Of all the discussions at the Games Convention Developer's Conference, Denis Dyack's stood out partly because he was making a contentious point rather than a safe one, and partly because of the sheer degree to which his argument inspires discussion. At the time of writing, our write-up of his speech has been met with nearly 250 comments - more than three times as many as Julian Eggebrecht's keynote, which effectively had full-on pornography in it. Dyack believes that a unified gaming platform is inevitable, arguing that the history of commoditisation in other industries guarantees it. We sat down with Dyack, president of Too Human developer Silicon Knights, and put some of your and our queries to him.
Eurogamer: To a lot of people in the games industry - and Don Daglow was the example yesterday - there have been very obvious and recurring cycles of console hardware, and you obviously see things changing, and you're casting your eyes wider than simply the games industry to inform that view. Even put into the perspective of the arguments you were making, however, there's quite a lot of scepticism, and disbelief that Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo will stop throwing money at console development.
Denis Dyack: I absolutely think they will never try to give that up, but market forces and the forces of monetisation have historically always overthrown those forces. You cannot stop commoditisation of technology, and the more toys and widgets that you put into something, it's almost inversely proportional to value.
Take a cell-phone as an example. When you first got them, they could do one thing - they could take calls. Now you can play games, you can get email, you can listen to music - but the prices of these things are continuing to drop as it's becoming commoditised, and now if you look at the cell-phone market generally there's hundreds of different kinds of phones and they're all pretty much the same, and they have no value, and they're given away with cell-phone plans.
The monopolistic model works well when someone dominates the market, because then you can predict where your sales are going to be. In this current games marketplace where the split is becoming very difficult, I think it's just going to accelerate the commoditisation, where the business model won't hold any more, and it's not a matter of whether Microsoft or Sony wants to stop; it's if the market forces can bear that type of monopolistic model, and I don't think they will. I think eventually it's going to fall through.
Eurogamer: People were struggling to grasp how a unified specification would exist without companies like Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, and what kind of role they would have. In this kind of cycle there needs to be overlapping R&D cycles, and people want to know who would be responsible for that in a unified console market.
Denis Dyack: I think it would be something that would be very similar to the ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board). Essentially you have all the publishers and developers getting together and saying 'here's the standard specifications that we're going to go with', and obviously I'm not saying that technology is going to stand still - I talked about how it's been shown that technology is logarithmically increasing - so every five years or so they would adjust the standard.
The really important thing is that it's just like a DVD player - when you buy that disc, you know it's going to play in that system, and it's that kind of specification that we have to have, and it's essentially a consortium of people with common understanding. Eventually, as the technology advances, the difference between the technologies is going to be so small that there might not even need to be an understanding.
Eurogamer: You were saying that at the moment there's effectively a convergence of end product in that the PS3 and 360 are pumping out the same stuff. I think it's just difficult for people to see how what you describe would happen on a micro level, because I think they can see the bigger idea as something that could take hold - they just can't really make the leap in their heads along the different stages.
Denis Dyack: These concepts - I guess they're micro and macro economics - aren't things that people particularly think about in the videogame industry. I certainly don't know a lot about those things. I come from a human interface perspective, I understand the history of technology and how technology affects society, and because of that I've been exposed to commoditisation and some of the good and bad effects of that, and these are really complex. You just can't sit back and really take it in very quickly.
Some would define the videogame industry from Nintendo on. If that's really the case, there hasn't been a lot of time yet in our industry. That's what I said earlier with Don's talk - I really liked it, but I think it really missed a lot of the long-term stuff and I think that we're not going to continue to cycle. I don't think we can, because we're getting to the breaking point now where games are becoming so expensive, under so many market pressures, that the old model won't hold any more.
One thing he said that I really loved was that the definition of a next-gen product is how big the marketing budget is. I thought that was absolutely true because, if you look at what I'm saying, there really is no true next generation. The technology's ceasing to matter, and the software is overcoming the value of the hardware.
Eurogamer: With a lot of the technologies you mentioned like DVD and cameras, the actual core element of it - the moving picture, the capturing of a picture - was crystallised very early on, and has been evolved. But with interactive entertainment, there is more of a fluidic technological side to it - Nintendo Wii obviously is doing things that none of the consoles beforehand were really doing and I'm wondering if that throws anything else into the mix that maybe suggests you can't map it to that model.
Denis Dyack: It could be that we take longer because of the current market, but I would actually say the Wii, in most cases, if you take away the input device, it's really similar to the GameCube, and so they've got a single piece of hardware, and the question to ask is 'would that piece of hardware work on the 360?'
Eurogamer: What I'm saying is that with interactive entertainment what you're doing with your hands is as vitally important as what you're seeing on the screen - I suppose the thing is if you feel it has already become standardised. I think you touched on that yesterday, briefly?
Denis Dyack: I said it wouldn't matter. At least I tried to say that. I think the answer to what you're saying is the whole idea of accelerating technology. A lot of people say that Moore's Law is going to stop the speed at which computers evolve, but Moore's Law and what it limits is going to be superseded by a different technology like optical computing or parallel computing or molecular memory. Another type of divergent technology will come in and take over that.
I think the controller for the Wii is one type of those types of technology. Whether we're using a monitor or we're having games directly piped into our retinas - because I think that will eventually occur - that is really not going to dictate how fast we come to a standardisation. And, actually, the more of these things that happen, the more likely standardisation is to occur.
Eurogamer: Nintendo will have sunk a lot of money into the R&D of Wiimote. You clearly think that interface innovation will continue to occur even in a unified console format.
Denis Dyack: Yep - that's one of the broadly misunderstood concepts of commoditisation. Monopolistic markets stifle innovation. In a commoditised market, innovation and competition is much more rapid, so the amount of money of people competing in an open marketplace is much higher. Have you ever heard people complain about the cost of a hard drive for this particular console and why it's so expensive compared to a PC? That's because it's a non-competitive market. Every first party's guilty of this. That's why it's a closed system.
The big difference is people think that this current marketplace is more competitive - that Sony is competing against Microsoft is competing against Nintendo, and Nintendo's come right forward and said, overtly, 'we're not competing', because it's a non-competitive model, and they can work within this model. If we're in the open marketplace I'm talking about, competition would be much more fierce, consoles would be much lower in price, games would be lower, and when you bought a game, you would know it would work on your system. You wouldn't have to buy a Nintendo to play Miyamoto-san's games, you wouldn't have to buy a Sony to play a Ratchet & Clank game, and I think that's better for everyone.
The one thing would I say to everyone is that with commoditisation, the consumer almost always wins. It's cheaper games, cheaper hardware, and more availability and standardisation for everyone. You look at some titles like first-person shooters - Resistance: Fall of Man came out the same time as Gears of War...
Eurogamer: Yes, you made the point that they weren't competing.
Denis Dyack: They weren't competing at all, and shouldn't they have been? There you have a non-competitive marketplace, and you have to really ask yourself 'is that good for the market?' Why shouldn't they be able to play both and compare on one system?
When technologies like the sewing machine are introduced, they're personified as these freeing, liberating, just awe-inspiring things that are going to change our lives for the better. That's how consoles are always introduced. The sewing machine was introduced to free up women's time, but what happened when it was mass-produced is sweatshops were created, and it had the exact opposite effect.
Technology really needs to be understood from that level, and I don't really want to talk too much about Too Human, but that's a lot of the things we're talking about with technology in Too Human - is really understanding the effects of technology on society.
Eurogamer: And it doesn't rule out the possibility that the systems you're buying from certain manufacturers that subscribe to this unified standard can have other features as well.
Denis Dyack: Absolutely. Which is the same as when you think about buying a DVD player, or the same as buying an automobile, quite frankly. There's Porsches, and there's Minis, or whatever. There's different types of cars, but they're all cars, they all push on the pedal for gas and you turn the wheel to drive it, and that's it.
Eurogamer: You made a point in answer to one of the questions about how Xbox Live might fit into a unified model. I think you analogised it to the service industry - like Blockbuster is to film. Could you expand on that?
Denis Dyack: I actually think that Microsoft has been the most proactive in the Internet space.
Eurogamer: Do you think maybe they see it coming?
Denis Dyack: I actually think that's their real console.
Take technology from an infinite standpoint of imagining memory where there's no limits, and the computing is so fast you never have to wait for anything, and the graphics display, whether it's your retina or whatever, you can do as many colours as you want and there's nothing limited. Internet bandwidth is absolutely limitless - it's just as fast as your GPUs or your CPU. What happens is there's no hardware. Imagine it being so small you can't even see it any more, and all you really have then is your Internet piped to your service provider and that's Microsoft Live.
I think Microsoft has been really forward-thinking in that way, and I actually think it could be their future console in the end, because if you talk about what I'm saying to the extreme, the hardware gets commoditised to such an extent that there absolutely is no value, whereas the value is all in software. Live is software, and that's what Microsoft is known for - software - and certainly they're very, very smart people. And I think from that perspective it's something that nobody else can do.
Eurogamer: Sony's obviously been making noises since PS3 came out about how they don't see the cycle playing out the same way, and they see things moving away from elements of hardware and optical media and so on.
Denis Dyack: Also very, very smart people, and where they're going they're certainly being very experimental with Home, and stuff, and I'm really interested to see where that goes. I think that's got potential.
And Nintendo, who's been traditionally wary of online is now stepping into the fray as well. I don't think anyone can ignore that space. I think whether you're playing a multiplayer game or a single-player game that's going to be the future mode of delivery, because of piracy issues and all kinds of other things. In the issue of piracy, a movie's linear, you can record that and get the same experience once you record it. If you play a videogame, you can record yourself having that interaction, but it's not the same as you actually having that interaction, so the problem with piracy is people take something, make a copy, and then duplicate it and pass around - you cannot make a copy of you interacting, so with an online delivery standpoint, imagine things are so fast that you don't even get the software any more - you just hook into a central server and you can play.
Eurogamer: One of the other things you said was that predicting four or five years down the line was like trying to predict the weather, but at the same time you did say that you felt this unified console could happen as soon as the next generation.
Denis Dyack: I think it could happen next console generation. If this ends up being a true three-way split, and everyone has one third of the pie of this current generation, everyone's going to be bleeding. That would mean that the first parties didn't do as well as they'd hoped because they all hoped to win, and the third parties are likely to not have guessed properly, so they didn't make as much money as they thought they could.
I'll say it right now - I'm going to be pretty confident that all the first parties have already started their R&D for the next generation, and - I guess from the perspective of someone who's looked at technology over time - what they're going to try to do now is create technology that's going to differentiate them from their competitors, and it's getting more and more difficult all the time. They're going to have to spend more money to do so.
In the end you really have to sit back and say with Sony, was all that money they spent on R&D for the PlayStation 3 worth it? Are they are a content company or a hardware company? Microsoft is traditionally a software company, and should they be working on software or hardware? Look at Nintendo - how many times have you heard 'shouldn't Nintendo stop making hardware and just make games?' I'm not saying I'm a proponent of any of that - but these are legitimate questions that they all have to be asking each other, and I think just to be really clear that it's really hard for them too. I think this marketplace has been becoming increasingly difficult for the hardware manufacturers, and we've already seen a few go and die and never come back. Now you're left only with players that have billions of dollars.
It's gone from the really homegrown environment where anyone could make anything happen to these really huge conglomerates - and even they are now feeling the pain, and I think it makes it really tenuous. The argument for commoditisation makes a lot more sense every time we talk about it.
Eurogamer: We've seen shades of this in the past - there was MSX, where somebody tried to put forward a unified format, and there was Saturn, where SEGA let other companies like JVC make one. Did that fail because it was the wrong time? Because the competition was still relatively strong compared to those products? Because development was cheap?
Denis Dyack: I think it's because you had billion-dollar players coming into the marketplace - compared to SEGA who really didn't have that much of a war chest. And you've got these really big players coming in who think they can dominate this market. It takes a lot of capital to do that, and these are the things that forced out the smaller players, so I would say it was a bit too early, and I think moving forward the forces of commoditisation are going to overcome the forces of these billion-dollar companies.
In the early Nintendo days, if you weren't a first-party exclusive to Nintendo, you might as well not even be in the videogame industry. You had to fight and claw your way to become an official Nintendo publisher, just to give them a percentage. Now you hear how much companies are paying for exclusives that are not even really exclusive, they're timed exclusive - it's millions and millions, and it's insane. You've got to sit back and wonder: is this R&D really paying off, long-term? Where are we really making the money?
I said what I think - I think it's coming, and we'll see. The one thing I stand behind and say 100 percent is that all technologies become commoditised. There's nothing stopping that. It will not stop. It has to happen. It's gonna happen. Whether it results in a single unified console is one thing, but I think it will. It usually does.
Eurogamer: It's interesting you mentioned companies receiving a lot of money to become exclusive, because you're exclusive to 360. The fact that Too Human is a trilogy - conceivably could you end up making your second and third games for a commoditised unified gaming format?
Denis Dyack: Yep. Yep. I think so. Well, Too Human is exclusive to 360, and it's ironic because obviously in some ways in this marketplace right now you're forced to pick and choose and our hope - and I think we will - is to get Too Human out before the 360's life cycle's gone.
Eurogamer: You mean all three games?
Denis Dyack: Yeah, all three games. And so - from a perspective beyond that though, it's really going to be a Wild West out there for a while. You talk to certain publishers now and ask what console they're backing, and you get one answer, and you ask about five years from now and you get another answer.
Eurogamer: At one point in your discussion there was a bit of knowing laughter when the conversation swung to engines and that's obviously because of the very public spat that you've had with Epic about Unreal Engine. Is there anything you can say about that?
Denis Dyack: I will say that we strongly believe in the complaint that we've served them with, and we're really concentrating on making good games, and we're going to concentrate on doing that. We have a law team that's really fantastic and they're going to get the case out there and I am hopeful and confident that justice will be done. Besides that I really can't comment.
Eurogamer: Is it likely to impact the release of Too Human?
Denis Dyack: No, it absolutely will not affect Too Human. In no way.
Eurogamer: I am struggling to work the Internet in Germany due to user errors, but I caught wind of something yesterday about a release date - Q1, was it?
Denis Dyack: Yep, Too Human is coming out in first quarter. We're going to invite the press down in October, so if you'd like to come we'd love to have you down. You'll get a chance to play it. So yeah, Too Human is going extremely well. I can't wait.