Throughout recent history, every time a new line of electronic products are released, they don't really take off and become mainstream until they find their "killer app." Usually some form of content that you can only experience through this new medium, although not always a type of entertainment. Back in the 1980s the spreadsheet was supposedly the killer app for the PC, and it was for many businesses. However, the PC did not find it's true killer app for home use until the world first experienced the world wide web. In the late 1990s the DVD format was taking off very slowly until the Matrix came out. After that, anyone and everyone had a DVD player, and you almost always found a copy of the Matrix on DVD in their collection. Now of course, once that killer app has been found and had time to thoroughly saturate the market, the technology becomes common place and then the killer app is no longer essential even though it once was. It is said that Nirvana's "Nevermind" was the killer app for the CD player. Apple's computer have been mildly popular for decades, but it doesn't seem they really started taking off till they found their killer app in the iPod. And if we want to take the concept way back, there was the Christian Bible for books made from a printing press. Yet as important as all these were, I'm more interested in games for this little rambling session.
I'm not really sure what the killer app for the Atari was, I guess it was a little before my time. That and I've still yet to hear a definitive answer. Some would try to argue Pong or the awful port of PacMan that was released for it, but I'm still not so sure from the mixed reports I've heard. When the Nintendo Entertainment System dropped in on the USA in 1985, it came preloaded with it's killer app: Super Mario Bros. Sure there were many other important titles in that generation, but Mario made the NES and the game industry what it is today. Mario 1 (as some like to call it, even though not the most accurate title nor number), was a must have game. When someone talked about wanting to get a NES, it was a safe assumption that they wanted this game. Even though many other classic NES games may not be in the same genre or anything, Mario set the tone for that generation. And not only that, but Nintendo included it with your system by default. This was pure genius. They did the same thing with the GameBoy a few years later. Tetris, did not always come with a new GB when you bought it, but it often did, and it was certainly the killer app that got that handheld system rolling.
As we go into the 16-bit generation things aren't quite as clear. I would say that Sonic the Hedgehog, along with its subsequent sequels were the killer app for the Sega Genesis. However, it could also be argued that Mortal Kombat was the killer app when it came to the Genesis with all it's gore and fatalities fully intact, as while the SNES had a bloodless, neutered version for it's home users. The Super NES would be pretty clearly marked for Super Mario World this time around (once again included by default when you purchased a new system).
As the game industry began to transition into 3D games with the so-called 32-bit era, the Sega Saturn never seemed to find it's killer app, at least not with American audiences (which of course I'm more familiar with being that I live here). The new player in the console biz at the time, Sony, with it's PlayStation would not really take off until the release of Final Fantasy 7. Sure in the scope of things, the Madden football series would easily out weight the FFs in sales numbers, but FF7 was the one for most people to make them say, "I've got to have one of these." The Nintendo64 would come out a year later than the other two with Super Mario 64 included by default as Nintendo tried to make it 3 for 3. Unfortunately as innovative as Mario64 was, it just didn't have the same fun factor as its 2D predecessors. The N64 would not find it's killer app until a couple years later with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released for it. Zelda had always been an extremely popular game on prior Nintendo systems, but this time it got to take the spotlight away from the long running front runner Mario.
As the next generation came about, Sega would release their very last console, The Dreamcast. Sadly, just as with the Saturn in the prior generation, the DC would never truly find its own killer app, or at least not in time. Sonic's transition into three dimensions was even more coldly received than Mario's had been in the last gen. Innovative and quirky games like Jet Set Radio would make small dents as well, but not enough to really matter. Sega's greatest attempt would be the epic release of the Shenmue series. At the time it was the most expensive game ever made with an unheard of 5 years in development. Once again the series would surprisingly fall flat. It's sequel, Shenmue 2, would not even receive an American release as the first one had sold so poorly here. Twice in a row Sega had failed to find their killer app and it was too late to try and continue.
Oddly enough, when the PlayStation 2 was released, it became an instant hit even with no killer app. In this generation, the PlayStation brand name would be all the killer app Sony needed to crush it's competition a second time around. However, even with such a strong fan base, the PS2 would eventually need a real game to hold the crown and almost two years later it would find it with Grand Theft Auto 3. GTA3 would be the system seller, even though oddly once again, the PS2's sales numbers had already marked it as a success with no really worthwhile games to show for it. For Japanese consumers, many of it's initial purchasers bought it for its cheap DVD player functionality and would not buy an actual game for it for some time.
Microsoft would now make it's first attempt into the console gaming realm with the Xbox, and quickly found its killer app in Halo. Halo and it's sequel, Halo 2 would become the best selling games to that time, but still would not be enough to take the PS2's crown. In fact even with record breaking sales numbers for the Halo series, the Xbox would barely sell any systems at all in Japan.
Lastly Nintendo would try to regain the supremacy it once had with the GameCube. However, this would mark the first time that Nintendo did not include a Mario game with it's system at launch. Sure, there was Mario Sunshine available at launch, but it was not actually included with the system as were its predecessors. Not only that, but the sales of Mario Sunshine would be almost as abysmal as the Xbox's sales in Japan. Mario had lost his magic touch and was no longer even remotely considerable as a killer app. Next Nintendo would attempt to bring their last gen champion in, but The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker would have fairly mediocre sales as well. In the end, Super Smash Bros: Melee would be the closest thing to a killer app for the GameCube, but it would be hard to call it a system seller.
Now with the history behind us, let's look at the new generation of systems. First up is the Xbox 360. Released in the fall of 2005, almost a year and a half later there is still no killer app. Yes, Gears of War was immensely successful and has already out sold both Halo and Halo 2, numbers wise. Yet, it still does not seem to be strong enough a title to be the system selling killer app MS needs. In Japan, MS was hoping that the recently released Blue Dragon would become the killer app there. However, even though the title drove Xbox 360 sales well over the combined sales of the first system, it still has a pretty weak market share there.
The PlayStation3, although just released about 4 months ago, does not seem to be doing so well. Sony had hoped its built-in BluRay player capabilities would be its killer app, but unlike with DVD in the prior generation, BluRay has yet to become a proven format. As it appears its brand name will not be enough to drive the system's sales this go 'round, Sony needs a killer app and soon if it doesn't want to go the way of Sega. Sadly for them, there do not seem to be any upcoming games that appear like they will be able to do the trick any time soon.
And finally there is Nintendo's Wii. It seems after two generations of failure, Nintendo may be poised to take back their old spot at the top. However, the Wii is in an odd situation itself. The Wii is already immensely popular even with those who do not traditionally play videogames, yet it like the PS2 before it, does not seem to have any one game ready to become its killer app. Nintendo's latest iteration in the Zelda series seems popular enough, but it's still no killer app. And its tacked on Wii-mote functionality is not enough to push it to system seller status since you can have almost the same gaming experience from the GameCube version. No, what's selling the systems is the revolutionary Wii-mote itself. There are lots of games that show off its potential, but it still appears it might be a while before any developers actually realize its full potential. Yet that potential, along with the simple yet fun WiiSports package that comes with ever Wii sold seem to be enough to keep gamers guzzling down the machines just as quickly as Nintendo can produce them. Yet just like the PS2 again, it will eventually need an actual game to take over as its killer app. If and when that happens is still unknown, and some fear that if it doesn't happen before this Christmas Nintendo may find them with a few million disappointed and angry Wii owners.
Now, of course it's no secret I have my own console aspirations for this generation and potentially the next, but I realize that no matter how novel the open console format may be, it'll take an exclusive killer app to make it really happen.
Interestingly enough, I'd like to finish up by discussing HD-DVD, BluRay and HDTV in general. HDTV and HD formats are inevitable and have slowly filtered into US homes. However, they don't seem to be just exploding, nor is there any clear victor in the HD disc wars. This, once again is because there's still yet to be any HD killer app. There is no movie, TV show or videogame that's making consumers say "I've got to have one." What will it be? Who knows.... but it's bound to be only a matter of time, and I don't know about you but I can't wait to experience it ;)