[Though the fabled 'one-console future' might be great for consumers, the industry, especially mid-level developers, could suffer serious repercussions - not the least of which are higher stakes, bigger risks, and lost jobs. Brandon Sheffield investigates in this opinion piece, originally printed in Game Developer magazine.]
Lots of folks have been talking about a unified games format recently. I'll leave why I think it's terribly unlikely alone for now, but suffice to say holding consoles, PCs, handhelds, and mobile devices to one standard is going to be one hell of a job.
A recent blog post from David Jaffe said "I've yet to have a good argument from anyone ... as to why a single console is wrong." It's true that most reactions have only discussed why it's not possible.
I don't think it's wrong, I think it's an admirable goal-but I do see some serious repercussions. It'll be great for consumers, but it would be pretty bad for about 50% of the industry (that's a very rough estimate), and would probably cost a lot of people their jobs.
Bigger Necessitates Better
This is an odd position to take, but imagine what would happen if every developer were competing for the same slot-everyone aiming to be king of the hill, without console lines to divide them. Companies like Capcom, Valve, Konami, and Rockstar-they'd all do fine.
But what about the mid-level developers? Indies have little overhead, and require low margins - I'm talking about the Italian companies making racing games, or the Japanese companies making giant robot games. These are companies that are competent, but have yet to make a breakout hit to define themselves. Where will their market go if they don't have platforms to define them?
This sounds crazy, but bear with me. Think about the DS market right now. Unless you're Majesco and got in under the wire with Cooking Mama, or Ubisoft with Petz games, releasing a DS title in today's market is like crying into an ocean - nobody will notice your tears unless they're big enough to make waves!
What a bizarre metaphor that turned out to be. Anyway, Nintendo conquered 2007 with both of its consoles, and of course, what do you see on the best-sellers list for DS and Wii? Nintendo games. Are Activision, EA, and Ubisoft on there? Hardly.
It's not only because third parties aren't making games that are good enough. Too many people are trying for the same things. If three equally good RPGs come out for the DS in a given week, the markets for those titles have all been reduced by a third.
How many companies cited the "Halo 3 effect" when explaining their poor numbers? Gamers can't necessarily afford to buy Halo 3 and two other games in a given month. But right now, some consumers don't have a 360-and they didn't buy Halo 3, they bought something else.
The One-Console Solution?
What if all these games were released on one console? Certainly not everyone wants to play Halo, but 4.8 million people did, in the first few months it was out. Plus, now your game that the publisher told you to make "more like GTA" is now competing against all the other games that publishers told developers to make more like GTA.
Of course, this means that in general, games are going to have to get better in order to stand out. I'm in favor of that! But it also means that the developer that makes the slightly less good GTA clone is going to be in the poorhouse pretty quickly, and a lot of people on that team are probably going to be pretty talented.
Where will there be room for them? In the 200-person teams working to make a homogenized mass-appeal product. That team will now be much less likely to go on and create the games envisioned when they wanted to get into the industry. After they proved themselves with the GTA clone, they might've been given a shot at an original IP.
But this also brings up another problem. One console or format would mean higher stakes, which would mean bigger risk, which could mean more licenses and lack of control for developers. Increase of potential marketshare makes people with money get both excited and nervous - they want to do more, but they want to make it safer.
But maybe this is also a way to circumvent the money? Maybe having one large console space would mean the smallest games can actually get noticed, because they've got the potential attention of the entire gaming populace.
Anarchy In The Gamespace
What if Microsoft didn't gate the games on XBLA, releasing them every Wednesday? Would it be as easy for your game to make a splash? Would anyone be able to find it?
That's what I'm not sure of. Thinking about the casual PC market, it's big money - but how do you get the word out? There are tons of these games, so how does one become successful over another? Right now, it's portals that do that, pimping content where it can. Portals are the consoles of the PC, even if you take it up to the Steam level.
When I boil it all down, it strikes me that a unified console or standard just doesn't work with our existing publishing and funding models. If we want to move to a single format, we've got to change that first.