Continuing the theme of “I’m really busy but hey I wrote about that years ago”, here’s an article from March 2011 that went to the same now-vanished website as the previous one. I’m glad I saved a copy of at least some of the things I wrote for that place.
Anyhow, last night’s Xbox One reveal has, I feel kind of shown the prescience of the argument I (and many others) have been laying out for a couple of years now – with the end of the AA titles, the console manufacturers are having to look elsewhere to shore up their financials; they can’t rely on a glut of licensees anymore. In Sony’s case, that has meant a strong consistent move to embrace the indie game developer and offer support, good routes to market etc. For Microsoft it seems to have been more about backing away from games and making deals with other media providers like ESPN, CBS and sports franchises.
Both are probably valid tactics for surviving this cycle, but I’m curious/nervous beyond that – especially for MS who seems to be shackling the value proposition of their new device to what many see as a dying medium, emphasising a very “BroGamer” demographic and pushing platform exclusive titles as a stick to drive adoption, without a significant gaming-related carrot to counterpoint. All things considered, it’s a very interesting time for the industry, and I’m truly glad that I don’t yet have all that much riding on the outcome career-wise.
With a history spanning nearly ten years in the industry, and more than 20 released titles including the Unreal and Gears of War franchises, Clifford “CliffyB” Bleszinski is a guy who you’d think knows what he’s talking about. So when he commented that Double-A titles are pretty much finished, it’s not someone clueless talking. As a Lead Designer at Epic Games, CliffyB ought to know his stuff. Yet there seems to be a decent amount of people who disagree.
I can see his point though. Triple-A titles will always find an audience – regardless of what else is happening in the world, Halo and Call of Duty will always sell, to an extent regardless of quality, these teams could literally take a dump on a plate, stamp the brand on it and it would sell. It isn’t the top of the market that is ever going to have an issue. Equally, at the Indie end of things, the price point is low enough, and the ideas quirky enough, that people are never going to stop spending less than a dollar to get a copy of Tiny Wings, or the latest xBox Live Arcade title. When you can get a solid game for a few currency units, why would you buy a reasonable mid-range game for full retail price? CliffyB thinks you wouldn’t, and that you are far more likely to find these mediocre games being played on rental, where you can pick them up without having to pay full price. For my part, all I can tell you is that I just sent back Quantum Theory and Kane and Lynch 2 on rental. Before that I had Rogue Warrior and Darksiders. Read into that whatever you want.
I think that this is another facet of the debate that has been raging around the next generation of handheld consoles. The core question is whether or not an expensive stand-alone piece of equipment has a role anymore in a world full of Android and iOS devices. Although Sony’s NGP still doesn’t have a price point, we can guess it will be at least as pricey as Nintendo’s 3DS, which retails at around £200 in the UK. Given it’s billing as a serious and powerful piece of equipment, I’d be surprised if it launched below £300. That’s a large chunk of change for a device that is almost exclusively a gaming device. There’s been a trend across the board to move away from the designation “gaming device” in the living room. The PS3 has been at the forefront of this, offering consumers an affordable entry into the BluRay world from the get go, but both PS3 and XBox are pushing to put their consoles at the heart of your “media centre” with more and more streaming media options. It’s possible that these new handhelds will follow suit, but what really differentiates them from the current generation of smartphones, besides an inability to do proper communications.
In many ways I think the challenges facing these new consoles are exactly those that faced camera manufacturers with the introduction of the camera-phone. I have a fancy DSLR camera, and a reasonable point’n’shoot, but the camera that gets used most frequently I find is the one that I have in my pocket anyway – I’m loathe to carry round a second bulky bit of kit on the off chance I’ll want it. If I know I’m doing something that deserves high quality pictures, then of course I will use the DSLR, because the quality of the photos is higher, but generally I’m prepared to sacrifice the quality of the experience for convenience. I think I’m not alone in finding my play habits following a similar model. Is Tiny Wings the most immersive detailed game experience ever? No of course not. There are better management sims than Game Dev Story, and NOVA isn’t the most amazing first person shooter. On the other hand, they’re already in my pocket because I have my phone with me, and the experience they offer is adequate – better than adequate. In fact, the whole concept of the handheld device is already a tradeoff of quality and portability, but we’ve grown up accepting that handheld consoles lack the power and visual refinement of non-portables. The point is that while ever there is such a gross disparity between the price of the smartphone games, and the price of the handheld games, and I have a smartphone anyway, I think that the smartphone games will tend to sell very well. Is the new Pokemon game 20 times better than the latest App Store sensation? Maybe it is for some people, but I wonder in general if people are going to be willing to pay 20 times more for it.
Which brings us back full circle to CliffyB. How do games that aren’t necessarily bad, but at the same time aren’t great, fit in? Games that score in the 60-80% range. The fact is that marketed at full retail price, they won’t sell well. There are far too many games coming out for most people to keep up, and when they can afford to get a game, there’s no reason for them not to go with AAA title. When they are in the market for a quick fix, there are tons of cheap options that don’t require forking out full retail price for a sub-par experience. It makes sense that when people are going to spend a lot of money, they will be discerning, and equally when they just want a new game, any new game, they’ll tend to be frugal. This will polarise the marketplace into high quality and low budget, and it’s going to mean that the mid-quality high-budget games are going to be left out in the cold.
Only time will really tell if CliffyB’s predictions will come true, but they certainly look sensible to me. Rental services like Netflix, Gamefly and LoveFilm mean that I can plough through mediocre titles without it being prohibitively expensive, but that doesn’t help the developers much to recoup their investment. It’s a shame our industry is so governed by popular opinion and review scores, and it’s even more of a shame that games that don’t do anything wrong can be panned as a colossal failure, despite garnering reasonable enough review scores. Ultimately though, this is what we have to work with – and it’s not just the AA titles that are suffering, so are innovation and experimentation, sacrificed in favour of safe “me-too” AAA sequels.