November 21, 2000 4:00 AM PST

Who will be king of the game consoles?

As Sony scrambles to ramp up production of the PlayStation 2, two new combatants in the game console wars are wooing software developers to lay the groundwork for an assault on the market next year.

Software giant Microsoft and open-source start-up Indrema are busy enticing game developers to write software for their upcoming game consoles, both set to debut next year. The selection and quality of software that results from their efforts will be the determining factor, analysts say, in whether either console earns a spot in the living rooms of the future.

Franchise titles such as "Crash Bandicoot" and "Grand Turismo" made the original PlayStation the market leader, while early sales of Sega's Dreamcast console were largely driven by the breakthrough fighting game "Soul Calibur."

"This is the period of time where the video games companies are laying the foundation for the success or failure of a console. Getting the right developers, getting the right games--that's the critical factor," said Schelley Olhava, an analyst at market researcher IDC.

"The hardware can be the most spectacular piece of engineering ever. But without the right games to drive interest, it doesn't count for much."

Microsoft announced in September that more than 150 developers already have signed up to work on titles for its Xbox console, which is set to hit the market in October 2001. Market leader Sony, by contrast, has more than 300 developers and publishers working on PS2 projects.

Earlier this month, Microsoft announced two programs--the Independent Developer Program and the Incubator Program--to encourage smaller developers by providing free software writing tools and waiving normal prepublishing requirements.

Developer sites
Indrema, a Linux start-up whose L600 console is slated to go on sale in the spring, this month launched the Indrema Developer Network, a Web site meant to serve as a comprehensive resource for developers interested in the console. The site includes downloadable tools for writing games and hosting projects, as well as updated technical specs on the console and exchange forums for developers who want to collaborate on titles.

Both Microsoft and Indrema also are touting accessible hardware designs they say will allow developers to exploit the full power of the console without the break-in period required by other consoles.

"We've talked with a lot of developers, and when they're approached with a new platform, you hear a lot of, 'I'm sure I'll have it figured out in one or two years,'" said J. Allard, Microsoft's general manager for the Xbox platform. "We never want to hear that kind of dialogue with our developers. We've tried to make (Xbox) superapproachable from a technology point of view, so developers can focus on the creative aspects of their work instead of figuring out how the plumbing works."

Microsoft and Indrema both stand to benefit from widespread frustration among game developers over the PlayStation 2. Although anxiously awaited by gamers, the new console's complex, multiprocessor architecture and limited selection of developer tools caused endless headaches for software writers and resulted in an underwhelming selection of game titles--26, to be exact--when the console launched last month.

"The PS2 is an absolute, positive bear to program," said Michael Goodman, senior analyst at The Yankee Group. "Sony is not exactly known for having the greatest developer relations. They sort of have a 'take it or leave it' attitude. When you have 60-some percent market share, you can get away with that to some extent."

Fewer headaches
While they can't ignore Sony, developers frustrated with the difficulty of getting their PS2 ideas to work are likely to be more interested in new consoles that promise better results with fewer headaches, Goodman said.

Sega vs. Sony
"Some developers who had only developed for the PlayStation before are going to be more open to working with other platforms now," he said.

Nintendo, an established game console contender, has learned from its own mistakes, citing widespread developer frustration with the current N64 console in its efforts to make the design of the next-generation Gamecube console easier to program. The Gamecube is due on the market around the same time next year as the Xbox.

"Instead of going for the highest possible performance, which does not contribute to software development, our idea was to create a developer-friendly, next-generation TV game machine that maintained above-standard capabilities," according to the company's Web site. "In order to accomplish this, we have painstakingly removed the 'bottlenecks' which hinder an efficient system."

Developers have said Gamecube design decisions such as increased cache memory to speed data to the main processor and tools that automate repetitive graphics tasks show that Nintendo is serious about developer concerns.

"I think what you'll find is that it'll take a good long while to reach the maximum (performance) on PlayStation 2, whereas on the Gamecube, if it's more accessible, you'll have better-looking games earlier," Gregory P. Zeschuk, CEO of developer Bioware, said in a recent interview on developer news site IGN.com.

Key thrust
Microsoft has worked hard to ensure that developers get what they want from the Xbox, Allard said. The software giant had extensive meetings with developers long before the hardware specifications for the console were set, he said, incorporating their requests into the final design of the console.

"The key thrust has always been to be the game console developed by and for game developers," Allard said. "I don't know that we've taken so much direct learning from PS2. But we talked to a lot of developers about what they liked and what they disliked about programming for existing consoles. We tried to build in developer empathy...in everything we do."

One example is the Xbox's use of memory. The 32MB of general memory and 4MB of graphics memory in the PS2 is rigidly allocated to various functions, which could frustrate developers of graphics-intensive titles who wanted to devote more resources to image rendering. Xbox developers are free to dole out the console's 64MB of memory however they see fit.

"Our design here was really to give developers free rein with the system and to use their creativity," Allard said.

Microsoft announces the Xbox (3/19/00)
The Xbox also comes with advantages from Microsoft's PC-centric background. The console uses DirectX, a collection of application programming interfaces (APIs) that govern how software interacts with hardware. DirectX also is the foundation for most Windows-based PC games, meaning developers with PC experience will already be familiar with some of the most important elements of the interface.

As most of the initial coding on console games is performed on PCs, the Xbox's reliance on similar elements--DirectX, Intel processors and Nvidia graphics chips--means writers will be able to easily and efficiently move code to the console, Allard added.

"Part of the philosophy is to use stuff that people know," he said. "The experience you have as a game developer working with PCs lets you approach the system more rapidly, and it means you don't throw away code."

Open source
Olhava said Microsoft's efforts seem to be paying off. "What I've heard from the developer community is that they think the Xbox is going to be a very successful platform, and they like working with it. It's easier to write for, and Microsoft has been really good to work with."

Indrema has gone even further to make its upcoming console developer-friendly, using an open-source software model that allows developers to freely modify underlying code. The start-up also has relied on common standards, such as the OpenGL 3D graphics library, to make it easier for smaller developers, including hobbyists, to write good-looking games. Indrema has also created multiple licensing and distribution models, including a freeware system that will allow developers to offer downloadable games at no charge.

"We've really established an entirely new set of rules for game developers," Indrema founder and CEO John Gildred said. "Traditionally, the only way developers could have a low barrier of entry was to make something for the PC. On the console side, the licensing restrictions and technical hurdles are totally restricting the talent."

Although Indrema is working hard to strike deals with major software houses, Gildred said that paying attention to smaller developers helps give the start-up an edge in finding the next hit.

"We think the landscape of what it means to be a game developer is going to change. Independent content is going to increase in interest. I think you'll find a lot of games coming out of nowhere," he said.

"Look at the film industry...Independent film has caught on big and has really become associated with quality content. The same thing is ready to happen in the gaming world, where the system has become just as restrictive of talent."

Indrema's model may be a good prospect for gamers, Goodman said, but the company faces the same revenue challenges that have sent shares of Linux companies plummeting this year.

"History shows there have been a bunch of great games coming out of garages," he said. "The question is whether Indrema can stay in business long enough to take advantage of them. There's a huge open-source movement for them to tap into, but as a business model, that stinks."

Olhava agreed.

"I wouldn't write them off, but I am kind of concerned about their strategy," Olhava said. "Allowing everyone to create games for your platform is great. But instead of having a couple of really strong titles to draw people to your platform, you may end up with something like the PC, where there are a lot of small, bad games."

As far as the Xbox goes, the question boils down to whether notoriously deadline-dysfunctional Microsoft can deliver the goods on time. At least 75 percent of game console sales occur around the holidays, Goodman said, and a newcomer to the market can't take the risks that Sony has with its PS2 supply problems.

"I get the impression that (Microsoft) realizes that if they miss next holiday season, they've got to wait another year," he said. "I think they'll do whatever it takes to hit it."

 

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