Things are hotting up in the "next generation" console wars, after a flurry of announcements in recent months from console hardware manufacturers. Developers and publishers are jumping from one platform to the other, determined that they will be the one to produce the next big game on the next big console. To say the industry looks like a circus at the moment is an understatement.

So, what is motivating developers to develop for one platform over another? And how is this behaviour likely to affect the common gamer, and in particular the New Zealand gamer, over the next few years? Let's take a look at the players.

The only next generation console currently available in all markets is Sega’s Dreamcast. Getting off to a slow start with lack-lustre sales, the Dreamcast now has a solid gamer following worldwide on the back of a number of innovative and high quality game titles.

But seemingly this is not enough. Sega is finding it difficult to retain industry support for the Dreamcast, as developers and publishers are abandoning the platform for the more powerful systems. The general feeling amongst developers is that the Dreamcast will be left behind in terms of performance as competing consoles are released.

However, the Dreamcast does have a significant price point advantage over the PlayStation 2, the main rival at this stage. Combined with its solid library of titles, the Dreamcast should experience reasonable sales over the next year or so and may win back some developer support.

The PlayStation 2 from Sony has been received with a mixed reaction from the gaming public. While strong sales in Japan show every indication that the new console will repeat the success of its predecessor, it is also being widely criticised by the media and some developers for not living up to the hype. Certainly, the first round of uninspiring titles support this claim.

In my opinion, the critics are being overly harsh. The PlayStation 2 is not as difficult to develop for as some would have you believe. True, it is more complex than the first generation PlayStation, but this is a level of complexity that was asked for by developers to give a higher level of control and performance in the long term. It will take time for developers to learn to tap the full potential of the system. In other words, don’t expect anything spectacular for PS2 this year, but expect it to shine throughout next year and beyond (luckily for Sony, they have the marketing skills and brand awareness to carry themselves through until then).

Nintendo has recently released solid information regarding their next console, the GameCube, including impressive technical demos and hardware mockups. Their marketing slant pitches the GameCube as a pure gaming machine, not tainted by DVD movie support or promises that it will one day operate your kitchen appliances.

Traditional Nintendo developers have signed up to create content for the GameCube, and recent jaw-dropping demonstrations at trade shows have won over a few more. However, the problem with developing for Nintendo platforms has always been Nintendo themselves – they are very restrictive on content and there are many barriers for smaller developers. Whether this will stifle innovation on the platform is yet to be seen.

Microsoft surprised everyone with the announcement of their Xbox console, due to be released in late 2001. While many industry spectators are sceptical of Microsoft’s ability to enter the console gaming market, many developers are signing up to create titles for it.

The big draw-card for developers and publishers here is the ability to port titles between the PC and Xbox very rapidly and at low cost. It also gives developers who have traditionally only developed for the PC platform a simple road into the world of console development (many PC developers trying to make the transition in the past have struggled with the restrictions that developing for consoles impose).

Microsoft are also likely to spend in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars promoting the Xbox throughout the U.S. and Europe in the lead-up to its release. Combined with the existing strength of the Microsoft brand, they should do very well.

For the gamer this all points towards some exciting times ahead as developers and platform manufacturers alike strive to outdo each other.

Taking all of this into account, what is my pick for this Christmas in New Zealand then? Inevitably, Sony will come out on top – the PlayStation brand is just too strong here to allow any other outcome. However, a strong advertising campaign to promote the Dreamcast could change the situation, from Sega being absolutely slaughtered to just being respectfully defeated. Don’t expect much of a showing from Nintendo, apart from high sales of Pokemon Silver and Gold for GameBoy Color.

Next Christmas? Expect a close battle between Sony and Nintendo. Sony will have developed a solid user base here by this time, but Nintendo will be especially strong with the gaming public if they manage to deliver multiple Mario and Pokemon based titles and the GameCube is released at a competitive price. Sega is likely to be in the same position with the Dreamcast as they were with the Saturn when it was relegated to third place in the console race – expect local retailers to have virtually stopped supporting it by the end of next year.

As for Microsoft, I’m not convinced that they can persuade the New Zealand gamer that they can make consoles in the few short months they have on the market before Christmas 2001 (although I expect a good showing and widespread acceptance in the U.S.). The Xbox has a lot of resources behind it, though, and Microsoft will likely show more of a commitment to the New Zealand market in the years that follow, so expect them to be pulling your gaming dollar equally as hard as Sony and Nintendo in 2002.