Console Wars: Available Video Games

I’ve been making my way through Malstrom’s Articles lately (thanks to Shamus for pointing them out) and have found them to be perceptive and fascinating reading. Sean Malstrom wanted to learn about how companies succeed. In order to do so, he chose to examine a company that was “exploding in wealth.” Having missed the iPod explosion, he chose to examine Nintendo. In doing so, he has made several interesting observations about their business strategy. In particular, he has identified the two major driving forces behind Nintendo’s actions: Blue Ocean Strategy and Disruption. This is not something you read about in typical media accounts of the console wars, but ironically, Malstrom was able to discern Nintendo’s strategy by simply listening to Nintendo executives talk about their plans. In any case, Malstrom’s articles are long and detailed and his points are well made. In Drowning in the Blue Ocean, Malstrom speculates about what defines console generations and comes to the conclusion that the software (i.e. games) is more important than the hardware (i.e. consoles).

The real reason why the Playstation 1 and 2 succeeded was because Sony corrected (to a point) the licensing issues of Sega and Nintendo but more due to the fact that Sony flooded their console with software. The number of software available for the original Playstation was beyond any other system ever. It was this vast library that shot the Playstation up.

Way back when the original NES hit the market, Nintendo imposed certain licensing limitations and content standards (i.e. censorship). They were the only game in town, and their limitations were imposed for a reason. However, competition appeared in the form of Sega (specifically, the Genesis), who competed along similar lines. Meanwhile, Sony sat along the sidelines (briefly flirting with Nintendo in a failed attempt to bring their CD technology to the SNES), observing that first console war, until they released the first Playstation (based on the same technology they were going to provide to Nintendo). Their licensing was more leniant than Nintendo or Sega, so the available games skyrocketed. This continued into the PS2, which wins the available game count by a massive margin. The idea is that the more games a console has available, the more popular that console becomes. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. The quality and variety of gaming experiences is also important and plays into this. However, looking at the number of available games tends to be a good approximation, perhaps because developers are seeking to make money, so they will favor the more popular systems. This positive feedback loop only serves to reinforce the winner. There are many other factors that help determine the value proposition for a given console, but I became interested in the available games (or size of library, as Malstrom calls it) metric because it seems to follow from the other factors (i.e. a cheap system with cheap development costs can lead to more games).

So if the number of games available is a reasonable proxy for which system is winning a console war, how do the current consoles stack up?

Chart of Available Video Games

Despite the fancy chart, I have to admit that there are several caveats. But the data is also interesting in many ways, as it mostly correllates with my expectations (confirmation bias? Perhaps…).

  • The data all comes from Wikipedia, particularly the pages that list games for the Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3. I compiled all the data in a Google Spreadsheet here, if you want to take a look. Given that my main source admits that the lists of games are incomplete (and indeed, “may never be able to satisfy certain standards for completeness”), you should probably take it with a grain of salt. If anyone knows of a more rigorous dataset that is available, I’d be interested to get my hands on it.
  • Given the rather high number of games on each list (even the PS3, which has the fewest games), I haven’t examined the lists very closely. This means that there is no indication of the quality or variety of available games. This is an important factor, because quantity alone is not everything. That said, I don’t know if it’s reasonable to assume that the number of games available is an indicator that the market has chosen a winner and is thus allocating resources accordingly…
  • The game lists include games that are scheduled to be released in 2009. I don’t know how comprehensive that is, but I’m assuming that the margin of error is similar for all three consoles (again, considering that the source is Wikipedia, this might night be a wise assumption).
  • It’s also worth noting that the number of games available does not tell us anything about the number of games actually sold for each system. It would hardly matter if Wii had command of the numbero of games offered if PS3 games had outsold Wii games by a factor of 10 to 1. Of course, that does not appear to be the case and I’d be really surprised if the PS3 even began to approach the Wii in terms of games sold (let alone surpass them) – the point is that I don’t have any data about this. Again, if anyone has a set of data for this, I’d be interested.
  • I’ve compared the number of games along several vectors, but my main focus was on titles available in the U.S. Interestingly, while the Wii is far and away the winner among all categories, their percentage of games that are unavailable in the US (over 20% of Wii games listed are not available in the US) is much higher than either the PS3 or Xbox (which are more like 7-8%).
  • I was curious about excusivity, so I included some stats about that as well. The Xbox and PS3 were much closer than I thought they’d be, especially considering the Xbox’s head start. I didn’t have a number for the Wii though because the Wii’s unique controller scheme presumably means that nearly every available Wii game is exclusive. I suppose there are some exceptions, such as the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games, which have the same interaction as the other consoles. There are other mitigating factors as well. The aforementioned Guitar Hero and Rock Band games have a wealth of downloadable bonus content on PS3 and Xbox, while the Wii does not have this yet (apparently it’s coming soon though). Also, while many games that are ported to the Wii take advantage of the unique controller system, they are also often missing content that is in other consoles. For instance, a game like Madden 2008 features some nifty Wiimote controls (I can throw a better touch pass than McNabb!), but it doesn’t feature some of the deeper general mangement or franchise features (not positive how drastic the difference is though). Similarly, the downgraded graphics and level design for games ported to the Wii turns away some people (The Force Unleashed is apparently an example of this). This makes it difficult to say – does it count if the Wii is exclusively worse than the other consoles? Even that is a subjective measure, though, so I just left the number off (plus the wikipedia list I used doesn’t have a column for exclusivity, while the Xbox and PS3 lists do). In the end, I’d say the number of completely exclusive Wii titles probably still far outweighs the other two consoles.
  • I also included some data regarding downloadable content for each console. Again, the Wii is the clear winner. The amount of games offered by Wii’s Virtual Console (which feature many old but classic NES, SNES, Genesis, etc… games) and Wiiware are higher than the XBox Live Arcade and Playstation Network offerings combined. When combined with the Wii’s advantage in regular games, you can see that the Wii has a commanding lead over the rest of the market. I’m not sure which metric is the best to use to compare the systems though…
  • While there does appear to be a correllation between console sales and the amount of video games available for each system, it’s debateable how much of a factor it plays in the competition. If you look at the percentages in the data, you can see that in raw numbers for amount of games available, the Xbox 360 is offering about 74% as much as the Wii is offering (PS3 is at 52%). In terms of consoles, the Xbox has only sold about 62% as much as the Wii (PS3 is at 47%). If number of games was truly an indicator of the success of a given system, I would expect those numbers to have a closer correllation (though the PS3 numbers are pretty close). Perhaps the difference is due to the quality or variety of games, or perhaps the Wii has so thoroughly won this generation that it has pulled away in terms of console sales, no matter how many Xbox games are added (winning consoles have the benefit of positive feedback loops, etc…).
  • If the Playstation and PS2 were so great about making sure they had a huge library of games, what the heck is going on with the PS3? There are a couple of potential answers. First, in comparison to the Xbox, PS3 isn’t that bad, especially when you consider that the Xbox had about a 1 year head start. Second, in comparison to the Wii, it’s obvious that the PS3’s advanced technology is getting in the way. Nintendo has actually said that their plan is to flood the market with games (I think they learned this from the PS and PS2 consoles). Wii games are standard definition, run on relatively old and established hardware, and are apparently much easier to develop than PS3 games, which are in HD and run on brand new, cutting edge hardware that no one understands yet. PS3 games take much longer to produce and are also much more expensive, which could explain why the Wii has so many more games. For that matter, the Xbox suffers from similar advanced technology problems. Furthermore, because the Wii’s games take less time and effort, they are also more profitable. This is something that will also lend positive reinforcement to the Wii’s already hefty lead…

Ultimately, I don’t think I have enough data to say for sure whether or not there is a really firm correllation between number of games available and the success of a given system. There does seem to be some evidence of this, but correlation does not imply causation and I think better data sets are needed. Funnily enough, Malstrom has some graphs in his article which have a value breakdown accross a number of features. He doesn’t list where he got his data though, and it’s clear that he’s simply attempting to make a broader point about how Nintendo is focusing on areas that the PS3 and Xbox are not (if you look at the various plots, Nintendo is almost the inverse of the PS3 and Xbox).

Nintendo is the clear winner in terms of sales right now, and it appears that the amount of games available correllates with that. I’m really curious to see how Nintendo leverages their position to attract gamers away from the Xbox and PS3, or if that’s even possible. As I mentioned in my recent overview of the consoles, I’m not sure how well they’ll be able to make that transition. So far, they’ve experienced great success just by making gaming different and interesting again. Since “fighting disinterest” seems to be their goal, I’m interested to see how they’ll apply it to more advanced games and concepts (I’m no expert and haven’t played that many Wii games, but so far, I don’t think they’ve managed to transcend their original goal – Malstrom seems to think they will, but I am not so sure).

Update: According to this page, there are just over 200 exclusive Wii titles. This is approximately twice what the PS3 or Xbox offer… Also, added another bullet about the challenges of developing new PS3 games versus Wii games…