Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
16 February 2007
The dream, or nightmare, of a videogame standards commission
Eric-Jon Rossel Waugh is has a commentary on today which starts from David Jaffe's recent comment that in ten years there will be a single console and goes from there to propose a videogame standards commission. Here's the critical bit, I think:
What the industry really needs is a videogame standards commission - a body headed by a rotating board of representatives nominated from all areas of the industry (focusing, of course, on actual game designers - of all sizes, from Electronic Arts to Treasure). This body would be charged with maintaining a detailed yet flexible long-term plan for progressive development of the medium. The board would assay in accordance with a constitution of irrefutable primary standards and ideals. Consensus would be the rule; no decision would be final without open debate, then full agreement of the board.
  • Board members nominated by whom? By the initial board? And who will make up the initial board? While such a system could evolve into a workable system, I can easily see it devolving into an insiders group.
  • Businesses are not going to give away details about what their future plans are. If such a commission had existed before the Wii and its controller became public, would Nintendo have wanted to talk about their newest advance? Or the Nintendo DS and its touch screen? Sure, they could talk about encouraging new concepts in user input and feedback, but they're still giving away some of what they consider ground they want to stake out before others do.
  • That instinct by businesses to protect their advantages is addressed later by saying that the visionaries would need to take the lead and push from within each organization. I don't work in the private sector, but rather in a public institution. If anyone has ideals, it is some of my colleagues (and myself, occasionally). Yet, I have enough experience to see that even those with the power who also have ideals are very rarely able to achieve them. The best we can hope for in much of life is to have striven for ideals and accepted what tiny progress reality affords us.
  • I'm not convinced that there can be a practical constitution of irrefutable primary standards and ideals for videogames. If someone made a proposal, I'd be happy to consider it, but my gut tells me that it will be either too specific (and rule out things that later turn out to be important) or too vague (and thus difficult to promote in any concrete manner).
  • I naturally mistrust bureaucracy. Adding a layer here strikes me as ill-suited to the problems it seeks to solve. I suspect it will be fraught with competition from factions on the board and any progress made will be glacial. (See: OpenGL ARB.)
  • Requiring unanimous consent gives every member a veto on every other one. The United States Congress will move like a cheetah compared to such a board.
I think the OpenGL Architecture Review Board provides an instructive example. Whereas OpenGL was favored by John Carmack in the mid-1990s, we are now in a situation where id Software's primary development is on the Xbox 360 using what I presume is a form of Direct3D, Microsoft's competing interface. By gathering ideas from hardware vendors and then making benevolent dictatorial decisions, it would seem that Microsoft's standard (so to speak) has grown far faster and better than OpenGL could through the OpenGL ARB (which consisted of much the same hardware vendors). Although it may strain the analogy, I think the Linux kernel is another example of how a benevolent dictator, here Linus Torvalds, is key to keeping a system coherent and on course.

Which is to say, I think a commission like the one Eric-Jon Rossel Waugh proposes is unlikely to happen, and if it were to happen it would probably not lead the industry anywhere.

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--Matt Matthews at 11:42
Comment [ 15 ]

Comments on this post:

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By Blogger Jeremy, at 16 February, 2007 13:17  

Jeremy: You reminded me of another comment someone's made about consolidation in console hardware. This one by Randy Pitchford.

For the record, Randy offered to clarify his statement in email, but hasn't yet done so. That was July 2006.

By Blogger jvm, at 16 February, 2007 13:22  

We're already headed toward a single standard, and the standard is defined by Microsoft and it's chief technology partners. Period.

All three of the main consoles use hardware based around the PC and the IBM Power architecture. They all use more or less standard PC style GPUs. Since they use regular PC GPUs (more or less), they are equipped with capabilities that are required and mapped out by Microsoft via their DirectX layer.

Linux may be under the hood of PS3 and Wii, but we all know that the Linux world is largely driven by the Microsoft PC world, because it is primarily designed to run on standard Microsoft-compatible PC systems. Even Apple was forced to buy into that architecture recently.

The funny thing is that Microsoft is out in front exactly because of this. They loaded up the 360 with features that would be refined and expanded in DX10, and the competition is using GPUs designed to run DX9. They're using a three core six thread chip design that is essentially a preview of the quad core+ CPU approaches that are coming up from PC chip vendors. They use unified shaders that were expanded in DX10 and will be the standard for the next console cycle as well as the now starting Vista PC cycle.

Because Microsoft rides herd on the PC industry, and because third parties want to have consoles that are similar to PCs in terms of capabilities and development tools, consoles will inevitably follow Microsoft's roadmap, whether they're doing it formally or just as a matter of course due to technical requirements and availability of parts.

By Blogger Jeremy, at 16 February, 2007 13:29  

Ah, sorry for deleting a post that you responded to.

The short version of what you're probably commenting on was that each platform holder thinks their platform should be the one true platform, and that Microsoft and Nintendo have already had discussions to use common hardware with separate marketing and branding. Those discussions failed, but potentially could come back.

I think my second post is better though.

By Blogger Jeremy, at 16 February, 2007 13:31  

Interesting column. In fact, I think someday they will move to a single hardware platform, the competing-console scheme has always been horribly artificial since each manufacturer must rely on licensing costs to make a profit, either that or make the games themselves. The only thing preventing anyone from making a game for a console are legal barriers, and however difficult the manufacturer can make their lock-out system, which is time and cost that does not serve the consumer.

I think that'll happen *eventually*. When will it occur, and how? I don't know.

You do make excellent posts about what the nature of a game standards board composed of industry players would be. I'm unhappy with any board that has EA on it, not because they're evil, but because they're simply not -good-. And I can't see Japanese manufacturers jumping on board unless the scheme were world-wide and they could have at LEAST equal say, and probably more than equal.

Ultimately, the way a single common console will come about will have to be the same way PCs did: one of the big manufacturers will have to open up their hardware completely and let any old person or group make games for it. That'll be a tremendous risk since they'll be denying themselves a profit from game licensing (unless they go with a kind of "develop free, pay upon publish" kind of tax, which might work but could be an enforcement nightmare), but could make their system more popular just from attracting developers.

Of course, then different manufacturers would start making the system, the original guys would have to make theirs better to make a profit (or they could simply be the sole supplier of an essential part maybe), parity between systems would be lost, some companies will start putting more memory in theirs, or a better video card, or a faster processor. Others will figure out how to get it to run Windows....

By Blogger JohnH, at 16 February, 2007 14:36  

Microsoft WANTED to have the PC vendors build Xbox, but it didn't happen because the PC vendors wouldn't have been able to sell it at margin that would have matched their PCs.

They also internally discussed a no royalty development process...that failed, but it was a major topic of discussion. The pro was supposed to be that the 3rd parties would flock to the system, but the con would have been absolutely no control over content, which was kind of lax on Xbox as it was. I can't see a Japanese maker opting out of the royalty system.

360 has a licensing fee payback system for 3rd parties. Top selling titles end up providing refunds of licensing fees back to the publisher after a while.

Frankly, I think that in the current era, consumers win from TCRs and so forth. Without a licensing and review process, it would be impossible to have as tightly integrated a system as the 360 provides for online.

By Blogger Jeremy, at 16 February, 2007 15:34  

To anybody who thinks a single hardware standard for gaming would ever work, 1 word:


Backed by EA, Panasonic, AT&T, Sanyo, Goldstar.

Dead in 2 years, due to lack of standards resulting from no-royalty development model leading to amazingly poor games.

A dev only had to pay the 3DO company royalties if they used the official logo on the package and splash screen. Even honest devs had little to no incentive to do a really good coding job, as the required standards (I read a copy a programmer friend had received) were shockingly loose in terms of things like input response timing.

In the end, Only Panasonic and Goldstar ever actually built systems for sale, and 90% of games were terrible.

Anybody could have built 3DO systems, but only two of ten partners who signed on to do so ever did.

No attempt to revive the idea will ever fly. If no single entity has a vested interest in maintaining the reputation of a platform, it will wither.

And, Jeremy, Stop smoking crack. Gaming consoles, aside from the joke that was the XBOX, are not influenced by PCs. It goes the other way.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 18 February, 2007 21:26  

Also, Jeremy, the chips in all three current-generation consoles are derived from the Power PC chip, which has nothing to do with PCs, not the POWER chip line, which is server hardware.

Just because you talk a lot doesn't mean you are worth listening to.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 18 February, 2007 21:32  


While you are correct in the fact that 3DO tanked, it did so because of two things, the first being it's high price ($699), the second being there already were much cheaper alternatives (Genesis/Mega Drive, SNES) with blockbuster titles available. And those had been out for a couple of years.

Also, the console didn't have a viable business plan. This was back in 1993, when a PC cost $2000 or more, and the reigning generation was already deeply entrenched. What has happened since then?

The hardware has gone down in price for one thing, but there's another thing that actually can make this one succeed. And that is the Internet.

It's obvious that a new startup company won't ever have the funds to launch a new gaming console. To beat Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft at the game they're playing now, you need to have either very deep pockets or a loyal customer base. Sony and Microsoft has money, Nintendo has their fanboys. If you don't have the money to market your stuff, to show that you're there, and to hire people to develop kickass games for you, you'll lose. Plain and simple.

But, with the Internet, one CAN succeed. I'm not saying it'll be easy. In fact, it'll still be bloody ridiculously hard. But it won't be impossible. Why? Digital Distribution. With digital distribution, you *can* make a profit.

Now, couple this with a console that can do other things - Think HTPC but with the same core components for gaming - and I think we'll have a hit. Especially since noone has made a good HTPC system yet (either too pricey, or too complicated interface). Once someone fixes that, though, BAM! - They'll have the market within their grasp, just like that.

Incidentally, I and a few friends are going to make this. Go to Open Game Console if you want to see what we're proposing. :)

By Anonymous Wertigon, at 20 February, 2007 11:22  

Looks like he got the link wrong. It's, and here's the FAQ and the initial version of their proposal.

Random quote:
While we're playing devil's advocate though, I'm sure some are saying things like, "How is this going to be any more successful than the 3DO or Indreama?" or "Is this just another Phantom?" The 3DO was a similar idea in that it was going to allow multiple manufactures to release the same consoles; however, it was a very closed platform. If you wanted to make a 3DO compatible system you would have to license proprietary chips and software from Matsushita, and by having an open standard, with open source software and off-the-shelf PC components the barrier to entry will be much simpler and less restrictive. Indreama was once going to create a Linux based console with an open development environment; however, it was only going to be made by a single company; it wasn't a standard. And the Phantom was never really going to be a console in the truest sense anyway; it was going to just be a Windows based PC with a digital download service to play general purpose PC games that weren't optimized specifically for it.

Random Specs, and that information summarized in the proposal:

* Athlon64 X2 3800 Processor
o *will hopefully be 65nm version if available in time
* GeForce 7600 GS Video Card
o *will most likely become 8600 equivalent in the near future
* 512MB DDR2-800 RAM
* nForce 550 Chipset
* 16x DVD player
* 40GB+ SATA 3Gb/s Hard Drive
* Audigy 4 SE Sound card
* A controller and additional parts


By Blogger rufbo, at 20 February, 2007 14:00  

The little Richard Stallman in me asks "open game console with binary-only drivers for the NVIDIA card?"

Of course, they did call it *open* game console, not *Free-as-in-freedom* game console.

By Blogger jvm, at 20 February, 2007 14:08  

rufbo: Doh. Thanks for fixing that for me. :) I thought I had nailed down everything, but obviously not.

jvm: Definitely. It's one of my concerns as well, but we have to look at it pragmaticly. Right now, there isn't any cards out there that offers the same performance as nVidias' card. I would personally rather go for the Open Graphics Project as the mainboard, given a chance, but that one won't be ready until it's too late (since we're aiming at a Q1 2008 release). And the Nouveau project isn't looking good, either.

Sometimes you have to compromise. That doesn't mean the goal of Free Software isn't something we should strive for however. :)

By Anonymous Wertigon, at 20 February, 2007 14:22  

The Power PC is called that for a reason, it's a member of the POWER chip line.

None of the three consoles use a Power PC chip, but they are all based off of the POWER architecture.

In fact, the 360's processor is closest to the upcoming POWER6, which features VMX, with the exception that it has three cores.

Just because you post without a name doesn't mean people won't hold you accountable for misrepresenting the facts.

By Blogger Jeremy, at 20 February, 2007 18:29  

I'll try not to say again that I believe the Mac, specifically the iMac, in large part would be a great console.

What is a console? Not only is it, as Wertigon's site says, the opportunity to play in front on the TV on the couch instead of in an office chair in front of a monitor, it is a fixed target for developers. There are very few such platforms around these days. What's the fixed target on WinPCs? Ain't one.

The problem I see quickly with Free, Open, and Good platforms is one that, as conceived here, is shared with Macs. Developers, developers, developers, developers (Thanks, Steve Ballmer).

If the Xbox1 is DirectX in a fixed platform, what's the Open Console? It's a fixed platform without robust and popular game proramming techs. Who knows how to code for Linux and Mac?

Worse still, you've got a smaller installed base than Apple has. Ouch.

As much as I'd like to see an Open & Free standard gaming gain traction, I'm not buying. UP-hill.

In any event, it'll be interesting to see if rumors like this play out, and Apple uses the iTV as one such fixed target for gaming.

(And, one might note, if it runs on the iTV, I'm betting it runs on the Mac-OS X-hardware superset as well.)

By Blogger rufbo, at 20 February, 2007 19:07  

The POWER line is completely different from the PPC. Some tech trickles down, but they are at most cousins. Just because you post your name doesn't mean you know what the fuck you are talking about.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 21 February, 2007 09:59  

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