[Did Nintendo and its software licensing plan usher in a dark age for the games industry? Has the console era stifled creativity? Gamasutra business editor Colin Campbell offers an opinion.
Yesterday at GamesBeat 2011, Trip Hawkins was asked if he agreed with his old pal Bing Gordon, that we are entering a golden age in gaming.
Hawkins made a joke that he agreed with the notion that we are entering "a golden age for Bing," who is a major mover and shaker in the Zynga IPO. But Hawkins disagreed with Gordon. He suggested that the golden age was long gone, back in the sun-dappled morn of floppy disks and mullets and PCs that went "beep."
Although Hawkins was founder of EA back in the day, he should not be written off as a grizzled old warrior recounting halcyon days of yore. His company, Digital Chocolate, is a player in mobile and social, and has raised over $50 million to date. He has a lot of smart things to say about this sector.
But it was one argument in particular that caught the interest of journalists attending his 'fireside chat' in San Francisco yesterday. He said that the golden age of open games platforms (the early 1980s PC) in which developers could create what they wanted and profit directly from their art, had been broken by Nintendo, which had ushered in a "feudal dark age"
His point being that all the power had shifted from the artists to the platform holders. He added that these platform holders had no real interest in creative freedom and had a history of "luring" developers in with false promises.
There's a lot to like about this argument, his conclusion that developers should "focus on the browser" and retain their independence is a good one. But the idea that the console era has merely been one of creative exploitation by the likes of Nintendo is fanciful.
First, there has been an open games platform in place during the entirety of the console era. The PC has spawned an incredible creative flowering, unarguably greater than the console sector. But with high hardware prices and ever-changing tech specs, it has not been especially consumer-friendly.
Until the coming of decent browser games and the social gaming revolution, PC gaming was facing a moribund future. People turned to consoles because they were cheaper, because they were marketed effectively, because the console manufacturers maintained a relatively strong hand over the kind of drivel-ware that necessarily infects open systems.
There was no social contract between games creators and Nintendo, in which one would create a safe, burgeoning market for games, and then they would make games. But that's how it worked out. Why? Because Nintendo has never conceived of the games market as a software platform, only as an especially lucrative, albeit complex sector of the toy market.
The licensing model was Nintendo graciously allowing other people to enhance its own brand, according to a strict set of rules and payments. Nintendo's boss during the 1980s and 1990s, Hiroshi Yamauchi would likely have found Hawkins' utopian talk of "freedom" incomprehensible, naive or laughably self-serving. It carries a hint of Californian, boomer hubris.
At significant risk, using enormous creative and monetary resources, Nintendo created a market where one did not previously exist. It did not do so in order to liberate creativity in Silicon Valley. It did so in order to profit from and control the fastest growing, most profitable sector the toy industry has ever seen.
Hawkins compares Nintendo's ecosystem with the internet. One, he points out, that has created an untold number of great companies, like Amazon, Google and Facebook. The other has created no great companies. (This is factually dubious, plenty of publishers and developers have come to life through Nintendo.)
But comparing the world wide web with Nintendo's successive hardware platforms is weak. The internet was not launched by any company, it is not a single-use device with a price-point and physical distribution network -- no-one owns it (yet!). To describe it as an ecosystem at all is to grace it with boundaries that don't exist. It's open, because it's open.
Nintendo and Sony and Microsoft and Sega and Atari have all, in their turn, behaved badly, exploitatively, controlling and bullying. They have not always acted in the interests of publishers, developers, consumers or even, on occasion, themselves. But they should not be criticized for failing to create a harmonious garden in which Trip and his pals can paint the colors of the rainbow. That's never been the point of the console market.
It may be that, during the unruly childhood of the games industry, we actually needed a Hiroshi Yamauchi to set down tough rules and collect high taxes. If the games industry had not been colonized by these overlords in the past 20 years, would it be a better place now?
But Trip may be right about the future role of such companies. It may be that the days of the feudal overlord are coming to a close, that the market no longer requires attractive plastic boxes with fixed specs, no longer needs brand-fascists watching over every color-scheme. Maybe we needed them in the past. The future is going to be very different.
[So, after a brief and thoroughly enjoyable stint writing for Gamasutra, this is my last piece. I'm off to do something else. I want to say a big thanks to Simon Carless, Kris Graft and the brilliant team that puts Gama together. It's a game industry institution and a bloody good read. You can follow me on Twitter @colincampbellx