right now, show this pretty clearly. Sony’s franchises simply don’t have the same appeal and devotion as Nintendo’s stable of games. Sony has had struggles pushing their franchises to the levels that it’s rival’s IPs have reached, and has even more trouble staying there. Franchises like Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Jak and Daxter, Parappa the Rappa, and Twisted Metal have faded or disappeared completely for one reason or another as Sony has transitioned between platforms. Meanwhile, many franchises like Mod Nation Racers, MAG, War Hawk, and Lair have had a hard time taking off.
To take a look at the negative effects of this strategy, take a look at the PS Vita and the 3DS. Each handheld struggled at the beginning of its life. Nintendo reacted with a price cut, but this only provided a moderate boost in sales. The 3DS fortunes were really turned around upon the release of games like Mario Kart 7 and Super Mario 3D Land. Meanwhile, Sony doesn’t have a franchise that could provide such an impact. Uncharted is already available on the system, and Little Big Planet proved little help for the Vita. Perhaps a slow but steady drip of new IPs can help the Vita, but the fact is Sony could use a heavy hitter right about now.
Nintendo’s Strategy: Just a Spoonful of Mario Makes the Medicine Go Down
Nintendo is, in a way, like Marvel. Like the comic book giant, Nintendo focuses on a core stable of characters, most of which were developed in the company’s early days. Marvel often repackages their characters in new ways. It is quite routine to have a book focusing on an alternate version of a character, such as Ultimate Spider-man, Marvel’s 1602 universe, or Marvel’s emerging movie universe, but it’s relatively rare to see a truly new Marvel character join the ranks of Spider-man and Captain America.
Nintendo similarly chooses to utilize their existing roster in new ways rather than creating new IPs. It’s not uncommon for Nintendo slap a familiar face on a new franchise. Most people are aware that Dinousaur Planet became Star Fox Adventures and that Kirby’s Epic Yarn originally starred Prince Fluff. Many people don’t seem to recognize that Nintendo has always applied a subtle version of this strategy.
Nintendo launched the Gamecube with Luigi’s Mansion. While this game featured some characters from the Mario franchise, nothing about its gameplay suggested any link to Mario’s adventures. Luigi could have been replaced with any shmuck with a vacuum. Similarly, Mario Party, Mario Kart, Paper Mario, Mario vs Donkey Kong, Mario Tennis, and Mario Golf, don’t have much to do with the Mario franchise aside from coins and other superficial elements. Mario often tricks people into thinking they’re playing something like Mario Bros when they’re actually playing something quite different.
Nintendo is essentially hiding new IPs by covering them with familiar franchises. Pinball games are not typically a gold mine, but throw in some Pokemon and suddenly you have a game that sells five million copies. Wario Ware was a truly bizarre franchise, that in some ways predicted the mobile gaming craze, but the presence of a familiar character grounded the experience for fans. As a kid, I had never played an RPG game before, but Super Mario RPG convinced me to dip my toes in the RPG pool. Nintendo mixed the obscure Nobunaga’s Ambition franchise with Pokemon to convince young gamers to give strategy RPGs a chance. Mario, and to a lesser extent Nintendo’s other characters, serve to ease gamers into new gameplay experiences. Nintendo may not technically be creating new IPs, but they are creating novel forms of gameplay.
Nintendo’s strategy has paid dividends as I explained earlier with the 3DS. Even beyond that, you need only look at Nintendo’s franchises to see their success. Nintendo’s tweaks and reinventions have kept their franchises fresh over many years. Mario’s main games regularly sell 10 or even 20 million copies, and this appeal spills over into games like Super Paper Mario, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games, and so on. Nintendo has a number of franchises that they could use when in need, and I imagine games like Wii Fit U, Super Mario, Mario Kart, and Smash Bros will provide the Wii U a nice boost when they release.
As with Sony’s strategy, Nintendo’s also has its drawbacks. Putting the Mario label on a new idea may be a great way to speak to the Nintendo faithful, but that has just the opposite effect on those are not already among Nintendo’s dedicated fans. It is difficult, if not impossible, to appeal to new fans with old faces. If a gamer did not enjoy Super Mario Galaxy or Mario Kart, they’re unlikely to be interested in Super Mario Water Polo. Conversely, new IPs can draw in fans outside of your established base. I wasn’t a fan of God of War or Killzone on the PS2, so new entries in those franchises did nothing to sell me on the PS3. Infamous and Heavy Rain on the other hand were shiny and new, so their arrival on the PS3 piqued my interest and encouraged me to buy the system.
Who Is Wrong And Who Is Right?
Sony and Nintendo each clearly have a different view of what will lead them to success in the business. Nintendo’s strategy has led them to a stable of true blockbuster franchises that have earned Nintendo an incredibly devoted core fanbase. On the flip side, Nintendo’s consistent image has made it hard to reach out to “hardcore gamers” outside their established fanbase. Mario’s smiling face is hardly what it takes to appeal to Call of Duty fans. Meanwhile, Sony’s consistent release of new IPs are a good way of slowly but surely building a fanbase, but is a poor way to create the sort of devotion that Nintendo enjoys.
In the end Nintendo and Sony’s biggest strengths wind up being their biggest weakness. Sony needs franchises (besides Gran Turismo) that can reliably make fans go wild. To this end, Sony needs to rethink their strategy regarding their existing IPs. Nintendo needs to more frequently stray out of their comfort zone. They need to create experiences that cause people to reevaluate how they view Nintendo.
The best companies are those that can learn from their competitors and incorporate their successful strategies into their own business models, which is quite different from stealing ideas. Nintendo and Sony would both be wise to observe and learn from each other to grow their businesses and respective fanbases.