For a long time, I’ve had a theory that there’s always room for two-and-a-half game consoles in the market – that is, two main contenders battling for first place and an also-ran that survives but never stands a chance of doing better than third. Being either first or second is normally good enough to guarantee healthy sales and long-term survival. The more critical question is, who will be the also-ran?
This market mechanic has been pretty stable ever since the head-to-head battle between the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo. In third place was the SNK Neo-Geo with its huge $70 cartridges. In the optical media era, Sony brought out the Playstation, Sega gave us the Saturn, and Nintendo hung onto cartridges for one more generation with the N64. From being a major contender, Nintendo dropped into third place and has since failed to recover. Cartridges have the advantage of being sturdy and chewable, thus good for little kids, but they’re slow and expensive to make, while the cost of goods on an optical disc is well under $1 in quantity. Optical disks hold far more data, too, so you can sell bigger games for less money. In retrospect, despite Nintendo’s good intentions and some excellent games, the N64 was a strategic mistake.
Developers hated the Saturn, however, and after a year or two of frustration, many refused to support it. Sony roared ahead and cemented their lead with the PS2. Microsoft entered the race a solid second with the original Xbox, and Nintendo hung on to its #3 spot with the GameCube. Sega dropped farther back in the pack with the Dreamcast, and ultimately quit the race entirely, vowing to become a software-only publisher (while still doing nicely in Japan with arcade games, pachinko machines, and the like).
So now we’re at another generation. The Xbox 360 came out swinging early, and it’s a good solid machine. Then there’s the PS3, which is undoubtedly the most powerful game console ever built but too expensive, and the Wii, which has taken a radically different approach. Who’ll end up as the also-ran?
The answer will have to do with a lot of factors beyond a game designer’s, or any game developer’s, control. Sad to say, while the quality of the early games for a console does matter, good games alone cannot guarantee a console’s success. More important are its price (to the casual players), its hardware features (to the hardcore players), and even its form factor (the Japanese are reputed to have ignored the first Xbox because it was just too big and clunky for their apartments). The media, both gaming and mainstream, are busy comparing the new consoles. But what are the pros and cons from a design standpoint?
There’s no question that more computing power enables us to do things that we couldn’t otherwise do. We can put more characters on the screen; we can put more brains in their heads. We can use CPU-intensive techniques like inverse kinematics to create better animation, especially interactions between characters in games that involve a lot of physical contact such as wrestling or rugby. Our physics and visual effects will be both spectacular and accurate. In short, the PS3 is a programmer’s and a filmmaker’s dream. If you’re a visual thinker, if much of the entertainment that you provide is through the richness or the verisimilitude of your imagery, then there’s no question that the PS3 is the way to go.
The PS3 is another step in a long chain of graphical and computing improvements that began with Spacewar. It’s a big step, and technically speaking, the inclusion of the Cell processor is a very important – and challenging – innovation. Most game programmers don’t know much about multiprocessing. The PS3 raises the bar, and to get the most out of it requires some high-level wizardry.
From a design standpoint, however, the PS3 is evolutionary, not revolutionary. It doesn’t change much about our job. It makes it easier to design the same stuff we’ve always designed, but it doesn’t encourage us to try anything particularly new.
That’s where the Wii excels. Nintendo has bet the company on a radical new approach to gaming. Gameplay, they said, is really about interactions, not graphics. The Wii Remote gives players new things to do, which means it challenges us designers to come up with those things. Furthermore, it takes away functionality found on other consoles. Instead of the eleven buttons, two analog joysticks, and a D-pad of the PS3 controller, it has only six buttons and a D-pad. To design for this, we have to think differently – we have no choice about it. By contrast, Sony has hedged its bets. Its controller is wireless now, and it contains some motion-sensing capability, but it’s still definitely a two-handed device, almost identical to the Dual Shock. It’s not the kind of thing that encourages the player to see it as a light saber, tennis racket, fishing rod, or six-shooter – or to get up off the couch.
It took a lot of guts to do that. If either players or developers hate the Wii Remote, the Wii is doomed. Sure, there’s the Nunchuck to give them a joystick, and even the Wii Classic Controller, which looks startlingly like a good old SNES controller with added joysticks. But these are extra-cost items; they can’t save the Wii if the ordinary Wii Remote tanks with the consumer.
So which do I want to design for? From a creativity standpoint, it’s the Wii, hands down (or up!). The human-computer interaction people have a buzzword they’re fond of: affordance. Affordance refers to the possible actions that a tool, or other object, provides or suggests to the user. The Wii Remote offers a different and quite new set of affordances to the player: steering with it, waving it, jabbing it, pointing it, stirring with it, paddling with it, and so on. It’s the wizard’s magic wand we’ve always wanted. All we have to do is supply the magic.
This point brings up a larger and more general issue. As game designers, we love the universality of computerized entertainment. You can do all kinds of things with a computer that you can’t do when designing a tabletop game such as a board game or a card game. The universality of the computer has made possible the staggering range of video games, from Pong to Civilization IV, and that power and freedom is attractive to us designers.
But that freedom lies entirely within the mental part of gameplay: the rules, the victory conditions, the challenges we offer to the player. It doesn’t speak to the physical part of play. In this respect, all video games are still constrained, and to some extent defined, by their I/O devices. Most mouse-based games stink on joystick-based machines. PC games seldom work well in multiplayer local mode, because PC input devices aren’t normally designed for more than one user. To offer new kinds of physical play, we need new kinds of devices.
In other words, Sony’s most revolutionary gaming innovation was not the PS3, but the Eye Toy. It wasn’t really the first camera for a game device – Nintendo had the Game Boy Camera, and Sega offered the Dreameye for the Dreamcast in Japan – but it was the first to be widely available, and to be connected to a machine with enough horsepower to do something useful with the images. Because the Eye Toy wasn’t bundled with the machine, few titles absolutely required an Eye Toy, and so its use has mostly been confined to mini-games or optional features. Still, it affords – there’s that word again – the players a new way to interact with the games that wasn’t possible before.
Now, longtime readers of this column will know that I’m not a big fan of hardware-driven game design. Designing a game specifically to show off a new graphics chip seldom results in innovative gameplay, no matter how good the game looks. But output devices are about you and what you want to show the player. Input devices, on the other hand, are about the player and what you want to enable him to do – and that, after all, is the point of video gaming in the first place. So cameras, microphones, and dance mats are all opportunities for us to think more creatively about games and play. A few, such as the Guitar Hero controller, are too specific to be useful for much else besides rocking out, but that’s OK – they make possible a unique play-experience that’s not available any other way. The genius of the Wii Remote is in its generality. It requires the player to use his imagination (and that’s no bad thing), but it also offers a much wider range of experiences from a single device.
So who, at the end of the day, will be the also-ran in this generation of consoles? On the global scale, I’d say it could well be neither the PS3 or the Wii, but the Xbox 360. The PS3 will win over the hardcore gamers who have to have the fastest, most amazing machine available. The Wii will skim off the younger players and those who don’t have as much money to spend.
Both have the advantage of being made in Japan, so they’ll crowd the Xbox right out of that market. In the US and Europe, it’s harder to say, but I see the Xbox’s early start as more of a liability than a benefit. They’ve racked up several million sales, but they can no longer claim to be the latest, greatest thing – especially as the PS3 plays Blu-Ray disks out of the box, but HD-DVD is only available for the Xbox as an add-on. The Dreamcast got an early start too, and look how that ended.
In the meantime, I’d love to design a few Wii games. Maybe I’ll start with something obvious, like a port of Whac-a-Mole. Try that with a pair of analog joysticks!