The Difference Between Needs and Wants.

Epic Games say what we want is more raw power, and what they need is more raw power. But what we need and what we want are not always what is best, or what they seem. Do we really need to spend more on hardware in a recession? Or is this nothing more than an ego-maniacal exercise in market domination?

Epic are becoming unreal.

Okay, that was a horrible pun and I apologise (but only just!) but it’s a good introduction to the screenshots put out of the brand new, all singing and dancing Unreal Engine 4.

You’d think that would be the end of it but ahaha, no. Because Cliff Bleszinski decided to drop a bit of a clanger;

“There is a huge responsibility on the shoulders of our engine team and our studio to drag this industry into the next generation. It is up to Epic, and Tim Sweeney in particular, to motivate Sony and Microsoft not to phone in what these next consoles are going to be. It needs to be a quantum leap. They need to damn near render Avatar in real time, because I want it and gamers want it – even if they don’t know they want it.” 

This is the ramblings of an egomaniac and it concerns me deeply.

For a start, Epic Games make a middleware solution. For all the problems in the industry, middleware solutions are becoming prevalent to skip corners – but in doing so, more and more games are looking the same. Running on the same basic code, the same basic systems and physics. The responsibility is on Epic to make sure that their engines are flexible to customise to whatever the situation requires; and this generation we have seen the rise and rise of “Gears Syndrome”. Games based upon the foundations of one game. That’s an awful, terrible and destructive burden to bear – that a creative industry is becoming less creative because the tools they licence aren’t capable of breaking the mould.

Secondly – it is not up to Epic to dictate what to put into the new Playstation or X-Box. Guess what? That’s more or less final right now. Everything else is software and firmware changes, as well as production and aesthetic design. If it’s not powerful enough for you Epic, there are two choices; one, you go back and see if the PC crowd that you abandoned some years ago in favour of pushing your tech demos and engines on the console market will have you back. Something tells me no. The other option is quite simple; make your own console.

The problem with console power is that you need to be sensible. People who want a pair of £500 graphics cards and a super processor and 32GB of RAM already have them – it’s called a PC, and can be changed and upgraded on a whim. A console is a different beast – it will have the same basic power and architecture for five years minimum, and needs to be sold at a price that will get the most people willing to buy into it. Because if you’re going to spend £1000 on a machine, you’ll spend it on a PC. Why spend that on a console, whose only job – despite all the pretensions of the last few years to prove otherwise – is to play games?

The final issue is what we need, and what we want.

The two are not the same thing. I WANT to run down the road in a pair of furry trousers and a pikachu hat singing Akuda Bar Propaganda with a procession of Austin Powers Fembots behind me, but that’s likely to see me at least being branded a bit of a loony and more realistically get me arrested (especially the Fembots, public brandishing of a deadly weapon and all…). I WANT to buy a house, far away from here. I WANT to live in a world of magic and sorcery.

What we want can be fantastical and out-there. But we can’t always have what we want – this is the first lesson most of us learn as grown ups. We can’t always have it our own way, and we will sometimes have to go without. The real world doesn’t always revolve around us, and what we want.

Sony have made losses for the past four years – their latest was one of the biggest corporate losses in Japan for some time. Microsoft, for all the pomp and ceremony, have only really in the last few months begun to make money on the 360, as the Live service was being run for a very long time at an operational loss (hence why there are ads there now – more money!).

Taking that into consideration, and looking at the extremely bleak economic state that we’re all going through, concessions have to be made. Some cutbacks are necessary. And as much as you want that shiny graphics card costing £500, the reality is that for the forseeable future you can get away with that £190 one – which will have its nutsacks revved off for the next five years as console developers explore and consume what it is capable of.

What Epic want, really, is to have control of the middleware market – and by dictating to Sony and Microsoft what it wants, it hopes to get it and squeeze out any competition who would have to react later than themselves. But its unlikely to work out, and Cliff Bleszinski needs to accept that technology is moving slower now because, quite simply, there is far less money flying around. The market for more mid-range hardware is picking up, and will be the main battlefield for the next few years.

And guess what? In a couple of years, we’ll see something amazing.

Look at games from the release of the X-Box 360 and PS3. And then compare them to games now, at the tail-end of the generational cycle. Yes, the graphics are slicker, cleaner, sharper, more detailed and much better.

How is this possible when it is the same hardware? Well, after a while, people get BETTER at using the hardware. They find means and ways to squeeze more from it, find rendering techniques to make it look nicer, sharper, react faster. The longer it goes on, the more people get out of it. Eventually, it plateaus and by that time, another generation is upon us. It takes about five years on average.

What developers WANT is all this shiny fancy pants new stuff. What they NEED is the budget and time to make use of it. And when it comes to the very latest stuff, it’s just not its time yet – the budgets would be too high and to get the most out of the hardware would take years, many many years. Projects would simply stop existing – forcing more studios out of the market.

The consequence of domination by the Unreal Engine is a smaller, much less interesting gaming market. One dominated by one software package and the same sequels, over and over again, as more and more studios simply bow out because the costs are too astronomical for them. It’s one where we will be asked to pay a LOT more for consoles, and get far less in return in terms of software. It is one where, effectively, you drive out the creativity.

The games industry has seen some really horrible business decisions in the last few years – Activision, EA, UbiSoft, SEGA, Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony, all have tarnished their reputations in some way. Activision with the whole Infinity Ward saga. EA with the BioWare acquisition. UbiSoft with it’s DRM. SEGA with how it wheels out Sonic with such disregard for its quality. Nintendo for how it ordered third-party games be delayed on its system if there was a big Nintendo release. Microsoft with the Kinect and the NUads system. Sony – well, sadly pretty much everything they’ve done this generation has been a bit of a disaster.

This is an industry tearing at the seams trying to juggle creative expressionism with cold, fixed business logic. It is one that is growing, but largely because of obscenely large cash injections being pumped in from external sources (because we all know that works, right?). It’s an industry that teeters on the brink, where it could flourish from all of this or be poisoned by it and wither.

The last thing it needs is another third-party with delusions of megalomania trying to seize control whilst it is in this delicate and important stage. For that is how it appears to analysts, and some in the industry itself. Epic have shown their true colours – and they are vulgar.

It may be a business, but no market is too big to fail. If the games industry goes down, for whatever reason, it will be one of the most disastrous economic collapses you will ever see. Squeeze out competition, and all you have then is one head on the chopping block when it all goes south.

Epic should be thankful and glad that they have customers and a role in the industry. How the hell they got away with Gears of War (and why people actually bought it!) is beyond me. But they are not going to – and never should – be handed so much power to dictate what new consoles are.

They are software engineers. And if you’ve spend hundreds of millions making a new engine only to realise that you’ll have to scale it back – tough banana. The industry is different. The world is different.

Time to open those curtains and smell the roses – or face the consequences of being oblivious to the marches of time.

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