What does it mean to belong? How are we defined by choices we made a long time ago, allegiances pledged in our youth to causes long since cast aside by history as irrelevant, stepping stones on the way to the current orthodoxy? Why were Commodore 64 owners such massive losers? These are all questions Mr Moth hopes to answer in the course of this post.
At the risk of repeating myself, it all started for me in 1985 with the arrival in our house of a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K+. Yes it only had eight colours (Red, Blue, Green, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black, White) and yes the sound was terrible and yes you had to load everything from tapes but my god. None of that mattered when you saw what people could do with that tape-loading, 8-colour, tinny-sounding chunk of plastic. Alongside the churned-out crap sold for £1.99 in the Wool-Worth, genuine geniuses laboured to squeeze masterpieces into the Spectrum; the intricate, innovative puzzles of Head Over Heels, the detailed two-player urban gang fights of Target: Renegade, the fiendish, addictive shoot-em-ups of Raffaele Cecco, the eerie, sprawling RPG Lords of Midnight and even the early days of polygon-based 3D in Driller. All these in 48k of ram. To give you some perspective on that, the XBox One, six generations later, has 8gb, or 8,388,608k.
If I’m making the Spectrum sound like some kind of miracle box that’s really my point. To me, it was. To others it was the worst thing in the world. Not only was it ugly on the outside, it was underpowered and unsuitable for games. Full stop. The people who thought this, if indeed “people” is the appropriate word for these meat automata, were the arch enemies of the Spectrum owner – Commodore 64 owners. Some of you cheered right there, some of you hissed through your teeth.
You have to pick a side. You always have to pick a side. Declare loyalty. Pledge allegiance. Is it to a flag, is it to a set of values? Do you pledge to God, do you swear by values you share with those who wear the same clothes? If you were a kid in the 80s who owned a computer you aligned yourself to one of two factions – Speccy or C64. Or, I guess, you could have a BBC Micro or an Amstrad in which case you were fair game to everyone and, to be perfectly frank, you probably lived in a house that smelled of cabbage. “Oooh, come round and we can play Granny’s Garden!” yeah yeah, pal, enjoy your Nerd Cabinet. “Or Elite!” Er… shut up, weirdo.
C64 types looked down on Speccy players, with their low resolution graphics and cheap-looking machines. Spectrum owners thought C64 owners were hopeless braggarts, constantly banging on about their plentiful colour palette and slightly less grating sound chip, little understanding the joyful gameplay that Spectrum games brought to the table. “Gameplay” was a big buzzword in early computing, this was before we expected amazing graphics or a story. It’s an article of faith for the 8-Bit Loyal that games on their machine were more playable. That gameplay trumped all other factors.
This sort of thing continued through generation upon generation (there are, to date, eight generations of consoles). Did you have an Atari ST? Did that make you want to shout “FUCK OFF YOU TOFFEE NOSED WANKER” in the playground at the braying owners of the technically superior Commodore Amiga? Master System or NES? Mega Drive or SNES? Sonic or Mario? SEGA OR NINTENDO?? At one time, the Sega/Nintendo war looked like the one we would live with forever.
This loose trilogy of game-based posts should be titled “Sony changed everything”, because I am going to say it again. The arrival of the PlayStation marked a change in the way console loyalty functioned. Before Sony, Sega and Nintendo ruled the yard with iron fists – Nintendo leveraged its supposed quality and manufactured scarcity to great effect while Sega was the cool kid, happy to supply more immediate gratification at lower prices. Sony strolled in with a pack of fags rolled in its sleeve, took out the hardest lag with one punch and set about codifying loyalty. Sega was dead, Nintendo on the back foot – PlayStation was the Daddy now.
What was notable about Sony’s approach was how much it looked like advertising. Normal advertising. Not for Sony the wacky, hammy, kids-TV spots of Sega or the hopeless naivety of Nintendo. Instead, it opted for lifestyle adverts aimed at an older demographic and strong branding – the symbols on the face buttons of its controller were positioned to become as iconic as the Nike swoosh. The change in the perception of gaming started here, and Sony caught this wave of change perfectly.
Titles exclusive to the PlayStation were hammered into the public consciousness as such. There was nothing new about exclusivity, and Nintendo were past masters of the game, but not only did Sony take it mainstream, they also developed the extraordinarily effective trick of branding adverts for non-exclusive games in such a way as to imply the games were PlayStation only. Logos fore and aft, with a shot of the case next to the console – crude, yes, but it worked and it’s now industry standard.
Why? Follow the money, of course. By the time Microsoft’s XBox entered the market in 2001, videogames had moved beyond being big business into being huge business. Encouraging loyalty meant securing a massive base of captive customers, locked into buying games and accessories that would only work with that particular console. When gaming went properly online, Sony and Microsoft created vast walled gardens for their players to roam, never to peek over the fence. The videogame industry had taken the natural tendency of humanity to form tribes and monetised it, with an entire generation of customers who grew up not just thinking that it was normal to be allied to a brand of consumer electronics, but that it was actively desirable. Moreover, this loyalty is framed antagonistically – this is no “Oh, do you have Coke?” nor even “I’m a Dapper Dan man”, it’s more “Anyone who likes that functionally identical piece of equipment is not only of dubious intelligence but there are also questions to be asked about the promiscuity of their mother and the possibility of their enjoying balls, the licking thereof”.
Stamping on a human face. Forever.
The question is, I suppose, did it work? Attempting to answer that, I took to Twitter and asked people if they were loyal to a console/computer tribe. There were some heckles aimed at other groups – “C64 owners were indeed Gaylords”, “ST using infidels”, “Death to all others”, “used to fight the C64 brigade on Brighton beach” – but nothing satisfyingly conclusive. Enter SCIENCE, in the form of a rather ramshackle* survey, the centrepiece of which was a question inviting respondents to let rip on the rival tribe of their choice.
Here are some interesting points from my survey of what ended up as 37 people (26 men, 11 women, for the record – full results here). First of all, top ten most popular machines:
- PS1 23
- Wii 23
- PS2 22
- Xbox 360 20
- Gaming PC 20
- N64 17
- Mega Drive 16
- PS3 15
- Sinclair Spectrum 14
- 8-Bit Commodore 13
Of those who had a PS1, eighteen went on to buy a PS2 then a further ten went on to buy a PS3. “PlayStation 4” was the most common answer to the question of what people would be buying next. This is the most obvious example of consumer loyalty in my (small, flawed) sample, and backs up my theory that Sony launched at exactly the right moment with exactly the right approach; they hit a generation hard and decisively. Nintendo’s Wii was innovative, accessible and wildly popular but this popularity did not translate into loyalty and the trick was not repeated with the WiiU. This isn’t to say Nintendo don’t have their loyal fans, just that they haven’t made many with the Wii. It’s mostly viewed as a bit of a one-off, a novelty.
Interestingly, while Microsoft have a good conversion rate for owners of their original Xbox – those who owned one also owned the follow up Xbox 360 – this does not follow to the current generation, with few takers for the Xbox One. Indeed, previously loyal consumers have no love for the company, remarking that Microsoft “seem to be the least concerned with the wants and needs of their customers” and that they “have no respect for privacy or people with low incomes”. Microsoft come in for a battering all round, in fact, with six people having a go at them, two of them for the misogynist culture of their online experience.
This is all to ignore a larger picture emerging, and not just in my survey. Check out this comment thread under a Gizmodo article about which American states are PS4 and which are Xbox One. If you can’t be bothered to click (and who’d blame you, honestly?), here’s a representative comment from my survey – “Console peasantry, the sort of people who sincerely believe nobody can tell the difference between 30 fps and 60 fps, or that holding developers to a soon obsolete hardware platform is somehow a good thing. Y’know, the ones who bang on and on and fucking on in forums about how superior their machines and games are, never mind that a PC user doesn’t have to hope like hell for backwards compatibility or that their games will be re-released for sale on a new console if they want to upgrade, never mind that anything they can do, we can do, and more.” Yeah. Oh, or “PC users who lord over their faux title of Master Race because seriously, comparing a $1500 custom gaming rig to a $500 console is like a Ferrari racing a Harley”.
This doesn’t represent anything like the shift you might think. An Xbox and a PlayStation of the same generation are basically comparable, technically. You might notice small differences in graphical fidelity between the two, maybe the colours are a bit better on one but it’s negligible, and it evens out over the six or so years a generation lasts for these days. The fact is the rivalry is now between console owners and PC gamers and it is fuelled just as the Commodore 64/Spectrum rivalry was; by complementary superiority and inferiority complexes. Sadly, we fall for it every time. Just reading the comments from PC gamers made me want to yell at them just as I wanted to yell at Amiga owners in the playground. This is the sort of tribalism that makes political debate so polarised, that drives religious schisms, that starts wars. The need to bolster your own group by denigrating and attacking the opposition, by othering them to the point that you’re not even sure they’re human any more. And if you think you’re above it… oh, fuck off, you toffee nosed wanker.
*Full disclosure – I accidentally put “Commodore Amiga” instead of “Commodore 64” in the 8-Bit question. I’m hoping most people just parsed it as “Commodore” due to the nearby “Spectrum”. Some people put it in the “Other” box, which was helpful. In all, though, the Commodore 8-Bit data is unreliable, sadly.