Saturday, July 22, 2006


I was down in my local supermarket doing the week's grocery shopping today, and I happened across a DVD bin. Lots of DVD's on sale in a 2-for-5 pounds kind of deal. Most of them were pretty rubbish, but a few were quite the curios, like Flatliners, Bilouxi Blues and a couple of others. And I thought, isn't it great that you can still get movies from 30 or 40 years ago on sale. The makers or owners of those films still getting paid for their work, even if it is only micropayments, that's a good thing, right? I had a similar thought about books and music. And then I thought of us and, yep, you guessed it, my thoughts turned to wondering whether it's not impossible to do the same.

The single format debate has been around for a little while, firstly as a response from developers to the rising cost of game development across multiple sku's, and lately also in murmuring from publishers. The economics of the games industry all support some kind of single format as a smart move, and yet nobody takes it because there is too much at stake in several camps for them to entertain the idea of collaboration rather than competition. (Yet. Give it time).

Format divisions are also at the heart of games expiring. You see, unlike the other media, a game format change happens very 3-4 years in one market or the other, and converting over game releases is impractical in that marketplace. Flatliners is available now, and will be available for another 30 years to come on different formats as long as it is cheap to manufacture. The sales will be low, but they will be consistent. It's the Long Tail in action.

Even taking a modest game, such as Wipeout 2097 for the PS1, and transferring it over to work on another system is a bit of an effort. To do it commercially is questionable economics at best because while there is undoubtedly a market for it, that market is low and consistent rather than short term. With 3-4 year format turnarounds, low and consistent means it's a loser. On the other hand, this is why franchises exist.

The publishers figure that if they can't re-hash their old property directly, they can at least make a new one. A new one will garner new press attention, will delight old consumers and new ones alight, will look nicer, and therefore will likely have legs. It is therefore a better business decision to make a whole new version of the same game rather than just port the old game.

Since the hardware manufacturers aren't ready to budge on this, and since they're focusing their backwards compatibility strictly along their own product catalogs and to their own agendas, the question that must next be asked is whether a single format can be established in all but name. This is where the .game idea comes from.

The idea is to create some sort of software wrapper or common format that future-proofs games. A set of specs that make it a hell of a lot easier for future generations of hardware to accommodate today's releases (and yesterday's if anyone wants to retrofit them), and for today's releases to be ported among different machines.

It certainly looks as though there is so much power in each of the modern consoles that would have the ability to create some kind of wrapper functionality for a lot of games. While the requirements for each next-gen release are high, we are now at the point where the extra graphics effort has become essentially indistinguishable to the average consumer (and quite a few developers too) so what is all that extra oomph being used for?

I don't know, but maybe this is a valid use.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.