The Blue Ocean is deep

I worry this morning that the table has been set for a repeat of the early 1990’s.

The industry is healthy, with two of the three console makers selling their wares briskly, and the slow trickle of software that was the first six months of the “next generation” is set to increase as we head into and out of the summer doldrums. Well, it’s set to increase in the Nintendo corner anyway, with those 100+ first party games being in development. Gamespot is saying it could be as high as 124, although they might not all make it to production (hey, just like Nibris!).

On the surface that kind of news is great for Nintendo, but as the title of the post says, the Blue Ocean is as deep as it is wide and I fear the potential exists beneath the surface for another dark era in Nintendo gaming.

The irony is Nintendo, so far, has not returned to the monopolistic levels of its former SNES-era self. Instead, Nintendo’s competitors are dropping the ball, and by doing so are opening a vast hole in the industry that Nintendo may find too tempting to resist (some would argue that Nintendo has already begin to reshape the industry in its own image, again, so this may be a moot point).

So how is the competition mucking things up? To answer that I’ll not go into detail about the PS3; it’s foibles and follies are well-documented here and elsewhere. No, it’s the current leader, Microsoft, that has me worried. Their Xbox 360, once a shoe-in for front runner status thanks to a great game library and robust online presence, is quickly becoming 2007’s house of cards. After Q4’s channel stuffing debacle, 360 sales have plummeted.

Seeking Alpha:

XBox 360 is a console that should be hitting its stride now nearly 18 months after introduction — instead, its sales are declining and not hitting their goals. Eighteen months into Apple’s (AAPL) iPod rollout — a product which sold at the time for more than the XBox 360 — it had sold nearly 30 million units. Microsoft is struggling to achieve less than half that.

The 360 will not meet its sales goals this quarter, and this is after one slash in forecasts already. The PS2 (remember that?) consistently outsells the 360 month over month.

And speaking of that slim little black system (what the Xbox 360 Elite wishes it was), the PS2 sells like gangbusters everywhere. In game industry years, the thing is one foot in the grave of obsolescence, and yet it still sells. And thanks to what? A great library. Does this mean that gamers had already accepted the next gen wasn’t going to be all about graphics? Was industry already begging or ready for a new direction? I’m certainly no expert, but what I do know is both Sony and Microsoft were all too eager to dismiss the massive fan base of the PS2 in the name of “more power.” 100 million consoles sold, and apparently they meant nothing. What gamers were told was that the big companies knew what was good for them, and that their desire for game play was second seat to horsepower and the “media center strategy.”

Enter Nintendo. Going left while the industry goes right … over a cliff. The potential exists for a huge void. The last time I saw such a void was in 1986. Sure, I was only six years old at the time, but I took notes, dammit. The NES took the Americas and the world by storm, and video games became synonymous with Nintendo. For a Nintendo fan like me, that kind of environment is great in the short term, but I had always assumed the competition was going to sack up and deliver some appealing alternatives. Sure there were the GoW’s and Halo’s, but those formulas are stale to the void that exists outside of the XBox’s 10 million strong base. Hell, they may even be stale to some of those inside the base — just look at those falling numbers.

My hope lies in the DS. Both as a system and as a strategy. The DS is the market leader and was only threatened by the PSP for a few months, if that. Regardless of that fact, Nintendo was still able to push great IP in the absence of competition. There’s nothing in the cards that says they can’t or won’t do that with the Wii. It could be a rare case of innovation in the absence of competition.

But the risk for the old 90’s monopoly practices still exists, so I’m packing a life preserver.