What Are You Hoping to Achieve? Microsoft’s Secret Weapon in the Console War

Let’s agree to this one point right up front, whoever came up with the idea of Achievements is an evil genius. Those ultimately meaningless points and their culmination in the Gamerscore have led to a revolution in the way we play games. Gamers who would normally blow through a shooter in five hours or casually jump online to play a quick match with friends are now pouring hours and hours into games just so they can see “Achievement Unlocked” keep popping up until they claim all 1000 points. Not only has this now-established phenomenon changed how we play, it’s also fundamentally altered what we buy. Achievements are Microsoft’s secret weapon in the console war, and they are why the Xbox 360 will end up winning the day.

I can tell that some of you are already rolling your eyes, claiming that the Wii is far and away the victor in this console cycle, and there’s nothing Microsoft (or Sony for that matter) can do about it. The Wii has outsold all other consoles by an astounding margin, and shows no sign of slowing down. However, hardware sales alone don’t mean much, and if Nintendo is the true victor then its multiplatform titles should outsell (or at least remain even with) the Xbox 360 version. However, when you crunch the numbers you quickly discover that this is not at all the case.

First things first, let us establish how the consoles are selling in relation to one another. In order to show my work, all numbers for this research were taken from VG Chartz. The Wii leads all challengers, selling 1.3 consoles for every Xbox 360 sold, and moving 2.1 units for every PS3. In addition, the Xbox 360 has a ratio of 1.6-1.0 in relation to the PS3. Therefore, given the higher install base of Wiis, multiplatform games should have the greatest number of sales on the Little White Wonder. Finally, if the Xbox 360 only manages to sell 1.6 the number of games as the PS3 for any given title, then it all comes out even, due to the larger install base. Following me so far? Good, let’s get to the fun stuff then.

For the purposes of this piece, I examined the top-selling video games of 2007, as reported by NPD. The numbers showed that when it came to the same game across all three next-gen consoles, the 360 consistently outsold both competitors in every scenario. It beat the Wii in both Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (1.3-1.0) and Madden (3.8-1.0), and it schooled the PS3 in Call of Duty 4 (2.0-1.0), Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (2.6-1.0), and Madden (2.8-1.0). The only game the 360 didn’t completely pwn at was Assassins Creed, where the 1.5-1.0 ratio falls within the consoles sold margin.

As you can see, when given the choice of playing the game on any platform, gamers are overwhelmingly choosing the 360, but why? Some people would claim it’s the online capabilities; that they just prefer to play on Xbox Live. This argument doesn’t hold though, as both the Wii and PS3 can go online, and their networks are free. If anything, online gaming should flourish on these two consoles, because no one is subjected to spending an extra $50 just to get a game going with friends. Others claim that the 360 is the most capable and powerful console and games just play better on that machine than any other. This is also erroneous, as recent screenshots and game reviews have revealed the 360 and PS3 to be nearly identical in every technical sense.

That leaves us with Achievements, those seemingly worthless points that serve as little more than “proof” of how good you are in the console-gamer pissing match. Gamers wear their number as a badge of honor, indisputable evidence that they are the greatest thing to happen to Halo, Guitar Hero, or any other game that requires you to commit a ridiculous number of hours to replaying the same level over and over again, so as to pull of that 100 point Achievement. Whether you like to admit it or not, you know that when you’re sitting in the lobby waiting for a game to start and you sneak a peek at someone’s Gamercard and see they’ve gotten every Achievement for this particular game, as well as 15,000 points through other titles, a feeling of both respect and fear creeps up you your back.

Unless of course, those points came from games like Cars and Avatar, then you have every right to feel disgusted and annoyed. That is perhaps the dark side to Achievements, they’ve caused people to buy and spend time on games that no human being should ever go near. How many of you have heard your friend say “Yeah, I’m waiting for Avatar to show up from GameFly. It totally sucks, but you can get all the Achievements in five minutes”? Some developers have begun to abuse the system in order to push more units, but in the quest for the almighty dollar, they don’t really care how bad the game is, so long as you buy it.

These sorts of situations play directly into Microsoft’s hands. If they can get you to buy a crappy game with the lure of easy points, then why on earth would you buy a big budget, AAA title for any other console? Once you’ve tasted the sweet nectar of Achievements, you’ll never go back. I’m willing to bet that every reasonable, non-fanboy gamer out there who owns an Xbox 360 and a PS3 or Wii, with all other things being equal, would buy the 360 version of a title simply because it has Achievements. In fact, I’ve had several people tell me personally (and I’m sure you have as well), that they bought Devil May Cry 4 for the 360 for exactly that reason.

If you need further proof of what a selling point this one concept is, look no further than Sony’s blatant copycat of the system. Recent games have boasted “Accomplishments” and “Entitlements,” proving that even mortal enemy Sony realizes when Microsoft has come up with a good thing, and would rather quietly implement their own system than continue to lose sales. Sony is also promising that once Home launches you can display your “Accomplishments” and trophies for the world to see, making it so much cooler than the 360’s silly number attached to an icon. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that Microsoft beat them to a good idea, and has been reaping the benefits of it for the past two years.

While I can throw out all manner of theoretical reasons why Achievements are winning the console war, the most important factor is sales. In this simple, objective area, Microsoft is blowing away the competition at every opportunity. Since manufacturers lose money on every console they sell, they rely on software sales to turn a profit. In this respect, the 360 is managing to do more with less when it comes to the Wii, and holding the ambitious yes sluggish PS3 at bay. Ultimately, the only Achievement the boys and girls at Microsoft care about is the “Top of the Heap” Achievement, and that only comes once the dust has settled and they reign supreme. If the numbers hold, then they’ll be hearing that lovely little chime and seeing that welcome popup in the very near future.

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