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What Games Are: The Wacky World Of Convergent Divergence

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer and creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. He has recently moved into managing developer relations at OUYA. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Unlike most other media sectors, the games industry has always tended to diverge rather than converge. A movie is just a stream of content that’s not too hard to convert from one format to another, ditto a song or book, but a game is different. Many of the most successful games of all time have been designed with a target platform in mind. Whether we’re talking about Halo using the joypad of the original Xbox to maximum effect or the great pairing of Animal Crossing: New Leaf and Nintendo’s 3DS/2DS systems, there’s a lot to be said for joined-up thinking.

Another difference is how great games drive platform sales. Few people go out and buy a Blu-ray player just for Man of Steel but they do buy systems just to get at one game. The market has long associated games with systems in that way, and that’s why platform holders battle over exclusivity of key third party titles and spend big on their own games. The right game can persuade a player to part with $500 if the mood takes him, and once he does then their platform is the springboard for everything else. That’s why Nintendo keeps making Zeldas for its own systems and nobody else’s. This has been the way of things since the earliest cartridge games.

Thinking in terms of specific platforms also often works for game designers. The old Nintendo 64 joypad provided a font of interesting innovation for some studios, like GoldenEye and Super Mario 64. With the right sensibilities a really brilliant game sometimes emerges. The forthcoming PS Vita game Tearaway, for example, only works in a Vita context because it uses interface elements (like back-facing touch) that only that platform has.

Third Party Blues

While there is considerable value in bringing games and platforms together, the problem for most development studios and their publishers has long been knowing which bets to make. Considering making a game like Tearaway doesn’t make a lot of commercial sense for most studios because there aren’t zillions of Vita customers out there. Media Molecule can only afford to make it because Sony’s paying for it.

It comes down to revenue and longevity. For mid- and large-sized retail gaming publishers it’s problematic to only think in terms of one platform because they rarely have enough users to justify costs. It makes zero sense, for example, for Activision to only publish Call of Duty: Ghosts on next generation consoles because their user bases are not yet big enough. They likely won’t be for at least two years. Activision could consider launching a new exclusive franchise to help drive system sales if, say, Microsoft would pay much of that bill (and it might), but it would essentially be a $50m loss-leading risk hoping that the sequel would be the one that actually made a ton of money. That’s a very long bet to make.

It always seems as though the argument from the big third party publishers is for hegemony. Publishers like Electronic Arts quietly wish that one platform or the other would win (as long as they also have a preferential relationship with it) because it makes their lives easier. It has happened before, such as in the days of the PlayStation 2. Few consoles have had the breadth or depth of content that the PS2 had, and the reason was simple: It had an enormous, and therefore diverse, user population. A little like iOS does today, the sense that the audience is very big helps a studio justify taking more risks. The thinking is that, at worst case, there’ll be a niche audience there somewhere.

Yet there are serious long term downsides to one-platform hegemony. We see it a little these days in stories of Apple approvals and whatnot, but Apple’s touch is comparatively light compared to how winning gaming platforms have tended to behave. They often become insensitive, even bullying, involving themselves very directly in the making and publishing process for other companies in a way that does not exist in other media. Ask anyone what it was like trying to obtain approval from Sony Europe, Sony America and Sony Japan in the PS2 days and you’ll see grown men cry.

Convergence/Divergence

Many game developers look to the PC and ask why is it that platforms insist on staying separate? With the inner guts of new machines starting to resemble one another, the question is valid. As is the sense that the fight over top dog console has devolved into an un-winnable stalemate for all sides. The PC model, they argue, provides both an egalitarian environment and a user base, and the evidence of Minecraft and numerous Steam games back that up. 

Sure, but the PC’s future has got bigger problems in the long term. It’s also expensive, which means that the games it supports tend more toward culturally engaged gamers to the exclusion of others. What’s missing is some way for the industry to support several platforms at all levels, leveraging the unique qualities of many of them and yet at the same time not get swallowed up by the lock-in economics of one winner. A kind of convergence mixed with divergence. And it’s happening, in large part due to changes in hardware.

One example is microconsoles. The economics of good-enough silicon and operating systems have aligned such that it’s much more affordable to launch a game system that it ever used to be. To solve the problem of putting games on television doesn’t necessarily need a grand custom solution like it used to, and that’s a great boon both for hardware prices but also for developers. It also enables the kind of fan loyalty that technology brands drive while bridging enough for studios to consider taking some risks, making a previous either/or platform choice into more of an either/and. Micro-hardware is everywhere, from smart watches like the Pebble to the two million Raspberry Pis that have been sold or the Oculus Rift.

It’s also grown easier to develop games across many platforms at a small scale because of convergent development environments like Unity 3D. A whole generation of new game makers is essentially able to look at how they make games in a whole new way, and possibly choose to support the unique attributes of certain individual platforms while at the same time retaining the ability to be broad. Imagine Tearaway, for example, but on some systems it uses back-touch input yet on others it uses something else. Where previously that had to be an all-in-or-fold choice, now it doesn’t.

The micro-hardware movement also enables a whole new class of game to emerge. At GDC Next last week I talked about how pervasive games could be a very big thing (especially in the context of multiplayer gaming, but also more generally). The reason why has a lot to do with the assumption that users own several pieces of micro-hardware that talk to each other, a sort of lean and distributed vision of computing rather than all-powerful single boxes. That kind of boundary-pushing is, to me at least, what next generation gaming really means.

And then to take it one step further, consider how some micro-hardware might evolve into nano-hardware. I don’t mean miniaturized, but rather this: The next Skylanders as an HDMI-stick object that works with all of your other micro hardware (your joypads and whatnot) but is essentially like an old cartridge game without the need for a platform to interpret it. The moment when a game no longer needs a platform because it has become a platform.

Too far-fetched?

A Wacky World

We’re long past the phase of single platform dominance or indeed for an appetite for it. Big publishers might yearn for some stability in that way but they’re the only ones who do. Customers don’t. They want all of the games available to them but also a choice of platform. Developers don’t. They want to be able to nimbly move from platform to platform but also to deep-dive on unique features of individual platforms if they choose. While those desires used to seem contradictory, I don’t think they are any more.