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Game over 

The next-generation video game consoles are here. So are their problems.

click to enlarge 2007 NICHOLAS BARANEK
  • 2007 Nicholas Baranek

Call it the calm after the storm.

The media flood's mostly subsided, and the onslaught's no longer so imposing.

Video game consoles.

Ugh. They were everywhere.

Television ads. Magazine ads. Newspaper inserts. They're still there, actually just not as obnoxious.

It was quite the push. Three massive marketing campaigns, all competing within the same media, all targeting essentially the same demographics, all aiming to create the biggest buzz of the gift-buying season. Each vying to become the next Tickle Me Elmo just, y'know, a little pricier.

Microsoft's Xbox 360.

Nintendo's Wii.

Sony's PlayStation 3.

It was a lot for the non-gamer to swallow. But for the gaming sect: a heavenly mish-mash of sensory overload.

Which would have the best graphics? Which would offer the most gaming options? Which would include the most innovative add-ons? Which would be the most comprehensive? The most fun? The most compatible with other hardware?

The launches themselves were staggered, but because of excessive marketing, it was tough for the layman to differentiate between the systems.

One thing, however, was clear: A new era of gaming was dawning.

In the end, each system's marketing strategy was highly successful. The high-purchasing period now complete, Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony are reporting incredible sales figures. Gamers lined up for days before each system's release, hoping to be the first people in the country with one of these new consoles. Consumers immediately bought the trimmings, too the extra controllers, the games, the hardware accessories.

Some purchased the systems with the sole motive of reselling them on eBay for a profit, taking advantage of the deep-pocketed, Internet-savvy folks willing to pay a steep handler's fee in exchange for not having to wait in line for three days. Others simply wanted to be the first kid on the block to have the new toy. Only, on a national level.

Not that any of this should be too surprising.

As has been widely reported in the media, gaming has become a major commercial force, evolving into a multibillion-dollar industry. The end-of-the-year holiday push upped the 2006 sales intake to $12.5 billion. Analyst firm Informa Telecoms & Media already has predicted an epic $58.4 billion year for the gaming industry in 2007.

(By comparison, Media by Numbers, a Hollywood box-office tracking firm, estimates that the film industry earned a pedestrian $9.35 billion in '06.)

The prices for the consoles were, by virtually anyone's standards, steep: The 360 starts at $299.99, the Wii at $249.99 and the PS3 a cool $599.99.

But given the promises offered by these systems, gamers didn't really seem to mind.

Then the problems started.

Freeze Frame Frenzy

Really, I should've seen the signs pretty early on.

The frozen screens. The repetitive failure of my 360 to recognize the lone game I owned as an Xbox disc. The God, retrospect makes everything so clear system's constant mid-game shutdowns.

Now that I think about it, my Xbox was a legitimate wreck. Oh, how a little persistence and a little optimism can cloud your vision. I'd had the thing for probably two months, troubles persistent throughout, before I finally admitted to myself that something was wrong.

When I did, naturally, I went online to investigate. Others were having the same issues, it seemed. A simple search for "Xbox 360 problems" yielded what seemed like thousands of message-board posts from other gamers experiencing dissatisfaction.

It came as a sort of relief at least I wasn't alone. Still, no one seemed quite sure about what was wrong.

Maybe I'd been had, I thought. Maybe I was just a sucker. Counting tax, I had spent around $500 on what quickly was becoming a malfunctioning, albeit good-looking, decorative item: $399.92 for the system (the premium variety, of course, with the beefed-up hard drive), $29.92 on an extra wireless controller and $49.92 on a remote control.

Yeah, I was definitely a sucker.

Then the console just flat-out stopped working. Completely.

I was in the middle of a game when it happened, playing EA Sports' NCAA Football 07. The year was 2013, I was the University of Michigan, and I was putting on a clinic for archrival Ohio State. Up by more than 30 points in the third quarter, I was en route to what seemed like my team's third straight national championship game.

Then the screen froze on me, as it had so many times before. I was fed up, frustrated that the whole thing had shut down in the midst of this vital contest.

And this time, the system wouldn't reboot. Instead, when I powered up the 360 again, the TV screen remained dark. Three red lights were blinking on the system.

Great. What the hell did this mean?

Another quick Internet search quickly yielded the answer: My Xbox had fallen victim to the system's worst malady: "The Red Circle of Death."

It was the final blow. My Xbox was done-zo.

I checked the system manual. It yielded no answers, but did refresh my memory about the system's 90-day warranty.

I scrambled to find my receipt. I had bought the system 97 days earlier.

Suh-weet.

Halfheartedly, I called Microsoft. The confusing voicemail options eventually led me to hanging up. Were there no operators to whom I could plead my case? If there were, I certainly couldn't find them.

I went to a local bar for a quick drink. Hey, I'd just lost $500 and had nothing, really, to show for it.

I needed to cope.

Another couple weeks passed, and the Xbox was gathering dust on my TV stand. I'd tried starting it up a few times since its fatal crash, to no avail. All I got: those damned flashing red lights.

Maybe the Internet posters who came up with "The Red Circle of Death" were a bit hyperbolic. But they summed up my thoughts just fine.

Still, I decided I wouldn't go down without a fight. There had to be something I could do to resuscitate the 360.

I made some calls around town, looking for an expert, someone who could break down the ins and outs for me. I hardly expected anything out of the deal. Like a grieving parent, I just wanted to know what had happened.

"You need to talk to Fritz," an employee from a video game chain store on the east side told me.

Fair enough.

Mega Man

Fritz Mason is helping another customer when I first enter his GameStop store inside the Hollywood Video at the intersection of North Academy Boulevard and La Salle Street. Apparently, the customer's a regular something Mason's quite proud of.

"I have a following, so to speak," Mason tells me. "They call me "Yoda.'"

Cute.

Actually, it's kind of fitting. Mason's been working as store director at this GameStop for seven years. He's tall, made even taller by the product that keeps his hair standing on edge. He has a kind face and a voice grizzled from years of smoking not Marlboro-Man grizzled, but grizzled just enough.

For a gamer, he's a geezer.

He's a whole 44 years old.

I wait my turn, introduce myself and begin explaining my problem.

But I keep getting interrupted.

"Hey, Fritz!"

More regulars. This guy's no joke.

Finally, we have a few minutes together.

"Ah, "The Red Circle of Death!'" he says knowingly, nonchalantly refurbishing some scratched game discs from behind the counter as he smiles my way. "It's an overheating issue. [Xboxes] don't like power strips."

OK. But is there a cure?

He laughs.

"No."

Great.

"You're going to have problems with any new launch," he says.

So I should've been expecting a $500 purchase to break on me? The answer, it seems, is yes.

"But, y'know, Xbox just extended their warranty like 2 months ago."

No, I didn't know. How would I have known? Fritz shrugs.

"Yeah, they upped it to 12 months. Right before Christmas."

Block Buster

They had to, Fritz tells me, in order to compete with their rivals.

click to enlarge As the Yoda of the Colorado Springs gaming community, - Fritz Mason helps put minds at ease. - 2007 JON KELLEY
  • 2007 Jon Kelley
  • As the Yoda of the Colorado Springs gaming community, Fritz Mason helps put minds at ease.

"Microsoft, with the Xbox 360, had the most technical glitches of all of them," says Tal Blevins, editorial director at ign.com, a Web site dedicated to all things gamer. "Xbox says somewhere between 3 and 5 percent have had problems. In our personal experience here in the office, we've had about a 30 percent failure rate."

All these issues, despite Xbox first launching its latest incarnation in November 2005 nearly a year before its competitors.

Of course, it isn't the only system suffering. All three are having their own problems.

Well, kind of.

The PlayStation 3 is actually doing fairly well, Blevins tells me. Technically, it's sound surprising, given the speculation prior to PS3's launch that it had become a rush job for Sony.

At last summer's annual E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) convention in Los Angeles, where gaming critics had a chance to see the newest gaming entities before they hit the stores, the PlayStation booth was creating buzz for all the wrong reasons. In an attempt to compete with the Wii's motion-sensor controls, Sony scrambled to include a similar technology on its system as well.

Industry Web sites uniformly bashed the attempt. At E3, Sony's motion-detective technology, based on axis rotation instead of Nintendo's free-range motion, was shaky at best. And the system's performance wasn't otherwise impressive enough to overcome the negative stigma regarding the price a figure bloated because Sony chose to back the new, expensive Blu-ray DVD technology to provide users with a complete entertainment system. Rumors swirled that Sony would have to delay its U.S. launch beyond the holiday season to fix the glitches.

It would've been a death sentence. Instead, the system was released on Nov. 17 (although its European release remains delayed).

"The PS3 has actually been really stable," Blevins tells me.

Oh, but there was another problem for Sony, a problem with production. The already-expensive system isn't easily manufactured, Blevins says. Two months after its release, there are no more than 650,000 PS3 consoles in the States.

Savvy gamers caught onto this concept prior to the release. With supply so low, demand was bound to be high. The "black market" of eBay, these entrepreneurs assumed, certainly would be a seller's market.

Well, not exactly.

Despite the incessant media coverage that profit-minded souls received for waiting in line for the PS3 launch, eBay wasn't the seller's market many anticipated. With so few games available, people weren't too eager to pay the steep fees eBay users were asking. The already-$600 price tag was steep enough. And stores weren't exactly selling out.

"You can find PS3s pretty much anywhere," Mason says, before pointing out his inventory behind a glass casing. "Want one?"

Hardly. Now, eBay seems the logical route for potential buyers. At press time, one auction for a new, unopened PS3 console had garnered a high bid of just $305 with a little more than an hour left in the process.

Future Racer

At Mason's GameStop, the most popular of the consoles has been the Wii. It's not even close, he says.

Last Monday at 2 p.m., his store received a shipment of five consoles. Two-and-a-half hours later, he was down to one again.

"A lot of people went to Nintendo simply because it's less expensive," Blevins says. "People are wary to spend $600 on a video-game machine."

The under-pricing took a lot of the wind out of Sony's sail, Blevins says, especially since it launched on Nov. 19, just two days after the PlayStation 3 hit the market.

Overnight, Mason says, the Wii became America's sweetheart. Gamers fell in love with its flawless game play and who could blame them? The Wii, Mason further gushes, is as close as it gets to virtual reality. To swing a tennis racket, bowl a bowling ball or smack a golf ball, you have to move your arms just as you would in reality.

"They're miles ahead with the Wii," Mason says.

People responded with overwhelming enthusiasm to this new style of gaming.

On Jan. 13, the Associated Press released a story about a woman willing to go to such lengths to acquire the machine that she ended up dying. Jennifer Strange, a 28-year-old woman from the Sacramento, Calif., area, died of water intoxication after taking part in her hometown KDND-FM 107.9 radio station's "Hold Your Wee for a Wii" contest.

Gamers were almost as maniacal in their game-play with the system. That's where Nintendo ran into its own troubles.

Shortly after the Wii release, news outlets began running stories on what seemed like an amusing trend. People were damaging their homes as a result of their Wii game-play. The culprit: weak arm straps attached to the controllers.

Designed to prevent controllers from flying across the room when they slipped out of players' hands, the straps, which were to be slipped over gamers' wrists, were too flimsy to be effective.

"On the first day we had it in the office, the strap broke," Blevins says. "[The controller] went into the wall and made a huge hole."

A Web site, wiihaveaproblem.com, sprung up on the Internet, dedicated to gamers sending in video clips of their Wii accidents (see "Bonus level!" page 15).

"That's an American phenomenon," Mason says, shrugging. "It doesn't happen in Japan. It doesn't happen anywhere else in the world."

He laughs. "Maybe we're just brutish Wii players."

In response, Nintendo has offered more durable straps. New systems come with the refabricated straps readily packaged. Nintendo also has offered earlier consumers the heavy-duty straps free of charge.

Call of Duty

Spokespeople for the systems well, they're a little avoidant. Which is a bit understandable; some might call this a public-relations nightmare.

Sony was unable to get back to me by press time. Representatives for Nintendo and Microsoft were seemingly a little more on top of things. They proudly talked about the successes of their systems during the holiday period and laughed at the funnier stories I relayed to them about gamers' problems. And then, in both cases, seemingly out of nowhere, I was cut off.

Wouldn't you rather speak with a technician?

Well, sure, I guess ...

E-mail me some questions and we can get them answered for you!

An e-mail interview?

It seemed shady. And it was. Nintendo never responded to my e-mail. And though Microsoft did, the answers (which were to be credited to an anonymous "Microsoft spokesperson") pussyfooted around the questions.

"Customer service is of the utmost importance to Microsoft." "Anybody having an issue with their Xbox 360 console should call 1-800-4-MY-XBOX immediately."

Really?

Local gamer Rosemary Porter, whose loyalty to Xbox once ran deep a couple of years ago, she made gaming headlines when she set up a marriage between two friends she had made on Xbox Live is no longer such a staunch advocate. In fact, she's quite the opposite.

Earlier this month, when her 360 stopped reading her discs, she went to GameStop to exchange her system for a new one. She was able to do so without hassle when she originally purchased her system, she paid an extra $40 for the comfort of GameStop's own, more expansive console warranty. Just last week, though, after Porter learned that Xbox had extended its warranty, she called to complain. She never would've needed GameStop's coverage if Microsoft had better publicized its own extended warranty. And now she was out an extra 40 bucks.

Microsoft's response, even after two hours of pleading: Sorry, but that's not our problem.

"Their customer service is a bunch of a crock of crap," she says.

Her comment doesn't really make sense, but you get the point.

Final Fantasy

So, is it all worth the headaches? Logic points to no at least for now. But Mason disagrees.

"It's a really cool time to be a gamer," he says. "I've been watching the video-game industry since Pong. These games are glorious-looking."

Granted, he's in the business. Perhaps he has to say that.

I can't hold it against him, though. The guy just told me my game system was salvageable. I thank Mason for his assistance and his time. We shake hands and I head for the door.

Just then, two men in fatigues enter the store.

"Hey, guys!" Mason shouts.

"Hey, Fritz," one of the servicemen responds. He asks about the game fiend's latest stock of first-person shooter games.

"Rainbow Six: Las Vegas," Mason says excitedly. "One shot and you're dead. And that's on easy mode."

The serviceman laughs. Mason continues.

"You look around the corner and BAM!"

Mason flops onto his countertop. He remains there, motionless, for a few seconds. Just to let the reality sink in. Just to illustrate the gravity of functioning one moment and being useless the next.

I smile as I walk out the door. I can't help but think it reminds me of something else.

pete@csindy.com


Bonus level!

Maybe it's just an urban legend. But to hear James Cox tell it, you'd never know.

Cox says that not too long ago, when he still worked at the EB Games store at 1580 Space Center Drive, he heard about a local man's losing bout with his surroundings and his Nintendo Wii.

Cox, a local gaming enthusiast, swears the following story is true.

Apparently, the man, who had bought his system at Cox's former place of employment, was playing Wii Sports: Tennis when he attempted a serve only to get his hand caught in the blades of the ceiling fan above him.

"He needed stitches," Cox says. "His hand got real messed up."

It gets worse.

When the fan made contact, Cox says, the gamer let go of the controller. The wrist-hold then snapped loose and the controller went sailing right through the man's television.

Patrick Marky, store manager at the aforementioned EB Games, laughs when told the scenario. Alas, he's unaware of any such tale, as is the media relations department at Memorial Hospital.

From Julie Cox, marketing coordinator at Penrose-St. Francis Hospital: "We've had some incidents of people coming in from playing [the Nintendo Wii]."

So is there some validity to James Cox's story?

"No," she says, "we can't confirm that particular story."

Pete Freedman

  • The next-generation video game consoles are here. So are their problems.

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