Going Gold

Going Gold: One Love

Christian Ward | 9 Jul 2008 21:00
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This state of mutually incompatible services for something that, to the average consumer, seems almost identical, reminds me of nothing more than the HD-DVD/Blu-Ray wars. From the start, everyone knew that one format would have to kill the other for the sector to grow, and now that the battle is won, the industry is all the better for it. Ordinary people, like myself, who had nothing invested in the formats concerned could not have given a damn which brand won, so long as one of them did.

The analogy bears further consideration. Blu-Ray and HD-DVD were themselves alliances formed by otherwise bitter rivals in the electronics industry - Panasonic, Sharp, Sony and Samsung compete for the cash of would-be TV and camera consumers just as keenly as Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo do for gamers. If Sony can cooperate with Samsung to create a standard format (Blu-Ray) - and then sell competing devices that use that format - then why could they not with Microsoft?

The elephant in the room in this whole affair is Nintendo, now a market leader again and in a much stronger position to dictate terms. Historically Nintendo has been a proven leader in cooperating with other electronics firms (its torrid love affair with Sony is half the reason we are still in this mess). Under the sort of unified gaming standard that Dyack proposes, there is no reason why a Nintendo variant of "the console" could not come with Wii-like motion controls out of the box. Just because the iPod plays MP3s like any other player, it does not stop Apple from being an innovator in interface.

"Games are different," gamers will inevitably say, and they are right, but every step gaming has taken out of its cottage industry roots has been good for it, and this arcane system is the final hurdle.

The five-year boom-and-bust cycles of consoles, the hardware crashes and software bugs that result from the rush to get a product to launch before the competition, the harsh rule of first party, these are all parts of gaming that are familiar to those of us in and following the industry, so familiar most of us have grown blind to how ridiculous they are.

But in a world that is increasingly embracing standard formats, skyrocketing development budgets and basic market fundamentals will eventually force the games industry to make the same choice. A choice that would unshackle manufacturing from a single company, encourage competition and diversity, eliminate the need to program multiple versions of a single game, and unify the disparate market share held by three separate companies, and that's just for starters.

All of these are good for the developer, good for the publisher, good for the retailer, and good for the consumer. Predicting the future is indeed a mug's game, so in closing here's not a prediction, but a goal, something that we should work towards: a forum, open to all publishers and developers and steered by the major companies we now know as first-party, that would collectively decide a standard format for a future games console.

And if we cannot take that step, then at least look at our industry with open eyes and realize how close to that future we already are.

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Christian Ward works for a major games publisher. He has seen the future, and although it didn't work, it did come with an extended warranty.

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