The battle for the living room platform

Nintendo announced yesterday WiiWare, a program which will enable developers to create games that can be downloaded to the Wii console. Such games can be sold through the Wii Shop Channel, creating revenue opportunities for smaller-scale developers who wouldn't have the resources to create more labor intensive productions of a sort contemplated by big games studios.

Nintendo announced yesterday WiiWare, a program which will enable developers to create games that can be downloaded to the Wii console. Such games can be sold through the Wii Shop Channel, creating revenue opportunities for smaller-scale developers who wouldn't have the resources to create more labor intensive productions of a sort contemplated by big games studios.

This competes with Microsoft's XNA program for the XBOX 360, which is good, as I want Microsoft to spend more time promoting the project and making XNA creations more widely available, and competition usually gets them to do that. Nintendo's move is also part of a wider trend towards enabling mere mortals to create software for game consoles. This is a critically important development, as I consider it the first steps towards software enabling the living room.

If you think about it, very little software has been applied to the living room space. Most people use monolithic electronic devices to manage their entertainment experience (and yes, there is often software inside of it, but not on the same order as found on a typical desktop PC). Where software is most prevalent - namely, inside cable set-top boxes (STBs) - the system has thus far been mostly closed.

On the STB front, however, the shackles are being released, at least partially. Open Cable initiatives included as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 require all cable providers in the United States to allow third-party STBs onto their network. To do this, newer boxes will support standardized, cable company issued CableCard PCMCIA inserts which do things like identify users on the network and handle DRM decryption. New boxes must be certified for data integrity by CableLabs, but it does create new opportunities for innovation in the space. Media Center now comes in CableLabs-certified packages.

From a different directions comes the growing number of game consoles attached to TV sets in the living room. Thus far, game console platforms have been mostly closed, with high cost barriers to entry as part of the licensing programs through which makers of game consoles generate revenue from game sales.

That approach has always seemed like short-term thinking to me. Windows would have been a much less popular operating system platform if the only way to write software for it was through a large up-front outlay of cash and an onerous certification process that yielded Microsoft per-unit revenue for each software title sold.

A customizable platform creates new ways to use a game console, which leads to new customers and more sales. The virtuous cycle seen in desktop PC operating systems can thus occur in a device attached directly to the TV set.

Nintendo and Microsoft are well positioned to create such a platform. Nintendo and its partners have a long history of making entertaining games, and Nintendo didn't aim for next generation HD graphics in the Wii. In theory, therefore, making games for a Wii should be easier (though there is the wrinkle of the motion-controllers, which may or may not be complicated to program against).

Microsoft did aim for next generation graphics, but Microsoft's experience creating platforms, not to mention its long experience in development tools and efforts to make game development similar in style to Windows development, give it a leg up. This leaves Sony's PS3 console, which even Sony concedes is tricky to develop games for. They will thus have the hardest time fighting for the living room platform, possibly because they are somewhat late to the possibility (witness how slow they were to network gaming) given their background in living room electronics.

This is an important battle to watch. The software platform directly attached to the TV set will control the show. That's the case for me right now, as I run Media Center through my XBOX 360. Nintendo, with its motion controllers, has a powerful new way to navigate the TV experience, one for which Microsoft doesn't have a response (yet).

It's a good time to be in the entertainment space.

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