Thursday, 18 April 2013

Imagine This: A Medium Divided

This article can also be found on One Hit Pixel, here.

I want you to imagine something for a moment. Picture a film industry where each film company had their own brand of DVD player, that would only play discs produced under their own publishing label. To be able to watch, say, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World or The Dark Knight Rises at home, you would have to purchase separate Universal and Warner Bros. brand players.

This, of course, sounds abjectly ridiculous. Yet it’s more or less how the games console industry operates. To the consumer it’s an annoyance – to experience more of the medium, you’re expected to pay a lot of money in extra hardware. However, Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony absolutely crave brand loyalty; it’s what brings in the largest revenue. To ensure that customers pick their hardware over competitors, these guys will try all sorts of tactics.

Means for the Market Share

Nintendo is very committed to selling hardware designed exclusively for gaming, and little else. This gives them a lot of creative freedom with hardware designs that can’t be easily transplanted to other hardware (we’re used to it now, but the design of the DS was really out there back in 2004). Of all possible tactics to fight for exclusivity, I don’t mind this one. A prompt for developers to design games of worth with new and interesting hardware encourages interesting results. They also have an illustrious history of iconic franchises on their side, requiring very little maintenance. The Pokémon franchise alone will have me putting money into their wallets for a long time to come.

Sony invests a whole lot of money in developers producing exclusive content just for their hardware. The occasional big titles that they have all to themselves are quite the customer draw. Because of Sony’s long and established  connection with the Japanese game development scene, a lot of titles developed in the country end up being Sony exclusives. But in terms of hardware functions, there’s nothing, currently, that requires it to be exclusive to one kind of hardware. If those new IPs don’t gain traction with the consumers, all is lost.

These days, Microsoft is generally blasé about software exclusivity; realising that in terms of hardware, the Xbox 360 wasn’t really outstanding from the PS3, and definitely not from the ever-improving standards of the PC. Instead the draw is unique utility options, like the Kinect and Xbox SmartGlass technology – both of which can be considered underwhelming to date. I can respect the movement away from focusing on exclusives, but the push towards more peripheral hardware doesn’t help make gaming more affordable or accessible.

It’s The Same, But Different

So bearing in mind the present standards for how our three console giants handle themselves, how will this impact the new generation of consoles? We already have the Wii U following Nintendo’s Modus Operandi to the letter, but it’s the approach of the new Sony and Microsoft machines that have people speculating. Though honestly, it’s hard to think that their business practices will significantly change.

Sony, while they remain stony silent about the technical specs on their new games console (which everyone is calling the Playstation 4 for convenience’s sake) until February 20, we do know that many of Sony’s game development studios are also suspiciously quiet. What this most likely means is a line-up of Sony’s exclusive IPs – Uncharted, God of War, Killzone, LittleBigPlanet, Gran Turismo and some new from MotorStorm developers Evolution Studios all potentially in the pipeline. Studios are already making playful references to new titles on the horizon. It would be nice to take the presence of characters in Playstation All Stars as hints for releases, but I sadly doubt that game’s marketing ploys extend beyond DmC and Metal Gear Rising.

As for Microsoft, a little bit more of the Xbox 360 successor’s (referred to as the Xbox 720 in a few circles but we’re just calling in the next Xbox for now) technical specs available. There are a lot of words regarding the types of processors that may be used, but I struggle to find that especially interesting. That the use of a Kinect might be mandatory falls in line with Microsoft’s focus on peripherals, at the least. What raised my eyebrows was a mention of a patent by Microsoft being filed regarding ’3D projection’ back in September 2012, turning the entire room into a game screen – which was then demoed as IllumiRoom last month. It feels ridiculous, but that step towards virtual reality is a tantalising prospect for a new direction of game development, moreso than graphical fidelity.

For both of these, there’s a personal concern of backwards compatibility. Neither the PS3 or the 360 made much of playing old works; but allowing previous software to be played will let the companies wring the last few dollars out of the previous generation, and allow the consumers to keep their collection without having two consoles hooked up.

The Coming of the Uber Console?

If you’ll allow me one more thought experiment, could you actually imagine an industry where there’s only a single brand of household console? From a development perspective, it would be a godsend. While at present it’s generally desirable to have a game released on multiple platforms, it requires a lot of work for developers to create such ports, generally due to differences in hardware specifications, but sometimes it’s just a matter of politics.

As such, development for a single platform allows maximum running optimisation. An industry with only the one home console would seriously cut down on development times, since development tools like physics or particle effect engines would be useful to everyone.

In a way you could say that the Ouya is trying to be this Uber Console, as the barrier to entry for developing it is intentionally very low. But it will never have the kind of major software development support our resident Big Three do – nor does it help that, on Android, there’s already a fractured install base. There would have to be a near collapse of the games industry as we know it before such a unified movement could be feasible…

So who wants to cause an industry collapse with me?

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