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Thinking About the One Console Future

February 27, 2008

I just finished listening to 1UpYours Podcast with Dennis Dyack, where he and the crew discussed at length the merits and feasibility of the "one console future" in which hardware manufacturers all designed to a common spec that allowed write-once run anywhere game development on a common platform. Just as with PCs, multiple manufacturers could still exist, but no longer would Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have different platforms to write to and design games for. I have written about this possibility before.

Dennis’s rhetorical style is a little scattershot, but I believe the future he depicts is realistic, but for reasons not really discussed directly on the podcast.

The advantages of such a regime, would yield too many advantages for the players in the market to ignore. The main advantages would be the following:

  1. Gamers would not have to fear that their decision of which console to purchase could leave them unable to play a great game on their console.
  2. Game developers would have easy access to the entire console market without the financial and feature sacrifices inherent in multi-console development today. Just as in any market with elastic demand, these benefits of these savings would be split between developers and gamers.
  3. Console manufacturers could avoid duplicative costs in developing their platforms. These savings would inevitably be shared with gamers as well.

A few issues that would need to be addressed for this to happen:

  • First, is it possible to maintain the financial model of game consoles? Currently console makers sell their hardware at artificially low prices and make their money back from licensing fees from game developers. This allows a low price of entry and price discrimination in that buyers of many games end of "paying more for their consoles" than those who buy few games. (This is also a big reason why the attach rate is so important.) Microsoft’s "E" has expressed a view on Major Nelson’s podcast that this model is incompatible with a "one console future." So could this model continue in the "one console future?"

In theory, YES. Obviously, if all but one manufacturer abandoned the business then the current model could continue without modification. Even without other manufacturers abandoning the business, the model could still continue as long as there was a consortium that subsidized consoles and collected licensing fees from developers who wanted their games to run on the consortium’s platform. Alternatively, perhaps a part of the common platform would be games that were locked to a given manufacturer’s platform; that manufacturer could then collect fees from developers to allow their games to be played on that manufacturer’s hardware (the price of which had been subsidized by the manufacturer).

  • Second, would this fragment in the same way as PC gaming on the common platform of Windows– with different hardware creating compatibility problems?

Possibly, but UNLIKELY. There would always be a tradeoff that the members of the consortium would have to address: allowing hardware innovation within a platform/generation always runs the risk of decreasing compatibility. I see no systemic or inherent reason that the members of the consortium wouldn’t do a decent job managing this tradeoff however.

In sum, a common console platform is feasible and has some significant advantages, this is why I continue to believe that a common console platform is likely.

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