All For One
At first glance it might seem convenient to occupy a world where all my gaming occurred on a single platform. It is a dream convincingly illustrated and suggested by industry insiders from David Jaffe and Denis Dyack to Gerhard Florin and Keita Takahashi; the promise of high quality games at low price points, which is the sort of line we're fed every time the industry wants to lurch down some new path of supposed innovation. But, in a rare twist on the old story, the numbers behind the one-console philosophy actually support a scenario where the cost of doing business would drop so dramatically and the market would open so wide that it's tempting to believe that we would be the beneficiaries.
I think Silicon Knights' Denis Dyack provides perhaps the most convincing and reasonable argument for the potential of a single platform, which may be why he's become the concept's knight in shining armor. Dyack not only posits that this is a potentially positive force, but even suggests that inevitably the industry will move to the single platform standard. For a gamer, like me, that owns a PC, Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and a DS, the idea of reducing to a single platform standard – potentially one that would be on the low end of the cost spectrum – starts with roughly a $1000 head-start.
So would it work?
Simplistic arguments are too often the most vulnerable to the subtleties of real world application, so when I tell you that Dyack's arguments incorporate complicated concepts that can't be easily explained without a correspondence course in economics; see it as both blessing and curse. Theories of commodification and performance oversupply may make for poor pull quotes, but in they are powerful, tidal forces in the business of technology. Dyack lives, breathes and makes video games in the real world where nothing that might spin the momentum of a multi-billion dollar industry is ever simple.
So I asked an expert to put these theories into something I could wrap my noodle around. Here's how I understand the inevitability of a one-console standard as Dyack describes it.
This is a future where the manufacture of video game hardware looks a lot like DVD players. There would exist a single standard on which the platform is built, and hardware manufacturers like Microsoft or Sony would be analogs to Toshiba, Phillips, Panasonic and others in the DVD market. Dyack puts the cell phone industry forward as a prime example of commodification and an analog for the video game industry, where companies still compete with hardware but it is all built off compatible standards. In the way that you can receive a call from cross-platform cell phones or watch a DVD on basically any player, so too would the gaming industry move to a platform where a single console standard would be the same between hardware made by Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Panasonic or Toshiba.
The knee-jerk concern is that a console standard will somehow stifle competition, but historical evidence of commodification doesn't really support the concern. Tech sectors aren't burdened by standards, and just as Motorolla, Apple and other cell phone manufacturers still manage healthy competition, so too would the players in a gaming industry. We are not talking about a scenario where, say, Microsoft manages to corner the market and everyone is buying Xbox 360s. If anything an open standard would be a force for reducing manufacturing costs opening up the market to more competition. On the developing and publishing end, things get even better.
A standardized system of tools for creating games on a single console would dramatically lower the costs of development. We already see evidence of this from middleware like Havoc or DirectX, saving developers money and man hours by providing standardized tools for delivering content in games. In an environment where it costs millions of dollars to even put the tools in place to begin development of current-gen (formerly known as next-gen) games, the idea of standardized tools and a unified consumer base where you no longer have to support multiple platforms to maximize sell-through is incredibly enticing.
The benefits for smaller development houses is even more staggering. Taking digital art as a rough analog, imagine that a JPG, PNG or TIFF is an equivalent to a video game. With these standards in place a digital artist has development options for creating his work from using expensive proprietary software like Photoshop to opensource tools like GIMP. By incorporating the standards, and as a by-product eliminating the approval process necessary to get a game on a major console, the creators of products are back in the driver's seat.
And, for consumers, the traditional promise of lower prices remains the carrot perpetually dangled on the end of that stick of promises. But from a broader perspective, gone would be the days of exclusives, the necessity of purchasing multiple platforms, and potentially more inventive and innovative games as developers no longer need the bona fide hit every time they come up to bat. Along with the traditional AAA multi-million dollar budgeted games, we'd see the potential for a broader range of content as small developers would be able to experiment similar to what we see from companies like PopCap and GarageGames.
It could be, as proponents of the single console standard point out, a win-win-win scenario.
But before we march onward to digital utopia, a moment must be given to the other side of the equation. While a lot of good may come from the commodification of the gaming industry, I'd argue that Dyack is premature to imply that the forces driving the industry are inexorable in their tidal surge toward the one-console standard. And, in fact, that might not be a bad thing.
We can see standardization at work now in the high-definition DVD war, which will ultimately choose either HD-DVD, Blu-Ray or some combination of the two as the long-term standard, just as VHS beat out Betamax a few decades ago. The reason this force is so strong is because, from a consumer point of view, the difference between the two formats is not significant. But, is it so easy to draw such distinct lines in the sand between the 360 and a PS3, or more dramatically still a PS3 and Wii? The argument seems to be, historically speaking at least, that as these systems add features like internet connectivity, dvd playback, media streaming, etc. they are moving to this concept of commodification by taking the competition away from the idea of what a video game is into the realm of what features you can add onto this standard idea of a video game. But, put three consumers in a room, one who plays Wii Sports, one who plays JRPGs and a third who plays Halo 3 competitively online, to describe a video game and you might be hard pressed to find any kind of standard. The market for video games is, if anything, more divided on the point than ever as three strong systems with marked differences compete in a market that seems as far away from standardization as ever.
And, as for the hardware manufacturers themselves, they are only interested in standardization if their hardware becomes the standard. Simply put, the strongest argument against the feasibility of commodification is the intense stubbornness of the players involved. Where publishers are luke warm on the idea at best, and dismissive of it otherwise, and retailers are enjoying the benefits of a nice hot console war, the only people in the industry with a convincing stake in the matter is people exactly like Denis Dyack. That's not a criticism by a mile; an industry where smaller independent developers find a strong footing on an even playing field is certainly attractive, but without a strong push from consumers, retailers, publishers and to some degree even the hardware manufacturers themselves to standardize this seems like a nice dream at best.
And, for use consumers, the price for standardization would not be lack of competition but lack of innovation. Let's not forget, first of all, how long consumers resisted the transition from just VHS to DVD, so too imagine if there was one standard for gaming how exaggerated might be the transition between gaming generations. Standardization encourages stagnation, and developers, publishers and manufacturers are unlikely to keep pushing the borders of new technologies unless there is competition for hardware. Dyack's concerns about performance oversupply may eventually become valid as the technology leaps between generations deteriorates much as has occurred in the processor market, but the difference between a PS2 and PS3 is still so great as to be significant. The competition between Microsoft and Sony and Nintendo remains an innovative, if expensive, force.
The single console argument finds some strength in arguing that simplifying the market would benefit a broader consumer base, but in practical terms it's hard to suggest that the video game industry is suffering on the heels of yet another record breaking year. Consumers may grudgingly be forced to make a choice as to what console they will spend their money on, but consumers will have to start choosing not to spend their money at all or overwhelmingly force the issue in a single direction for natural commodification to occur. Despite the PS3's disappointing performance versus its lofty expectations, even that system has received broad adoption. Standardization of gaming platforms is not something that the market is demanding.
It is nice to imagine that prices would drop with a standard, but I would argue that the competition between console makers this generation alone has done more to drop prices as fast or faster than any kind of enforced standard would. Even cell phones remain expensive propositions, usually requiring multi-year commitments for the basic, entry level phones, and one can spend as much on a decent Blackberry or iPhone as they would an Xbox 360. DVD players aren't exactly handed out in Cracker Jack boxes either, and took years to drop in price compared to a Playstation 3 which has enjoyed multiple price drops and is among the cheapest Blu-Ray players on the market.
So, as consumers what the one-console revolution might bring us is basically the same games we get now for basically the same price with less hardware innovation and a broader focus on mass market appeal. In the same way that watching the industry become as bloated and vacuous as the movie industry was like watching your kid grow up to become a divorce lawyer (apologies to divorce lawyers, but it's not like I'm the first guy to call you out), the commodification of gaming might not be an ideal option. Frankly, I like that video games push boundaries and exist on the bleeding edge of technology. I remain unconvinced that the gains from making life easier for developers and publishers would outweigh the potential stagnation of the industry – which is, after all, about software more than hardware – or dramatically benefit consumers. More than that, the entrenched conflict in the current generation makes the entire argument seem moot, where no one company is likely to agree on any kind of standard unless it's theirs.
To me, the one-console world seems like a pipe dream, and as a consumer, not even a very good one.