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Opinion: One Love, One Format?
Opinion: One Love, One Format?
April 17, 2008 | By Brandon Sheffield

April 17, 2008 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC

[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.

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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.

Well there are several reasons why this is wrong and they are all good. The first being that a single console will give one company dominating control of the video game industry. That company can set game prices where they want and consumers would have to pay whatever price without being able to go to a competitor.

Secondly, like a government, large companies are corrupt. One single entity would mean that all developers and publishers would need to bow to the whim of one console. If that publisher or developer objected to anything against that company it would be shunned and shut down without an outlet for its product.

Those are two very good reasons why one console is wrong. One console would be equivalent to a country with a monarchy and the past history of many countries with single unit heads or state dictates how life would be like in a single console world.

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One thing to also consider is that content distribution channels are diversified when there are multiple platforms that have a good base in the marketplace.

It's like each console manufacturer is tunneling their way to success and with each avenue opened by the Nintendos, Sonys, and Microsofts out there the more options developers have to release their content.

Brandon Sheffield
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What you say is true, anonymous, but that's only true within the current structure. Were the console or platform not 'controlled' as such, it would be much different. Nobody controls the content available to projectors or DVD players that display movies.

Your argument assumes a monopolistic takeover by one console maker over the rest - I think the idealistic theory we're talking about here is one which, like the PC platform, has a much lower standard of release and barrier to entry.

Tony Dormanesh
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"I've yet to have a good argument from anyone ... as to why a single console is wrong." Here's a good argument: The capitalist economic system our country is built on? It's simple economics, monopolies are bad for consumer period.

Who would get to make the console? Who's going to mandate and control other companies from entering the market? It's impossible. And if it somehow happened, you'd instantly create a black market. Yay for buying illegal consoles in dark alleys! (Hhmm.. that actually sounds kind of fun.)

What happens if some unforseen circumstance causes a failure rate on the Monopoly Console like that on the early 360s? Instead of having a choice to buy another system, consumers will go find other 'reliable' entertainment. Possibly a complete collapse of the gaming industry as we know it.

As a secondary minor point, the idea of a bunch of game console companies coming together and creating one product for their entire consumer base is illegal. It's called collusion.

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This is a silly idea. Yes it would be more convenient for developers, but different hardware exists because different consumers want different things, and different HW manufacturers have different ideas about how to provide it. Some people want to play a little Nintendo DS games on the go, some people want the latest whizbang gfx of a PS3, some people cant afford that and just have an old used PS2.

The marketplace will decide if there's going to be "one" console or not, and so far that decision has been "no".

Thomas Grove
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Tony: Once the spec is defined then anyone can manufacture to said spec.

To play devil's advocate; games are a lot more complex (error prone) to create than films. Imagine if you got 80% of the way through a game and it crashed and erased your save files. One upside to the current system is the QA and TRC testing that goes into most commercial titles.

Eric Gilbert
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I think people are having tunnel vision on what this piece is really talking about.

"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."

It's talking about a STANDARD FORMAT, and the writer decided to pick one potential solution (the one console approach) to discuss the issues. Notice the plural "consoles, PCs, handhelds and mobile devices." The writer hijacked his own piece :)

What about the format question? One standard disc format? One standard hardware/software spec? What is good to standardize (if anything) and what is not?

One of the great things about consoles is that you have a target hardware to develop for. What if consoles were to have the same hardware spec internally and all play the same game DVD players but for games. Like DVD players, you would have different quality players depending on what you wanted to pay.

Just an example of the format question instead of the "one console" thing.

Thomas Grove
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One format would be tantamount to everyone using the same game engine. (flash for instance)

Thomas Grove
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Does anyone remember the MPC and MPC2 standards?

You could buy a kit to upgrade your computer to MPC compliance and you could purchase games that displayed the MPC logo on the box.

Brandon Sheffield
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Eric - "Notice the plural "consoles, PCs, handhelds and mobile devices." The writer hijacked his own piece :)"

Well it's arguing semantics, but there are still many brands and types of DVD players you can buy - they all do essentially the same thing. So the argument is that if there were a standard for each - delivery method, resolution, graphical power and implementation, etc - then you could create games that were platform-agnostic.

So I think it still holds up!

Eric Gilbert
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"So the argument is that if there were a standard for each - delivery method, resolution, graphical power and implementation, etc - then you could create games that were platform-agnostic."

I completely agree, I probably just didn't convey it very well. "Games that are platform-agnostic" is the perfect way to say what I was trying to :) It's not about the pros/cons of "one console to rule them all" but rather the pros/cons of the standardization so games are platform-agnostic.

Brandon - I was just hoping to start a broader discussion of standardization because I saw the focus of discussion around this quote: "I've yet to have a good argument from anyone ... as to why a single console is wrong." Focusing on the "single console" solution only.

I think there's many issues and potential solutions to discuss and I wanted to hear opinions them...maybe hear some issues I haven't thought of.

Brandon - Great article by the way!

Brandon Sheffield
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I getcha - and I wasn't taking offense by the way, but thanks for clarifying!

The concept of standardization is both appealing and frightening. It'll take a lot of work, but it would certainly make the consumer experience a lot better and easier.

Michael Bilodeau
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I think a couple good reasons why standarizations are bad for the game industry is partly due to innovations tailored around hardware improvements. IE. the PC game market, many of the successes of the PC game markets were because of hardware innovations. If we were to only have one format standardize this most likely means it would not change and so developers who utilize specific hardware traits on a platform would lose this benefit and thus impact the quality of their game.

The Nintendo Wii success is purely based on innovation of the controller and thus stimulated the game development industry to make unique titles specific to the Wii, you'd have less of this if one format was used and followed.

Another reason I think standardization would be bad is because it would make every game company compete for the same game space on the shelf. Thus making your chances of being profitable that more unlikely and risky. So look at a genre and notice that there are different examples on each platform of that same genre that did well and profitable. Those successes would be completely negated with one format. And most likely put those companies out of business or refrain from building upon that success. As the game industry is now, releasing a title of a particular well traveled genre is very difficult to make profitable and competitive without going above and beyond all the trend setters. At least with multiple formats you have an opportunity to make a success off a good title that doesn't have to out perform in merit and quantity with titles on other platforms. For example: A DS platformer doesn't have to have the same feature set and level of graphic detail of that of a Mario Sunshine to be successful.

Overall I think there is really only two benefits of a single format, consumers entrance level would be easily defined. And learning the technology would be come second hand to everyone. But that's where the benefits would end, I think in the end innovation would be the sacrifice.

I also don't think comparing this to Movie Industry would be exactly the same. For one, Movies aren't made to utilize DVD's hardware, sure there are HD and Blu-Ray but that doesn't change the overall quality of the movie experience itself other than graphical appearance on TV's only. But the story, characters, special effects, camera stylization, aren't changed by the viewers hardware. However with gaming the hardware is the tools of the trade, sure you can learn new coding technologies and art and design tools for making a game. But you can't make the graphics any better than what the console hardware is, or add more content when your hardware is standardize and unchanging. It's the same reason why you can't go back and make a PS1 game look or play like a PS3 game. Or a handheld game like a next gen console game. The hardware DOES matter more.

Henrique Ribas
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Just a word: commodities. The same as DVD where companies like LG, JVC, Sony, Samsung,...., all of them make dvd player.

Itīs needed to have an OpenConsole concept and a entity to regulate (like OpenGL and Khronos Group).

So, all stuff would be compatibles and companies would produce your own console and everybody could develop games for OpenConsole.

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Gaming is not so well defined yet that we should be clamoring for our options to be limited by a standard box. The best evidence for this is in the best selling console and portable in the market. We would never have gotten anything like the Wii or DS in committee. And I don't know about you, but I think the industry would be worse off for it.

The movie industry comparison used to justify this concept is just as fallacious in this instance as it has been when used in any other aspect of the game industry. First of all, this "universal movie standard" just doesn't exist. There are multiple film formats (not to mention projectors that don't use film), multiple sound formats, and multiple aspect ratios. And if you look at the production of film, things get even more crazy with many different types of cameras and supporting equipment and new ones being invented all the time. But most importantly, movies aren't games. It is always tempting to jump to that comparison because both industries produce "moving pictures", but that's like comparing photography and painting because they both produce still pictures. Sure, each discipline can learn from the other, but so many, many things simply don't cross-pollinate.

As a multi-console programmer, would it make my job easier if things were a little more similar on these boxes? Of course. Would it reduce costs a bit for publishers? Sure. But for any truly decent IP, the cost of production is not going to be a factor. What this industry really needs is people better able to separate the wheat from the chaff so that the overall quality of our industry's output is better.

Evan Combs
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I view the one console proposal kind of like communism. It is great in theory probably the best form of government in theory, but in practice it just doesn't work. Yeah I would love a one console world just when I go over it in my head, no matter how many times, it ultimately just doesn't work out as well as if this was a utopian world.

Thomas Grove
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A lot of people have suggested that having an OpenConsole would make innovations like the Wii or DS improbable. I highly disagree. Don't confuse interface with input devices. Already there are now multiple consoles with guitar controllers, multiple hand helds with touch or multi-touch displays, multiple consoles with camera machine vision, and multiple consoles with motion sensitive controllers. An OpenConsole could have all of these input devices. I don't think that these kinds of devices would have been proposed by the OpenConsole standards committee, but surely all of these interfaces would have eventually been introduced by external parties.

James Foster
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Having a single system means less competition. There are very few cases I've ever heard of where a monopoly is a good thing.

Having a few console makers gives us options, such as a $250 Wii, or a $500-600 PS3. We can pay for the console with high-definition if we want, but it is possible not everyone cares about hi-def. What about Wii's innovative control setup? Would we have gotten that on a single console setup? Multiple consoles also breeds competition. Competition has its downsides, sure, but it is also good at some things, like keeping prices in check. Competition is the reason why companies are always working on the next-best thing; they want their console to support all the newest stuff, and be better than the rest. If there were only a single console then there isn't much reason to push the envelope with development of a new console. These are just a few off of the top of my head. The fact that the article mentioned that someone had heard no arguments against this is outrageous. Any person with half a brain could find many arguments with this concept.

Tadhg Kelly
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So, Brandon, your argument is essentially circular. You are saying that game developers on a single console cannot survive as well because there is no story to sell behind that console beyond a first couple of releases. What you're missing is that that is an intentional strategy of a hardware manufacturer. They purposefully make the story about the brand of the box.

There's no reason for a single format to do that. A collaborative piece of public education about a format can produce positive results, such as all of those DVD ads in the 1990s telling the public what the format was. It benefited no one studio to do that, but rather benefited the entire film industry.

And James (and others) you are confusing hardware competition with software competition. It is perfectly possible (desirable in fact) to have a stable hardware format that breeds software competition. It's done DVD no harm at all. Stable single hardware ensures ubiquity, which would mean that the games industry could grow further than it ever has before.

Whereas the industry at the moment is essentially an oligopoly already, and should probably have been forced by regulation to get its formats in order years ago.

Thomas Grove
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James is also missing the point that there could be a $200 OpenConsole made by JVC and a $600 OpenConsole made by NEC, for example. One might only support 480p while the other might support 1080p. Maybe Apple makes one and they charge a little bit extra for the aluminum and lack of mercury.

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From the consumer's point of view, and probably for the developers too, a platform standardisation is the only way to go. This should be

For the consumer, buying one machine and being able to play everything saves money and improves her gaming experience.

For the developer, standardisation means producing just one version of the game and having a much bigger market to sell it in.

Lower production costs means lower sales prices and higher sales - so both the consumer and the developer save money.

Probably the best thing is to integrate it into the home PC. There's no reason why an industry-wide standardisation, similar to the "MPC" concept but with various "tiers" of capability, could make the PC the perfect platform to develop and market games for.

The major obstacle to it is, of course, the current console manufacturers (one of which also has a major influence on PC development). They make a lot of money by controlling the market - and everyone else is paying.

Michiel van den Anker
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The best way to have good content is to have lots of content.

If having more types of hardware leads to more games being made than we could consider that.

I do fancy the idea of some sort of open source console. Id love to devote some of my time to that.

Perhaps we will move to a sort of mainframe computing at home or a CSP (Computization Service Provider, Id like to think of Blizzard as one since much of WoW is ran by them not the user).

We might end up with just interface machines, perhaps of different levels of visual quality and perhaps by different manufacturers. It might be like Remote Play on PSP, or the machine could render stuff itself.

At this point I'm put off by the idea of a single console, especially if its in the hands of a cooperation.

Having one or more general public consoles would be cool.

Nick Ferguson
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Moving away from whether or not a single hardware platform is good for developers... what about consumers?

Most of the innovation in gaming has been driven by console manufacturers competing against each other to deliver a more compelling proposition for the consumer than their rivals.

The original PlayStation's less restrictive licensing model opened up the floodgates for third-party developers, giving us a wonderful variety of titles from talented teams full of creativity and ingenuity.

Xbox gave us LIVE, a service which has revolutionised console gamers' expectations of online and groomed consumers (and developers) for the future of digital delivery.

Nintendo have revolutionised the industry (again) with their focus on fun and accessibility, rejecting the technological arms race in favour of innovation, fun, and tapping a whole new market (which you could argue is exactly the same as the old market, 25 years ago, but anyway...)

Memory cards, rumble feedback, online gaming, wireless controllers, dual analogue, motion sensitivity... just a few of the innovations that have been introduced by a single hardware manufacturer (and then copied - sorry, adopted - by everyone in subsequent iterations).

I don't think that the current "golden age" we are experiencing is coincidental with the fact we currently have three fairly healthy competitors in Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo.

Long may it continue...

Amir Ebrahimi
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> James is also missing the point that there could be a $200

> OpenConsole made by JVC and a $600 OpenConsole made by

> NEC, for example. One might only support 480p while the other

> might support 1080p. Maybe Apple makes one and they charge a

> little bit extra for the aluminum and lack of mercury.

Thomas, if the support of a "standard" varied by vendor, then that defeats the point of the standard. For that matter, we could call PC architecture a standard that varies by implementation: One vendor provides a GeForce and another vendor provides a Radeon. You run into the same issue of having to scale functionality / features within the game to accommodate all variations in hardware.

Brandon Sheffield
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Tadhg -

"You are saying that game developers on a single console cannot survive as well because there is no story to sell behind that console beyond a first couple of releases."

Actually I didn't say that, I posed the question of whether it would be as easy for games to get noticed or showcased if they're in a large sea of content. The drive of this piece wasn't to say one console isn't good or isn't possible - I think one standard format would be great, actually. I was just posing additional questions, because it's not a cut-and-dry issue.

I'll agree that the article is cyclical though - it doesn't aim to come up with a solution, because I don't have one! The aim was just to pose the question and start a debate, perhaps with the sort of people who *could* figure it out.

Thomas Grove
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I don't think resolution capabilities varying would affect the standard since our current standards by the closed consoles are not limited to a single output resolution. You can still play PS3 on an NTSC television, thus a PS3 that only output to NTSC would be fine for some consumers.

As for different graphics card vendors, it is true that this could create compatibility risks. Any console that wanted to license the OpenConsole name would have to pass compatibility testing. I think part of the standard would need to include updateable firmware to address any compatibility errors that the testing did not uncover.

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I think everyone is looking way too deep into this scenario. I agree that a standard would not be suitable for the gaming market. Let's not forget the 3DO, which had a standard hardware model that could be licensed to any electronic manufacturer interesting in creating a console. Didn't go over too well.

Look at EA who purchased the NFL license, so now your stuck with just Madden. If you don't like Madden then, oh well. I just don't understand how people could not think that competition isn't healthy. If you have no competition then you'll just stay the same. You have to gauge yourself against something or how else will you know where you stand? Even if you look at the Wii for example. Nintendo gauged the competition and opted to not give you HD graphics and a different way to play your games. Even though they opted for a more "unique" approach, it was still competition that motivated their decisions.

Let's go back to my simple approach to this. Matter of fact, let's remove competition as a variable. I don't want to be forced to wear the same clothes as you, drive the same car as you, or be stuck playing the same console as you. Let's just simplify the automotive manufacturing process to save money and manufacturer one standard automobile! That's just stupid because as human beings we see variety in mankind and variety in nature on a daily basis. You can even look at religion for example. There are multiple paths of belief, but a majority of them all lead to the same destination of a higher power.

What about the guy who has this super cool idea for a game, but the hardware can't handle what he would need it to do? How long would we have to wait before his idea comes to fruition? When the life-cycle of the current technology ended? Would he have a say in how the next-gen of hardware was developed? Probably not. But, when you have a console manufacturer such as Microsoft who took developer input into consideration, you can create something fantastic. Competition, creativity, and uniqueness are all necessary for us as humans and ultimately as consumers.

Nicolas Casanova
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I think the "one console to rule them all" would be bad for competition reasons and because the consoles are or should be aimed at different targets, like Nintendo for kids and family, Sony for hardcore gamers and Microsoft for sports games.

I think the best thing developers could do would be to make a game disc playable on all future consoles but adding extra stuff depending on which one you choose to play the game. That could also motivate gamers to buy all consoles just to unlock the extras for every console.