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One Console Platform?

BioWare CEO Ray Muzyka's advanced the possibility that someday gamers would play games on one ubiquitous console. There are "valid reasons," he says, why the market would trend that direction, with the exception of "Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo maybe having some issues with that they might want to continue their platforms."You think?This has come up before, and I'm pretty sure that it was Muzyka behind those earlier remarks also. I find it hard to consider the idea anything but the most fanciful of wishful thinking. Bioware makes great games with huge amounts of content, and their efforts would be greatly simplified on a number of levels if they could target a single ubiquitous platform.The problem is that the benefits for such a scheme are asymmetric, and skewed sharply in the direction of the content producer, offering little or no benefit to platform owners or gamers. If BioWare makes its games for several different platforms-- say, Xbox 360, Windows, and the Sony PlayStation 3, it means that gamers have a reasonable amount of choice for gaming platform and can still assure themselves of access to BioWare games. Reducing the number of platforms BioWare has to target might make developing their games less expensive, but it seems extremely unlikely that this savings would be passed on to gamers in terms of lower title prices. After all, with only a single ubiquitous console platform, there is no longer any choice-- if you want to play a BioWare game you'd have to use that platform. If you don't want to, tough luck. If anything, standardizing on a single platform would likely increase prices (although the higher prices rose, the greater an opportunity there would be for someone to enter the market and therefore blow your "single platform" market right out of the water by undercutting you.It's dead simple to see how this doesn't benefit current platform owners, because there are only a few different ways to implement a single platform scheme. One would be to pick one single existing platform, develop only for it, get ones partners (and competitors) to support only that platform, and wait for the others to go away. This, of course, only benefits that one platform owner at the expense of the others. It's also unclear why other software developers, nominally your competitors, would want to standardize on the same platform you do. They might choose not to do so for any number of reasons, ranging from unique hardware requirements of their own games, to spite, on the grounds that anything that helps my enemy hurts me.A more likely scenario, probably what Muzyka has in mind, is something like the platforms for music and video: redbook audio (CD), DVD9 (standard def video) and Blu-Ray (high def video). If manufacturers can agree to create a standard and license it to participants in the system, then consumers can have a choice of hardware while maintaining compatibility with titles, while conceivably manufacturers can still compete on optional features, price, and quality.There are a number of problems with this. First of all, as the Escapist article points out, there already is a de facto ubiquitous gaming platform, and it's called Windows. The problem is that it is not primarily a gaming platform, for all that gaming has done to advance PC markets and PC manufacturers for years. It's a more complex platform for developers to target and support because hardware capabilities vary. In order for this single platform to be viable, manufacturers would have to differentiate between their implementations in the standard in ways that didn't create large disparities that have to be taken into account by developers: in other words, in ways that are not central to the way the console is used.For instance, over the years, the improvements in differentiation between DVD players have not been in the core function of the device: the delivery of audio and video. There is a limit to the degree to which a new model of DVD player can improve those qualities, given the necessity of adherence to the DVD standard, and the quality of content on the disc inserted into it. Upscaling, noise filtering, de-interlacing, and other techniques can make marginal increases in apparent video quality, but these improvements are small compared to the differences between standards (say, between the 480p of a standard def DVD and the 1080p of a high def Blu-Ray disc) or the differences in resolution that can be supported by a $50 video card in a gaming PC compared to a $400 video card. The most common differentiators available to PC manufacturers would be eliminated, and the market for machines compatible with this single gaming platform would come even closer to commoditization than the PC market already has (which is pretty darn close). Want to add more RAM than your competitor? In all likelihood either you wouldn't be able to, or it wouldn't matter. If developers wrote a game that used your machine's extra RAM, that same game wouldn't run as well on machines that didn't have it. If the standard is strict, it'd keep you from adding such RAM in order to prevent developers from drifting too far from the standard. If enforcement is lax, then there would be drift, and the advantages of the single ubiquitous platform would eventually be lost as the market fragmented and became much more like the PC gaming market than the console gaming market. Want to increase resolution, or bigger texture buffers, or additional shaders? Probably going to be verboten. Again, you'd eventually have enough divergence that your single platform starts to look like the PC gaming market, or else divergence would be disallowed to maintain compliance with the standard. Most of the differentiations between consumer electronics devices like DVD players are on design, optional features, and price. That's a far cry from the important differentiations in the current console market, which include not only those elements, but also title exclusivity and hardware capabilities. The same gamer who is stoked by Wii Play might not see the need for shelling out for a 360 or a PS3 to play games like Gears of War 2 or Killzone 2. Of course, the simplest argument you can make against the single platform idea is that it only takes one company to launch an incompatible platform and be marginally successful for your single platform to be utterly destroyed. Unless you can somehow create an ecosystem that is so diverse and large that there is much more incentive to make hardware and software compatible with it than it is to strike out on your own (as there largely is with Windows) then you run the risk of someone coming in and knocking over your sandcastle by developing a separate, incompatible platform and developing neat games for it. Chances are, that platform, even if it is incompatible, will share enough in terms of hardware compoenents and general design that porting from the "single" platform to this new platform will be possible, and chances are that if that new platform has a significant enough audience to be worth developing for, some developers will want to make that port, and then all you've done is recreate the current market.It all seems so nice and friendly, this single platform idea. Muzyka sounds positively like a tree-hugging hippy, asking why we all can't just get along, and wouldn't it be easier if making and buying console games was more like making and buying DVDs-- you buy whatever player you want, it doesn't matter, and any game in existence will run on it, and developers don't have to worry about what console you have since they're all essentially the same.Put that way, it sounds nice.What he is actually suggesting is this: He wants to change the console market into a market where the barrier to entry is so high that either all console manufacturers but one are eliminated, or that it is so much easier to license the one standard and manufacture to that than it is to make one's own device, that all manufacturers comply with the standard. This is the case in the DVD market; standards only compete every few years and then settle into a pattern were you can be sure you'll walk into a video rental place and get any movie you want and it'll play on whatever you have. The number of competing consumer video standards since the launch of VHS pales in comparison to the number of competing console gaming platforms, and there's a good reason for this. It is not arbitrary at all. The functions fulfilled by gaming consoles are more complex than those performed by a media player, and as such, conforming to a single standard sacrifices more. Conversely, the functions performed by a gaming console are narrower and more specific than those performed by a general purpose computer, so the advantages of ubiquity and compatibility are greatly reduced. That is why there has not evolved any one single standard, and it's why, unless something changes radically about how people buy, play, and think about games, there won't be. It's hard to see why anyone other than developers would want such a thing, and right now the market is driven by manufacturers and gamers, not developers (much to their chagrin, I'm sure). There is a gaming market that is nearly 100% driven by developers, and that's Windows. There has been an attempt to provide a thin client as a compatibility layer-- that's Windows Live for Gaming. Has BioWare supported that? Have they shown any interest in it? Has anyone proposed a standard hardware specification that manufacturers could adhere to, so there'd be a "Windows Gaming Center" PC spec to refer to? I don't think so. If BioWare hasn't shown any interest in the closest thing to what it is Muzyka wants, why whould anyone else?Why does Muzyka sa he wants this?"I think as technology accelerates and gets better and better it's less and less about pushing pixels through a technology architecture and trying to find the ways to optimize," he noted. "That's still part of development, but more and more we're coming to a standard camera, kind of like the movie industry, but while you still iterate the camera it's more about what you do with the camera, more about the artistry and craftsmanship and how you direct the experience."Ah, now we've found something to agree on, at least: the old idea that "content is king". That a lot of the time spent iterating technology (not all of it, but a lot of it) is wasted, since it is proportionally a smaller part of the gaming experience. It's just the portion that gets the most attention, because things like resolution, frame rates, and polygon counts are easy to quantify, promote, and obsess over, compared to things like emotional impact and fun, which most gamers treat the way the Supreme Court treats pornography: they can't define it, but they know it when they see it.Here is my not-so-humble advice to Mr. Muzyka: I agree that content is more important than technology. I agree that developers should create platforms for content delivery-- gaming engines-- and keep them for longer, and develop compatible technology for them. I'd like to see more episodic gaming, more DLC, more expansion packs-- more products that are purely content in nature. There are plenty of current platforms that are more than "good enough" and if BioWare can settle on one that works for them, they should stick with it and ignore the complaints. Fallout 3 has been called Oblivion with a different color palette, and myself I've referred to Mass Effect as Oblivion in Space more than once, but this doesn't seem to have seriously harmed the success of either game. Whether BioWare, or indeed any developer, chooses to stay on the technology and production value treadmills is entirely up to them. Getting off, and focusing on content, is certainly a brave move, but it is no less brave, and perhaps quite a bit more practical, than trying to force everyone to comply to a single new standard just to eliminate the risk from doing so. In fact, look at the console that is leading this generation-- it has, by its very design, gotten off that treadmill. The gaming press is agog with high definition visuals, digital surround sound audio, and online multiplayer. The Wii doesn't do high def and barely has any online features worth speaking of, yet it is the clear leader at least in installed base. It's got a gimmicky controller, some cute, if standard def visuals, a couple of stalwart franchises, and a low, low price, and it's kicking ass and taking names. Those (like me) who felt the gimmicky controller was the main draw, and that eventually the Wii's initial success would fade are still waiting; there appears to be no end in sight, and over the short term it seems to me that the Wii's price advantage will become even more important. Further, they are probably able to take advantages of economies of scale that currently don't apply to their competitors, plus they have a less expensive design to manufacture anyway. If their sales ever do start to flag they can probably afford to do a price cut and that'll take care of that.Mr. Muzyka, do you want to focus on content and not technology, on artistry and craftsmanship rather than polygons and pixels? Then just do it. One could argue that BioWare already does this, but make it an agenda item and push till it gives. You're the CEO, the employees have to listen to you and it's your job to sell it to the board and make the strategy work. Asking for a single development platform is just asking your competitors to help you, and they've likely got no interest in that. Don't ask them to help prove you right. You go prove them wrong. I hope you can, and I promise to purchase every BioWare game that does so.