It’s About No Wheel At All

June 19, 2009 § 2 Comments

Multiplatform releases have drawn the ire of many PS3 owners this generation – and understandably so, too. Time and time again, we have seen PS3 versions of multiplatform releases look and play worse than their Xbox 360 counterparts. Usually it’s not by a huge margin, granted, but it is significant. It can only leave PS3 owners disappointed, wondering why they paid more for a console which, theoretically, is supposed to be more powerful than Microsoft’s offering.

With PS3 owners frequently getting the sharp end of the stick when it comes down multiplatform games, they often stamp their feet and blame the practice itself – that of multiplatform development. But what’s wrong with multiplatform development, really? It gives consumers on both sides of the fence access to games they might not otherwise have. “But,” says the PS3 owner, “if more games were developed exclusively for each console, we would be seeing better games come out as developers can concentrate their efforts on just one platform.” This makes a great deal of logical sense, and I’m not one to entirely disagree. If developers spent more time developing for one console at the expense of the other, I am sure we’d have some more technically impressive games out there; whether they’d actually be that much better is a different story. Unfortunately, we’d also have less games out there available to both PS3 and 360 owners. Personally, I’d rather have more choice as a consumer, rather than less.

Let’s face it, though: exclusives are going the way of the dinosaur. High profile games development is now extremely expensive. The cost involved is phenomenal, and with some saying that that the budget has the potential to double in the next generation, even just one flop, one underperforming release, can sink a company. It’s just too risky, so developers, who need all the money they can get, will release on both platforms – they can’t afford not to. There is a very large chance that within a few generations “exclusives” won’t be so exclusive (even at this point most are timed), and one of the biggest factors of differentiation will be lost. If there are no more exclusives, what makes the difference between one platform and another? There will be no incentive to make one console more powerful because a developer will have to cater to the lowest common denominator anyway – which they are already doing right now. It’s not just exclusives that will become extinct, but consoles as we now know them.

Instead, what we’re going to have is differentiation on price and service – and I’m not even talking about hardware anymore. It is very likely that all this will lead to a single platform, but not – I must stress – a single service. The future’s not here yet, and it won’t be coming for several more years, but the future is “cloud” technology. Microsoft have already expressed a keen interest in cloud technology and digital distribution, so they are very likely to compete in this space. Sony’s role in such a hypothetical future is unclear, but I imagine that they would adapt in some manner – they would have to, after all, if they’d want to remain competitive.

Of course, it’s easy to get excited. Currently, OnLive promises lag free gaming with just a broadband internet connection and set-top box. That product hasn’t been publicly tested yet, though, so we’ve no idea how this might play out with a lower speed broadband connection. Also, you have to consider that Microsoft’s own HD streaming service coming soon to Xbox LIVE is going to require an 8 Mbps connection. In the UK, at least, the infrastructure is nowhere near capable of handling that speed or the bandwidth needed; it might not even be there by 2012, either, as the Government is only promising 2 Mbps.

So, cloud gaming for the masses may be quite a few years off, yet. A one-console future for all, hmm? Is that a good or bad thing? “Choice.” It’s the key word, the one word which consumers put so much value upon. With a one-console future would we get less choice or more of it? What about the chances of a company (ahem, Microsoft) gaining a monopoly? But, let me repeat myself: it won’t be a battle over hardware, as such. (I’m sure that in this market there will be a number of different hardware manufacturers who will want to get involved.) It will be a choice over quality of service and price. I would not be surprised if you turned on your set-top box in 2017 to find that Valve or EA have a storefront service in your living-room. Publishers, who currently seem in two minds over digital distribution, may find a new home on this kind of service.

Stephen Spielberg prophesised at the latest E3 conference that “it’s not reinventing the wheel. It’s about no wheel at all.” He was, of course, referring to Microsoft’s latest “controller-free” technology, Natal. The line that’s being pushed at the moment is that controllers are one of the last barriers to entry for consumers who want to play games.

Actually, no, the last barrier to entry is the concept of a games console.

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