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Monday, January 14, 2008

Why David Jaffe Is Wrong On The 'One-Console' Future


By Chris Kohler January 11, 2008 4:43:46
Categories: Console Games

God of War creator David Jaffe is making some waves over on his blog this week by suggesting that the videogame industry get together and decide on one hardware platform, rather than put competing boxes on the market and split up consumers and software publishers.

Jaffe makes some passionate arguments about why it would be good for consumers and the industry. But it's not going to happen. And to try to force it would be foolish for any companies that tried.

That said, on the matter of the "one standardized hardware," Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft all agree with David Jaffe. They all believe in, and are dedicating all of their business acumen to the goal of, having one single videogame console on the market.

Thing is, they all want it to be their console.

I would bet anything that Nintendo, for example, is totally into the idea of the standard hardware platform. I'm sure it would take Jaffe up on his offer first thing tomorrow morning. Sony and Microsoft would simply discontinue their consoles, then start making games for the Wii.

Not going to happen, you say? Of course not. But why would they accept anything less? They're making money off the hardware. Publishers pay them royalties to put their games on their consoles. And Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft, as software makers, are able to sell more of their games because they have the direct line to consumers, having sold them the hardware in the first place.

Jaffe says that the hardware companies should put this all aside and make some decisions for the good of "the business." In fact, he has a great colorful metaphor: "I think the leaders of the biggest groups should come together from time to time -- like the big Mafia families do in the movies -- and make some decisions together for the overall health of the business."

I love this image, but there's one problem. There is no single entity known as "the game industry." It's merely a term used to describe a whole collection of game companies that interact, whether cooperatively or competitively. But every one of those businesses is engaged in these partnerships only to the extent that it benefits their own bottom line. The extent to which Microsoft will help software makers is defined by how it will benefit Microsoft. They have no need to help Nintendo or Sony. They're trying to put them out of business.

Jaffe points out, as many who have advanced this argument often do, that we don't have such a market-segmenting competition for other media, say, movies. Entirely true, right? There's only one format for film. Oh wait, I mean there are like a hundred of them.

"But Chris," you might say to me if we were on a first-name basis, "most of those formats were competing with each other around the turn of the century." And that is exactly my point. One hundred years from now, people reading whatever the future's version of Wikipedia is will look back at a similar list of competing video game formats, all clustered around the turn of the 21st century. And they will marvel at how positively quaint we were.

We fool ourselves when we look at our multi-billion-dollar industry. It's a huge industry built around an immature medium. I mean "immature" both in terms of the fact that so many videogames are still so crude in their presentation, but also in terms of technology. Contemporary videogame technology is the equivalent of the kinetoscope. We have so, so far to go, and game hardware is evolving in leaps and bounds.

I'm not saying a single hardware standard couldn't evolve just like consoles do now. What I'm saying is that until it gets to the point where diminishing returns mean that new technology doesn't make a perceptible difference for the player, there are always going to be new consoles that pack more advanced technology -- "standard hardware" be damned.


It all goes back to the point that there is no "videogame industry." Let's say that Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft all decided to go in together on a console. Does that mean that it would be the only console on the market? Of course not. Some other opportunistic company would come in a year later with a new, more powerful console, and pull the rug out from underneath this gang of game hardware Mafiosi.

As I said above: It would be foolish for any hardware maker to sign on to this "standard" if they could capture more market share by going it alone and making better hardware.

Not to mention the fact that typically companies take a loss on hardware to make up for it with game sales and royalties -- the ol' "razor-and-blades" model. As soon as you have a hardware standard and the sale of hardware is no longer necessarily tied to the sale of games, the price of the hardware has to go up.

That's exactly what happened with 3DO. Jaffe says the 3DO failed because "was way too expensive and could not compete with the new game hardware coming out that was selling at much cheaper prices." He's exactly right. And why was it expensive? Because the hardware makers who licensed the tech had to price the box very high so they could make money off of it

As far as Panasonic knew, the only 3DO-related transaction they were going to make was the sale of that console. There was nothing else waiting for them. So they needed to make a non-trivial profit. And why was Sony able to come in and compete more heavily with a cheaper box? Because they were the only hardware maker, and could afford to take a loss on the system because they were operating under the traditional model.

Jaffe, for his part, says in a NeoGAF thread that followed his post that he's okay with the resultant hardware standard being less powerful because he's only interested in casual games, and that the success of the Wii and DS shows that casual gamers are a more powerful market force than gamers who want bleeding-edge graphics.

Perhaps, but it's not just graphic power that we have to worry about. In a world with one hardware standard that has to be voted on by Mafia committee and please every software maker, we wouldn't have gotten the DS. Or the Wii.

As soon as any company gets itself into the mentality that videogames have done the vast majority of their evolving and that now it's just a matter of smoothing out the rough edges, it is going to get blindsided. Practically every industry pundit called the DS a gimmick, and now I don't think any serious person believes for a second that the next generation of portables won't all have touch screens.

Yes, eventually Nintendo will get fat and happy and complacent, and some company will come up with some new piece of brilliance and pull the rug out from under them. And there's so much of that that's going to happen over the next few decades. This isn't crazy science-fiction talk. Five years ago, nobody thought that we'd be controlling a game system just by pointing at the TV. Five years from now it'll be something else.

Jaffe says that having a hardware standard would be better for consumers for three reasons: "Massive content choice," "better quality products," and "more competition on the software side." And it's true: If game publishers only had to develop for one platform, they'd turn out better products and the playing field would be open to more companies.

This reminds me of why I like David Jaffe so much. As director of God of War, he pushed hard against the edges of videogames, spending years on this one project that ended up being an absolute breakthrough. Our future-Wikipedia readers from a hundred years in the future, I firmly believe, will see God of War as a major step forward in the evolution of the medium.

That's why I think Jaffe is looking at this situation through the lens of someone who is quite gifted at innovating via software design. God of War didn't need a special controller to push the envelope. And Jaffe is right when he suggests that, all things being equal, more game designers would have the chance to do what he did if they didn't have to make a game across multiple platforms, or split up resources among all the different hardware formats.

And all things being equal, he's right. It's a nice thing to think about. Like world peace, or what it would be like to have my very own pony. It's nice to have dreams. But to suggest that Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft should actually, today, get together and try to hammer out one single console is about as realistic as saying that if I moved my bed to the other side of my studio apartment, I could get a stable in here. Nice and workable are two very different things.


As I intimated above, I do think that one day we will in fact have some kind of de facto gaming hardware standard. It'll be at the point where consumers no longer notice a real difference with more advanced technology. More to the point, it'll be when game designers can do anything they want, and are only limited by the boundaries of their imagination. When controllers can't get any more accurate because we have total control over whatever we want, instantly. Then, content will become king, and console wars won't matter.

But that's a long ways off, and for now, the only one-console solution that game hardware makers would ever entertain is for both of its competitors to drop out.

via: www.wired.com

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