Wednesday, November 5, 2008

It's the Applications, Stupid!

Here is my first user-submitted rant. This rant actually appeared as a comment on ESR's blog long ago, but I just got the permission to post it. Here it is:

It doesn’t matter. None of this matters. Platforms don’t matter. It’s what’s on the platforms that matter.

This is a lesson which I forgot when I went on a gaming sabbatical (coinciding with my exploration of Linux and OSS), but since I got back into the ol’ past-time it leapt back into my brain with the force of an epiphany. In fact, this is something which any gamer knows, though perhaps just implicitly. And any Sega fan, such as myself, has had their face rubbed in the fact to an extent which is painful. The story goes something like this:

A Prelude to War

When the Sega Genesis first came out in 1988, it faced quite an uphill battle against the entrenched NES, which had managed to become practically synonymous with the word “videogame” after it’s 1985 release. Indeed, to this day, many people say “nintendo” when they mean “videogame,” just as many people say “xerox” when they mean “photocopy.” The Genesis was certainly more powerful — it’s primary processor was 7 times as powerful as the NES’ — but power does not conjure good games out of thin air. And without good games, a console is no more than a paperweight. Sega’s previous console, the Master System, was 3 times as powerful as the NES, but since it’s 1986 release, it only sold 13 million units to Nintendo’s 60 million, simply because it didn’t offer a compelling library of games. Sega learned from this mistake, if only once.

When they launched the Genesis, courtship of third parties was intense. They were willing to offer developers better licensing terms than Nintendo, who was enjoying monopoly status at the time, and managed to do what, at the time, was the unthinkable: they fought Nintendo, and in the US market at least, they won. In large part, this was due to Sega taking a chance on an unknown startup that was desperate for a platform for their football game. Nintendo simply wouldn’t offer the little corporation terms it could survive on, and besides, the NES was ill suited to doing sports games justice. That little company was EA, and the game was Madden. Both became smashing successes.

With the help of this and other games, including some in-house smash titles such as the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, Sega exploding onto the scene to history altering effect. To put it into perspective, the success Sega experienced would be like Apple gaining 50% marketshare upon the release of OSX. Even more mindblowing, this growth was coming at the *expense* of Nintendo’s installed base. By this I mean that old Nintendo users were abandoning the NES platform and buying Sega systems in droves. Though Sega’s hyper-clever marketing probably didn’t hurt (slogans such as “Sega does what Nintendon’t” still make the ears of any elder gamer perk up), it was the plethora of games that were only playable on the Genesis which produced this success.

It’s On like Donkey Kong

After three years of hemorrhaging market share, Nintendo fought back with the technically superior (save for processing speed) SNES in 1991. And while the SNES did absolutely everything correctly, and has rightfully earned it’s place of high regard in the annals of gaming, it completely and utterly failed to unseat the Genesis. In Japan it’s marketshare ended up exceeding Sega’s, but in the US it lagged, and Sega enjoyed reigning champion status in other parts of the world.

This was the dawn of the “console wars” as we know them today, and the 16-bit era is still regarded by some (likely through nostalgia tinted glasses, but hey, we’re only human) as the halcyon era of gaming. For every top-notch exclusive game that the SNES had, the Genesis had one as well. And so long as the game libraries of both platforms looked equally compelling in the eyes of the consumer, the entities were mostly locked in a dead heat. But time always marches on.

A Taste of Things to Come

It had been half a decade since a new system was released, and consumers were ready for the next generation. The arcades were taking business from the console market, offering an innovative and immersive gaming experience that the now underpowered 16-bit consoles couldn’t match. (Incidentally, Sega has been and still is a leader in the Arcade market.) The time was ripe for Something New — sadly, both Sega and Nintendo seemed to have forgotten the lessons they had learned from their battles with each other, a mistake which ultimately proved fatal to the former.

It all started in 1988, the year of the Genesis’ release. At that time, games were provided on a solid state medium known as a cartridge, which offered fast access as a benefit, but provided very limited capacity, and cost quite a bit to manufacture. Nintendo had been looking at a way to address these shortcomings by moving to a cheap, high-capacity disk-based medium. However, Nintendo was not able to satisfactorily surmount the stability problem of magnetic media, nor the concomitant ease of piracy. But Sony had just the ticket, since they were working on a
then-revolutionary technology which would allow them to store data on CDs, which were currently restricted to just audio.

So it was that Nintendo contracted Sony to develop a CD based add-on system for them. And in 1991, they were expected to announce the new designs at the yearly CES expo — but when Nintendo president Yamauchi discovered that the contact with Sony would give the latter 25% of all profits off the system, he broke arrangements with them
in a fury. Instead, Nintendo contracted with Philips to perform the same task, but with a contract that gave Nintendo full control of the system. It was this partnership that was announced at CES, much to Sony’s chagrin.

Ultimately, the Philips peripheral never materialized. But Sony refused to throw out their work. They spent years retooling the foundation into a 32bit console called the Playstation, and, determined to swallow Nintendo’s marketshare whole (hell hath no fury like a multi-billion dollar Japanese corporation spurned), they aggresively pursued third party developers, and launched an ad campaign that was arguably more Sega than Sega in its edginess.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

No Cigar, Not Even Close

Back in 1991, Sega was releasing it’s own CD based add-on to the Genesis, aptly named the Sega CD. It was quite the technological breakthrough, but it didn’t come cheap. And as has been established previously, a platform is only as good as the games on it: in the case of the Sega CD, this amounted to a big pile of suck. They even managed to create a Sonic game for the console that was, in effect if not intent, a turd with peanuts. Only 17% of Genesis owners ever bought a Sega CD — not a one of them doesn’t regret it.

Then, in 1994, Sega blundered again with the release of the 32x — a $170 add on which would turn the Genesis into a fully fledged 32 bit system. With the 32bit era imminent, the idea of gaining access to the future on the (relative) cheap was immensely appealing to many gamers. The console was pre-ordered on a scale of millions, but Sega completely dropped the ball. In a dash to make it to the holiday season, games developed for the platform were rushed, and many of them curtailed (the version of Doom found on the 32x has half of the levels of its PC version). The system was one of the biggest letdowns in gaming history (next to the completely unremarkable Nintendo Virtual Boy — a portable gaming system which failed to be either portable or provide entertaining games). This was the beginning of what would become an insurmountably bad rep for Sega hardware.

Don’t Tell me You’re Pissed, Man

In 1995, Sega then released it’s true 32bit console, the Saturn. They released it a few months ahead of Sony’s Playstation, and actually enjoyed an upper hand in the marketplace at first. Sony did not fight against Sega the way they did against Nintendo, having no vendetta to settle. But unfortunately, Sega begat its own undoing. For the release of the Saturn, with its quality games and good 3rd party support, was seen as a sign of abandonment of the 32x — largely because it was, in fact, an abandonment of the 32x. Almost over night, legions of Sega fans became distrustful of the company.

Completely unwittingly, Sony managed to swallow up Sega’s marketshare simply by not being Sega — and, therefore, appearing less likely to screw the gamer. The Playstation pulled far ahead of the Saturn, and Sega never made any real effort to combat this very real threat to their dominance — the hubristic assumption was that Sony was not a gaming company, and therefore couldn’t win. However, the larger market share made the Playstation (or PSX) more appealing to third party developers. And although the Saturn was a little bit more powerful, the Playstation was vastly easier to develop for.

The result was that third party support for the PSX outstripped that of the Saturn by an order of magnitude. A lack of quality games results in a dead system, and in practice, a lack of third party developers is the same thing. The death blow for the Saturn came when EA, a monolith in the world of gaming which owed its existence to Sega (and vice versa), jumped ship and declared the PSX as its primary platform. Quite ironically, the Saturn was now doomed. And although Sega’s next console, the Dreamcast, was perfection in nearly every sense of the word, and the first console to provide online gaming, Sega never effectively garnered the third party support necessary to survive. In march of 2001, Sega exited the console market.

I See you Baby

Flashback to 1996, and Nintendo is bypassing the 32bit generation entirely to release it’s N64, technically superior to anything at it’s time (although some people were and are turned off by its distinctively aggressive hardware anti-aliasing). Coming out behind the PSX, and still being cartridge based, it couldn’t quite capture third party support the way the PSX did, but it managed to snag a marketshare equivalent to 1/3 that of Sony’s.

While Sony failed to slay Nintendo, the combined blows dealt to it by Sega and Sony demolished its monopoly position. There’s a lesson here that anti-capitalists could learn about the nature of free markets, if they happened to actually be interested in the truth — but that is neither here nor there.

What kept Nintendo alive was it’s stable of quality in-house games. Super Mario 64 is still regarded by many as the best 3D platforming game of all time, and Goldeneye stands unrivaled as the most playable and enjoyable adaptation of a movie ever. By contrast, Sega never had a proper Sonic game for the Saturn (apart from the lame isometric platformer Sonic 3D Blast, and the sucky racer Sonic R). Once again, the lesson is that quality games are the secret to a gaming platform’s success.

And so it is with the modern era. The Playstation 2 (PS2), Sony’s successor to the immensely successful PSX, rode the coattails of its predecessor to it’s currently unrivaled installed base of more than 100 million systems, giving it around 60% market share. The remaining 40% is split between Microsoft’s XBOX console (surviving because of exclusive titles such as the Halo franchise) and Nintendo’s Gamecube (once again surviving off of excellent in-house games, although now at the bottom of the totem pole in terms of market share).

So has it always been. And so shall it always be.

They’re Like Mopeds…

A lot of you have probably read this paper, called Worse is Better:

(If you haven’t, considering doing so.) Equally likely, you’re seeing a connection. Indeed, it would seem the ramifications of Worse is Better are incredibly far reaching, although I think the more general and correct statement is the following:

Technical merits are usually a lot less important than you might think.

Or, as I’ve said previously, a platform is only as good as what’s on it. A console is only as good as its games, just as a data medium is only as good as its ubiquity, just as an operating system is only as good as its applications. Empirically speaking, the technical merits of a platform seem to be a marginal factor (at best) in determining how it gets to a position of application dominance.

What this means is that when debating the merits and demerits of OSS vis-a-vis closed source in terms of potential for success, where success is defined as market share, it is generally pointless to bring up technical points. Windows is not popular because of Windows, it is popular because of everything that runs on Windows. Contrary to the original article’s opinion, Microsoft is absolutely correct to maintain backwards compatibility, because the totality of what runs on Windows is the “secret” to it’s success. Apple’s policy may be technically superior, but it hasn’t helped it get anywhere near posing a challenge to MS.

So Linux and Apple have faster releases than Microsoft? Big whompin’ deal. The debate over which system is better, or progressing more rapidly, simply does not matter. What matters is what people can do with the system, and for the desktop things most people want to do, Windows crushes all. In fact, if you look at OSS itself as a platform, than it’s an objective failure in the desktop market if the goal is replacing proprietary software. How good OSS is at producing quality software matters a lot less than how good it is at attracting software producers, and in that regard, it would seem to suck. There is a large range of computer oriented tasks that you simply *cannot* perform on Linux. And until OSS produces a game better than BZflag, it should be a self-evident fact that not only is not a silver bullet, it might barely be an arrow.

I Don’t Have the Answer, but I Know who Doesn’t

I use Windows, Linux, and Mac on a regular basis — I like Linux the system the most, followed by Windows, followed by the Mac (sorry, but I think the GUI is a weapon of mass gayness). But I actually spend most of my time in Windows simply because of the things I can do in it that I can’t do with the alternatives, or that I can’t do as cheaply, or that I can’t do as well, or some combination of all three. Microsoft has done an extremely good job of attracting the people who actually make a system worth using to their platform, and as a result, it fits practically every users needs. Hence its market share.

Of course, things change when you go to the backend, and sure, that’s partly because the requirements are different. But regardless, people don’t just put Linux on the web — they put Apache on the web. Or vsftpd. Or whatever. The fact that Linux has these highly sought things is what really makes it a success. The fact that these things offer the most generally popular price/performance ratio is why they are highly sought. The fact that OSS seems to be good at attracting developers of such things is why they are OSS. But it *doesn’t* mean that, even
if OSS is an inherently technically superior development model (and in the future I’ll make the case that that’s bullshit), it is destined to dominance. Reality is much, much, much more complicated than that.


On an unrelated note, the GNU people can suck my cock. I don’t even want to think about the time I wasted drinking your koolaid. I hope Emacs becomes a sentient entity and bites every single one of you on your GNU/scrotum. And fuck VI too.

No comments:

Post a Comment