Matt Ployhar is a Senior Product Planner at Intel, and President of the PC Game Alliance. "I don't think it's impossible," he said, but besides added cost, there's the question of whether developers would embrace the idea of a game console with variable configurations. "One of the key reasons they like consoles is [they] provide a stable, known design target they can fine tune for." Console modularity could also complicate the test/validation/certification process.
Josh Tsui is the President of Robomodo, a development studio with experience designing for both PCs and consoles. I asked him to speak to the idea of programming for a console with multiple configurations. "Obviously it's possible to do as that's what PC and Android developers have to deal with constantly. But as a developer, if we can develop for just one machine (maybe two) we will take that," he said. "There are plenty of technical ways to scale the game for various levels of tech, for sure. So it's not difficult to do, but if you're trying to get very specific experiences, designers would rather not chance something diluting it."
PC games feature a robust suite of graphics settings that players can adjust, so I asked Tsui why console developers couldn't program for a more stable and limited set of potential chipsets. For example, the default chipset the Xbox 720 shipped with, and an upgrade chipset offered four or five years later. "Technically it can be programmed to do that. It just comes down to if changes are done by the computer or done by a designer/artist," Tsui said. "If by computer, quality is sacrificed as computers are not perfect for choosing what stays and goes. If by human, that's a schedule and scope issue."
"The software has to be able to run at different levels, and the question then is, will the developer put the extra effort in?" Michael Pachter said. "They would if the console was similar to PC, if they didn't have to do much to change the coding. I think it's possible, but the only [company] who'll do it is Microsoft. Sony won't do it. The reason Microsoft will do it is because they have Windows 8."
Pachter says he is correct about 50% of the time, and I hope his prediction of a Windows 8 compatible console falls in the win column. "By Windows 8 compatible I don't mean it's going to run Office," he told me. "I mean you can make a game play on a PC, and the same game will very easily be ported to the Xbox 720, that runs Windows 8. I think that's how [Microsoft is] going to do it. They're going to try to do something to give developers an incentive to make their games work on PC and Xbox, and that'll be a competitive advantage of the 720."
If software blurs the line between PC and console this much, it's entirely possible that hardware will follow suit. First-party development of games that can recognize varied chipsets could illustrate the value of such hardware, and given the choice between inferior and superior performance, gamers will choose superior every time if they can afford it. That might inspire third-party developers to program for a superior, upgrade chipset, and then we'd be one step closer to eliminating the dichotomy between the power of a PC and the stability of a console. We could all have both. That sounds worth putting up with the hassle of a new console generation!
First Person is a weekly column by Boston, MA-based freelancer Dennis Scimeca. You can read some of his other musings on his blog punchingsnakes.com, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.