Opinion: J Allard sets out Microsoft's battle lines
You can't really accuse J Allard of not thinking big enough.
After all - aside from occasional flights of fancy from soundbite-friendly Sony Computer Entertainment boss Ken Kutaragi, or from Lionhead's Peter Molyneux (himself a close friend of Allard's) - it's rare to find a senior figure in the games industry freely discussing a long-term view which sees games devices becoming as ubiquitous and varied as DVD players, as integral a part of our homes as televisions, and games themselves as pervasive in every facet of our lives as music or video.
Certainly, it's not a unique vision, but it's unusual for someone in Allard's position to talk about it in any detail. His forward-looking comments in his interview with us are fascinating; you might even call them visionary. They certainly count as "thinking big," and they provide strong indications of the scope of Microsoft's ambitions.
What you might legitimately accuse Allard of, however, is not thinking new. None of his ideas are actually innovative; although we haven't heard them coming from his mouth before, and they certainly fill in a lot of information about Microsoft's future strategy, they're not actually original ideas in themselves. More a collection of other games industry ideas, some surprisingly old, for which Allard believes that the right time is coming.
The most interesting of Allard's pronouncements, arguably, is his vision of a future where consoles are manufactured to a standard set of baseline specifications by a wide range of hardware makers, offering consumers a choice of hardware with different designs, abilities and price points, all of which will play back the same games - in the same way that DVD players vary wildly in price, design and specification, but can all play back the same DVD software. This is all about choice, says Allard, and it's all about software.
It's not a new idea, and Allard would be the first to admit that. In fact, he willingly raises the spectre of Trip Hawkins' ill fated 3DO console, which was based on a similar idea, and the Panasonic Q, which integrated a GameCube with a high-end DVD player. Neither device performed very well; Allard believes that 3DO was ahead of its time, and that both plans had major flaws. Other good recent examples include the Nuon, which aimed to build game hardware into DVD players, and the Linux-based Indrema console, which never even got to the manufacturing stage.
Allard prefers to compare Microsoft's grand scheme in this regard to DVD players rather than to previous failed experiments within the games industry - but it's here that eyebrows start to be raised. The comparison between game devices and DVD players is an obvious one, but it's got some huge flaws which Allard doesn't address; and in some areas, he makes comments which are simply inaccurate.
For example, he raises the argument that there is no brand awareness for DVD, and claims that nobody attempted to build a "this is what DVD does for you" campaign in the way that Sony has pushed PlayStation or Microsoft has pushed Xbox. But in fact, the consortium of companies who created the DVD standard spent vast amounts on promoting the standard and creating brand awareness for it when it first emerged; although their marketing was quite different to the marketing drive for a games console, it was an enormous push nonetheless, and the overall spend was probably higher than Microsoft and Sony's marketing budgets for their current consoles combined.
DVD did not become the de facto standard for consumer video that it is today simply by default, or because it was technically superior to the existing standard. Someone needs to promote any standard like that heavily and consistently for it to gain acceptance - and doubly so if it has serious competition in the marketplace, a factor which Allard ignores but which is crucially important. Sony isn't simply going to go away.
Vive La Difference
The comparison with DVD falls down in another crucial area as well - and it's one which Allard touches upon briefly, but gives few answers to. DVD players are inexpensive devices; although adding features can yield a very expensive piece of technology, the core requirements for manufacturing one are components which cost very little - a matter of a few Euro. Game consoles, on the other hand, are expensive; they contain cutting edge technology which, at launch, would be expected to outstrip the performance of PCs costing vastly more money, and although more features can be added, if a console maker skimps in an attempt to cut costs, games will play poorly or, more likely, not at all.
The upshot of this is that game consoles are, at least for the early years of their lifespans, sold at a significant loss by their manufacturers. This is part of the drive to create a huge brand, and Allard is correct in that this did not happen with DVD; instead, the market priced DVD players for early adopters at first, and then reduced prices as component prices also fell. Allard seemingly believes that this can be done with game consoles also - but there are several questions which are raised by this approach, which the comparison with the movie industry does not answer.
Games consoles need to be cutting edge, it could be argued. Some believe that in future we will reach a point where it's no longer worthwhile adding additional power to videogame systems, and a standard for game devices can be agreed upon, but the simple fact of the matter is that even several generations hence, videogame consoles will not be able to recreate a significant amount of the detail of the real world. The law of diminishing returns on console power will apply, certainly, but not to the extent that it will make sense to drop the current console generation model for a very long time.
Allard, and others, would point to the film industry, which has maintained its current standard for many years. Films, the argument seems to go, continue to entertain and innovate but have no need for cutting edge hardware in the home or constant upgrade cycles. The games industry only needs these things, the argument goes, because it is immature and stuck to an immature way of thinking and doing business.
The problem which is overlooked by this argument is that there is a fundamental difference between games and films; games are an interactive medium. Film technology has, in fact, progressed massively in the past ten years - just look at the advances in computer generated imagery. Ask Pixar how many times they have upgraded their massive, powerful rendering computers in the past decade, and you'll find that they are working on a cycle a lot smaller than the console industry. However, because what they are creating is a static entertainment product, it can still be packaged onto a DVD disc - regardless of the power of system required to generate it - and played on a standard DVD player.
This is not the case with videogames. Videogames, by their very nature, require every advancement in technology to take place in the actual playback hardware. Upgrading the systems of the developers to allow them to create more and more intricate graphics, physics and audio is pointless, if the home consoles cannot supply the level of processing power required to allow the user to interact with those creations. This is the core difference between the videogame and movie markets, and it's one which renders the comparison with DVD players fundamentally flawed. The technology must be cutting edge, unlike DVD; it must be attractively priced for consumers; and therefore it must be subsidised for the early part of its life.
Of course, it's easy to see why Allard, and the rest of Microsoft, would be keen on a market model in which they simply created a reference design and let others take care of the actual manufacture of consoles. After all, the company has lost billions of dollars on the Xbox to date, largely because of the significant loss it takes on every hardware unit it sells; and it is seemingly coming around to the idea that it isn't a hardware company after all. It would prefer to design the specification, let others do the hard work of building and selling the systems, and then rake in profit from the software sales. However, third party hardware manufacturers won't sell hardware at a loss. The change required to the business model of the games industry to accommodate this would be huge - and may indeed be entirely unfeasible, as outlined above.
Allard's strong belief in the "3DO model" is a reaction to the company's experience with Xbox; unsurprising, since Microsoft throughout its history has been a company which has reacted rather than leading the way, for the most part. Equally, his game plan for XNA - that contentious acronym which has gathered a surprising number of detractors and defenders for what is essentially just a marketing buzzword - is not innovative, but it's certainly highly reactionary.
XNA is presented by Allard as a technology which will allow games to operate across a wide range of devices; a basic genome which will link a whole menagerie of gaming devices and experiences. When he talks about it, he sounds convincing; but when XNA is boiled down to its most basic, the whole thing appears less exciting - and potentially more interesting, in fact.
XNA is designed as a framework to make Xbox 2 more easy to develop for. It has applications beyond Xbox 2, of course, since Microsoft is also providing it for PC developers, but it's Xbox 2 that is the core of the matter here. The raison d'etre for XNA, in a nutshell, is that Xbox 2 is going to be incredibly tough to develop for; with a six-processor design which will require game developers to start worrying about multi-threading and other such concepts in their code, all ideas which are completely alien to the development process as it stands.
On one level, XNA will help slightly by providing standard, familiar DirectX style interfaces to programmers on Xbox 2, but that will make very little odds to the actual complexity of coding for the system. More importantly, it is likely that XNA will form a framework for a whole set of technologies - such as RenderWare, or Havok physics - which will be supplied in multi-threaded, or thread-safe, form to developers, allowing them to take advantage of the multi-CPU design of Xbox 2 more easily.
That's a good thing. It's quite a technical thing, and it's not quite as exciting as Allard's talk about being the core of a DVD style standard for gaming or any such, which is why XNA is much more of a marketing brand than an actual technology brand. Providing tools to make Xbox 2 development easier didn't need the XNA brand attached; convincing the industry, and to a degree consumers, that this is all about the software and that Xbox 2 is easy to develop for, is what the XNA marketing brand exists for.
Allard's future vision is compelling, there's no doubt, but it's also highly idealised and parts of it are in desperate need of more detailed explanation; or perhaps of more detailed thought. The actual effect on Xbox 2 of his projections will be minimal, perhaps even none; it would seem that he is thinking more in terms of the following generation, or even beyond that.
It's also telling that Microsoft's gameplan now differs substantially from Sony's. Sony wants to own the market from end to end; it is happiest with a vision of a future where it owns the content creation platform (Cell workstations), the content delivery system (UMD and Blu-Ray discs), the content platform (PS3, PSX3, PSP) and much of the software market (Sony Pictures, Sony Music, SCE's publishing divisions). Microsoft wants to be a software company, providing a reference design and games.
There's probably only room for one of those models in the games industry. The coming decade of conflict between the two companies can almost certainly have only one winner - and with Allard's cards on the table, along with Sony president Nobuyuki Idei's, the battle lines are well and truly drawn.