How Important Is 3rd Party Support?

Absolute Power and the PS4

Time someone asked the question.

So, the PS4 is designed to make developers lives easier by making the transition from PC architecture to console architecture easier.

When we talk about “developers” in this instance, let’s be clear that we’re not talking about the first-party titles and agreed exclusives that each machine has, will have and is destined to have at some point in their time on the market. What Sony obviously mean is that their machine has been designed to make life easier for third-party developers and publishers to push content, arguably from the PC to the console, without much in the way of trouble or concern. This is why the PlayStation 4 has 8GB of GDDR5 memory – it doesn’t matter that this is possibly overkill even for a PC in this day and age, but because most gamers have 8GB of RAM. Sony are just pushing the boat out with the very best; the very latest, and be damned with the costs and/or consequences of that action. Most of the parts are off the shelf and easily comparable to PC parts; again, this allows for a more lenient viewpoint and helps arguably cut costs for developers, who can modify and/or push the PC and/or drivers patches out more universally.

None of that is a particularly bad thing; there are plenty of people – both as market analysts and industry workers – who will argue this isn’t particularly a good thing; that the PS3’s Cell processor allowed for more streaming and more actions to be diverted and managed from other things. I’ve read a few topics from people who lament the X-Box 360 coming in with this idea of “PC Perfect”; some argue the PC methodology of programming is becoming more reliant on the hardware and less reliant on clean, efficient code. They could be right, I don’t know, but surely that’s a disaster waiting to happen that we should let them make? If your work ethic isn’t 100% there, then we’re going to see it. And it’s going to come to a head eventually.

However, with the Wii-U still struggling in sales and Microsoft shortly about to do its big reveal of the all-new and shiny X-Box, it’s time to stop for a moment and ask the industry – well, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo actually – a simple question; how important is third-party support? Really?

Now, I’m sure there will be some who will talk about “diversity” and the “busy market”. Here’s my first point on this one; is diversity and a busy market such a good thing now? The problem is that in any given year, most of us dedicated gamers and gaming blogs will be playing, and often paying or renting, a good 100+ games. In a year. On average, we play two a week and that’s a tight ship to run really, and it makes Yahtzee’s approach of just playing a game until you form an opinion and/or get bored of it more appealing as a result. The problem with this is independent, smaller blogs often can’t play games the way a big site can, which has several people all playing different games. Sometimes these sites forget that they get the games free, or paid for by advertising, and that the average gamer is in their 30’s now. This means that we don’t always have the spare cash to throw about, and rental options are becoming more appealing. Of course, this skews sales figures for the most part – meaning there is no way of knowing how many of Tomb Raider’s 3.5 million sales in its first month were rentals – if any at all. And most of them don’t yet count digital sales, which is often more profit for less effort on their part. That said, if Square-Enix can’t make money from 3.5 million sales of a game in a month, then something is very wrong there. There’s too much expectation, too much demand from third-party publishers and developers to hit unrealistic numbers.

So where are they getting such numbers from?

According to VGChartz, there are 74.79 million X-Box 360’s and 73.60 PlayStation 3’s globally, with over 99 million Wii consoles. That’s the home console market, and add them together and you could be led to think the actual number of home consoles in the world amount to 247.39 million. In terms of a base unit of machines, that is probably quite accurate and reflects that we’ve had a healthy generation overall. However, that doesn’t mean that 247 million people have consoles. I have a Wii-U, a PlayStation 3 and an X-Box 360. Take Wii/Wii-U out of the equation for the moment and think about it from my perspective; genuinely, as a customer, why on earth does a company expect me to buy two copies of a game? I’m not. No-one is, and this plays into some of Square-Enix’s faltering assumptions that 3.5 million sales in a month for the latest Tomb Raider was considered as “not enough”. By what measure is 3.5 million sales in four weeks not enough? There are still games out there which aim for just a million in a whole year, so to expect more than 3.5 million in a month does beg the question – what does the industry expect?

That much can be discovered when you take a look at the best-selling games of all time.

Let’s face it, the top 15 are dominated by Nintendo titles – and ten of those are DS and Wii titles from this/last generation (delete where applicable on your opinion of the term). It takes until #16 before a third party title jumps up; Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and that’s not a bad place to be. But as you move down the top 100, a pattern emerges and one that perhaps the industry has latched onto; most of these titles are first party, in-house projects or platform exclusives. There are of course exceptions; Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty make appearances, as you’d expect from such huge monolithic industry franchises. But by and large, they are minority additions to the list.

Third-party games are fun and enjoyable and no-one is expecting them to disappear. On the contrary, in some cases I’d like to see titles do better, sell more overall, but the general question has to be asked to these big hardware companies; when your most profitable, biggest-selling titles are obviously from your own developers, is bending over backwards for companies like Square-Enix, EA and Capcom really the right thing to be doing?

nintendowiismall

It’ll take time but Nintendo do own many good reasons to own a Wii-U; when they pull their finger out and give them!

Nintendo certainly knows this pain. They pushed the Wii-U out early; burned bridges with EA after allegedly refusing to allow Origin onto their machine (a quote from a friend; “If I were a cyborg, I’d rather have a brain tumour than Origin put into my memory bank!”), but most importantly, expected third parties to push their games out. As UbiSoft proved with Rayman Legends, if a console isn’t shifting then the term of a machine exclusive from a third party can, and usually is, negotiable. This isn’t to say that third party games can’t sell machines – this week saw a sales spike thanks to Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, which is good but it’s not a long-term fix for Nintendo, a company whose titles are all over the best selling games ever listings. A company which can boast that it shifted 81.14 million units of Wii Sports (It was not always bundled with the console either!). 33.57 million units of Mario Kart Wii. Even New Super Mario Bros. Wii got 26.76 million sales. Nintendo is a company which has something that arguably Sony and Microsoft would do dirty, evil things for; a line-up of intellectual properties, trademarks and franchises that are themselves worth a fortune in their own right. When Nintendo suggested it was allowing third parties to take the lead first, I was sceptical, but optimistic. Unfortunately, the industry showed me that it’s always about the sales units, how much of an install-base the console has. How much of a potential market there is. 4 million + sales in four months is impressive, but that’s not yet a big enough market to demand the attention of the likes of EA to renegotiate any business terms with Nintendo, not when there are about 74 million console owners out there with an X-Box 360 and/pr PS3.

Nintendo franchises are the reason we buy a Nintendo machine; I buy it for Zelda, Pikmin, Metroid – hell, Eternal Darkness. Nintendo has also recently been buying up some franchises to add to its stable as well – Metal Slug, for example, which is a big old favourite. Funding Bayonetta, although they did the same with Project Zero and ended up owning half the property so can’t see that being much different. With a Donkey Kong and a Smash Bros. due for an E3 reveal, it’s not too late for Nintendo to get themselves back in the driving seat; it thought that someone else would drive the vehicle whilst it caught up on some paperwork in the back of the van, but obviously the people it asked simply couldn’t be arsed to turn up and get in. It should fall to Nintendo to drive their own sales – it’s obvious that they’ve got the properties in order to make this a realistic and achievable goal, they just need to stop thinking someone else will sell their machine for them!

And it’s the same for Sony, a company who used to have plenty of charming projects to its name. MediEvil, Primal, Wipeout, PaRappa the Rapper, The Getaway – heck, they own Alundra for heavens sake! Sony’s only notable recent pushings are Gran Turismo, Uncharted and God of War. Perhaps LittleBigPlanet too. Microsoft may not have many to its name but what it does have is Halo and Gears of War, and whatever your opinion of those games as franchises, it’s impossible to imagine that Microsoft isn’t already hard at work on a brand-spanking new Halo title to show off at E3 to flex the new muscles of its upcoming console contender. Even Nintendo are clearly hard at work on several franchises – Mario Kart, a new 3D Mario title, Pikmin and Super Smash Bros. all touted for the years end. Sony’s insistence to rely on third parties to dictate their future hardware strategy may sound very altruistic, but does it really make business sense?

Obviously, third-parties pay licencing fees to get their games onto consoles, so of course in the long-term, it’s nice to have them around you and contributing to your coffers. But they are also fickle beasts, and as Nintendo showed lately, easily distracted, or more focused on their own bottom line. If there’s a reason why the first year of a consoles lifespan is so thin on the ground in terms of games, it’s likely because they’re waiting for a market to magically spring up! Why bother making a market when that’s not their job? Which, in some regards, I think I can sympathise with. For all of this, it’s arguably not the job of Square-Enix to sell the PS4, not the job of Capcom to sell the Wii-U and not the job of anyone to sell the next X-Box. Because arguably all of this is down to the hardware owners themselves; Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and the upcoming Ouya. Much like any attraction in this day and age, you can’t expect shops to just set up in your fairground because it’s new and shiny. If the customer base dwindles or takes a while to take off, then they will pull out. It’s nothing personal, just business. Well, unless you are EA, but most of us would side with Nintendo on that one no?

Mock it all you want, the Wii sold a LOT of games. That much cannot be denied.

Mock it all you want, the Wii sold a LOT of games. That much cannot be denied.

And really, if the machine has a market, it doesn’t – and probably won’t – matter what the machine is like – the Wii proved this without a shadow of a doubt, in spite of “popular opinion”. People are trained to make best use of the hardware they are given, even if it’s a bit of a pig; Saturn games got made, after all! The PlayStation 3, for all its foibles, has managed to come back from the dead and have just as many third-party releases (even if in one or two cases that’s probably not a good thing!). Asking developers what they want is wonderful – but asking anyone what they want is nice. What we need, day to day, changes. What we really want we often can’t have – I want to live in Canada, in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, with huskies and a big log fire and possibly to turn on the radio and hear that Justin Beiber has been arrested for crimes against humanity. Truth is, that’s never going to happen. I don’t have enough money and even if I did, the need for urgent medical attention at times means being in the middle of nowhere is probably not the best place to be. What I want – I can’t have. It’d be great if someone could snap their fingers and I had the money to make those dreams come true; but then, tomorrow that money might look awfully tempting to get a big flatscreen TV and an uber-expensive PC and… yeah, you get the idea. Our dreams are fragile and fickle. We make do with what we have, can get and get given in some cases. What the industry thinks it needs might change soon; with a new HD resolution on the horizon, with more demand for digital downloads and cloud gaming, what the industry wants is changing, and will continue to change. Giving developers what they need – that’s a fine art, because you arguably do still want them to say nice things, whilst at the same time trying not to blow too much cash on little expenses that quickly mount up.

And for all Sony’s bravado of giving developers “what they want”, they have forgotten what they, themselves, as a company need right now; to have a successful console, a decent console, and one which makes them money. Right now, the PS4 isn’t looking like it will make them any money at all, and Sony are definitely a company right now that can ill-afford to loss lead and hope third-parties will pay towards the machines running costs. Sony “hopes” that we’ll all love it. We probably will. But I loved the Dreamcast. It still didn’t end well; Sega were in deep monetary doo-doo on its release, loss-led, sold a bunch of machines but couldn’t make the figures add up to a profit that would keep them alive. The moment Sony look vulnerable and about to sink – third parties will, very likely, abandon ship and flee towards one of the others sailing by, be that Microsoft or Nintendo. Or maybe even the Ouya. If Nintendo’s hope for third party developers to take the strain was dangerous, then Sony’s plan looks downright suicidal in comparison. It will have no margin for error, that much is for sure, unlike Nintendo and the billions it has and is worth, and Microsoft who frankly also have billions to throw about recklessly.

And I’m sure third parties will have much to offer all the consoles – Wii-U, PS4, X-Box, Ouya and PC. They want as many sales as possible, but they must also themselves become more realistic to the changing demands of the world. If 3.5 million sales in a month isn’t enough, that’s not a problem with Sony or Microsoft or even Steam; that’s a personal issue deep inside Square-Enix, either a budgeting error or someone forgot to carry a decimal point somewhere (it happens!). And no, third parties shouldn’t be asked to create a console market; their role is third-party, after all. We like their games; but that isn’t why we buy a console, is it? Otherwise I can just buy it for a machine I have, or my PC. The reason to want a console isn’t because it has all the cool kids; it’s because we want to hang out at a place which someone goes to exclusively. It’s just nicer, and better, and arguably cooler than a place which is trying to attract the masses. That’s just gonna get loud, messy and someone will eventually get hurt as well.

For all the focus Nintendo and Sony have put on them, they also add pressure. And frankly, what I want from Nintendo is a new Zelda. What I want from Sony is a brand new Alundra game.

This is something third parties cannot help them with. What we, as gamers, want. And whilst third-party titles will always be a part of that; without your own identity, you are nothing. Sony have themselves been lax on this front for a while, and they cannot afford to be complacent anymore. It’s time for their old franchises like Crash Bandicoot to come out of retirement. It’s time to give us a reason to want to own the PlayStation 4.

Microsoft will have a reason. It’s called Halo. Nintendo have many reasons, when they finally wake up and get behind the wheel (think taking a baseball bat to the side of their van will wake them up?). Sony now need their killer hook…

I fear Killzone and Diablo 3 aren’t going to do it…

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2 Responses to “How Important Is 3rd Party Support?”

  1. dap005 says:

    To put my opinion concisely: Consles need to be more than a PC clone. Living off multiplatform games is a very dangerous route for consoles to go down. We live in an age where getting a game on a device is extremely easy, the days when people go and buy more then one console or any consoles at all (powerful pcs are getting cheaper, and as the success of steam shows, this is a growing market) will seem even less likely if the big three don't make their machines stand out one way or another.

    • KamiOnGames says:

      Indeed, that's kinda the gist of it. I like third-party games, but their importance for a games console is clearly lesser than the need for strong first-party exclusives that will compel people to buy their machines. Nintendo demonstrated this perfectly with the Wii-U; third parties won't just jump on board because you are new, and interesting, and different. When Wii-U gets more sales, you can put good money that third-party developers will want their games pushed on the hardware. But the best selling games of all time list demonstrates that third-party games aren't strong sellers in the market; at least, not when compared to exclusives and first-party titles.

      It's complicated, and that's the thing Sony fans need to realise for the PlayStation 4; there's no point giving people what they want if they're never going to use it properly. The moment Sony hit the skids (if they hit the skids), it becomes too much of a risk, too great an investment for little return. This is why Sony desperately need games which we look at and go, "I really can't live without that game!"

      That's when we buy consoles. If I can get the same game on a PC, that runs better, can be modified and patched with less effort, I will. It's called "The Path of Least Resistance", and whatever you think of WatchDogs, I'm unlikely to buy it for the PS4 or Durango when I can get it, still very pretty, on the Wii-U. I already own the Wii-U; what would compel me to spend £400+ on a console for this game?

      That's the important question, and it's one third-party developers can't answer…

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