How Gamers Won The Format War

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We all know who was victorious; the war was won almost a decade ago. There was a time, though, when two forces were vying for market share in what would become the next physical home media format. In the end, it all came down to movie studio support and the consumer electronic industry. What many people don’t know is how hard-fought the battle actually was, and the fact that a little black box developed by Sony Computer Entertainment dealt the most significant blow.

The seeds of the burgeoning format war began much earlier, but those seeds only began to take root in the summer of 2005. A discussion began around this time to develop a unified format, and the format war began in earnest when HD-DVD approached the BDA (the Blu-ray Disc Association) to combine efforts in developing these new technologies. When Toshiba and the HD-DVD camp insisted on too many changes to the format developed by the BDA, nascent cooperation transformed overnight into outright competition.

Paramount and Warner – two studios who had initially expressed interest in HD-DVD – were the first major entities to frustrate the competing formats by abandoning exclusivity, opting rather to release titles in both formats. Netflix also chose ambivalence over risk, announcing intentions to make titles available in both formats. At this stage, Universal Studios was the only major studio that remained solely in the HD-DVD camp.

Both formats were showcased at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show. HD-DVD appeared to have a significant time advantage, with an earlier release date by a two-month margin, but many tech-industry insiders lauded Blu-ray’s substantial capacity advantage. At the end of this run, there were a handful of malfunctions with both formats upon their initial release. HD-DVD hardware was recalled and Blu-ray titles presented atrocious film transfers and had significant audio playback issues. Replacements were ordered and film transfers had to be re-coded and discs replaced. These seem to be minor and forgivable missteps with first-gen products, but neither format gained significant foothold.

The true game changer? Gaming consoles.

In November 2006, Sony Computer Entertainment released the Playstation 3. Consumers balked at the $499 price-tag, the highest ever seen on a gaming console. They were also skeptical about the Playstation’s abilities as a Blu-ray player. Keep in mind that playing movies on a gaming console was a new and foreign concept. Playstation’s Blu-ray player ultimately proved to be the most affordable at that time, and out-performed other hardware options. The X-Box 360 – Microsoft’s competing console – required a $199 add-on to achieve what the Playstation had accomplished at the time of its release. The Playstation 3 outsold Microsoft’s add-on five-to-one. The impact of the Playstation 3 influenced the format wars magnificently.

During the lead-up to the Consumer Electronics Show in 2008, the two formats still appeared to be somewhat evenly matched, but many rumors abounded that major studios were preparing to drop the HD-DVD format. Just before the show, Warner dropped HD-DVD. Toshiba did not fire back in defense of their flagging product, but instead canceled their showcase altogether. After the Consumer Electronics Show Netflix, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart, all within a week of one another, also dropped HD-DVD.

The Playstation 3 and its owners are responsible for Blu-ray’s victory. Playstation 3 owners were buying Blu-ray movies. Their purchases accounted for a small fraction of home movie purchases, but it was enough to convince major movie studios that the Blu-ray format had the greatest potential. Additionally, the BDA was willing to offer anti-piracy features like BD+ and region coding, industry-protecting features that were left unaddressed by Toshiba. The intent of BD+ was written specifically to prevent unauthorized copies of Blu-ray discs and the playback of Blu-ray media on unauthorized devices. This technology, even today, has proved to stem the tide of pirated high-definition media compared to older formats like DVD.

Certainly, the competition between red (HD-DVD) and blue (Blu-ray) motivated improvements on the winning format. Many pieces of hardware, and a variety of major movie studios, preferred to remain purple during the competition, but one would inevitably win-out. Toshiba mounted a noteworthy effort, and forced the BDA to focus on transfer quality and authoring, intellectual property protections, and price reduction on hardware. Gamers and home-video film geeks responded to the BDA’s improvements and adopted the Blu-ray format, eventually closing the chapter on the debate between HD-DVD and Blu-ray.

Never underestimate the power of gamers. The video game industry has surmounted Hollywood in earned revenue, and the interactivity of game-based story-telling is catching the attention of a larger and larger number of consumers. This gaming industry, at this particular point in time, isn’t just ahead of the curve. It is the curve.

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Fallout – Bugsy Siegel

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In an enormously detailed alternate universe, a tapestry of historic allusions provides the skeletal structure for Bethesda Game Studio’s phenomenal long-form “Fallout” video game series. Woven into the story are a remarkable number of period-specific references. Such references serve to make game-play interesting, dynamic, and rewarding to the player. In this, the first of many posts, I think that the “Fallout: New Vegas” antagonist, a charismatic villain named Benny, is a decent jumping-off place.

Benny, voiced by “Friends” alum Matthew Perry, drives the player character into the surrounding world. Having been shot in the head by Benny and left for dead, the player character survives and begins to explore surrounding communities, hunting down the would-be assassin. The narrative architecture revolves around an alternate history, and “New Vegas” exists in a retro-futuristic depiction of 1950’s Las Vegas, borrowing heavily from the popular culture of 1950’s America. There’s little doubt that the casino chairman, gangster, and smooth-talking Benny is inspired by famed mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.

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Bugsy Siegel has gone down in history as one of the most feared gangsters in the history of organized crime. Founding member of the infamous “Murder, Inc.” group, he accumulated a significant monetary warchest in the east coast during Prohibition, earning a wage as both a hitman and enforcer. Once Prohibition was repealed in 1933, he turned his attentions to gambling, leaving his native New York in 1936 for the American Southwest. Handsome and charismatic, he aligned himself with developers of the Las Vegas Strip.

If the story feels familiar, look to Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film “Casino.”

Desiring a more “legitimate” lifestyle, Siegel relocated to Las Angeles, with a keen eye on a burgeoning adult playground in the Nevada desert. He had initially seen an opportunity to provide illicit services to crewmen working on the Hoover Dam, eventually assisting in the financing of a number of Las Vegas’ original casinos. In his most monumental coup, he eventually took over operations at the Flamingo Hotel in 1945 when its initial developer, William Wilkerson, ran short of funding. Bugsy’s lieutenants, during this time, were tasked with working on a business policy to secure all gambling in Southern California – a venture that never came to fruition.

With the Flamingo, Siegel would supply gambling, liquor, and food, and worked to land the biggest entertainers possible at the most reasonable price. He was confident these attractions would lure not only high rollers, but countless vacationers and businessmen. Wilkerson was eventually coerced into selling his shares under threat of death; he went into hiding in Paris soon after.

On the night of June 20, 1947, Bugsy Siegel sat with associate Allen Smiley in his girlfriend’s Beverly Hills home. He was reading the Los Angeles Times when an unknown assailant opened fire from outside. The assailant fired at him through the window with a thirty caliber military M1 carbine, striking him multiple times. He was struck twice in the head. Nobody has been charged with the murder, and the crime remains officially unsolved.

In “New Vegas,” Benny has similar ambitions. He is revealed to be a character with a ruthless past. He is comfortable with violence, and he has his eyes on ruling the whole of the New Vegas strip. A mobster in Las Vegas, silver-tongued and ambitious, it’s the checkered coat that seals the deal. The world of “Fallout” is populated with detailed references to our history, and this is just one of many, many others.