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PlayStation or Xbox?

by Jonathan Metts - October 25, 2004, 8:44 pm EDT

In many people’s minds, GameCube isn’t even a contender.

As some of you may know, my alma mater, Auburn University, is doing pretty well in football this year. During halftime of every home game, there’s a new feature this year. One star player from the team is interviewed about all kinds of silly stuff, like his favorite food, favorite stadium to play in, worst teammate to room with, etc. The question that usually elicits the most crowd response is: “PlayStation or Xbox?”

As a Nintendo fan, such a question bothers me. I’m not writing angry letters to the athletic department, though. I think the phrasing of this question is indicative of Nintendo’s position in the minds of most Americans. That is, Nintendo isn’t even a factor in gaming decisions. For young adults in the American mainstream, like the players and students at the university, there are only two choices. PlayStation or Xbox? The question doesn’t even bother calling it “PlayStation 2”. Sony’s branding is as complete as Nintendo’s was in the late 80s, except now there is at least one competitor worthy of being mentioned. With Sony’s next system almost certainly being called PlayStation 3, and a good chance that Microsoft’s new console will be named Xbox 2, the problem for Nintendo only worsens. If this exact same question is still being asked in five years, ostensibly about the next round of systems, then Nintendo will have failed yet again to win its share of the young American consumer’s mind.

This is a question I hear asked among many people my age. It’s one of those conversation starters used at parties. When someone visits your home and sees both systems under the television, they ask it out of curiosity. In my home, they usually ignore the GameCube, thinking it’s probably just there for Zelda or Metroid. This is the kind of question whose answer means little but helps you to draw a portrait of a new acquaintance. It resides alongside “Boxers or Briefs?”, “Democrat or Republican?”, and in this state, “Alabama or Auburn?”. The question is always phrased with two choices, because we like to think that people can be dumped into simple categories, for or against. This or that. PlayStation or Xbox.

I know a lot of people at Nintendo of America, and I try to be honest with them when we discuss how the company is doing. When I say that marketing is their biggest problem, sometimes they are shocked. After all, NOA spends tens of millions of dollars each year on marketing. They air thousands of TV commercials. They put demo kiosks in stores. They host lavish parties where celebrities are invited to come play the newest games in return for photo opportunities. Nintendo may spend more or less money and effort on marketing than their competitors in any given year, but that’s not what matters. The aggregate effectiveness of NOA’s marketing campaigns can be summed up in three words: “PlayStation or Xbox?” I can’t tell this multinational corporation how to fix its image. I don’t know exactly what they’re doing wrong. I’m no expert in business or marketing or anything else that pertains to Nintendo’s success, except gameplay. But I can, as well as anyone else, see the results of Nintendo’s failure to capture the public mindset in this country. And I can surmise how much the effect will be magnified if the company can’t revive their image through yet another generation in this industry. I hope that the next time it’s cool to talk about Nintendo isn’t in the year is 2025, when retro culture is all the rage (again).

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