Thursday, March 26, 2009

And lo, unto the seventh generation...

According to Wikipedia, we are now in the seventh generation of video game consoles. I worked in the industry from the second generation to the fifth. Let's take a look at the biggest winner in each generation and some of the successful also-ran platforms.

1st generation: 1972-1977
Magnavox Odyssey

This was the best selling console, but no one will say how much it sold. Someone had to take those bold first steps, and Magnavox was the first out of the gate. I never played it, and as far as I can tell, the controller had two knobs on either side of a box you held.

Magnavox had a patent on moving things around on a video screen with a controller, and the most money they made was suing manufacturers of later generation systems. I don't know if the patent has run out or they are still glomming onto profits in the seventh generation, but I know for a fact they nailed the companies in the second generation at the very least.

Atari also had a first generation machine, not pictured here, that let you play Pong.

(Picture from the collection of the Electronic Entertainment Museum.)

2nd generation: 1976-1984
Atari 2600 (30 million sold)

The first superstar. The one button joystick, the one button paddle to play Pong and Breakout. This little puppy ruled the roost for nearly ten years, and the competition lagged far behind. There was a time when Atari was a false generic. People would call any video game "an Atari", even though in the arcade, Atari had many successful competitors, including Namco, Williams and Nintendo.

2nd generation also-rans
Mattel Intellivision (3 million units sold) Colecovision (6 million units sold)

You might recall that the Intellivision screens looked better than the Atari 2600. Mattel made commercials highlighting this fact featuring... George Plimpton. (What, Bennett Cerf wasn't available?) The advertising didn't help much. There were more games, and in my opinion more good games, on the Atari 2600. Intellivision was soon eclipsed by the last of the 2nd generation platforms, Colecovision, which had much prettier games than either Atari or Mattel.

Did you know that Coleco is short for Connecticut Leather Company? Before the video game craze, Coleco's flagship product were above-ground swimming pools made of leather.

3rd generation: 1983-1992
Nintendo Entertainment System (60 million units sold)

Here is the future. Instead of a joystick, a cross with four directions. Two buttons instead of one. Select and start buttons on the controllers instead of the on the console. Nintendo had much better hardware than Atari, which is to be expected in a platform that is released six years later, and they had star franchises in Donkey Kong and the Mario Brothers. Sega would introduce the Sega Master, which sold a respectable 13 million units, but just as Atari dominated the second generation, Nintendo dominated the third. Atari kept trying, releasing the Atari 7800. None of their platforms would get close to the success of the 2600, while the new platforms from Japan would eclipse the Atari sales number completely.

4th generation: 1987-1996
Super Nintendo (49 million units sold)

So much for the two button future. Now it's a cross and four buttons. Note that the Super Nintendo sold less units that the original Nintendo, though it was clearly a success. Part of this might be because it was released a mere four years after the original Nintendo, and users were loyal to the older hardware. Super Nintendo also had a strong second place competitor, and at the end of the 4th generation, people were saving their pennies to buy the much anticipated 5th generation.

4th generation also-rans
Sega Genesis (29 million units sold)

Part of the erosion of sales for Nintendo was the rise of Sega, with their star Sonic the Hedgehog. Genesis games were good at going really fast, and they pushed this as their competitive advantage. They didn't knock Nintendo off the throne, but they were the first second place platform to have more than half the sales of the top dog. The third place platform, not pictured here, was NEC TurboGrafx, which sold 10 million units.

4th generation hand helds
Game Boy (119 million units sold)

Here it is, Nintendo's great leap forward. They would face a very serious competitor in the 5th generation home platforms, but in the 4th generation they produced the first successful hand held video game and carved a niche they dominate to this day. I don't think I owned a Game Boy, but I did have access to one. I was crazy for Tetris and Golf.

5th generation: 1993-2002
Sony PlayStation (102 million units sold)

What could scare dominant Nintendo? Only Sony, Japan's home electronics giant. The Sony PlayStation was highly anticipated, and by all accounts a great success. The controller didn't go with more buttons, but with a shape much easier to hold in two hands. Strong graphics, strong gameplay and the Sony brand name. Video games were here to stay without a doubt.

5th generation also rans
Nintendo 64 (33 million units sold)

To my mind, anything that sold more units over its lifetime than the Atari 2600 is hard to call a failure, but this was certainly a step down for Nintendo. Notice that their controller looks like a "me too, but with more buttons!" version of the PlayStation controller. The Sega Saturn sold 17 million units, not bad but not great, and two American competitors, the 3D0 and Atari Jaguar, died miserable deaths due to the good hardware, not enough software problem.

6th Generation: 1998-2006
Sony PlayStation 2 (140 million units sold)

The roost. Sony rules it. Note the return of the joystick, in fact, double mounted joysticks. Still, the shape of the controller now seems etched in stone.

6th generation also-rans
Microsoft Xbox (24 million units sold) Nintendo GameCube (22 million units sold)

So who could scare Sony? Not Microsoft, at least not with their first attempt at game hardware. The Xbox was able to knock Nintendo out of second place, but now, Xbox and GameCube were competitors to PS2 the way Mattel and Colecovision were competitors to Atari, competitors in loosest definition of the term. It's Sony's world, others just live in it. Sega, the perennial bridesmaid, released the Dreamcast, not pictured here, which sold 11 million units.

6th generation hand helds
Game Boy Advance and Game Boy SP (124 million units sold)

Nintendo does find some solace in the complete dominance of the hand held market. These little things guarantee profits for years to come. They also guarantee that a generation of young people are going to need reading glasses before the age of 30 due to eye strain.

7th Generation: 2005-present
Nintendo Wii (45 million units sold)

Remember what I wrote about controller shape being etched in stone? Remember what I wrote about it being Sony's world?


While the 7th generation is not yet over, Nintendo pulls off the first major comeback in the history of home video games. Worst to first in one generation by changing what a controller looks like.

7th generation also-rans
Microsoft Xbox 360 (29 million units sold) PlayStation 3 (21 million units sold)

Again, not all precincts have reported, but right now Xbox still holds a lead ove the PS3. Xbox 360 was released a year earlier, so the Sony machine may pass the Microsoft hardware eventually. Wii was released at the same holiday season as PS3, so it will take a miracle for either of these to catch it.

7th generation hand-helds
Nintendo DS (96 million units sold)

What I said about reading glasses before the age of 30? Nintendo's tinier screen is trying to push that down to 25.

7th generation hand held also-rans
PlayStation Portable (50 million units sold)

Here's something new. A viable second place competitor to the dominant hand held platform, someone to compete seriously with Nintendo in the market they have dominated completely for twenty years, crushing all previous competitors. (Oh, Atari Lynx, we hardly knew ye.) For the young people today who have never known a world without video games, this is clearly not a fad, but an important part of life, just as TV was to my generation.

Personally, I got into teaching as penance for being part of the early generation of workers in the field, but I still enjoy a video game break now and then. Bubble Spinner (no link provided, too evil) can still suck away a half hour of my life or more if I don't keep a close eye on the clock.

Oh, all right, just one more game.


Dr. Zaius said...

I don't understand these printers. Where do you put the paper and ink in?

Distributorcap said...

scary thing is i remember some of those consoles -- i think my father used to complain we were breaking him when he had to buy a new game

wgungfu said...

Please be advised, the above photo of my Magnavox Odyssey console is being used in violation of it's Wikipedia license. Specifically "This photo is free to use as long as credits to Martin Goldberg and/or Electronic Entertainment Museum (E2M), are maintained."

Paul Nguyen said...

thanks for my childhood

Matty Boy said...

Paul, you are welcome. Other people have said similar thngs to my face, but they were usually more along the lines of "Thanks for ruining my childhood."