Thursday, July 17, 2008

Splintering The Market

The current console generation has been defined in numerous ways: next-gen gameplay, motion control, high definition graphics, and online gaming. These new aspects are all inherently good for the industry. However, there's one trend gaining in popularity this generation that could potentially hurt gaming.. The ever increasingly, common practice to introduce new hardware accessories and peripherals.

Granted, this is nothing new to gaming. From the early days, Nintendo has been pushing out crazy new peripherals to augment players' gaming experiences. From the NES Zapper, to R.O.B. the Robot, to the Super Scope 6, and even the Donkey Konga drums. Most of these hardware add-ons were designed to be used by only a handful of games, much like the Guitar Hero and Rock Band instruments are today. You had no reason to expect that you'd be using the Power Pad to play the next version of Super Mario Bros or embark on the next Zelda adventure. But more and more, the trend is moving toward incremental improvements to the hardware via "optional" accessories that detrimentally fragment the market.

Let's start out with Microsoft. They were the first to reach market with Xbox360, but this also forced them to compete with much cheaper consoles: PS2 and Gamecube. Their decision to release two main hardware configurations--one with a hard drive (HDD) and one without--allowed them to debut at a much lower price point. Unfortunately, this resulted in a splintering of their hardware options from day one. Game developers would not be able to utilize the HDD to optimizing the game experience, whether it be speeding up load times or using much larger textures. This remains a problem to this day, especially with multi-platform titles that are allowed to use the PS3 HDD, yet Microsoft still won't allow developers to touch 360 HDD for fear that "Arcade" SKU owners won't be able to play. In addition, it's a very confusing message to send to consumers when you tout your superior online service, which also requires the 360HDD.

Sony was smart enough to include a HDD in every PS3, but their foul up was in not including the Dualshock 3 in the box from day one. This is mainly because Sony decided to fight the Immersion lawsuit, which involved a patent violation for the use of existing rumble technology in their controllers. Microsoft decided to settle out of court, but Sony was adamant they would win. Long story short, they went ahead and released their new Sixaxis controller with the PS3, which included motion control, but sans any rumble capability. Less than a year later, the legal problems were over and rumble was back in the newly labeled Dualshock 3. In a move akin to Apple's 3G-less iPhone launch, they had revised their hardware with a major new addition shortly after their initial launch, and consumers had to pay for it. Not that any game really requires rumble-enable controllers, but the fact that no game designer can incorporate that as part of their essential game design is a little limiting, to say the least.

Nintendo seems to introduce the most hardware peripherals out of anyone, but most are closer to the gameplay augmenting NES peripherals, rather than outright necessities. They add optional gameplay experiences or are designed solely for only a handful of games; with some examples being: The Wii Zapper, the Mario Kart Wheel, and the Wii Fit balance board. But with the recent announcement of the Wii MotionPlus add-on, which offers true 1:1 motion control, I can't see this doing anything other than splinter the market. Unlike the other accessories mentioned above, it's not something that can be used for specific game experiences. It redefines the way motion control works for the default wiimote controller. From the consumer perspective, will we be forced to buy 4 of these new devices, one for each wiimote? And from the developer perspective, do you decide to base your game around this new technology, shrinking the potential market of people who can buy and play your game?

The problem with fragmenting the hardware market for your console is that you never can truly utilize these new devices, since you can't guarantee that everyone that owns that system has them. It then becomes more of an optional gameplay element, rather than a something that adds to the core experience. The way I see it, you should never introduce a fundamental hardware accessory after your product has already gone to market. Software upgrades are fine, since they are free and easy to push out to customers. But I guess we live in an age where we always want the best product all the time, so I submit to you the lesser of two evils. If you're going to "upgrade" hardware for a console, make sure that every new version of the hardware has these improvements going forward, and make sure there's a cheap and affordable way for existing owners to "upgrade" as well. The nature of technology is such that it is always changing, but if you are building a platform that software can run on, make sure you don't end up screwing over your existing user base.