In the wake of E3, the Big Three move toward ...indistinguishability? 

What a ripoff

Journalists are often taught it’s in the silences, not the noise, that truth lies. You were never going to find much silence in last month’s annual Electronic Entertainment Expo. But now that the pomp and circus-stance has faded to the dull sound of crickets playing Madden 09, I think we’re confronted with a single, simple truth: In the current landscape of gaming, imitation has become the sincerest form of flattening — as in flattening out the differences between the major consoles.

Just like they do every year, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo trotted out the big screens and the big microphones for what they hoped would be perception-altering press conferences. Microsoft made the oddest splash with an abrupt demographic about-face which, at least at first glance, seemed particularly bizarre. Five years ago, Bill Gates barged his behemoth company onto the gaming stage — and bumped Sony off the throne, at least temporarily — by appealing to hardcore gamers who quickly grew to appreciate that Xbox Live was, for the most part, a stable online service — or, more accurately, a gateway to never-ending Halo 2 deathmatches. Now, as the mainstream winds of change blow across the industry like so many star-powered notes in Guitar Hero III, Microsoft is suddenly making a sharp right turn off Hardcore Highway and pointing the bus toward Casual City, the current address of the Nintendo Wii.

It’s not just the focus on family and multiplayer-friendly games the company’s execs are promising for Xbox Live Arcade. The unexpected overhaul of Xbox Live will feature customizable avatars — a direct rip-off of the lovable Miis we’ve all created on our Nintendo Wiis. I’m sure the hardcore are left wondering what the hell just happened — and what the hell is a Viva Piñata, too.

Sony, frustrated in a.) its sudden and unexpected third-place status, and b.) its several attempts to ape Nintendo by making SixAxis motion control a feature any of us care about, seems almost gleeful to baldly rip off the other thing its hated rival so successfully implemented on the Xbox 360 — achievements, those addictive little gamerscore-building exercises that gamers have turned into a never-ending online game of “whose is bigger?” On the PS3, “achievements” will be known as trophies, and they’ll come in several different metallic flavors. Hey, filling the trophy case works for Nintendo in Super Smash Bros, so if it’s good enough for MetaKnight and Kirby, it oughtta be good enough for the rest of us, right?

None of this should be surprising. It’s not like gaming is the only industry in which success launches an attack of the clones. When the West Coast offense won a passel of Super Bowls for San Francisco in the 1990s, every NFL team hired a West Coast disciple, and a league of copycats was born. Every successful TV game show, drama, or reality-TV series begets 10 others just like it. There’s a reason why so much of the fall TV season looks so much like The Hills. But the thing is, it didn’t used to be this way for gaming. Even as little as two years ago, the Big Three had distinct identities, market niches, and competitive advantages that set them apart: Sony had the mass appeal and the vast library of exclusive titles, Nintendo had the family gamers, and Microsoft catered to the hardcore online crowd.

Funny how a little cutthroat competition over a few billion dollars changes the equation. When you’re trailing in sales (as the 360 trails the Wii) and public perception (as the PS3 trails the 360), co-opting your opponent’s best features isn’t just the kind of business sense Gordon Gekko might have appreciated — it’s now a matter of survival.

Just last week, a fascinating Forbes article suggested that the lifespan of current next-gen might end up being several years longer than the three-to-six years everyone was expecting. I’m sure that’s just fine by most pocketbook-poor gamers — I challenge you to find anyone, even the most caffeinated gaming VP, who’d be willing to say with a straight face that any of the consoles have yet to achieve their fullest potential. The way things are shaping up, you have to wonder if by the time we’re ready to put our 360s, PS3s, and Wiis into storage, we’ll even be able to tell them apart.


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