Xbox, Xbox, |ber alles

Quit whining. A Microsoft monopoly isn't always a bad thing -- especially if it kicks off a renaissance in gaming creativity.

By Wagner James Au
Published August 29, 2000 7:12PM (EDT)

An age-old theological debate has finally been resolved: Evil really does have a valuable place in the world.

Because last July, Beelzebub himself -- Bill Gates -- announced that Microsoft will spend half a billion dollars on marketing and sales for its new Xbox game console. Following that decree, he released 1,000 developer kits to game designers.

Two months earlier, Gates sent shock waves through the gaming community when it was revealed that he had ordered his minions to buy premier computer game studio Bungie Software, creator of the beloved Marathon and Myth series and one of the last independent studios to publish its own titles. Game-loving hobbits and elves could only shudder -- the dark shadow of software's Sauron was inexorably expanding its reach.

Indeed, the Chicago company thus sent in exodus to the rain-swept campus of Redmond, Wash., was but the latest to make the unholy alliance, joining Relic, Gas Powered Games, Ensemble Studios (creator of Age of Empires) and highly admired Wing Commander designer Chris Roberts, among others.

But it was good. It was very, very good. Gamers should rejoice.

I make this confession at great cost. I've resisted saying it for nearly six months. I didn't even bother attending Gates' unveiling of the Xbox, with its built-in DVD player and internal hard drive (a console first) at the Game Developers Conference in March. No, I was there to see Peter Molyneux, a genuine genius, not Gates, a lucre-obsessed, mediocre coder who'd lucked into some insanely fortuitous timing and software acquisitions to become the richest dandruff victim in human existence. What did I care about this game console of his, some ill-conceived also-ran muscling into an already crowded market?

I even said as much three months later, between my fifth plate of lousy sushi and my sixth Sapporo, on the eve of the Electronic Entertainment Expo, slushily expounding to a cadre of pained-looking game industry executives, "Everyone who wants to own a console already owns one, and if they get a new one, it'll probably be Sony's PlayStation 2, which can play their old PlayStation games. And the PC gamers won't buy the Xbox because by the time it comes out -- who's going to wait until fall 2001, anyway? -- top-line PCs will be two, three times faster. So who the hell is left to get an Xbox, unless Gates starts giving them away?"

The scales have now fallen from my eyes. In ways that seem all too painfully obvious, there is no option but to accept the coming of the Xbox, which is likely to devastate the market for cutting-edge PC games, not to mention its competitors, and gain a near monopoly on the console market, as surely as Microsoft has with the desktop operating system.

This, however, is an unalloyed good. The power of the Xbox will unleash a renaissance of creativity and risk taking. Meanwhile, it will liberate gamers from the PC and the crack-addict lure of endless new peripherals and CPUs. All computer gamers, then, should welcome Gates' entrance into the market and start saving their money, not for a top-end PC, but for a $200 or $300 Xbox (when it arrives sometime next year) and a high-resolution TV -- all the while cordially reaching out to convince other gamers who might not yet be converted. Spread the gospel: This monopoly will be good for you.

In other words: Embrace and extend. And enjoy.

So how did I get here and why should you? The first push down the road to Microsoft love came last year, when a well-paid technical support representative for Sony told me to open my computer and blow on it.

All I wanted to do was install and run Everquest, by no means the most technically demanding game on the market. And even while my PC easily met the minimum stated hardware requirements, the game simply refused to run. After the log-in screen, it would tantalizingly begin to load but, at the last minute, blink the Wintel equivalent of "Fuck you, pal" and unceremoniously crash back to the desktop.

The technical rep's e-mail response to my query for help was prompt, thorough -- and totally infuriating. It was a litany of annoyances, a laundry list of best-guess fixes, patches and workarounds: Reinstall the game; reinstall the 3-D graphics card drivers; go to the graphics card manufacturer's Web site and see if there's a more recent driver to download; turn the sound card off; buy more RAM; buy another graphics card; reinstall Windows system files. And the final one, the true clincher:

"If all else fails, you could take the case off your CPU and point a fan at the graphics card. That may seem crazy, but sometimes it works."

Crazy, indeed -- and one clear reason why change is needed in the PC gaming world, change that only a Microsoft has the power to deliver. As "Erik," senior writer for Old Man Murray, a scabrously funny site for hardcore gamer and industry vets, puts it, "No normal person should have the patience to invest the 12 hours a day it takes to stay on top of making your PC, and especially your games, work. And this is why PC games are a mess. A lot of people I know who like games won't touch a PC. And again, they're not dummies. They're smart enough consumers to sense what a big, shitty headache PC gaming is and give it a wide, wide, wide, wide miss."

The problem, quite simply, is that PCs are impossible to design for.

"Probably something that most gamers don't understand is the difficulty of developing for the PC market," says Ken Levine, general manager at Irrational Games. "A large part of the time spent in testing a product involves endless cycles of figuring out why your character disappears on video card X or the sound crackles on sound card Y." Resolving these conflicts involves clawing through the operating system's guts, and the unique configurations of Compaq, Dell and the myriad other Wintel manufacturers.

Eliminating these migraines costs time and money -- both of which could be better put to use focusing on the developer's main task: a compelling, creative, emotionally engaging game.

"Other than the huge amount of money that can be made," seethes Erik, "I have no idea why anyone bothers writing games for the PC. From an artistic standpoint, it's like making a movie knowing that every projector will be running at a different speed."

By contrast, consoles have a single, consistent configuration, a base from which to build on, eliminating all this strife. But then again, consoles don't have the versatility of a PC -- for one thing, they don't come with hard drives that allow storage of the vast amounts of graphics and animation footage that help game developers tell gripping stories. The Xbox promises to change all that. First, it shares an operating system and hardware, such as a hard drive, with PCs. And it won't be victim to the Dells and Compaqs of the world.

"Creatively," enthuses one game developer who asked not to be named, "the idea of having a hard drive [which the Xbox has] is extremely exciting for console development. The latest buzzword is 'episodic entertainment' [games with narrative story lines that keep the player hooked], and by having a hard drive Xbox is going to be the first console to really do this. You could really make some interesting new titles and business models based off of this."

"Consoles of all kinds pretty much remove all of that combinatorial misery," adds Irrational Games' Levine. "The Xbox, approximating a high-end PC, also will allow us to use familiar development environments and paradigms. So, you betcha, it will be easier."

Geoff Keighley, editor in chief of Gameslice, believes that a creative Arcadia may be at hand in a land dominated by the Xbox: "Developers don't have to worry about appealing to the lowest common denominator when designing a level, whereas with a PC game, even if you are developing on a high-end PC, you have to make sure a level isn't too big or complicated for a low-end system. The structure of knowing the technological specs of the machine will allow developers to create a more consistent experience for the player, and, in turn, perhaps this will result in them taking more risks creatively."

And then there's the question of cold, hard cash. Time and again, I've witnessed that horrific moment of clarity when a PC owner whose "hot box" was state of the art a year ago suddenly realizes he or she is going to have to fork over even more money for more hardware just to play the newest, coolest game.

"A four-year-old PlayStation still runs the latest Sony game perfectly," observes Keighley. "A four-year-old PC won't even allow you to run 95 percent of the PC games that ship today. If you build a PlayStation game, you know there are upward of 50 million machines ready to run your game. That's not the case with a PC product.

"The bottom line is that PC games have had a huge barrier to entry up until now," he adds. "To play a technically superb title like Unreal Tournament, you basically need a $3,000 PC for it to run at any acceptable frame rate. With the Xbox, PC games can easily be ported to this platform, which will cost under $400 for the hardware. It's a win-win situation because PC games will now have a larger potential audience."

So now, instead of gambling millions of dollars on a PC title that must sell tremendously to break even, PC developers have, in the Xbox, entree to a far vaster market. "Console games can sell a whole bunch more copies," says Keighley. "Console games like Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot have sold about 5, 8, million minimum. The biggest hit PC game will sell maybe 2 million copies. Half-Life is up at that number now. Myst has probably sold a bit short of 4 million copies after more than a half-decade. There's a much larger international base for console games, too."

"Given these dynamics," says Paul Neurath, former managing director at Looking Glass Studios, "many top-notch PC developers are already shifting their sights to console. The availability of the Xbox will likely accelerate this trend as developers and publishers seek more fertile markets."

With access to such a vast user base, computer game designers will finally have a large enough audience to take creative risks and will also enjoy a consistent, full-featured platform to develop for. Microsoft's potential monopolization of the console market would be a boon to designers, a normalization of standards that should have been set long ago but were hampered by the endless frenzy for the latest in 3-D cards and fast CPUs -- a high-velocity version of planned obsolescence that benefits peripheral manufacturers but makes even good games seem hoary in the space of a few months.

So, death to PC gaming! Long live Microsoft! It might be hard to say those words at first try, but keep practicing. It gets easier -- even if some dissenters dismiss the whole thesis that the Xbox will unleash a gaming renaissance as so much hooey.

"Every time there's a new generation of consoles in the works," says game developer Greg Costikyan," there are stories about how consoles are going to kill the PC as a platform. The fact is, they never have, and never will. There's a larger base of PCs than there is of any console platform. People buy them for reasons other than playing games, but want games to play on them too."

Costikyan has a long track record as a game developer, consultant and writer on gaming issues. And as far as he is concerned, not only is there no certainty that Microsoft is going to be able to dominate a completely new market, but even if it did somehow end up controlling the next generation of games, that doesn't mean PC games will go away, and it most certainly doesn't mean creativity will somehow inevitably blossom.

"Hardcore gamers will never be satisfied by a platform with frozen specs, not if they can get a better experience on an open one," says Costikyan. And they will. The PC is a platform in continuous evolution. We got decent online games and decent 3-D games on PCs earlier because of that, and the same will continue to be true as technology evolves."

As for that renaissance?

"Nonsense," says Costikyan. "Yes, a stable platform makes some aspects of development easy. [But] a 'bigger market' will simply drive development budgets higher, driving increasing conservatism."

Nothing like a good dose of cynical realism to dash Utopian fantasy. But if you look harder, there's still hope, from an unexpected quarter. In the hardcore gaming world, Microsoft enjoys a far better reputation -- from the press, programmers and game players -- than it does in other software arenas.

This includes Bungie founder Alex Seropian, among the most admired figures in gaming. Seropian says the Bungie team was looking for a publisher that could work with it and its elegant (albeit complex) game titles. "We talked to maybe a dozen publishers in the last five years," he says.

"The Microsoft guys were pretty smart. They didn't want to break what worked ... They believed in what we were doing." What's more, Seropian says, Gates' new gaming console made that offer irresistible. "When we started talking to Microsoft, we got the opportunity to be the premier developer of the Xbox."

One game designer who asked to remain anonymous had nothing but praise for Gates' game wing. "From what I've seen, Microsoft is intent on taking the time to do things right and listen to developers."

And despite all efforts to coax a discouraging word from industry leaders directed against Microsoft, I could drag not an iota of malediction from anyone, anonymous or otherwise.

There are unattributed rumors that some publishers have indeed felt the company's crushing hand upon them -- that they've been pressured away from developing certain titles and to accept unfair royalty rates.

But it's all according to one's perspective, if you believe Kevin Bachus, Microsoft's director of third-party development for the Xbox.

"We're starting off with an install base of zero. We would be negligent if we didn't go to publishers and say, 'You've got to bring your best ammo to this fight.'"

So in other words, I ask Bachus, you advise publishers which Xbox titles they should develop and which ones they should put in turnaround? "Absolutely, just like any other console manufacturer."

As for the royalties, Bachus characterizes this as a decision impelled by the developers themselves, when Microsoft offered to make the Xbox royalty-free. "And unanimously, they said, 'No, we don't want you to do that.'" Without their direct stake in its marketing, the console's fate would be insecure, suggests Bachus.

"Are there people who don't entirely agree with the royalty structure? I'm sure there's some," says Bachus. But it was game publishers that set the terms, in effect telling Microsoft, "'Look, Microsoft, you wanna do a console, OK, here are the rules. The rules are, you have as low a price as you possibly can, we'll chip in [to cover the Xbox's low retail cost], and you'll chip in part of that. And two, you make sure that all the stuff that comes out on the Xbox, especially in the early years, comes out as fantastic as it could possibly be.'"

"They're being very good about cultivating developers," concedes game developer Costikyan. But "the pliers won't come out until they have a large-enough installed base that they can dictate the terms. That's certainly been the history with, say, Sony."

But it isn't just about the developers. Gamers seek unity too. In this small sector of software design, Microsoft almost seems like an avuncular presence, and even the hardest-core gamers, who are often also advocates of Microsoft's' bjte noire, Linux, give Gates grudging approval.

Simon Robertson, a teenage Photoshop whiz and Linux fan who sometimes fights in the online Quake world as "palpy[SC]" of Clan SoftCom, perhaps represents this reaction best.

"When I make my purchase," says Robertson, "I know that Blockbuster will be renting the games, and that the majority of America will be joining the Xbox bandwagon. This may sound like simple Microsoft communism, but as a gamer, this is good. A unifying console is what we're after."

Alternately, I could find little game-boy enthusiasm for the Indrema, even though this console, scheduled for a spring 2001 release, will run on Linux-based operating systems and includes both a hard drive and a modem. The general reaction among gamers is polite interest at best. With only a small list of planned game titles, geek advocacy for all things Linux appears to end at games -- though Indrema's CEO, John Gildred, sees things differently.

"We are offering a gaming experience unlike any other," says Gildred. "New-game developers will be able to release titles on IES before any other console, as we offer open-source access to our operating system components and APIs [application programming interfaces] ... We get the game developers involved in the process of evolving the game APIs and underlying system architecture through the open-source process. There has never been such an opportunity for game makers to change the face of console gaming as there now is with the IES. And the result of this is more games, better games and more choice for the consumer."

Maybe so, but no one appears to be placing any bets yet. "Even without the Xbox," says Old Man Murray's Erik, apparently oblivious to the apostasy involved, "Microsoft's done more for me as a game player than [Linux creator] Linus Torvalds ever has. Or ever will. If the revolution involves me having to figure out how to recompile my kernel, count me right the fuck out."

Am I perhaps being premature? After all, there's still one year, at least, until the Xbox debuts. And the PC gaming industry isn't the only challenge. Since Sony's PlayStation 2 is scheduled for release in September, Sony is likely to lord it over the playing field for the next few quarters. Then there are Nintendo and Sega to contend with.

But according to a report in Wired News, initial advance sales for the Japanese version of PlayStation 2 are waning, fueled by mounting complaints from those who already own the consoles.

The developer side of the equation seems just as disgruntled. My anonymous source puts it this way: "I've heard nothing but groans from programmers across the industry about the PS2," he says. "It is not an easy system to develop for, but it is very powerful and Sony is going to own the market for the next couple of years, so there's not much of a choice if you want to be at the top of the heap."

Meanwhile, Nintendo unveiled its next-generation console in Tokyo last week, once code-named the Dolphin, now redubbed the GameCube, which is scheduled for an October 2001 release. That would put it direct competition with the Xbox.

But Microsoft's Bachus doesn't see much overlap in their respective markets. "Nintendo has traditionally done really well with a particular type of consumer," says Bachus. "Six-to-12-year-olds, let's say. Younger gamers ... We're going after an 18-year-old guy away at college for the first time. That's who the Xbox customer is going to be."

And while the prospects of Nintendo 64 and the upcoming Cube remain undecided, some insiders think that Sega's star is definitely waning:

"Sega has Dreamcast right now," says Gameslice's Keighley. "Great software lineup for 2000, but questionable whether it can be sustained into 2001. Over the past few months a number of third-party developers have canceled Dreamcast games, and big players like Electronic Arts have refused to develop for the platform ... Its life span is likely limited."

Comments from Sony, Sega and Nintendo were unattainable by this story's deadline. But at the very least we know what Gates thinks. In a recent interview with Red Herring, Microsoft's founder testified for the Xbox, describing its prospects against the competition with the kind of cheerfully offhand inevitability that makes his yen for hegemony so lovable:

"Sony is a great company, and is actually a partner of ours," said Gates." But in the case of video games, Xbox and PlayStation 2 are actually going to compete. In terms of richness of its graphics, and having a hard disc storage ... You won't even think of PlayStation 2 and Xbox as being in the same generation."

All this suggests that developers will concentrate on designing for the Xbox, with the PC platform becoming progressively less attractive. And despite Bachus' protests to the contrary -- "We're releasing more PC titles next year than what we've ever released before ... We're going to continue to invest very heavily in the PC game market" -- I wonder if the computer game has finally (thankfully) become a moribund medium.

"I think people with PCs will still want to play games on them," says Keighley. "But we are talking about the hardcore here -- those who upgrade their machines every six months so they can have the latest graphics and sound cards."

"I think the Xbox could take a chunk out of the Wintel PC game market," says Neurath, formerly of Looking Glass. "Consider that today the hardcore PC game market has stagnated. In terms of total dollar sales, it's been essentially flat over the last two years. It's also become an intensely competitive space, with too many titles chasing too few players."

Neurath's old employer was itself the most poignant victim of this stagnation. The studio's inability to attract enough PC gamers to its complex, cerebral games directly contributed to its downfall. Unsurprisingly, just before its bankruptcy, Looking Glass was developing Part 3 of its beloved Thief series as an Xbox title.

Could a new Microsoft hegemony lead to a more nurturing atmosphere for Looking Glass-style creativity? Many developers and gamers hope so, especially those who have battled with PC technical idiosyncrasies and the oppressive power of Sony. Predicting who will win the gaming wars is ultimately a loser's bet, but one can always dream, can't one? Judging by the optimism the gaming industry is beaming in Microsoft's direction, it suddenly seems possible that the giant that has crushed so many to grow so large may finally be using its stature to do what it claims (with little conviction) to have been doing all along: Innovate and make the world a better place.

Wagner James Au

Wagner James Au is a frequent contributor to Salon, and also writes "Notes from a New World," an online journal for Second Life, an upcoming MMOG.

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