Watching Denis Dyack’s principled but misguided tirade against the internet forum NeoGAF was rather like watching your dad get far too drunk at a wedding. At first, it’s enjoyable, amusing even, to see another side of someone you thought you knew. Then the boundaries of good taste start to be passed, onlookers start to cringe, and the next thing you know, he’s dancing on the tables with someone’s underwear on his head. You know he’s otherwise a good, noble and intelligent man – and that’s what makes it all the worse. The next day, in the cold, hard light of sobriety, you try to remind yourself why you love him in the first place.
In this case, it’s not Legacy of Kain that endears us, not even Eternal Darkness, but this. Whatever his other questionable flaws of judgment, Dyack remains one of the industry’s most thought-provoking commentators, a rare source of forward-thinking in an otherwise navel-gazing world.
It’s unfortunate that the only thing that got Dyack as much stick as his attacks on NeoGAF was his declaration at last year’s Games Convention in Leipzig that a single console future was “inevitable.” Unfortunate not because his argument was right or wrong, but because so few people appeared to give it any serious consideration outside of their standard, blinkered view of the games industry.
But predicting the future is a mug’s game, and perhaps the only argument that will get through is not that a single console is the future, but that it is already a very large part of our present. We are more than halfway down the path to that future – stuck right now in a strange limbo, where we get all the disadvantages of a single console, yet reap none of the benefits.
Take the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the consoles upon which third parties still focus their main efforts, regardless of the Wii’s retail successes. The differences between the two are deep in terms of architecture, merely noticeable in their services, but when it comes to their bread-and-butter – the games and experiences available on both systems – they are not just similar, but virtually identical.
In practical gaming terms, the only thing that seems to separate the two is that you can’t take a disc designed for one and play it on the other. (An interesting experiment is to try to explain this to someone who doesn’t really understand games at all – for example your by-now sobered-up father – and then try to justify why this should be so. If you haven’t lost all patience with the very concept by the fourth minute, then you are a more patient soul than I am.)
There has rarely been a time when there have been so few true system-exclusive titles. With multi-platform releases, rather than playing to each console’s strengths, publishers are now going out of their way to show how little difference exists between versions, or where one does exist, why it doesn’t matter.
Each of the three hardware manufacturers is developing close to an equal share of the market. The third parties are acutely aware of this, as it undercuts their natural instincts to follow the leader. This, combined with the outrageous budgets needed to develop a next-gen title, mean multi-platform is the only way to go. There are few companies brave (or foolish) enough to publish solely on 360 or PS3, unless persuaded otherwise by financial incentives from the makers themselves. Confused by the Wii, the major publishers are falling into a familiar pattern: publishing the “lead” title simultaneously on both 360 and PS3, perhaps adding a Wii follow-up that takes a graphical hit or loses some online functionality in exchange for shoehorned-on motion controls.
One of the most compelling reasons to oppose a single console is the idea that it would stifle innovation, but the horse on this one has already bolted, been captured and shipped off to the glue factory before anyone realized the barn actually had doors. Games developed for both systems are by necessity aiming for the lowest common denominator of their specs, making the game small enough to fit on an Xbox DVD when more could be done if it was only on Blu-Ray, or fitting the design around the PS3’s quirky memory usage issues. Same product, nearly twice the work to make it.
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.
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.