The Next-Gen starts… uhh… when we get new shoes.
This year sees the Wii-U, the PlayStation 4, the new X-Box and the left-of-field Ouya.
There is certainly a lot of exciting gaming technology on offer and the market should in theory be live and alive in the next couple of years, as excitable developers and visionary directors get stuck into the new tools and engines available to them, where they can let their minds wander and try out new, different concepts and titles aimed at making the best solid use of the technology at hand. This is the golden age of a new console; when people get really excited by the possibilities, what can be done and how we can change the way we play games for the better.
Except there’s a serious fly in the ointment. They are still businesses. And at the end of the day, all these exciting new developments are worthless if the gaming community at large doesn’t take to them.
You might think this is a terribly pessimistic viewpoint to take but in reality, it happens all the time. You need only be reminded of the trouble we had with the Ouya last year; that interesting budget gaming console due very soon, a machine that was conceptualised as freeing the market and allowing indie developers to stand toe-to-toe with the big developers that we know and sneer at; Capcom, EA, Activision, UbiSoft and so on. This was a vision many of us were excited by, a place which could operate on ideas and not power, that was about games and not business. It was an exciting ideal. An intellectual no-brainer, if you will. It went on to be one of the most funded Kickstarter projects ever, fuelled by consumer goodwill and independent and cottage industries excited about a more level playing field.
Fast forward a little while, and Ouya sends out a questionnaire to ask its Kickstarter backers what they want to see, game wise? And this was where the illusion must have sunk deeper than the Mariana Trench. Sure, we saw Terraria, and Minecraft on the list. But the rest was dominated by the usual suspects – big-name brands, franchises and companies that were supposed to be competing more fairly. When consumers respond that what they want to see on the console is more Call of Duty, more Assassin’s Creed, more Mass Effect, more Fifa, more Need for Speed… the selection of indie games was minimal, and surprisingly safe considering the potential at hand.
You may think this is just a blip in the road but I have to say, this has been going on for years now. It’s always flown just under the radar for it to be a huge pressing concern but with the Wii-U losing developer support for some reason, there is a very real problem at hand. The Wii-U is a phenomenal console, truly something very special. The controller, the power, the Miiverse and the games so far have been stellar for the most part, a real concerted drive to change how we interact and enjoy not only our games, but how we look at games consoles. Nintendo gambled everything on letting third-party developers come in and set up their stalls first, but they just haven’t – not in the way Nintendo, or many others, would have liked them too. UbiSoft delayed Rayman Legends to coincide with a multi-format release (bigger fool them really), EA and Activision have remained unusually tight-lipped. All these companies – from Square-Enix to Capcom, at one point did exactly the same as they did at the PlayStation 4 reveal. They went on screen to say how excited they were, how they were looking to expand the concepts and do something truly unique and visionary. But they aren’t. It’s the same games with a second screen, really. Even Nintendo, usually brilliant in showing how their second screen works in a gaming capacity, have dropped the ball with the Wii-U. Within two months the excitement of the Wii-U has popped; the happy, joyous bubble of potential burst in favour of a more sober, sombre reality; at the end of the day, they need to make money and the Wii-U, even though it’s brand new really, isn’t installed enough yet for them to get on board. The audience is too small and so money and manpower is transferred to current projects for the PlayStation 3 and X-Box 360, and tantalising but ultimately fruitless ideas and concepts for a next-generation that people have begged for, and yet don’t seen to fully grasp.
If all people want is better graphics, then really we’re at an impasse, are we not? The next generation is expensive. The PlayStation 4 will be expensive. VERY expensive. This is what people want, and Sony and Microsoft and Nintendo go to town on the garnish and window dressing and really, all people seem to judge things on is how they look. How shallow is that? How has an industry that prides itself of creativity and pushing the technical boundaries ended up in a position where all it is judged on is whether a game is prettier than the last big hit? Sure, there are indie hits, but Minecraft was well-marketed, well-managed and well-publicised. Terraria got off the ground through word of mouth and deep cuts, even though it was hardly a fortune in the first place! In the console world, we’ve watched many a decent game die on its feet; from the sublime Beyond Good and Evil to Okami, from Ico (sold very badly first time around!) to Pikmin, Eternal Darkness to Haunting Ground. The industry is littered with the bodies of utterly beautiful, wonderful games that were simply ignored because the big-budget tank platoon was marching across the plains, with no-one really thinking to check if they were running over perfectly wonderful and good titles in the process.
And do these big budgets mean better games? Do these huge franchises equal quality? How about we ask Gearbox? Oh wait, Aliens: Colonial Marines. We’ve already done this one, right? How about we talk to Activision, a company that makes a stankload of money each year and has been stripping itself back to only the stuff that sells; Call of Duty and Blizzard titles primarily, to the point you can almost see how Bobby Kotick must have been desperate to get Blizzard back on consoles. “Sure, port Diablo 3! It’ll make money!”. Except it also has a terrible reputation and received very mixed reviews and opinions, as well as having its fair share of mishaps as well. But as crap as Aliens: Colonial Marines is and as disappointing as Diablo 3 was, they made the companies so much money that there’s no sense of punishment for their obvious failings. In the past, bad games were buried as gamers read reviews and tried to decide what to buy. The industry is so large now, so bloated and inefficient that games that aren’t popular get sequels because they make money time and time again.
And the reason for this is gamers, I’m sorry to say. “This time they’ll do better!” we tell ourselves. “This time it’ll be worth it. This time it’ll be brilliant!” and… well, let’s face it, it’s not often true, is it? Assassin’s Creed is a good game, but it’s nowhere near the breath of fresh air that the second instalment was. The first was too, and has a special place in gaming land by virtue that it was flawed, but nice. But Brotherhood, Revelations and Assassin’s Creed 3? They’ve just… not been right. Most people who are fans will say it. “But they’ll have a new one out this year and I’m sure it’ll be as good as Assassin’s Creed 2 was!” As gamers, we’ve become blinded by optimism, which leads us to trust more easily than we probably should. When we’re shafted with day-one DLC, people say it’s terrible. But they buy it, because they think it helps the industry (it really doesn’t). When a game is disappointing, people rush out to buy it to see what the fuss is about. If the gaming market can be compared to nature, then some years ago it was a beautiful, ordered spiders web glistening in the morning dew. Unfortunately now it’s tattered, tangled and heck only knows where the spider is that made it. Probably dead. Or doing something prettier elsewhere.
If we can’t change how we buy and approach games, then everything inside the PlayStation 4, the Wii-U, the new X-Box and the Ouya that is not directly related to graphically improving games is, frankly, a waste of time and money. Changing the market is all well and good but that was supposed to happen THIS generation, remember? How things were meant to be so different? How online would vastly improve how we played games? How the new technology would mean better social networking, online play, matchmaking and better services all around? I remember. And in the end, it’s still descended into what it always does; pretty but ultimately shallow games selling where likeable, deep, complex titles are passed over. Business overtakes the creative side of the industry, and gives the consumer what it wants – not what it needs.
The next generation won’t live or die based on what Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and Ouya do with their services, how well they sell, what their potential is in the grand scheme of things. It will live or die based on the consumer, the customer, the gamer. We are guardians of our own technical future and for years we’ve been pretty bad at keeping track, easily distracted by shiny new things and sweet-talking, smooth-operating snake oil salesmen. We as consumers have become docile and submissive, taking everything that the industry throws at us because guess what? They’re not afraid of us. They know they can raid our wallets and we will let them. They know we’ll put up with any old bullshit idea they come up with as long as we get a fix of our favourite games again. We have become soft, lazy and fat, like battery hens. And we’re reaping the cheap tat and slurry-like drivel that comes with it. Sometimes the feed is decent; but decent doesn’t sell. So why invest in decent when the biggest-selling franchises out there are just mediocre cast-off anyway?
As gamers, we have to grow a backbone. We have to say “NO!” And most importantly, we have to embrace gaming as a whole, not as individual islands. I admit this is where Nintendo did the most damage; the Wii fractured the landscape into small encampments, and with less and less direct communication between them, people are only getting the story that the companies want you to see. How else could Gearbox manage one of the most painful deceptions of the modern gaming industry? No questions were asked. No-one demanded a playable demo. No-one was suspicious when information wasn’t forthcoming. Everyone just took it at face value, and worse still, pre-ordered it because that was what they wanted us to do. The money was taken before we could even see what had happened, and ultimately, what had happened was someone had put together a game that “sort of” resembled the “demo” from last year in a few short months. Communication. It’s hilarious for all the push in the last few years to communicate and build up social networks, that it time and time again descends into… well. Something not pleasant. Not just gamers, companies too. Communication is a dying artform.
We need to be more alert and better, more savvy shoppers. We need to ask questions. We need to be wary. We need to stop buying into hype, especially announcements of announcements of announcements of an announcement to be made at some conference months down the line. We need to get rid of these concrete boots that we’ve been wearing for so many years and get stuck in making sure that this upcoming next-generation really is a gigantic leap forward not just technically, but socially and interactively as well.
Otherwise it will just be this generation with better graphics, with companies asking us to pay more and more for less and less potential upgrade.
What’s the point when you can buy a PC for that sort of thing?