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Of Good Intentions

Posted by nfinit on April 12, 2007

(submitted to The Platformers 4-11-07)

It has come to my attention that there exists a number of otherwise perfectly intelligent individuals who, for whatever reason, wish to destroy the gaming industry.

I don’t speak of Senators Clinton or Lieberman, or of software pirates. Nor do I speak of the infamous Jack Thompson- after all, I did say intelligent.

I don’t mean politicians seeking votes and attention on the backs of of legislation and censorship, nor those who flood the market with hundreds of thousands of copies of black-market Nintendo DS games. I speak of game developers who desire a standardized gaming platform. In the words of the most vociferous of these madmen, Denis Dyack, CEO and founder of Silicon Knights:

“I think in the long term, honestly, [I’d like] one hardware platform to rule them all. It’s what happened in the movie industry. I think we’re moving towards a homogeneous platform whether people like it or not. At the end of the day, I think it’s in everyone’s best interest that there be one hardware console, whether it be Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo or whether all three of them got together and said, “Ok we’re going to agree upon a standard for everyone to make.” In the movie industry it helped tremendously because as a content creator, all we want to do is make games and entertain people. Don’t get me wrong, I love the hardware platforms, like the Sony platform and I think the Wii’s got some really unique things and Microsoft’s platform we obviously love a lot. However, we’d rather spend time making the games than worrying about the hardware. And if everyone had the same hardware and when you made a game you knew you got 100% penetration because anyone who plays this game had to buy this hardware platform just like a DVD or whatever standard media format’s going to be. I think that would ultimately be much better for gamers.”

“In everyone’s best interest” applying to appropriately narrow definitions of the word “everyone”. In this case “everyone” would read as “the company with the monopoly”. For everyone else Denis Dyack desires nothing less than utter disaster.

Dyack forgets that we’ve already had a standardized console platform. Twice, actually. First time, back in the bad old days of joysticks with number pads, the 2600 enjoyed effective market monopolization. We know where that lead us– a flood of low quality games culminating in a concrete covered tomb somewhere in the New Mexico desert filled to the brim with crushed ET carts. After the Crash sorted things out again, we marched right into a second de facto standard, the Nintendo NES. That worked out well until it came to light that the entire time Nintendo restricted games from third party companies in favor of their own in-house brands. As far as industry-approved standardized platforms go, they’ve tried that as well. It was called the 3d0.

You’ll notice no one really pays all that much attention to Trip Hawkins anymore.

Assured doom aside, there are practical problems that would doom any attempt at a standardized gaming platform. Even if the stars aligned and everyone at Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft all drank the same LSD-laced kool-aide and we woke up one fine morn to find one platform to rule them all, it’d last about six hours before some middle management schlump at Samsung remembered that videogames games push more money out the door per year than the motion picture industry and that he could retire at 40. There is simply too much money in the games industry for any growth-hungry corporation to allow to flow around untouched. This logic served as the entire justification for the Xbox. And even if you could control the money, you could never control the talent. It would take all of one talented team to give the system the bird and develop elsewhere to irreparably wreck the faith behind standardized platform.

Which brings us to the biggest problem in Dyack’s ill-conceived fantasy. No matter how iron-clad a supposed industry standard platform may be, it cannot hope to cover all possible places games can and will trickle down to. How does the standardized platform deal with handheld consoles or games on PDAs? What of cell phones? Sure, the majority of cell games out today are Popcap-licensed novelties, but processor power only increases with time; at some point the cell phone will become a viable platform, worth far more money than any single home console could ever hope to pull in. Indeed, the fracturing of the gaming industry is only likely to get worse, provided Apple ever gets around to pushing games for the Mac, iPod and iPhone platforms. Then there’s the PC, already in every one’s home, full of development resources of varying degrees of accessibility and cost. Even worse for Dyack’s whiskey-and-cocaine fueled utopia, the PC has several existing digital distribution services in place, allowing independent development teams to bypass the publisher-driven retail model entirely. All the tools are already in place to kill any viability or justification for the standardized gaming console.

You can hardly blame Dyack and others like him for saying things though, what with game development in excess of eighteen months. Developers can only guess if the console they start production for will still be viable when the game actually reaches completion. One might imagine this represents a particularly sore spot for Dyack and Silicon Knights, who’s magnum opus Too Human began development before Kid Rock was irrelevant. We are on the cusp of a brand new hardware cycle, which only serves to complicate predictions, especially with Sony’s woeful PS3 performance and the extraordinary sales of Nintendo’s Wii. Dyack says a homogeneous platform would prevent developers from chasing after nonviable platforms, but that rings hollow when you consider Silicon Knights has already committed to a single platform, Microsoft’s 360. If the fortunes of the 360 worry him, why not just develop for the PC? If total install base among consoles is what concerns Dyack, Sony would be more than happy to sell him a Playstation 2 development license– Hell, there’s probably already some Too Human PS2 assets amid the Too Human N64 and 360 discs.

So should gamers concern themselves with such insane rumblings from industry luminaries? Probably not, the standardized platform simply cannot work. But you can’t like to hear this sort of talk from our developers. Even as someone who identifies himself as a “360 guy”, I understand that there will be games and themes present on both the Wii and the next Playstation that I’ll never see on my favored console, and due to this I fully expect t own all three before the next cycle starts, as I expect most other hardcore gamers ultimately will. This is a diversity we would not enjoy under the umbrella of a standardized gaming console. Meanwhile, casual gamers simply do not care, they just buy whatever system we tell them they’d have the most fun with and don’t think much about what appears on other systems. The fantasy of a standardized console is the fever dream of people who simply ought to know better.

Sort of like Communism.

Or sex with goths.


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