Next gen controllers fight for domination

Nintendo may have pioneered the world of motion controlled gaming, but its days as the only player in the field are long over.

Microsoft and Sony, tired of seeing the Kyoto, Japan-based company steal the thunder of their souped-up videogame systems, have started to compete with the Wii on its own turf — and they’re seeing some notable success.

Sony, which released its PlayStation Move controllers in September, shipped 4.1 million units to retailers worldwide within three months (though it did not break out how many of those have sold to consumers). Microsoft, meanwhile, sold 8 million Kinect units in just two months. That’s far beyond the company’s 5 million estimate — which was raised from an initial estimate of 3 million right before the system’s launch.

“This has been the biggest holiday and the biggest year ever for Xbox,” said CEO Steve Ballmer during a keynote address at January’s Consumer Electronics Show. “The Xbox is becoming the hub of your living room.”

Connecting with Kinect

Indeed, Kinect seems to have touched a nerve with the general public. Rather than holding a motion controller (even a simplified one) in your hand, the system is equipped with a camera that can track player movements in 3D and accurately reflect them on screen. It essentially turns the players themselves into the game controller — something that seems like it was lifted from a scene in “Minority Report.”

Microsoft backed Kinect’s launch with a marketing campaign that was nearly as large as the unveiling of a new console system — and shout outs from Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres (along with just about every gift guide the media wrote last year) didn’t hurt sales.

“Kinect appears to be the fastest-selling device ever,” Jefferies and Co. wrote in a note to investors. “It is selling at 2.5 times the rate of the iPad since debut. … We see Kinect as an important psychological win for Microsoft as it seeks to regain relevance in consumer tech.”

Beyond its motion capture qualities, Kinect also recognizes audio commands — letting users play, pause and stop a movie or shuffle between music simply by talking to the peripheral.

The combination of these unique qualities has helped Kinect … well, connect with consumers.

PlayStation Move

For Sony, though, the search to find an audience for PlayStation Move has been much more difficult.

Using a combination of a camera, a handheld motion sensor and an auxiliary controller, Sony has taken the basic concepts of the Wii and greatly enhanced them. Users wave their controller in the air, as they do with the Wii, but Move is more accurate in reflecting movements onscreen — and tracks users in 3D with the camera. For instance, if they step backwards, that’s reflected in the game.

It’s a technological leap, but because it’s so similar to what Nintendo has had on the market since 2006, Sony has been fighting criticism that the product is derivative since before its launch.

Ironically, Sony has largely ignored the Wii in its marketing push for Move, choosing instead to target Kinect with viral websites like YayButtons.com, which mocks Microsoft’s decision to do away with a controller (thus, removing buttons from the consumer).

“It turns out that buttons are pretty important,” the site reads in an interactive graphic. “Not like ‘save the whales’ important. More like ‘not play games that suck’ important.”

The strategy hasn’t paid off as well as the company has hoped. Sony has only infrequently provided updates on shipments and has never released sell-through numbers for the peripheral. Anecdotally, though, retailers and other gaming industry insiders have indicated that U.S. sales of Move have been fairly disappointing, while the device has done quite well in Europe.

Sony says its strategy is to market Move to more than just casual gamers, which have been the sweet spot for Nintendo and, so far, for Microsoft. While most of the games currently out for the peripheral are not the stuff the core gamer craves, the company plans to include Move functionality in upcoming titles like “Killzone 3″ and “SOCOM 4.”

At the same time, it’s continuing a steady flow of new titles — at a much more rapid clip than Microsoft — to keep players engaged.

“The key to Move’s longterm success is developer and publisher support; enabling PlayStation to offer the most diverse line up of motion and 3D games,” said Patrick Seybold, senior director of communications for Sony Computer Entertainment America. “Since launching four months ago, PlayStation Move has introduced 50 supported titles, with close to 20 titles still on the horizon, underscoring PlayStation’s steady expansion of software titles to create what is without doubt the most exciting line-up of motion control gaming options available to consumers today.”

Nintendo’s power position

As with the larger battle among console makers, Sony and Microsoft are engaged in a fight for second place in the motion control field.

Nintendo has sold more than 34 million Wiis in the U. S. alone. Worldwide, that number is north of 75 million. Every one of those systems has a motion controller — and every one sold moving forward will as well.

It’s not just a matter of a larger installed base, though. The Wii has been out long enough that developers are familiar with the system and know how to coax the most out of it. And because it has been out for several years, there’s a hefty number of quality games available, including “Wii Sports” and “Wii Sports Resort” (both bundled with the system) — as well as “Mario Kart,” “Super Smash Bros.” and “Super Mario Galaxy.”

Momentum shift?

The one thing Nintendo lacks is momentum. Last year, the Xbox 360 nearly outsold the Wii, falling short by a mere 305,000 units. That was due, in part, to sluggish Wii sales — which saw a 26% decline from 2009 to 2010.

A price cut could goose those numbers in 2011, but analysts expect that all three systems will reduce their retail price by at least $50 this year, in part because the industry hasn’t seen a notable price cut since 2008.

Normally, after a videogame console has been on the market for five years or so, the manufacturer begins to ramp up to the introduction of its next generation. To date, though, there has been no noise — even on the rumor mill — about Microsoft or Sony preparing to launch a new system anytime soon. And there are only vague whispers about Nintendo, which doesn’t currently support high-definition content.

That’s what makes the motion control wars worth watching. The launch of Kinect and Move are, in some ways, a stopgap between generations, meant to dramatically expand the lifecycle of the Xbox 360 and PS3.

And it’s making believers out of some industry observers.

Caris & Co. analyst Sandeep Aggarwal says he expects Kinect will give Microsoft a $1.2 billion boost in its first year. Add in software purchases and that estimate hits $2 billion in gross revenue.

A good share of that revenue will be profit, too. A teardown of Kinect by UBM TechInsights estimates that the components of the controller cost roughly $56. Even with manufacturing and marketing costs — as well as retailers getting their share — that’s a hefty margin for Microsoft.

As for Sony, analysts don’t presently see Move as a substantial driver of future sales. And when it comes to Nintendo, they’re starting to wonder if the company’s incredible run at retail might be drawing to a close.

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