Grumpy Gurevitz: Why I fear the one box solution

The Box That Does it All?

Recently there has been a spate of predictions that we will soon see the end of the console war, with us being presented with a platform which either supports multiple operating systems, or which is an open platform. The argument is, eventually all publishers and developers will support this as their primary development platform. The other method by which the prediction might come true is that we also might still end up using different platforms, but via a a control box which then accesses the games via the great server in the sky, otherwise known as Cloud computing.

Well as always, I’m going to be all Liberal Democrat and not really come down hard and fast on whether those boxes will become the de-facto system. However I will predict that many, if not the majority of, us hardcore gamers will not be using them exclusively. However, before I go on I should declare that I might be biased in my prediction, as I’m not sure I want people to be using them.

I like having different consoles as it’s fun and it makes life interesting. Now I know it isn’t cheap. Very little is these days. However, consoles are not like ‘Hi-Fis’ or other music players. Music has always been a universal experience with hardware only changing the quality of the end result, whereas games have always been dependant on the type of hardware for which they were designed. The hardware has had an intrinsic effect on the type of software produced and hence the gaming experience.

Despite the argument that different consoles, if designed right, can offer a very different experience from each other, Sony’s PS3 was until recently the best possible advert for a single console world. If you wanted a PS3 but cheaper, and on the whole with better versions of most of the same games, you got an Xbox 360. As a consequence of Sony’s poor launch the non-Wii market is now split 50/50, and more and more third party publishers are finding it bad business to only release on one platform. To compound this, the third party exclusive is clearly becoming less and less of a draw to customers.

Nintendo's IP says: "Come here and say 'single platform'!

Ironically much of 2009‘s highlights were made up of PS3 exclusives such as Killzone 2, Uncharted 2 and InFamous – however, based upon those title’s sales figures, they have not really shifted new consoles in any meaningful way. It is this failure of third party exclusives’ ability to shift new consoles, which is perhaps driving the one console fits all argument. Indeed, even with Nintendo’s great ‘in-house’ IP it is their games which have best utilised the new hardware and have sold the best – which have sold systems. Games such as Wii Fit, Mario Kart (with the steering mechanic – not the best way to play the game though), Wii Sports (and Resort) and most obviously Wii Play!

Rather than pushing the current hardware companies towards a shared platform, the lessons learned via Nintendo’s experience is driving both Microsoft and Sony’s business plan towards divergent and not convergent technology. This may be expensive for gamers, but ultimately it will result in choice, better quality software, and a range of exciting experiences not limited to one set of common denominators.

Onlive: our games can be played anywhere, anytime, by anyone, for whatever reason, on whatever day, whatever...

It should be noted that competing against them are two very credible technology trends. Firstly there is the cloud computing solution being offered by companies such as OnLive which in effect gives you a control station, which sends control data between itself and the ‘cloud’ (server to us old people). Ultimately, to sell the system it will have to be sold in a configuration of some sort. Whatever that basic solution is, it will become our de-facto, common denominator development solution. Hence whatever control mechanic is bundled with the box will become the default gameplay experience and define it as a platform – even if technically you can run multiple game engines and software and hardware solutions through the control box.

My mate tried Twittering via a widget on his TV the other day. Pretty hard to do without a keyboard or decent input device. An infrared remote doesn't cut it. Software is only half the solution everyone!

The other competing technology trend is the ongoing march of Flash as a platform in its own right. In recent years Flash games have become fully featured 3D experiences and it’s quite clear that as a technology it has the potential to one day fully compete with traditional consoles. Indeed it is one of the reasons that Microsoft’s Xbox 360 does not support web browsers and Apple does not let Flash work within its Iphone/Itouch browser but only within an app.

The real development is the incorporation of modern, powerful CPUs and Flash in a range of TVs. TVs are still required whatever console you choose and TV companies are aware that now we have small, cheap CPUs and GPUs which can push a lot data around, then it would make sense to converge these devices into gaming devices. They might not be as powerful as the PS3 or 360/720 but as the Wii has shown, that’s not always a problem in the eyes of the public. Activision have already announced that they would be happy to bring the Guitar Hero IP to such a platform – take note.

Hence is the ‘one console’ future assured? It will become an option but one which is not enthusiastically supported by the big three traditional companies. They will react by making their hardware (and hence software) as different from each other as possible. This will be a headache for some developers as it will mean fewer ports (and hence higher production costs), but it will also open up new IPs or new interpretations of traditional IPs.

Microsoft is betting on Natal forcing developers to adopt an alternative set of design parameters to distinguish its software offering..

Ironically the one box solution and the fear it has installed in the minds of the traditional console manufacturers might be the main reason motivating them to reinvent what it is they do and how. On the other hand they might hedge their bets and perhaps the PS4/Xbox 720 will support both the ‘one console platform’ (or advanced flash) : provide their own unique experience for their first party exclusives.

See, I told you I would not really come down hard and fast on whether those boxes will exist! Grump’s prerogative.

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Written by Steven G

Steven Gurevitz is the CEO of 2002 Studios Media LTD and a founder of gaming accessory company Asiiya. 2002 Studios started off as a music production company, but produces a range of content from videos to videogames. The company specialises in localizing content for global brands. He also owns the Urban Sound Label, a small niche e-label. He is a freelance music tech writer, having co-written the Music Technology Workbook and is a regular contributor and co-owner CriticalGamer.co.uk. He enjoys FPS, Third person 'free world', narrative driven and portable gaming. He is a freelance music tech writer, having co-written the Music Technology Workbook and is a regular contributor to CriticalGamer.co.uk.

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