SFTW: Waiting for Chickens to Hatch…

On the X-Box and PS4 Rumourmill…

It’s easy to be suckered into the horror stories of late.

Like Adam Orthy, who didn’t do the best of jobs deflecting rumours that the upcoming X-Box will require always online, in the manner that after five minutes without an Internet connection the system will sneer at you and go, “Heyho, what have we here? Why can’t we see you online and what are you hiding?” This is compounded somewhat by more rumours that have been handled with the competency of Eddie the Eagle at the Winter Olympics; that it won’t be close to as powerful as the PS4, and that the design ethos has distracted itself from a games console to a sort of media hub which wants movies of its own and exclusive TV shows like a rebooted Heroes.

Sony haven’t had better luck; not least a scathing poetic breakdown by Ben “Yahtzee” Crowshaw this week, as well as criticisms of its focus on social media and trying to be social for the sake of being social, at the expense that every game being made will require it shoehorn in these features somewhere. And of course, there’s that little thing that Sony have already got plans to re-release PS3 games you already own on a digital storefront for more money than you’d like.

Nintendo is hardly better. Aside a healthy Nintendo 3DS lineup, the Wii-U still looks more bare than a female dancer-come-showgirl in a Mardi Gras Parade. Rumblings still go on about the relationship between EA and Nintendo having gone extremely sour, and that Nintendo themselves are demanding better third-party games after a disastrous few months where it has indeed had a fair few third-party games; but they’ve been so poorly done that it has undermined confidence in the machine so early in its lifespan.

There are lots of horror stories. But, here’s the thing – take them with a pinch of salt.

If Microsoft want to go down the Media Hub route, let them. The focus then shifts back to Sony and Nintendo and perhaps the Ouya as well. It’s no tremendous loss; they’ll still give you the things they have, like Kinect titles and Halo, but they want it to do more things. If it works, hooray! If it doesn’t, then I can think of few companies with the money and the capabilities to do the most resounding and breathtaking U-Turn in the history of the industry. Sometimes we have to let companies make their own mistakes – even if we can see the problems a mile off, there are times when we simply need to just let them burn their fingers. It takes that to get the message through, because to Microsoft all this complaining of always-online being a bad idea just sounds to their current ears like a bunch of whiny game pirates who might be forced to do things their way. Let Microsoft make their mistake. It’s necessary. They’ll become a better company for it.

The same goes with Sony. They don’t have a lot of money, so it’s a precarious situation for them, but really – if it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work. If the social media integration and constant attention and the whole rude idea of hijacking somebody’s game because they’re not going fast enough doesn’t fly then really, they’ll find it out the hard way. Again, we can bitterly complain all we want but Sony don’t care. They will insist their market research was sound, that developers wanted this, that we’ll come to live with it and understand it in time. It’s when these things don’t get used, when developers go elsewhere because they can’t stand the idea of being forced to use social integration, it’s when the games dry up and Sony look around to find its money bleeding from multiple poor design and firmware choices that they’ll adapt or die. They need to be allowed to make that mistake if they so choose to. They’re set on it. We can but hope Sony survive.

And yes, we can apply this to Nintendo. Okay, third-party ports to the Wii-U have, frankly, been utterly horrendous. It’s not much of a secret that Nintendo relied on them and they largely screwed Nintendo on much of it. But that’s a lesson Nintendo can learn from; it would be a shame for it to return to its bad old days where it dictated release dates around its own content and had some pretty unreasonable demands of its own for some projects, but there’s a middle ground between that and not expecting them to make any effort at all! Nintendo games will likely sell the Wii-U; it’s always the case. And if in the future Nintendo do pretty damned well, then EA will have to decide if it can support the Wii-U after all. Nintendo obviously do not want Origin; that much was clear, but if Nintendo get to grips with it and push its own games and sell machines, is it really wise for EA – a company losing money as well – to ignore such a machine?

I sometimes – well, quite often – point out the faults. But at the same time, I do think there’s a validity in the phrase, “Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched”. Right now, we’re in the very early stages of the next-gen of games consoles; the Wii-U is already struggling to get a foothold and Sony and Microsoft are having a bit of a war of words and not at each other, which is sad but to be expected of companies who feel we owe them something. This current gen is coming on eight years old. Things have changed so much and so dramatically over the years that it’s impossible to know what will happen a year or two down the line from here. The nature of the industry is unpredictable. It’s a very human industry, people make mistakes and one man’s great idea is another’s idea of hell. Companies often have to readjust their business positions because of losses, or because something is doing better than them. They have to adapt, or be rendered obsolete. Sometimes a company deludes themselves into thinking a market wants something that it really doesn’t and spends a lot trying to convince them – only to fail, and skulk off and lick its wounds whilst trying to work out what it did wrong.

Lots of people are already in the “Oh, I won’t buy a Wii-U/X-Box/PlayStation 4/Ouya because…”, and then they make arguments that aren’t always grounded in factual data. And it’s fine to be sceptical – I’ve in the past said we should be sceptical of a next-generation and ask what it can do for us, not what it can give us. But we need to be careful that we’re not buying into a media frenzy which already seems to be expecting a massive industry crash in the next couple of years, one comparative to the horrendous crash of the market in the mid-80’s that gave rise to the NES and Master System. Companies make mistakes – Square-Enix need to learn, along with Capcom and others, that you can’t expect a game to sell enough to cover its costs and just slide that figure to adjust for inflating costs. Good business doesn’t work that way. Dark Souls made money – very quickly, in fact, by having a tight budget and knowing its target audience. Call of Duty recycles assets and engines, it’s true, but whilst it won’t win any awards – it makes boat-loads of money by reusing what it has, whilst EA spend millions upon millions trying to out-engineer its rivals FPS behemoth. Good business works. Bad business doesn’t.

And what if they don’t learn? Well, that’s one of those things isn’t it. We have to let them go. Holding on when they’re clearly not profitable or doing good business is more damaging than anything else. We cling on for dear life and we can’t let go. But you know, death is a part of life. You can’t have one without the other. For an industry to grow and thrive, some current publishers and maybe even a console will have to die out to give space for the others to grow. The market is cluttering itself up and there are some astoundingly resilient plants that shine through, but we may have to let some die off or cut some back before we add any more to an already overcrowded garden.

But it’s a future. Unlike a certain market analyst, I make no secret that the industry which I love is completely unpredictable and making any bets at this point is frankly wasted money. I don’t know who will “win” the next-gen wars. I don’t know which games will be the best of the generation. I don’t know which companies are going to thrive and which ones are unfortunately going to find themselves being consumed by others in a weird cannibalistic way.

Instead, here’s what I do know; we’re going to be shocked, appalled, disgusted and angered beyond measure. We’re also going to be surprised, delighted, rewarded and comforted in ways we never thought possible. Companies will rise, companies will fall. Series will die off to be replaced with new names and ambitious hopefuls. Some genres will be milked to death and others will be tenderly nurtured to new heights. The one thing I can predict is that it will be unpredictable – and we’ll all be taken for a hell of a ride, as usual sometimes we’ll want to get off but it’s all part of the charm.

Anyone predicting failures might be speaking too soon. There’s plenty of time for Nintendo to get the Wii-U back on track. More time for Microsoft and Sony, who haven’t even unveiled their actual machines yet – just given us lots of teasing clues and ideas and concepts to see how we react (if they even care, that is). Plenty of time for companies like Square-Enix to get their finances back in order, and for companies like EA and Capcom to realise wanting control isn’t always the best thing in the world, because then you are ultimately responsible for every little thing that goes wrong. Bad things will probably happen. But I don’t know what those bad things are. Sorry. My crystal ball is at the cleaners at the moment…

We all want these choices made for us. But they won’t be. The eggs are still being incubated and one or two chicks have already hatched – they’re the ones who were desperate to get out of those shells and into the warmth of the sunlamp. But that’s no guarantee they will survive the next few days to see its brothers and sisters either. It’s only when we’ve got them all hatched and grown a little that we can take stock of the situation and know what we have, and what we can take forward with us. That, in game industry terms, tends to be when a generation is winding down. By which time we’ve got another batch of eggs in the incubator, waiting to break into the world and be better than their predecessors.

It’s going to be fun to see what happens though, and as long as you can accept that you’re never quite sure what comes next, then there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had in the manic ups and downs of a market both desperate to appeal to its customers and yet desperately mistrusting of them as well. Nothing is set in stone, the future is not yet written. We’ll have new ideas, and old hands come back to remind us of how things used to be done. We’ll have familiar faces and ones which we’ll never want to see ever again. Most of all though, there’s no doubt we’ll have some cracking games… and some proper stinkers as well. I am kind of looking forward to the release of the next-gen consoles if only because then you can do a best and worst games of the generation. And that, for me, will be fun.

So patience. And don’t believe every rumour you hear. Sometimes it really is the cheeping of a new life waiting to burst forth into the world. And sometimes, it will die before the shell cracks.

That’s life. It’s cruel. But it’s just how it works, and accepting that is to accept the market will have a life of its own in the next few years.

So let’s just celebrate that for the weekend. And forget all the nasty rumours, eh?

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