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January 11, 2009 6:20 pm

Looking back at my previous entry, I realized that it might appear as if I was primarily lambasting Microsoft, since the list of independent games I cited contained a disproportionate amount of XBLA releases. Ordinarily it wouldn't make any difference, but in this instance I think it's important to clarify that the Microsoft-centric focus of my examples should not be construed as an implication that the company's certification policies are somehow more draconian than those of its competitors. Having gone through cert for competing systems, I can personally attest that this is not the case. The fact is, all three of the major players are equally complicit with regard to the misplaced certification priorities under discussion. If anything, the heightened amount of public criticism being targeted at Microsoft is a direct result of the greater level of interest the company has managed to engender among indie developers; more people making games for XBLA naturally leads to increased scrutiny of the platform.

Hey, remember when I said that all three console manufacturers were equally complicit? Yeah, I lied. From a historical perspective, there is one company that has had a greater influence than its peers in shaping the certification system into the form we know today. Since the internet has taught me that it's always better to be accusatory than discreet (at least in terms of attracting website traffic), I shall now reveal this company's name:

I'm talkin 'bout Nintendo. Can you dig it?

In his highly engrossing book Game Over, author David Sheff chronicles Nintendo's initial, faltering steps toward North American retail conquest in the wake of the video game market crash of 1983. It was during this time period that the "Official Nintendo Seal of Quality" was established, primarily for the sake of reassuring wary retailers and consumers who had turned away from video games thanks to a cacophony of dubious products and overhyped, ephemeral consoles.

Since visual aids are always helpful, I have included an image of the Nintendo Seal's current incarnation above. Take a good look. Notice anything missing?

Perhaps a key word that is conspicuously absent?

Somewhere along the way, the "Official Nintendo Seal of Quality" became simply the "Official Nintendo Seal." Now, anyone familiar with the spate of shovelware available for the DS and Wii might say that this alteration reflects a change in Nintendo's outlook - an expression of a newer, perhaps laxer approach to quality control. However, that would imply that the term 'quality' was not entirely nebulous from the outset.

Rather, I like to think of the new wording as the subtle admission of a longstanding truism that is just as valid today as it was when the seal was first introduced:

The truth is, the presence of the Nintendo Seal indicates nothing beyond the fact that the developer of a particular game has paid their tithe.

Now that's inflammatory! At least, it would be if most gamers hadn't already been aware of it all along.

Observant readers will note that I began this entry with an assurance that I was not trying to single out Microsoft, then promptly turned around and singled out Nintendo instead. The main difference is that in this case, it is intentional. However, my purpose in doing so is not merely to criticize Nintendo, but to highlight their status as the pioneers (and, I would argue, still the most avid practitioners) of the 'gatekeeper' approach to console development.

A console manufacturer that subscribes to the gatekeeper model views their console as a closed platform, and assumes the mantle of arbiter regarding what content is deemed acceptable on that platform. To this end, they impose stringent 'quality control' criteria; ostensibly, this is done as a service to the consumer, but in practice the actual motivations are often substantially less benevolent. In Nintendo's case, quality assurance has been cited as a justification for censorship, for imposing a stranglehold on manufacturing, and for ruthlessly excising any attempts at legitimate homebrew development for their platforms (just ask Bob about that one). In exchange for providing these and other such 'services', the gatekeeper takes a share of the profits from any games sold on their console. It is therefore in the best interest of the gatekeeper to intentionally hinder any attempts to democratize the console, because the more open the platform becomes the harder it gets to collect the aforementioned tithe.

Flagrant abuse of the word 'quality' aside, the real problem with the gatekeeper model is that, while it might have been a suitable approach back in 1983, it is hopelessly antiquated with regard to the modern technological landscape. In particular, the notion that consumers require a gatekeeper to protect them from being burdened by an overabundance of options, which could charitably have been described as 'spurious' even back in the NES era, is downright laughable in an age where the internet has drastically increased our capacity to sift through large amounts of data with ease. Individually and collectively, we have grown accustomed to separating the wheat from the chaff; the continued success of Kongregate alone is proof that a less than ideal signal-to-noise ratio is not a substantial deterrent for modern users.

Here's the closest I have to a point, and in accordance with my typical writing style I'm going to state it as floridly as possible:

I believe that video games are on the cusp of a true renaissance fueled by independent game development and user-created content, but in order for console makers to fully benefit from this emerging movement, they must first abdicate the traditional gatekeeper role and embrace a different stance, what I refer to as the 'community conduit' mentality.

What does it mean to be a community conduit? It means trusting gamers to make their own judgments regarding quality. It means providing intuitive tools to help consumers sort through available products to find what they want, rather than artificially limiting their choices in a misguided attempt to prevent confusion. It means opening up your platform and reducing barriers to entry for aspiring developers. Making this transition requires concrete action, not just empty rhetoric.

What it doesn't necessarily mean (and, in all likelihood, probably never will) is the abandonment of the tithe. Even some of the most enticing attempts at community coaxing are currently saddled with restrictive licensing agreements that require creators to forfeit an exorbitant portion of their revenues to the console makers. As always in business, community means nothing if you can't profit from it.

As a final note, lest you decry my comments about Nintendo as an indication that I have come full circle and am now actually favoring Microsoft, I would just like to mention the company that I feel is currently doing the best job of acting as a community conduit: Apple.

From what I have seen, the iPhone is poised to be an extremely successful platform for games, in no small part due to Apple's efforts to open it up to the community by providing hobbyists and tinkerers with access to the tools needed to generate compelling content. Seal or no seal, that's a recipe for quality.