Monday, June 26, 2006

Dying Empires

What is it about large organizations that makes them pathologically want to crumble in the most spectacular way possible? From people to corporations to nations, the final acts of those that grow too big is to try and take on some tremendous endeavour that ends up being too big for it, but it doesn't see the mistake in time, or ignores it and presses on. The Soviet Union tried to stage a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan, and it ended up bleeding them to a shell of their former power.

You would think that 21st century technology businesses would be at least a little more adept at predicting failure and staving off the unaccaptable risk by taking another route. Yet right now we're seeing the beginning of what could be the end of Microsoft and Sony as consumer software and electronics makers, respectively.

Windows Vista is shedding features faster than they were initially dreamed up for the announcement bullet-point list, to the point now where it will end up being a more expensive, slower version of Windows XP that will throw even more security dialog boxes at you and do a better job at stopping you from doing what you want with your own purchased content.

And the Playstation 3 is going to cost so much in retail that even if the development goes as planned, which it won't, only the most absolutely money-drenched twenty-something males with too much disposable income and no commitments will consider buying one, because yet more sequels to the same 4 Namco games is not exactly what the video game world has been clamouring for.

But it won't come out on time. What they're attempting to do is build an entire specialized computing platform and have the very first revision be perfect. Intel and AMD and Apple and the graphics card makers have the luxury of being able to release and revise their product in revisions, with small quantities of the initial run released to get the market primed and find problems early. Sony, on the other hand, has designed a processor, graphics platform and media format all to be developed and finished in time to be part of this single system that will generate no more profit for it than the previous generation consoles, but at a much higher capital cost. This is a loser's game to any outside observer.

Complexity kills. Even the world's biggest software maker can't throw enough resources at a problem when the complexity grows exponentially to the amount of code that has to work together and yet remain backwards-compatible with poorly-designed legacy code that gives full access to the internals of the system.

The huge, over-planned and over-thought MULTICS OS is a footnote of history, while the slapped-together, purpose-driven and practical Unix snuck out of the corner of Bell Labs to dominate. The Space Shuttle is seeing an embarrassing safety record while Russian rockets have to be used to re-stock the ISS.

I think we're about to get an un-ignorable lesson in what happens when a giant no longer thinks he has to look at the pitfalls on the road ahead.

By unspoken contrast, of course, we have Apple and Nintendo, which respectively have produced much more efficient products that do the same things as far as most people are concerned, but who had the flexibility, bravery and agility to throw everything out and start over with something new when they had to, and to concentrate on their comparative advantage, and find the most practical ways to accomplish the rest without re-inventing everything.

By al - 9:00 p.m. |

I've been around the gaming block awhile now and the only thing I've learned is to never make predictions. Then again, I sorta stopped corporate cheerleading after I had enough income to make console choice moot. :)

But you're right on certain points. Sony's steadily been shooting themselves in the foot with bad PR and insistence on failed propietary media. Betamax, Minidisc, MemoryStick, UMD, and of course the unproven Blu-Ray. They had an all-in-one box in Japan. It was called the PSX. It was a PS2 + kitchen sink that failed spectacularly. They're betting the farm again and I find it amusing that if it doesn't pan out this time, they could be bought by their rivals.

As a regular gamer (read: not hardcore, but definitely not casual), Microsoft has been on my good side after I initially laughed at them for entering the market in the first place. It's the little things. The things I've wanted from PC gaming minus (most) of the things I hate. If I could quantify the gaming experience, my time with the Xbox has been the most enjoyable.

I was a big Nintendo fanboy back in the day. I still see them as the gimmick company. Don't get me wrong. They're fantastic "idea men", but then the other guys copy and improve upon the original, minus the Virtual Boy.

Nintendo designs their hardware to play their games. Period. So they've never built a general purpose anything. As a result, 3rd parties usually fail to make proper use of the new fangled features.

If you follow Nintendo games, their core franchises haven't done anything truly innovative in ages. Mario is no longer the standard by which to measure platforming games, Ratchet and Clank is. Zelda still plays like N64 Zelda. Indeed the new Zelda is the same as the Gamecube version only with Wiimote support. Pikmin, Nintendogs, Brain Age, Warioware - that's the innovative stuff.

They don't have a monopoly on the I word either. The Sims, Eyetoy, Katamari Damacy, and World of Colbertcraft come to mind. And there's a host of other genres and genre hybrids that Nintendo didn't create. I just can't look at the whole spectrum of gaming and attach the word innovation to one company. They all play their part. There's a world outside of the 4 Namco ports and Nintendo. Not that there's anything wrong with sequels. Resident Evil 4 and Tomb Raider Legend effectively revitalized their franchises. It's simply a problem when there are no improvements whatsoever.

You have to give props to Sony for growing the industry with the PS brand. Their slick marketing made gaming mainstream. It was suddenly ok for a jock to be playing NHLsomethingorother. Gaming moved out of its parent's basement.

The market Nintendo is chasing (people who have never gamed before or are intimidated by it) exists. How big that market ends up being is anyone's guess. To compare, they've been saying for years that the untapped casual mobile phone gaming market will explode. So far, Nokia's lost millions on their venture. It all comes down to the software and the toy approach works quite well for non-gamers. I wish them all the best as it simply means more dollars for this industry. Hey, I've got armchair athletes subsidizing my role playing, so bring on the girlfriends and grannies. :)

I do have reservations about the Wii which I hope will be unfounded. Will it be tiresome to use the Wiimote for long periods? Add-ons. This has always been my gripe with Nintendo and SEGA. There's a zapper shell, classic controller, and nunchuck attachment for the remote. There's also a sensor bar. I don't want to buy new widgets for each great gaming idea. Bongos anyone? Will there be healthy 3rd party support? Will they throw a bone to the traditional gamer every now and then or are they purely focused on the non-gamer market? I'm not exactly enthralled by next-gen sudoku.

Like I said to Ming, this holiday assuming the Wii and PS3 ship, they'll sell out. There's always global launches, initial supply, and pent up demand. Works everytime. As for staying power... obese woman.

All said and done, I've got far more options than I ever did in the past so it's all good. Hooray for competition.
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