April 3rd, 2008


I disapprove of consoles on principle: plus a lesson in interviewing

The BBC micro was the first computer I got my hands on; I spent weeks writing a program to draw the Union Jack (you can tell I'm not a natural programmer!). It was the era when the PC and the Mac were becoming available, but when you could also replace your 8-bit gaming machine with a 16-bit gaming machine of dubious ability (Enterprise Elan anyone?) or a true home computer like the ST or Amiga. Even on a gaming machine you were probably typing in the last of the games listings. You got your hands dirty with these machines. Moving into either programming or just thinking programmatically was a natural progression (read Jeanette Wing of CMU on why computational thinking should be on the curriculum with the three Rs). Consoles were slicker, glossier, faster - and I think they deprived us of a generation of programmers, because fewer people were challenged to start tinkering and if they wanted to tinker they couldn't.

Extreme Tech's interview with Alex St. John, one of the original DirectX developers, has him arguing that the day of the console is done. Never say never; it's a huge industry that's profitable the way razors and printers are, but his argument about changing economics is persuasive. And I love the way he ends up with the interviewer answering the questions; it's a judo flip someone extrememly knowledgeable can do, but the interviewer makes a good if slightly tetchy recovery.[My snark in italics]

ASJ: [argues that the Wii proves cheap graphics are good enough for consoles]. That means that if there is another generation, it's gotta be about either input devices, or online community. Graphics will just be good everywhere. And if it's about community, that puts the console out of business. Because why the hell does Wal-Mart want to sell a money-losing loss leader device, when all the valuable content will be tied to online services and subscriptions and downloadable stuff? So for all the talk about downloadable content on the console, the console depends on the retail channel for that market to be valuable, and the retailer, if they don't get a cut of that, is going to say why the hell am I trying to sell these consoles at a loss for?

ET: [this is where the interviewer starts having a conversation rather than running an interview; always very tempting when you have someone smart to talk to] True…there were rumors last year that the next PlayStation would not have an optical drive. Everything would be downloaded.

ASJ: Yeah. Yeah, that's a good—that's a very interesting—and here's another point. Why is World of Warcraft the most profitable game on the PC?

ET: [definitely conversation now] Community.

ASJ: Yeah, but what makes it so profitable? There are a lot of community games out there. What is it about a massive multiplayer game that makes it make so much revenue? Is it just community?

ET: [aaaand swiftly back to interview mode!] Why don't you tell me?

ASJ: There's one very important feature: DRM. You can't f---ing steal the thing.

ET: Ah. Gotcha.

ASJ: You can't pirate a community. So an MMO has two properties that make it hugely valuable. One is community; frankly, that's almost secondary. The truth is, you can't steal a community-based game. And because you can't steal it, you get all the revenue from it. All a console is is a giant DRM device. A console's job is not to enable you to play games, but to stop you from playing games you didn't pay for.

[A lot of interviews go like this in real life. But a lot of editors and some readers prefer the interviewer to take out their interjections and would have wanted the back and forth edited to sound like ASJ asking and answering rhetorical questions; one of the rules of journalism is that the writer is not part of the story and should absolutely never be in the way of the story. I loathe Sunday magazine interviews that are all about the interviewer's arrival at the location, their reaction to the decor, their family anecdotes, their alleged rapport with the celebrity, their sparkling conversation and only peripherally an actual interview. But podcasts and blogs are taking the broadcast interview model where the interviewer is on screen and can't be edited out; plus there's a trend to personalised writing and the journalist as expert making a personal connection with the reader. I think this is a charming example of the interviewee turning the tables briefly and perhaps I'm only imagining 'Why don't you tell me' coming from slightly gritted teeth']