Does Online Gaming Matter To Consoles?

[qi:058] Since 1999, major console makers including Microsoft (MSFT), Sony (SNE), Nintendo, and the now-defunct Sega have been touting online gaming as a mainstay of the industry. And though online console use is rising, mainstream apathy means the initiative has never matured.

Of the 172 million systems sold in the last generation of consoles*, an estimated 5 million gamers ventured online — representing just three percent of the market. But wouldn’t you know it, each and every major console circa the early 2000s was capable of online play (some better than others).

By comparison, there are currently 26 million “next-gen” consoles in households (11M Wiis, 11M 360s, 4M PS3s). As of August, Microsoft’s Xbox Live claimed more than 7 million active users, including paying and free silver account users that aren’t privy to online multiplayer.

Last year April Sony reported some 1.3 million+ online users for its free PS3 platform while Nintendo’s Wii has seen around 1 million online users based on a limited number of supporting games (currently only two titles). Add them up, and online console users currently represent about 34 39 percent of all console owners -– a 31 42 percent rise.

So it appears that online gaming is, in fact, a staple for consoles, just as Microsoft hoped (they are the only console maker charging for online multiplayer) and prevailing Internet-thinking suggests.

Not so fast.

That estimated 34 39 percent will likely decrease with time. Early console adopters are largely made up of tech-savvy, core gamers; the ones that are more prone to game online. Additionally, the system driving the most growth in the console industry (read: Nintendo’s Wii — by a long shot) has the most underdeveloped online system when compared with the soft-selling Xbox 360 and PS3. Seems those Wii gamers don’t mind the absence of a super hi-tech matchmaking system coupled with potty-mouthed VoIP chat.

Need further proof? Take the Xbox 360’s newly released BioShock. In less than a week, it’s become the fourth-highest rated game of all time (96/100 average review score), according to Game Rankings. It will likely go on to sell millions of copies, and yet it doesn’t contain a smidgen of online support. Not a drop. Perhaps online gaming isn’t that important to consoles after all.

Granted, this isn’t to say that online play is undesired by any means (I personally enjoy a good beating online), only blown out of proportion by a myopic group of hardcore journalists, gamers, and select console makers. In short, online gaming is just a value-add, an extra feature, a bonus mode for certain games — nothing more, nothing less. Just ask Nintendo.

* 115M PS2s, 24M Xboxs, 22M GameCubes, and 11M Dreamcasts