System Wars: Is 'De Facto' the way forward?
We need peace, man. Apparently...
You know the time. It’s happened to all of us. The moment when you realise that your little box of fun, the rainy day companion, sitting there under the TV next to the Friends videos, is now obsolete. Of course, you could ignore the voice, the pressure mounting in the back of your head. "Resist", you tell yourself. After all, they're only games. You don’t need to play the latest. There's still a hefty back catalogue to work through... But lets face the music, sit up and smell the silicon. Its time to reach for your wallet, and do your bit for consumerism and country... It’s time to buy a new console. But lets just stop and think for a minute. Being the dedicated gamers we are, it's difficult to realise that this is a decidedly weird situation. And when you do think about it, you simply pass off the thought with some vague explanation involving the relentless march of technology. But this simply doesn't wash. Imagine if you will: Bosch or Siemens one day announce that they are halting production and support of all older washing machine models, and commencing at once with new product lines. At the bottom of the press release, in small print, the following line sneaks onto the page: Incidentally, our new machines are so devilishly advanced that they are incompatible with old clothes, and you will all be required to upgrade your wardrobes. Sorry. A spurious analogy, I know, but one with a hint of truth. Why does this happen? It happens for several reasons. It happens because Nintendo and Sony (and soon Microsoft - but not Sega apparently) can get away with it. Gamers are inured to this occurrence. If this sort of thing happened in other industries, as it does in gaming, people would take to the streets and demonstrate with the kind of revolutionary zeal normally only associated with irate French farmers and truck drivers. It happens because the stakes are incredibly high. Hardware production itself is not profitable - indeed most of the consoles so far released have been manufactured and then sold at a loss - but the fact is that the company behind a successful games console will make massive profits derived from the sale of software for that console. With each game sold on the Playstation, for example, a percentage of the sale price goes to Sony, even if it had no part in the making of that game. And so Sony, Nintendo et al. slug it out, the gaming equivalent of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, wincing at the cost of their battle, but each sticking to their guns in the knowledge that if they could just nail the other two, the path to profit nirvana would be revealed. Sega was the latest casualty of this war. Atari perished in '96. And they probably won't be the last. The result of which is that every few years, with the release of a new wave of consoles, the deck is gathered in and shuffled and the cards re-dealt, and the long battle enters a new phase. It happens because in this chaotic industry, the company with the most powerful console, is deemed to have a massive head start, in the gaming equivalent of the “mine's bigger than yours" mentality. Sony had such a dominant market share with the Playstation, it would have been more than happy with the status quo, but the threat from Sega and Nintendo forced it to be proactive, and so the Playstation 2 was planned from the start. You can bet your bottom dollar that Sony is already well under way in its plans for Playstation 3 and beyond. The bottom line, however, is that your average man in the street doesn't give a 32, a 64 or even a 128 bit about the fate of the console giants. He is only interested in the games he plays. If they're good (and I'll not go into what the definition of "good" might be), then he's happy. And so, slower than a doped-up sloth, I amble my way to the point of this rant. Might it not actually be a good thing when we reach the point when there is only one company left, bloody and ragged, victorious with the bodies of his slain foes around him? The defeated adversaries, humiliated, forced to release press releases detailing the company's withdrawal from the hardware market? The company spokesman, desperately trying to look happy, announces that his firm are "absolutely elated to have the opportunity" to have to develop for everyone else. Taking time out from the overblown battle analogy, it could be a good thing. Although most were sad to learn of Sega's near demise, most realise that innovative Sega games will now reach a much wider audience, most of whom will have never before experienced Sega's back-to-basics approach to games. Lets face facts, Sega have lost the golden touch they used to have. Long gone are the days when the Japanese giants could do no wrong. The market changed irrevocably with the introduction of Sony, and Sega have undoubtedly struggled. What many people find so hard to take, however, is the areas in which Sega have struggled. The Saturn, although difficult to develop for, was well regarded, and had some excellent games. Developers widely and publicly praised the Dreamcast as an excellent platform. But Sega never could seem to get its message across. Long standing gamers knew – but new gamers were entering the market, and the vast majority of them did not and do not read the specialist press. Successfully launching a new console is a tricky business, and in real terms it’s a bit of a balancing act. Sega had to persuade developers to make games for the console, in order to give it widespread appeal. But developers are only going to produce games for a format they’d make money on; a successful format. Launching a console is somewhat analogous to a magicians “smoke and mirrors” trick: it’s about fooling your audience for a while, until the resources are in place to back up your claims. Sega had lost credibility with the Saturn’s failure, and so people were watching Sega’s hands more closely than they would have liked. Herein lies the salient point: Sega did almost everything right with the Dreamcast, and yet still failed. The finger of blame is usually pointed at Sony. Gamers mutter at the very audacity of the company, bringing dirty, underhand marketing to the once unsullied world of gaming. Many dedicated gamers resent Sony for what they see as the diluting of their chosen hobby. I see it another way. With innovative marketing (such as the placement of Playstation booths in clubs), Sony is making it cool to play games. This has implications for everyone involved in gaming. It means more money in the industry, for one thing. It means mainstream acceptance. It does mean having to accept that sometimes the best games won’t always outsell others, and some gamers will always look back at the glory days of 8 and 16-bit gaming. The path that Sony follows leads another way, however, to a future where gaming breaks out of the 18-35 male demographic it is stuck in. This, which Sony began, can only really continue if one de facto standard is adopted. People are almost certainly put off gaming because it takes effort, and more importantly money, to keep up. Gaming will never fully compete with films or music while things remain as they are. And don't be fooled by recent news of the games industry being worth more than the movie industry. Just compare the cost of a cinema ticket to an N64 game, and you'll see the truth of these figures. To compete (in terms of popularity, at least), gaming must conform to a structure that non-gamers understand. And this means one gaming standard, one format. I don't care which one, but the sooner the better. Then games companies can get on with what they do best, and that, as Sega demonstrated, is not marketing, or media manipulation. It’s making great games. I do believe there will always be room for a niche player in the industry - a role Nintendo has most commonly found itself in. The Big N has successfully steered a course between the industry heavyweights by offering something different – it continues to withstand pressure to cave in and offer DVD support – and is seen as the purists gaming company. The real industry players at the moment, however, are Microsoft and Sony, and I think eventually one will win over; though maybe not for years. It will be a war of capital fought over the greatest of prizes too, the hearts and minds of all the non-gamers out there. Let battle commence...
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