Single Minded

Single Minded

By Develop

November 2nd 2007 at 2:51PM

Two weeks ago, EA's Gerhard Florin suggested that in future, the industry would benefit from a move towards a single, unified and open games format.

Although clearly taking a long-term view, it's something we've heard before. Most recently Silicon Knights' Denis Dyack has said he too is convinced that it's an inevitability for the industry, and Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi just last week echoed his comments.

But what does the rest of the industry think? Develop surveyed a number of leading UK developers, specifically those with technical proficiencies, to find out what they thought of the often-discussed idea.

ONE-TRACK MIND
Amongst those we spoke to, it was clear there's no doubt that the theory behind the idea has noble, playing-field-levelling intentions, which would help drive down costs and simplify matters across the board, for both consumers and developers.

"A single platform would obviously simplify development and digital distribution, and would likely bring about further economies of scale on the hardware side," says Torsten Reil, CEO of NaturalMotion.

"On the surface it could seem like a good thing. It takes a lot of work getting games out across all the different formats, but then it could be argued that this provides lots of work for developers. But we'd all like our teams to concentrate on one, very profitable format if possible," adds Blitz Games' Andrew Oliver. "It would makes developer's lives easier. It would also give the consumer one option, so that having a console that is compatible with every game is like having a DVD player."

However, although such a format would bring with it various benefits to production of games, the developers we spoke to don't believe it is viable for the industry's future, given the variety of concerns and questions it would throw up.

Firstly, they say, there's the matter of the specs of such a machine. How would it run? Who would choose the components? Will it even need to have components? And then there's the wider questions: from who would such a platform come from? Who decides who gets to be in control?

"I believe any such system would need to be an online server based system," says Oliver, describing the possiblity of "a game that runs from a server and feeds you a video stream of the game that is rendered server side".

He points out that service-driven platforms such as those advocated by Google and social networking sites, plus virtual worlds like Home and Second Life, would be where the future for a single-format would lie – but acknowledges that while software platforms have risen in popularity thanks to the web, "all the time the hardware inside the box is important and different".

HISTORICAL PRECENDENT

The notion of a single, unified and open platform brings with it lofty ideals of people from the industry having, by some treaty-style agreement, decided what a platform should entail. But such aspirations have never paid off well for video games in the past.

"The last time technology companies collaborated by committee to create a processor for next-gen development we were landed with Cell, so no thanks," said one coder at UK independent studio.

And let's not forget that when it comes to open standards the industry has struggled somewhat in establishing them in the past, accusations against the PS3 aside.

Frontier's David Braben reminds us: "There have been at least two attempts at this in the past at this in the last few decades, MSX and CDi. Both took a long time to agree, and both were far from cutting edge when the first machines hit the shelves."

A similar fate befell Trip Hawkins' 3DO – which in fact arrived not as a low-cost, low-barrier device but one that priced itself out of the market.

"The industry does not have a good track record of introducing standards," agrees Reil. "The MSX never really took off and the open PC platform is only moderately suited for gaming - there were many good reasons why consoles took over."

Indeed, that's one of the smart, snappy answers to the 'single games machine' question: 'we've got one – the PC', but developers aren't convinced of that, either.

"[The PC] is by no means a single platform," says Braben, who calls it "in effect many platforms in one". With "the issue of driver updates torturing even competent users" the example of the PC in fact proves the theory that a single console would work is wrong, he says. Driver updates, operating systems, and the many other spec differences between one person's PC and another, "simply highlight the difficulties of coercing these multiple platforms to behave as one," he says.

NaturalMotion's Reil lays out what he thinks would need to be done: "If a single, open platform was to be made successful, I think it would require the following: technology spec steering from major publishers, select small developers and technology providers; an independent organization representing the above, and choosing component vendors, tools/software suppliers and hardware manufacturers; a predictable and mandatory tech-rev cycle, such as three years; and tightly controlled spec variation within a generation, such as HD size, but not CPU speed."

With the current format holders locked in such a fiercely fought battle, and all of them arguably completely out of whack when it comes to the length and nature of their hardware cycles - plus a thriving ecosystem of studios, publishers and tools and technology firms around them, many point out it is infeasible that we'll see the above happen.

VERSUS MATCH

Ultimately, it's clear from those we have spoken to that a single format is in truth contrary to everything the industry is built on; and a one games machine industry would remove the one thing that makes the world of games development move so quickly – competition.

Jostling through the years between Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Sega, Atari, Commodore and others has meant certain platforms have certain benefits and limitations – for good or ill this has meant specific games tailored to a specific platform, taking advantage of all its good points and often setting a template for what comes next. It's no coincidence that the industry's iconic characters are those which came from such games; a single format would kill the 'killer app'.

Adds Braben: "The reason development is hard is because the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are pushing at the edge of technology. We are having to learn new techniques, and deal with vastly richer data sets to meet the expectations created by these machines. Yes, it would be be easier if the two machines ran the same code. Yes, it would be easier if we didn't need to get manufacturer approvals. But this is short sighted: it removes the incentive for Sony or Microsoft or Nintendo or whoever to spend the billions investing in another generation in the future. Our industry would stagnate."

Nintendo introduced the Wii for those very reasons, opting to go the low-cost route - it's hard to imagine how the machine had found so much success if it didn't emerge as such a contrast to the rest of the industry. Which isn't to say its machine arrived by not capitalising on a hardware-focused trend – it merely substituted one technical marvel (chip speeds at the CPU and GPU level) for another (motion control).

"It's hard to see how performance will continue to increase at the current pace without competing companies pushing the limits," says Reil.

"And contrary to what some people think: we will require performance increases for some time to allow the medium to live up to its potential. Casual games are only part of what games can deliver."

DOUBLE-EDGED SINGLE FORMAT
Plus, while such a platform would (in theory) also aid the confusing path through rival multi-core processors, it would be a blow for some large, vibrant parts of the development sector.

The middleware market, for one, has gone through thriving periods – notably the peaks of success for Renderware and, more recently, the likes of Unreal Engine 3 – thanks to developers needing extra tools to aid multi-platform development. Studios, too, have benefitted from this, with many moving on to licence out the technology they produced to solve these problems. (That's, after all, how Criterion and Epic Games built their reputations.)

Oliver points out that middleware is often designed "so game teams can often feel like they are only working on a single format". And while there would probably be a need for the likes of SpeedTree and Havok in a world with just one console, and even different engines to match developer preferences, there would be less encouragement for those tools to develop in line with changing and contrasting hardware formats.

Take Reil's firm NaturalMotion as another example. Creators of the Euphoria animation technology being used in LucasArts and Rockstar Games' upcoming 360/PS3 games, the company is your traditional tools vendor, but also one that has fit into a unique service model in the space between studios and formats, thriving by offering next-gen technology which it is now using to make its own game in-house, Backbreaker.

"I think the industry would have to shrink somehow before we could introduce this – effectively hitting a reset button isn't something developers could or would want to think about given the size and scope of the industry as it stands to day," adds the head of a studio that plans to licence out its own games technology to other developers and publishers, but asked not to be named.

"There's simply too much going on now for a single platform to work."

So be it PS3 vs 360, DirectX vs OpenGL, or twin analgoue sticks vs Wiimote, it's the industry's conflict-driven nature that has made it what it is and will keep driving it forward – and also lock out any 'single format' taking rise, in the short-term at least.

As Braben points out, developers have enough to focus on with three quite different home consoles available on the market let alone start thinking about some theoretical future: "Survival of the best platform(s) has to be the best way forwards, rather than agreeing on a bland middle ground."