tirsdag 16. februar 2010

Better quality creates opening for third-party game controllers

Third party game controllers have never had a good reputation. But conditions are ripe for newcomers and indies to break into this once roped-off section of the multibillion-dollar video game accessory market.
The good thing about this development is that accessory makers such as Nyko and Razer are beating the console makers to market with cool new designs.
That’s a big turnabout. Ask any gamer what they think about third-party video game controllers, and the response has been universally the same. “Third-party peripherals suck,” says one Internet commenter. “Buy one if you want it to c*** out on you.”
Says another, “It’s no fun when you’re constantly looking for where the buttons have moved to.” And another, “First-party controllers cost more, but they’re well worth it when compared to third-party ones—stupid things.”
Ouch. By the sound of it, you might think secondary controller manufacturers have ruined video games. And in some cases—say sticky buttons or sluggish thumbsticks—they have. But nowadays, some third-party controllers are as good as or even better than those  made by console makers Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. So have third-party accessory companies gotten a fair shake?
Chris Arbogast, director of marketing for Nyko Technologies, says no. He places most of the blame on margin-starved retailers of the ’80s. “Retailers used to, and still to do in some cases, stock third-party accessories as a means to improve their margins,” he explains, noting that original equipment manufacturers yield smaller profits for store owners.
As a result, it also meant that a lot of cheap products China made it to the shelf, which fostered the common opinion that all third-party products are of a lower quality and will not work as well or break easier than those directly from the console makers.
“There continue to be some peripheral companies that directly source most or all of their goods this way,” adds Arbogast, “which continues to fuel the stigma.”
Communications manager Alex Verrey of Mad Catz, one of the oldest accessory manufacturers in the industry, says other accessory businesses experience poor perception, but it’s worse in games. “I find it interesting that many consumers can so easily make the distinction between high quality and low quality accessories in other industries but not always in the gaming sector,” he says. “Are people cynical of Bose because they manufacture an iPod compatible dock which isn’t made by Apple?”
In other words, third-party accessories are not always the same. Some build a viable brand with quality products, while others turn a quick buck at the expense of craftsmanship.
Nevertheless, all parties suffer from the negative publicity, especially select providers. “Higher quality manufacturers can’t compete against the cheap guys on one hand and the official manufacturers on the other,” says market researcher David Cole of DFC Intelligence.
But that hasn’t stopped ambitious accessory companies from trying—and in recent years, even outdoing first-party controllers.
Logitech’s wireless PS2 controller, for example, has better user ratings on Amazon than the console’s default joypad made by Sony. The upcoming Razer Onza features the same shape as an official Xbox 360 controller, but with a less frustrating d-pad, customizable thumb-stick tension, and hyper-responsive buttons for better precision. Razer is also releasing a gesture-control system this fall using technology from Sixense. And in March, Nyko will release the Wand+, the first Wii Remote with Motion Plus built in. (It combines the Wii remote with its accessory, the Wii Motion Plus, which made the Wii more accurate with gesture controls). In doing so, Nyko beat Nintendo to the punch.
“In most cases, our products have more features or technology and still retail for less money,” says Arbogast. Says Verrey, “The best way to alter public perception is to simply continue to release quality product.”
Despite their improved quality and lower costs, though, third-party controllers still trail first-party hardware. In fact, third-party controllers have actually declined in popularity over the last 15 years. According to the NPD Group, which tracks U.S. video games sales, third-party accessories represented 42 percent of total accessory sales in 1995, compared with 36 percent of total accessory sales last year.
Jesse Divnich, an analyst for Electronic Entertainment Design and Research, says this is because third-party accessory makers aren’t required to be certified or licensed like software developers are. As such, the former have to play by different rules. “Because of patents, third-party manufacturers simply cannot create a carbon copy of the original controller,” explains Divnich. “It has to be dissimilar, and different is usually bad as consumers grow accustom to the first-party design.”
Case in point: In 2008, Nintendo sued Nyko for their wireless third-party nunchuk controller, claiming the attachment “wholly appropriates the novel shape, design, overall appearance and even the color and materials used in the Nintendo Nunchuk controller.” After Nyko quickly agreed to further differentiate the device, a settlement was reached.
And Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony prefer rigid copyright enforcement. “Since accessories are big business for console makers, it’s not in their best interest to allow third-party accessories to exceed their first-party’s quality standards,” Divnich says. When coupled with their disreputable past, that’s partly why third-party hardware makers will never be revered like a third-party software developer.
But change is in the air. Thanks to the recent glut of music games, not to mention their costly first-party controllers, gamers have warmed to the idea of buying third-party controllers again to save a buck. For aspiring accessory makers, maybe there’s hope afterall.
“It’s high time that the media and consumer alike recognize that as gaming has evolved in the last decade, so too have some of the third-party accessory manufacturers,” appeals Verrey.
“Give us a chance, I’m pretty sure you’ll be surprised by how far we have come.”
Blake Snow writes about video games and technology from his Utah home, primarily as a feature writer. Please check out our GamesBeat@GDC conference on March 10 at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

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