Sunday, November 04, 2007

Xbox Live: Release the Hounds

Why are console manufacturers afraid of developers?

It's right at the heart of their whole business model that they place developers at arms' length purposefully, first by producing steep barriers to entry and second by instituting approvals processes that guarantee that developers will shape their games to the needs of the gatekeepers rather than the audience.

I speak specifically here about the online side of the major consoles. I have recently (finally) acquired a 360 and had a chance to really have a look at Xbox Live, and the one impression that I took away from it is that of over-management.

Firstly, it's obvious that the catalogue is entirely managed, like a TV schedule. And just like a TV schedule this means that there aren't many surprises but rather a series of checkboxes being ticked. It reeks of platform-holder side meetings in which they discuss how their catalogue has holes and those holes need to be plugged to gain the upper hand against Eastasia. I mean Nintendo.

Secondly, with such a managed catalogue and antiquated business model based on the retail model as invented by Nintendo, Atari and co, it's obvious that Live is going to run out of steam fairly soon. Once you have settled on a series of catalogue categories and holes-to-be-filled, well where do you go when those holes have all been filled? Where does your audience go, more importantly.

Thirdly, the front page of Live Arcade in particular is very drab and uninteresting, and the browsing mechanism doesn't really do anything to sell games, promote games, or basically work like an enthusiastic retailer should. When compared to Popcap, Big Fish, Amazon and Itunes, Live looks almost embarrassed to be seen selling games. It seems to actively want to downplay games and instead make it all about the multiplayer retail games like Halo 3 and the like, even though the online retail is where Live would make most of its money.

The great fear, and it's the same fear that Nintendo had back in 1988 with the NES, is that opening the floodgates leads to a drop in quality. It does. Opening the floodgates also leads to a rise in innovation, however. The reason why the casual market is so exciting these days is all to do with it being essentially anarchic. No one company can be the gatekeeper of the web, and so no one company's sense of catalogue aesthetics is going to over-run a marketplace. Casual gaming is the games industry's closest example of a free market, and it is where all the life is.

Microsoft, the company that brought you the OS that anyone could develop for and they would not control, is worried sick of letting evolution play its part in the evolution of Live, and this means they are very likely to run into the same issues that Nintendo did when their managed catalogue foundered in the face of competition. Managed catalogues don't really get the job done if you want to be the number one destination.

What they should do, especially with the roll out of the Windows extension to Live, is step back. They should behave like the company they natively are, which means:

  1. Provide the environment, and the tools, all at reasonable prices
  2. Create a standardised contractual model that gives them a slice of game sales that is fair and not punitive to smaller companies in particular
  3. Hire someone talented to redesign Xbox Live Arcade's portal as something attractive
  4. Step the hell back and let nature run its course.
Really all they have to do is set up the playing field and let the developers run with the ball. An avalanche of titles, some brilliant and some shit, will emerge. Not having seen PS3 or Wii networks in action, I'm assuming that the scenario is the same. But I guarantee any reader this:

The first manufacturer that realises the need to get out of the way is the one that will own the online space, and thus drive sales of everything else.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Death of Console Generations

Though I am a supporter of a free and open standard console format, I don't think that it's likely to happen any time soon. First we need to get through the Age of Updates.

What this means is that the next direction for console manufacturers is clearly one of multiple configurations based on a standardised hardware type rather than trying to make a whole new leap again in 3-4 years. They spend all this time and effort developing their baseline, but rather than just let it sit there and grow old (as has been traditional), what they are doing - and should continue to do - is think like Apple.

That means constant revisions of the baseline product. Xbox 360, for example, could easily run and run with more features, better controllers, more hard drive space, HD-DVD drives and the like while keeping the common features of the console fairly static. PS3 can do likewise. Wii is probably less easily amenable and its not certain whether they have an audience that responds to that sort of constant-upgrade strategy.

Gamers clearly have an appetite for machines. Since 2000, including handhelds, there have been over half a dozen major hardware launches from the GBA SP to the PS3, and stores have become a Byzantine hive of formats with dedicated catalogues. For Microsoft and Sony this should be thought of as good news, because it means that they can tap their customers again, and regularly, perhaps as often as every two years.

Via the joys of eBay and second-hand sales in stores, customers can mitigate costs and be encouraged to upgrade to the new 360, the new PS3, with its shiny new stuff all in. They can also be assured that their old joypads and the like will still work, that the console network can update/patch any compatibility issues that arise, and possibly even transfer important data or download it again.

Of course multiple-configuration development would be more difficult for developers, publishers and QA-ing games, but it's probably absorb-able when traded off against the cost of another full generation shift.

So that's the future then. It's not Xbox 720 and PS4, it's Xbox 361 and PS3.1.
And probably Wii2 somewhere down the line.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.