April 16, 2008 // 1:00 am
- It's a computer, not a console - Kutaragi on the PS3.
What makes a games machine?
It's a simple enough question, but the answer is something that has long eluded consensus. For some, a "games machine" is something made by Nintendo, or something with "PlayStation" or "Xbox" written on the packaging. For others, it's all about the amount of RAM, and the speed of the CPU, and the number of GPU cores they've managed to shoe-horn into their LED-encrusted black-and-silver beauty.
For years now - decades - these two points of view have divided people. On the one hand, the console faithful tout the stability of their platform, the assurance of a 5-year lifecycle, and the relatively low-cost nature of the hardware. The PC crowd on the other hand flaunt the flexibility of their hardware: their ability to improve performance at a moment's notice and to cater for new and developing trends in gaming for as long as their screaming wallets will allow.
Now, though, for better or worse we are beginning to see a real revolution in console gaming. Where once console specifications were defined and immutable, they have started to become varied and variable. Console manufacturers, it would seem, are starting to take aim against one of the major strengths of the PC platform: flexibility. But this change is going to come at a cost, and if not handled well could end up doing more harm than good.
With the arrival of the Xbox on the scene, gamers saw the introduction of a persistent online presence with "Live." Sony soon followed suit and finally delivered a competitive interface with the release of the PS3. Regulated online play, downloadable patches and content, feature-laden firmware updates, social networking... add in upgradable HDDs, USB ports, card readers and wireless networking, and suddenly, consoles are looking a lot more PC-like. In their struggle to compete with the flexibility of the PC experience however, there are a few sticking points that today's console developers would do well to avoid - or at least tiptoe quietly around and try their best not to awaken.
Five years is the standard "cycle" time for a console (give or take a year or two). In the world of high technology five years is also known as "an eternity". At present, consumers expect to see (and tend to get) an 8-fold improvement in general processing power over that time. GPU processing power seems to be ramping up rather faster, and a 16-fold (or sedecuple for those of you after a word-of-the-day) increase over that same period wouldn't be considered out of the question. By the time a console's cycle is even halfway through, it is going to start looking decidedly dated.
Console developers have dabbled with upgradable hardware long before now as a means of overcoming this limitation, and have met with decidedly varied success. Sega's 32x added some much-needed grunt to the Mega-Drive with only minor compatibility problems, but their CD add-on was a financial failure. Likewise, Nintendo's RAM upgrade for the N64 was well-received by developers and gamers alike, but their inadvisably-named "64DD" drive add-on never saw the light of day outside of Japan.
This generation's equivalent of hardware upgrades has come along in the form of varying SKUs. Xbox 360 arcade, core, premium and elite... PS3 20/40/60/80GB, with or without backwards compatibility. Newer models sport larger HDDs, or none at all. They have more connections, unless they have fewer. They offer some new features, but take away others. Confused yet? Herein lies the biggest problem with console upgrades: they confuse consumers. And confused consumers have a tendency to hold their money tight and let it console them (so to speak) until everything is made clear.
Without going too crazy with the generalisations, people who buy consoles want cheap simplicity. They want a gaming platform that they know will just work. They want to know that they can go out and pick up Grand Theft Auto (n+1) without having to worry about whether their system will run it. Increasingly, however, that very worry is becoming a reality.
Capcom's Devil May Cry 4 was the first PS3 game to come out demanding that users give up over 4GB of HDD space - that's over 25% of a 20GB unit - just to install the game, and there are more to come. While it may seem like an awfully small issue to some, the public outcry over this has shown just how fickle the gaming public can be.
The worry is that an upgradable HDD (or disk drive, or RAM, or whatever hardware gets the new-for-old treatment in upcoming generations), instead of being an option, will become a necessity. And it's a very valid concern. In an effort to get better reviews, snazzier screenshots and a more satisfied audience (not to mention lower development costs), developers will use whatever tools they have at their disposal to make their games better than the competition - and if that means you need to upgrade to play the best games out there, then you either upgrade or miss out.
This strategy, however, runs the risk of alienating consumers who have already paid a sizeable sum for their hobby, and it makes the work of developers that much harder: instead of developing for just the one hardware configuration, they find themselves needing to cater for different combinations of different upgrades, which adds to cost and time while potentially reducing the quality of the final product.
Yet even dealing with base hardware, consoles have their fair share of PC likenesses. In an effort to reduce the phenomenal costs associated with developing new consoles and middleware, console makers are turning to off-the-shelf parts and designs - in some cases heavily modified, in other cases less so. The Xbox was, at its heart, a single-configuration PC; the Xbox 360 and PS3 have modified consumer-level graphics hardware from ATi and nVidia respectively, and even the Wii has its share of well-documented silicon viscera.
While this does make development significantly easier, it can also cause problems for companies after a strictly locked-down platform. With hardware increasingly being sold as a "loss leader", at least initially, companies rely on royalties from sales of games (and more recently other online content) to turn any profit at all. When an Xbox gets turned into an XBMC, or when a pallet of PS3s are introduced to Linux and used as cheap raw grunt, Microsoft and Sony make no money off these sales - indeed, they may be losing it. As future consoles are developed with an eye for cheaper, faster production, the men in the lab coats will need to ensure that their hardware isn't too easy to work with.
Hardware, of course, is only half the battle. No-one buys a console purely to stare at the shiny insides (with the possible exception of Tom Dickson); without something to run on it, a console is just an expensive space heater. Games-wise, consoles have largely managed to retain their roots. If anything, PC games have become more console-like rather than the other way around (which is a whole different article). With spanking-big hard-drives and ooh-look-at-me internet access though, consoles are picking up a few of PC gaming's more charming personality quirks; and again, it's a fine line that the console boffins need to walk.
"Micro-transactions" is a big buzz-word in the world of consoles today. It sounds like "getting something for very cheap," but what it often tends to mean is "paying for something that should be free." "Should" of course is a rather subjective term, but many of the items that console users now pay for are the kinds of items that PC users are used to getting free of charge.
Over the coming years, it's going to take a bit of juggling for the Big Three to get their micro-transaction systems and prices to a point where users are willing to pay for the content without complaint. Fortunately for them, it seems that convenience goes a long way to providing this sense of satisfaction. Click, click, play is what it's all about. Or, at the moment, click, click, wait, click, wait, wait, click, wait, play... but it's getting there.
The alternative to micro-payments is user-created content, and the issues surrounding this concept that has kept many a PC game alive well past its use-by date are even more worrying. While user-created content is generally "free" (if we ignore the incidental costs of actually downloading and storing the content), it is a cause for concern for developers on a number of fronts.
First up, obviously, it involves providing free entertainment. If people are being entertained for free, that's a wasted opportunity to charge them. Secondly, free content generally means largely unregulated content. If providing this content isn't bringing in money, then it's unlikely that the Powers that Be are going to be all that interested in throwing money at managing its dispersal. This means either open-slather Hot Coffee mods galore, or (more likely) mods will simply be removed from official channels and even the slightest hint of impropriety. In either case, it's the consumer who loses out.
Finally, free user-created content is potentially malicious content. Again, the difficulties of financing an adequate regulatory mechanism for content that brings in no cash should be obvious to all. It remains to be seen how well Sony in particular will be able to provide effective safeguards against such an attack.
Whatever path they take, the companies behind the consoles will need to be extremely cautious in how they implement this particular aspect of PC gaming if they don't want to risk alienating, annoying or exposing their users to undesirable content.
Throughout all of this, one of the biggest (and, for a profit-conscious company, one of the most concerning) aspects of console development is the issue of customer support.
With every feature, every upgrade, and every added complexity that a company brings to the game, they also add to their own burden for supporting the end user. As far as end-user support is concerned, adding more features simply results in adding more potential points of failure. We've come a long way since the days where most issues could be solved by breathing on a cartridge or, failing that, a little carefully-moderated percussive maintenance. These days, support is needed for myriad technical issues, minor and major.
Consoles have always aimed themselves as much as possible at the mainstream "family" demographic, and even in these enlightened times this means catering for a demographic that contains a substantial number of less-than-savvy technical users.
Hard drives fail. If you don't know this yet, one day you will (and if humorous anecdotes have taught us anything, it's that it will probably happen the day before you decide to start backing up your important documents). Once it does happen, this becomes a customer support issue. Can't get the HD video to play? Customer support. Wireless dropping out? Customer support. Video not streaming? iPod refusing to synch? Mouse not supported? Can't connect to Live/PSN? Better hope some-one's manning those phones.
As new consoles add hardware and software features in an effort to rival the technical prowess of their PC brethren, the expense of simply hiring people to sit at the other end of a phone line will begin to mount. And that's without looking at the issue of replacing consoles bricked by a corrupted firmware or dodgy HDD (as Sony is currently facing) or fried by inbuilt toaster-oven simulation hardware (as both Microsoft and Nintendo have found).
Users increasingly clamour for better features and more of them, but the number of ancillary costs that accompany every added feature must be taken into consideration. And as much as the gaming public may howl and moan over a lack of support for their own personal favourite video codec, the outcry over such features being removed due to unacceptably large support costs (and a cost doesn't need to be particularly large to be considered "unacceptable) will be far louder. Better, in the minds of the corporate drones, to hold back on features and take things slow.
Consoles are not PCs, nor should they try to be; however, consoles are becoming more and more PC-like with every iteration. As a gaming machine, the humble PC is free-form, anarchic and wonderfully unpredictable. The goal for consoles is to take the best of what PC gaming has to offer and make it simple, cheap, accessible and fun. It would be a sore day indeed if PC gaming were to disappear altogether, but consoles are still a long way away from providing anything approaching such a threat.
In the meantime, enjoy the ever-expanding range of pure fun that consoles can provide, and try not to worry too much about what makes a games machine. After all, it's all about the fun, right?