Generally speaking, gamers are a funny old bunch when it comes to brand allegiance. We’re often fiercely loyal to the companies that have given us our favorite gaming memories, and that dogged passion often trumps logical choices. Even when publishers are exercising totally anti-consumer practices, it can sometimes be hard not persist in that loyalty, letting a brand become somewhat part of our personality — “fanboy,” we call it these days.
This is, perhaps, more a curiosity of human nature than anything else, yet we should at least try to form our allegiances more strategically. Surely a company should be judged equally on the user experience and the customer service it provides as well as the games it publishes? That should be especially pertinent in an environment where a vast proportion of games are the third party developed and available on multiple platforms.
After all, in an ultra-competitive games industry, it is in a publisher’s best interests to provide the best experience possible to their audience. It is time to start holding the major players of the industry accountable for how much they prioritize this initiative.
So, with that all in mind, we’ve decided to take a closer look at which platforms are providing the best user experience, ranking them according to how great they are to gamers.
Without question, Nintendo has exercised some questionable practices throughout its history. Monopolizing cartridge manufacturing and locking third parties into strict licensing deals in the 80s and early 90s, and persistent rumors of its deliberate limiting of stock to inflate demand; Nintendo has always copped flak for its controversial, albeit undeniably effective, business methodology. It has given them a terrible reputation among all but its hardcore, unwavering fan base.
To be clear, though, here we are judging gaming companies based on their current practices and those ghosts of the past are not what places Nintendo at the bottom of this ranking. In fact, Nintendo has taken some big steps already this generation with the Switch. A lack of region locking and a recent 180 turn on its decision to grant gamers unlimited access to monthly games with the upcoming online subscription service, rather than the awful rental concept, is a boon for gamers. Nintendo Directs, too, continue to prove a great way to keep its fanbase informed and engaged throughout the year.
Unfortunately, the persistence of other antiquated features on Switch is both flumoxing and hugely annoying. Friend codes, for example, make a return, having been abolished on Wii U. The system is difficult to input and generally less streamlined, even if Switch does makes things a little easier than before. Then there is the lack of the ability to back up saved games. If your Switch decides to stop working, kiss goodbye to all of your data. Next to rival consoles accomplished online functionality and modern features such as external HDD support, the Switch feels woefully lacking in areas that would certainly improve user experience and have long been requested by gamers.
It is, however, the way in which Nintendo continues to squeeze from already well-milked cash cows that is of particular frustration. The Switch has launched with no backward compatibility, and its virtual console, which is still not up and running, will require the repurchase of classic games for the umpteenth time. Why do Nintendo owners not enjoy permanent accounts as on Sony and Microsoft consoles with transferable gaming purchases? It’s hard to imagine that Nintendo is genuinely blind to the call for these features by its fans and it seems likely that interests in additional profit dictate their non-inclusion.
amiibo are awesome toys, beloved by passionate fans of Nintendo’s iconic IPs but their application to software is unsavory, forcing gamers to purchase toys to unlock in-game content. The same could also be said about the iterations of the 3DS console, which require gamers to upgrade if they want to play certain games. In fact, to make matters even worse, on the promise of exclusive content, those who bought the New 3DS XL were disappointed with a rather miniscule selection of exclusive titles — not a great return of investment. Sure, finding new ways to repeatedly monetize iconic franchises and hardware is arguably shrewd business, but in a market where gamers like options and choice, Nintendo executes an antiquated, “our way or the highway” approach that feels somewhat cold.
The lack of open communication between fans and the company, as there is with Sony and Microsoft, doesn’t help, either. Where other publishers make excellent use of social media and the press to engage with its fans, Nintendo remains silent and appears somewhat tone deaf. Cries for features such as achievement systems like PlayStation trophies and Xbox achievements go unheard. And then there are the repeated the copyright claims against YouTube and Twitch streamers. In an industry that is ever more intrinsically linked with social media and online content creation, shutting down fan discussion and the enjoyment of shared online experiences like streaming is draconian.
Sony’s “For the players” slogan has quite literally put gamers right at the center of its entire ethos. This imperative was, of course, entirely strategic, deliberately latching on to the negativity following Microsoft’s bumbling reveal of the Xbox One, Kinect, and the huge outcry over its second-hand games policy. The slogan has played its role in hammering home Sony’s pledge this generation: to focus its home console purely on gaming, actioning features and policy to enhance user experience.
The recent influx of acclaimed exclusive games for the PS4 has certainly made good on Sony’s promise. There is little question which console has won over the hearts and minds of gamers thanks to a host of great titles, but owners of Sony’s record-breaking console have had more to shout about than just software. The PS4 is providing a much-improved platform than its predecessor with respect to its user interface and features.
Indeed, having endured a comparably awful online system to the Xbox 360, which was lamented by the PS3 userbase, PlayStation owners now enjoy a far superior service with easier-to-navigate menus and a better online store with frequently discounted games. PS Plus also provides a decent free games service for monthly subscribers, despite the inevitable complaints about the which ones are chosen. A recent price increase and the presence of the mandatory minimum spend is slightly frustrating, but on the whole, unlike Nintendo with Switch, Sony seems to have listened to its users and corrected flaws that marred previous efforts.
The annual PSX event perhaps best highlights Sony’s pledge to build a PlayStation community. The convention is a celebration of everything PlayStation and has ultimately reinforced Sony’s player-centric mission statement. Recently announced remakes of fan-favorite franchise such as Crash Bandicoot and Wipeout have further gone to demonstrate Sony’s resolve to deliver gaming experiences based on fan feedback, and the fans absolutely love it.
More than any other of the big three, Sony makes a big effort to create a sense of open conversation between the company and its users. From Gio Corsi’s touting of the Vita to the cheer of fans – console in his back pocket – to Shuhei Yoshida’s appearances on YouTube channels and interviews, Sony’s informal approach has jibed well with its fans.
The Xbox One had a shaky start, but what a fantastic job Phil Spencer has done changing public opinion of the console over the past 18 months. Under its previous administration, Kinect was the console’s focus, requiring constant online connectivity, and marred by an inability to trade second-hand games. It was a PR disaster. The backlash completely undid the momentum Microsoft had started to enjoy after the 360’s success and handed the initiative straight back over to Sony. The Xbox One has been playing catch up ever since.
The upshot for gamers, though, is that Microsoft has had to seriously clean up its act. The company has been forced to put a premium on user experience, hoping to massage away the wrongdoings of the past. Microsoft now boasts the most consumer friendly mandate of the big three, and the Xbox One is packed full of retrofitted features that make it highly appealing.
E3 2015 is best remembered for Sony’s big reveal of several anticipated games, including Final Fantasy VII Remake and The Last Guardian. But Microsoft arguably had the biggest announcement, and it had nothing to do with exclusive games. The Xbox One boasted backward compatibility, a function that has grown since that initial reveal into a 375 game strong library. With Sony unable to retort, except with its limited PSN streaming service at $20 a month, the Xbox One offers unrivaled bang for buck thanks to this unique feature.
Xbox consoles have always boasted excellent online functionality and a user-friendly store, and while Games With Gold is both the same price and offers similar perks to Sony’s PS Plus, Microsoft now offers an option to refund digital purchases. Moreover, it is now complemented by the recently launched Game Pass, a game subscription service that offers hundreds of Xbox games for a monthly fee. It is also worth noting that thanks to Microsoft’s Play Anywhere functionality, digitally bought games can be played on Xbox One or Windows 10.
There have been other neat additions, too, such as the console’s custom controller designs and the excellent redesign of the Xbox One S, complete with 4K streaming and the option of a massive 2TB HDD. It all adds up to one superb user experience that has been built around a mission statement to listen to fans and better accommodate them according to their best interests.
Certainly, all of these improvements were born out of necessity. Microsoft has lost the generation and it is well aware that winning back trust among gamers starts with prioritizing user experience. All that is missing now are the games, but that might well change with the reveal of Scorpio, Microsoft’s premium console, which, incidentally, also looks more of a complete package than its PS4 Pro rival.