Since the beginning of the home videogame industry, there have been battles for market share - console wars. These wars have begun anew every four years or so because of a recurring cycle bringing new hardware into circulation to take advantage of advances in technology and manufacturing, thus bringing more and more power into the homes of game players.
But now, the playing field is changing. On the one hand, the power consoles - such as Sony's PS3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360 - have a great amount of graphics processing power, and for all that industry programmers may complain, graphics power is the greatest proven commercial contribution from a console's design. The pressure to continue to upgrade graphics power has been lessened in this generation of consoles in part because of Nintendo's bold decision not to significantly improve the graphics power of the Wii over their previous GameCube console - which has in no way hurt their sales, thanks principally to the Wii's innovative input device.
Part of the reason that the Wii has been able to get by without a huge step up in graphics is that mass market consumers are not so game-literate as to be able to truly appreciate the graphical step up between (say) the Xbox and the Xbox 360. Gamer hobbyists, who live and breathe videogames, have a highly refined judgement that can appreciate the extra shiny graphics - but they also know that for the shiniest graphics, the PC remains the horse to back, as its graphics power continues to increase every year as a result of the ever-upgraded graphics cards technologies.
Nintendo's CEO Satoru Iwata recently stated that the four-year console cycle is over, stating he was "doubtful that such a notion of platform cycles can be applied in the future". Iwata-sans view is that the technology curve that consoles were following has peaked - there is no longer a significant market advantage to be gained from constant replacement of consoles. Rather, platform licensors should examine the technology and consider when the "sweet spot" for a new console would be.
Meanwhile, EA's head of international publishing, Gerhard Florin, has stated that they want an end to format wars altogether. "We want an open, standard platform which is much easier than having five which are not compatible," he told the BBC. No surprising - EA could make a vast saving on development costs if they didn't have to foot the bill for their multiformat commitments. Florin
suspects that the growing power of set-top boxes and so forth will eventually usurp the dedicated platforms, noting "the consumer won't even realise the platform it is being played on."
While a single open-format is a nice fantasy for EA executives, we are a long way from such a place. As long as platform licensors like Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are making a fortune from their proprietory formats, they will not give them up - and while powerful and generic home entertainment boxes are certainly on their way, the idea of a single open standard is ridiculous while there is no clear agreement on what such a standard should be.
Consider this: every advance in home console design (with the single exception of internet connectivity) has come from Nintendo. Sony's policy, as I've noted before, is to copy Nintendo's new ideas. Nintendo are to the console space what Apple are to the home computer space - and dispite yielding a considerable share of the home console market to Sony after abusing their power in the 1980s, they never lost their domination in the handheld space, nor their genuine power to innovate - as both the DS and the Wii demonstrate.
Florin is probably imagining that the high degree of similarity between the PS3 and the 360 is evidence that an open standard is a possibility - why couldn't an open standard have been formed on this basis? Firstly, there's too much money to be made in proprietory standards,
and secondly the common elements of the Ps3 and the 360 (internet functionality excluded) all originated in Nintendo. A single open standard requires sufficient risk in competition to force an agreement on a common standard, and it requires the design problems relating to that standard to have been substantially solved. This is practically a given in (say) data storage, or video display - but it is far from the case with game consoles, where the design issues are still being explored.
We are still learning about the diverse needs of game players - Florin's comments demonstrate EA's general ignorance of the design problems the games industry faces, perhaps mistaking the centre of the current gaming audience for the whole of the audience. (They are by no means alone: almost every publisher in videogames is monstrously naïve about the videogame audience, habitually assuming its employees are examples of the audience at large). An open standard may indeed happen in the future - but only when the videogames consoles have an optimal control device (such as the mouse for PC) which is entirely resistant to improvement. The twin stick controller (Sony's refinement of an idea originating with Nintendo, of course) is certainly not it.
However, Iwata-san is almost certainly correct that the four-year cycle is over. This is principally a tribute to Sony's achievements with the PS2, the most successful console system to date (since recently passing the 120 million record set by the GameBoy), which effortlessly supported a much longer sales window, closer to a decade. But the console wars themselves are far from over. The battle to place an multi-purpose entertainment device into the home - the war between Sony and Microsoft - will continue, with Nintendo meanwhile profiting from their decision not to compete in this struggle. The only possibility for an open standard platform is if Sony and Microsoft can reach some kind of agreement - and right now, with Microsoft stealing the crown from its rival, the war is very much ongoing.
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