a long time, I’ve had a theory that there’s always room for
two-and-a-half game consoles in the market – that is, two main
contenders battling for first place and an also-ran that survives but
never stands a chance of doing better than third. Being either first or
second is normally good enough to guarantee healthy sales and long-term
survival. The more critical question is, who will be the also-ran?
market mechanic has been pretty stable ever since the head-to-head
battle between the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo. In third place
was the SNK Neo-Geo with its huge $70 cartridges. In the optical media
era, Sony brought out the Playstation, Sega gave us the Saturn, and
Nintendo hung onto cartridges for one more generation with the N64.
From being a major contender, Nintendo dropped into third place and has
since failed to recover. Cartridges have the advantage of being sturdy
and chewable, thus good for little kids, but they’re slow and expensive
to make, while the cost of goods on an optical disc is well under $1 in
quantity. Optical disks hold far more data, too, so you can sell bigger
games for less money. In retrospect, despite Nintendo’s good intentions
and some excellent games, the N64 was a strategic mistake.
hated the Saturn, however, and after a year or two of frustration, many
refused to support it. Sony roared ahead and cemented their lead with
the PS2. Microsoft entered the race a solid second with the original
Xbox, and Nintendo hung on to its #3 spot with the GameCube. Sega
dropped farther back in the pack with the Dreamcast, and ultimately
quit the race entirely, vowing to become a software-only publisher
(while still doing nicely in Japan with arcade games, pachinko
machines, and the like).
now we’re at another generation. The Xbox 360 came out swinging early,
and it’s a good solid machine. Then there’s the PS3, which is
undoubtedly the most powerful game console ever built but too
expensive, and the Wii, which has taken a radically different approach.
Who’ll end up as the also-ran?
The answer will have
to do with a lot of factors beyond a game designer’s, or any game
developer’s, control. Sad to say, while the quality of the early games
for a console does matter, good games alone cannot guarantee a
console’s success. More important are its price (to the casual
players), its hardware features (to the hardcore players), and even its
form factor (the Japanese are reputed to have ignored the first Xbox
because it was just too big and clunky for their apartments). The
media, both gaming and mainstream, are busy comparing the new consoles.
But what are the pros and cons from a design standpoint?
no question that more computing power enables us to do things that we
couldn’t otherwise do. We can put more characters on the screen; we can
put more brains in their heads. We can use CPU-intensive techniques
like inverse kinematics to create better animation, especially
interactions between characters in games that involve a lot of physical
contact such as wrestling or rugby. Our physics and visual effects will
be both spectacular and accurate. In short, the PS3 is a programmer’s
and a filmmaker’s dream. If you’re a visual thinker, if much of the
entertainment that you provide is through the richness or the
verisimilitude of your imagery, then there’s no question that the PS3
is the way to go.
The PS3 is another step in a long chain of graphical and computing improvements that began with Spacewar.
It’s a big step, and technically speaking, the inclusion of the Cell
processor is a very important – and challenging – innovation. Most game
programmers don’t know much about multiprocessing. The PS3 raises the
bar, and to get the most out of it requires some high-level wizardry.
From a design standpoint, however, the PS3 is evolutionary, not revolutionary. It doesn’t change much about our job. It
makes it easier to design the same stuff we’ve always designed, but it
doesn’t encourage us to try anything particularly new.
where the Wii excels. Nintendo has bet the company on a radical new
approach to gaming. Gameplay, they said, is really about interactions,
not graphics. The Wii Remote gives players new things to do, which
means it challenges us designers to come up with those things.
Furthermore, it takes away functionality found on other
consoles. Instead of the eleven buttons, two analog joysticks, and a
D-pad of the PS3 controller, it has only six buttons and a D-pad. To
design for this, we have to think differently – we have no choice about
it. By contrast, Sony has hedged its bets. Its controller is wireless
now, and it contains some motion-sensing capability, but it’s still
definitely a two-handed device, almost identical to the Dual Shock.
It’s not the kind of thing that encourages the player to see it as a
light saber, tennis racket, fishing rod, or six-shooter – or to get up
off the couch.
It took a lot of guts to do that. If
either players or developers hate the Wii Remote, the Wii is doomed.
Sure, there’s the Nunchuck to give them a joystick, and even the Wii
Classic Controller, which looks startlingly like a good old SNES
controller with added joysticks. But these are extra-cost items; they
can’t save the Wii if the ordinary Wii Remote tanks with the consumer.