Friday, June 25, 2010

The Games We Play - How Console Games Are Like Integrated Stacks

In response to Chuck Hollis and his views on integrated versus differentiated stack infrastructure, I was most interested in his example case of building your own PC to make the point that integrated stacks will win out.

I’m not going to prognosticate – that’s for the industry giants like Chuck, Chris Mellor and others to debate. In the end, it doesn’t matter to me (and it’s one reason I moved to sales – there’s always something to sell and someone to buy it). But if you run a data center or are responsible for IT in your organization, it should.

Chuck’s example using PC technology is fine, if you don’t consider the application and the desired functionality. In my case, I build my own PC’s primarily with gaming in mind – I’ve done this for many years. It’s interesting that despite console (think XBOX 360) gaming has outstripped PC game sales for a good long while now, but even with all the benefits of what you could call an “integrated gaming stack” we still see PC gaming (or, the best-of-breed, differentiated stack) still hanging in there. Possibly making a few dying gasps for air even.

The parallels with enterprise concerns are interesting and I think we can draw some conclusions based on what’s going on in gaming currently.

First, let’s examine why the integrated gaming stack has been so popular and all but crushed legacy PC gaming.

  • Lower startup costs
  • Guaranteed compatibility
  • Ease of use / single interface
  • Integrates with other home entertainment technology

You can probably think of others, including the all important “cool factor” of something new and different (I’m picturing Eric Cartman waiting for the Wii to be GA). Don’t discount the cool factor for enterprise decisions – everyone’s always checking the other guy out to see what they’re up to and how they’re doing it.

So, the integrated gaming stack looks like a clear win, right? Maybe. Consider the following:

  • Substandard graphics, storage and processing capability versus PC gaming. I think we can all agree that giving up the pain associated with building your own gaming rig results in you having to accept some lower standards. While you have only yourself to blame for not researching your component technologies before hand, in a console world you are dealing with the best of the mediocre or what I’ve heard some industry big wigs call “good enough” technology.
  • Technology lock-in, unless you hack your console (but then you forfeit ease of use, right?) In the PC world, I can buy, sell, trade (EULA permitting of course) games with all players. In the console world, I’m stuck if I buy the wrong stack – maybe not a big deal for gaming, but think about the enterprise that runs “XBOX 360” stacks and wants to merge with a company running on “PS3” applications… oh, some lucky “stack integrator of integrated stacks” stands to make some nice coin for the conversion.
  • Console games SHOULD theoretically be less expensive than PC editions because of the platform compatibility (in other words, consoles are all using the same hardware and drivers, while PC owners can choose from virtually limitless combinations of video, processor and input devices). However, console games are priced the same (and a couple of years ago were even about $10 more). Who’s benefiting from compatibility – the stack provider or the customer? (There’s another interesting situation going on with ebooks which should be cheaper to publish but somehow that savings isn’t being transferred to readers or authors).
  • Finally, the hidden costs of console gaming are rarely considered because they show up as a gradual tax rather than an upfront cost. Want to play online with your friends? That’s going to cost you extra. Want downloadable content for value added play? Buy some credits. Don’t forget specialized input devices for Rockband or other interactive games (which are very limited in selection, heavily licensed and typically of low quality).

Welcome to console gaming a la the integrated gaming stack – give us your credit card number, sit back and ignore the sucking sound emanating from your checking account.

So, in the end you haven’t reduced your cost – you just transferred that cost to a (gaming) cloud provider. Depending on how much you game and what features you require, you could actually see increased costs. Hopefully not, but keep your eye on the ball.

I agree with Chuck’s statement that “both perspectives are right” but I don’t see the value going wholesale up the stack as his example indicates. Smart and strategic IT leaders are going to need to make sure that the integrated stack is really, honestly delivering on the value promise.

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