January 13, 2006

Game Boy Wants to be Free?

by Nick Montfort · , 1:12 pm

I recently acquired a Game Boy Micro, which I like a great deal. It’s pocket-sized, clear and ergonomic enough, rechargeable, and runs Game Boy Advance cartridges (from the stellar Wario Ware, Inc. to, via the magic of flash RAM, the homebrew games and demos that Brett Camper has discussed).

Modern-day gaming systems cause me to hesitate as I reach for my wallet, though, not only because of my retro tastes, but also because they’re so severely locked down. This is the case both from the “consumer” standpoint (as seen in region coding, which I believe Nintendo developed prior to the DVD) and of course from the developer’s standpoint.

Yes, homebrew developers have managed to hack around some restrictions for some systems, notably the commercially defunct Dreamcast and the trailing-edge Game Boy Advance. But even if you manage to develop games, how to get them to people beyond the developer community? Proffering your GBA game for the flashkit-owning three-leet is a big step down from being able to put a Flash game online or even being able to offer a z-code interactive fiction piece. One thought is that the new “open” handheld gaming platforms may provide a way out of this conundrum. Ian Bogost doesn’t think so, as he explains in his comments about two new handhelds built for indie game development, and I tend to agree.

I suppose I’m hopeful (although not that hopeful) that it will be possible to appropriate some cheap, widespread devices whose manufacturers don’t care to restrict game development. Ian’s closing suggestion is along these lines, but I think the merchant lock-down and technology gap will prove too severe in that case. The problem is, the same forces that are used to homogenize the marketplace and consumer appetites and to lure everyone to buy the same branded handheld gaming system (or other handheld computing widget) would seem to inhibit indie development. The only exceptions might occur when the corporate behemoth doesn’t notice such development (as is the case now) or when they try to profit from it (perhaps in a more striking way than is seen in the two new upstart handhelds). And it’s not clear that some massive investment in Sony or Nintendo’s vision of homebrew development would be very good for gaming, for programming, or otherwise for the world.