Gaming Uber Alles

The Contrarian


I sat down in the movie theatre. The lights went dim, the curtains parted, and the projector fired up. The big white screen in front of me, the very same one I’d sat before a hundred times, suddenly turned into a clear glass window. The film was Baraka, the format was 70mm, and the picture on that screen was so perfect, so detailed, that I couldn’t believe my eyes. No film I’d ever seen in this theater looked like this one. I could step right through the screen.

I’d like to think that you’ve had this experience, too. But you probably haven’t. Seventy millimeter filmmaking is dead, killed by the ubiquity of multiplexes. When the corporate gods behind AMC Theatres, Cineplex Odeon, Regal Entertainment, and all the rest rolled out their massive assault on American suburbs in the 1990s, they decided that buying 70mm projectors and building theatres that would do them justice was just not part of the spreadsheet. They wanted the lowest common denominator of technology, and that meant good old 35mm, the same middling format we’ve been staring at for decades.

Until the multiplexes rolled out, 70mm wasn’t just a curiosity. Big films were shot in this format, including Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, and even the Tom Cruise historical epic Far and Away. But about ten years ago, all that dried up and died. Hollywood got out of the 70mm film business because not enough theatres had the projectors to make it worthwhile. The explosion of screens demanded standardization, and suddenly the movie business couldn’t justify the expense of working with 70mm cameras. Why bother, when you were just going to shrink it down to 35mm and pump out prints by the thousands to ensure that 98% of the population could watch Shrek on opening weekend.

Ubiquity is a funny thing. It turned movies into a sporting event, with the weekend box offices as scoreboards and people rooting for their team. The entire industry changed, compressing their marketing efforts to nail that crucial first weekend. It’s made more films available to more people, which is a fine thing.

But ubiquity only works when it’s married to standardization. Species evolve to the point where they reach a plateau of ubiquity, at which point all members of the species are pretty much the same. Humans have the same number of fingers, the same number of eyes. Ubiquity plus standardization equals success. Mutants arise and, for the most part, die off.

When gamers talk about how gaming is everywhere, how game culture has permeated everything, they miss this lesson. The success of our hobby is the jackboot sheathing the downward-driving foot of global commerce, and the snapping neck beneath its heel is innovation.

This is why Nintendo is doomed.

Okay, not entirely. Nintendo’s hardware is doomed. The Game Boy? Drowning. Gamecube? Buried. Revolution? Dead on arrival. Sony and Microsoft have begun the process of cleaning their clock, and there’s just a bit of dust on the minute hand still left to go.

The thing about Nintendo that keeps me awake at night is that they’ve always innovated. When they made the leap to 3D with Mario 64, they designed the controller to fit the game. Shigeru Miyamoto understood that camera control was the single biggest challenge of 3D gaming, and he wanted a controller that would support his camera solution. He was spot on: nine years later, games still routinely ship with crappy camera controls. It’s not because the developers are lazy; it’s because cameras are hard. Miyamoto and his colleagues at Nintendo realized this and they didn’t screw around. They built the platform to support the game.

It wasn’t the only time Nintendo went out on a limb. There was the Virtual Boy, the Power Glove, the Gamecube to Game Boy Advance Link Cable, the Donkey Konga Bongos, the Game Boy DS. They’ve made it clear that the Revolution won’t be processor-competitive with the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360; instead, the boys from Kyoto say their innovations in game control systems will drive entirely new types of play.

They’re wrong.

This is not a new story. Look at Sega: they ruled with the Genesis, botched the Saturn, but came back strong with the Dreamcast. It was a great console, very powerful, with an innovative controller scheme. The memory card had its own controls and LCD screen, and you could play little games on it by itself or plug it into the controller where it could display additional information during the game. Their online service turned the Dreamcast into a TV web browser and introduced networked gaming to the living room.

The publishers yawned.

Sony was hot. The mutant died. The standard took hold. Sega surrendered, gave up on hardware, and did what they did best: make great games for whatever platform they could.

That’s the problem. Publishers want to make one game with one set of art assets, then recompile it and spit it out for every platform they can.

Consider this: some major licensed games in 2006 will be released for seven platforms. Let’s count ’em: Playstation 2, Playstation 3, Xbox, Xbox 360, Gamecube, Revolution, PSP. This seven-platform window won’t last long. The Gamecube has already dropped off the map for some publishers, and in 2007 you won’t see many titles launching on PS2 and Xbox. But they’ll last longer than you expect, because publishers now believe they left money on the table when they abandoned the PS1 too soon.

What’s missing from that list? Game Boy DS for one. Do you think Ubisoft is going to crank out the latest Ghost Recon for the DS? If they do, do you think they’ll put a lot of work into giving the second screen an interesting use, maybe find some

innovative ways to exploit the touch screen for playing Tom Clancy shooters?

No. No way. There’s a bigger chance of EA adapting NFL 2006 to use Nintendo’s digital bongos.

Publishers want to make one game, one investment, and then leverage that investment on as many platforms as they can as cheaply as possible. If the Revolution has some crazy gyroscopic controller that works in a brand new way which is incompatible with the dominant DualShock paradigm, publishers will look the other way. They don’t want to make a big investment in tailoring a game for the special features of one particular platform.

That’s why the Sony PSP is going to win. Publishers understand it: powerful 3D, familiar controls, absolutely zero innovation. That’s how they like it. They can take Ghost Recon and slap it out for the PSP. Why not? It isn’t fundamentally different from a PS2 or an Xbox; it’s just portable.

Even Microsoft paused from chest-thumping long enough to cave on this point. Their mutant Xbox controller departed from the Sony standard of the four shoulder buttons in favor of two triggers and then black and white buttons no one knew how to use. Look at the Xbox 360 controller: Yep, four shoulder buttons. The mutant died. The standard took hold.

Nintendo is already on the mat. Sony shoved their fingers in Nintendo’s nostrils and dragged them screaming up and down the block. Microsoft scurried over to their whimpering, bloody body and stole their lunch money. Nintendo blubbered something about the supremacy of the Game Boy, but now they have their first real competition in years and a user base that’s ten years older than they realize.

The saddest part of all this is that Nintendo knows it. Some of them do, anyway. You just need to read their awful press release for the Game Boy Micro; it tells the tale. Right at the end of the first paragraph, Nintendo’s own marketing people issue their cry for help: “In an instant it attracts attention and positions the image-conscious player as someone on the cutting edge of cool.” As soon as your marketing department flat-out says, “Hey kids, our product is cool!” it’s time to sell the stock short. The first rule of marketing is you don’t say you’re cool; you show your product with cool people, cool music, or cool imagery and let the consumer fill in the blanks. But no, Nintendo marketing rants ever on: “Because of its diminutive size and industrial-hip look, Game Boy Micro immediately identifies the person playing it as a trendsetter with discriminating style.” It’s tiny, “allowing it to sit comfortably alongside today’s hippest technological gadgets.”

Nintendo’s marketing department is the canary in the coal mine. They’re losing the war and they’re desperate and they no longer care who knows it.

It breaks your damn heart.

When gamers celebrate the fact that gaming has gone mainstream, that it’s everywhere, they’re dancing on Nintendo’s grave. They’re rejoicing in a future of narrowly defined genres: the shooter, the stealth action, the character platformer. They’re laughing at the burning wreckage of Feel the Magic: XY/XX and Nintendogs and Odama. They’re whipping out their PSP and playing “Tony Hawk: Back For More Cash” and saying look at the screen, look at the graphics, isn’t it pretty, and so familiar. They’ll eat at McDonald’s and shop at Wal-Mart and listen to The Killers and wear their Hot Topic. And ten years from now, some guy like me will write an article about “Remember Game Boy?”, and that’ll be that.


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