October 28, 2020

New Generation, Old Ideas and Lessons of the Past.

The subject that just keeps on giving (even when you don’t want it to…).

 

With all the new features coming to the Wii-U, PS4 and the new X-Box, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there was a lot of innovation going on.

Perhaps there is. Perhaps they’ll be revealed to be nothing more than interim novelties that won’t survive more than a year or two before developers and the companies who drafted them into their new consoles abandon them in favour of more traditional ideas and execution. Perhaps they really will change how we play games. But you know what? I strongly suspect that these ideas are the industry running before it’s learned to tie its own shoelaces properly. You just get the sensation that someone, at some point, is going to trip up and fall flat on their face. Maybe we’ll even enjoy it when it happens. I don’t know, seems like the sort of thing that gamers are eagerly anticipating.

However, with Yahtzee making it clear he dislikes the Wii-U and that he doesn’t see the need for new consoles, I feel like a sensible rebuttal is in order.

The problem is not new consoles – new consoles were inevitable at this stage of the markets development and I genuinely think, with the cheaper memory and technology that is on offer today, that the next-generation of games consoles is actually on very solid ground. Technically, it is the right time for a change up, a time for new consoles and a time to underline a generation where gimmicks and novelties have been a far more prevalent issue than we’d originally given it credit for. There is a very solid case to be made for a new generation, a very sensible case to be made for it.

Here’s where I divulge my fascination; I don’t think however this really is the time to be “Dicking About” with novelties, or gimmicks, or headline-grabbing ideas and statements that will inevitably blow up in someones face at some point somewhere down the line. I like the Wii-U. I like it a lot. Which is why I also think that the notion of the U-Pad is very premature. I understand the whole train of thought; I even applaud it. But Nintendo were coy and far less eager to capitalise on it. Unlike a Mr. Croshaw, I happen to think first-party Nintendo titles are important. If anything, first-party Nintendo titles are the whole point of a Nintendo console, and third parties are invariably drawn to successful machines like moths to flames. Nintendo has a reputation – but then, doesn’t everyone? Microsoft has made it impossible for the smaller indie developer scene to flourish in the way its rivals have, and Sony have of course got financial and security issues looming over it like a bad case of halitosis.

All three companies have this generation been guilty of some pretty excessive faults;
Nintendo – Witholding payments from developers who can’t meet sales expectations was a cruel concept, as well as a wilful disregard for third-party release dates that conflict with its own titles driving support away.
Sony – They made a right meal of PR from the start. Technically too complex, also had that awful PSN Hack to contend with which arguably should never have been an issue at all had they invested in it properly.
Microsoft – Constantly repositioning its goalposts for all developers, moreso indies. A later emphasis on pushing core gamers has damaged its credibility, and its true first-party successes are limited to Halo.

This is before I even get to the Wii Remote, PS Move and the Kinect. All devices which are, arguably, dying a death in the rush to move on because we’ve realised that none of them are really going to solidify into a true next-generational game-plan. There’s a distinct flavour of needing to underline the excesses and novelty ideas of the past and push us into a bright new era, an era of new ideas. Except, these new ideas are arguably just as novel and rusty as the old ones were, if not in some cases considerably worse.

Nintendo seem to now realise that it needs first-party content. But it’s realised too late, and has little to show us aside re-releases and a couple of HD Remakes. The U-Pad, as great as it us, is also notoriously easy to damage; my screen has already bubbled under considerable use lately and that’s not a great sign in my book for lasting sustainability, meaning that very soon Nintendo could be facing repair costs to replace U-Pads not even a year old because they weren’t constructed with such use in mind. That’s something that I think will hit the fan very soon. Everything else is old games; or rather, familiar franchises. Zelda, Donkey Kong, F-Zero, Mario Kart and more are being swirled around, as well as fan favourites such as Eternal Darkness and Project Zero/Fatal Frame. This is a sensible strategy, and I’ll explain why later.

Sony are going for full-on social integration; except let’s take a moment to look at the gaming community. I get around and I comment regularly in many places but generally speaking, it’s not always the prettiest of landscapes, is it? Now imagine that every time you log into a game. People messaging you. Arguments in real time whilst you tackle a boss. Someone wresting control away from you whilst they watch you play because oh noes, you’re dying on a boss fight a few times (Can you imagine this in a future Dark Souls game? I can. I predict real-world violence as a result!). Recording and sharing and a community always there watching over you. Isn’t this the video gaming equivalent of Big Brother? And the suggestion some might want to play on their own is met with a sense of derision – why would we want to play alone? Umm… if you don’t understand that question Sony, perhaps you shouldn’t be forcing everyone to pretend to smile and like each other, eh?

Microsoft, it seems official now, are going down an always-online route, as well as putting more emphasis on other activities as well as video games. Whether this makes it a games console or not, we have yet to really tell because until it has been unveiled, there’s simply no way to tell what their actual goals are. We only know scraps from developers working on projects. However, the always online is a real sore point right now; with the problems Diablo 3 and SimCity have had, it will take a minor outage to create a real hoo-hah in the gaming world about being unable to play a game. Of course, this was ably demonstrated by Adam Orthy, who seemed to miss the point that it’s not just peoples Internet lines that can be cut with surprise maintenance and thunder storms, but of course their own servers will have to be able to keep up. Any work has to be done when it will inconvenience people least – this means regionally-set servers. And that’s going to cost a boatload of money as well.

All of the above have one thing in common, of course – these are flawed ideas which are going to cost these companies dearly not in reputational terms, but financially too. Sony’s social network is going to need policing. It’s going to need serious security. It’s going to need constant surveillance and maintenance. All of this is going to cost it money – money, incidentally, that it really can’t afford to be throwing around so recklessly at the moment. Microsoft are going to need to invest in serious infrastructure to ensure that there is minimal interference and downtime, and if it needs to do a U-Turn that’s going to cost an absolute fortune. Nintendo has a big question mark over its head in terms of technical reliability – this is always a sore point for a new console, but particularly for Nintendo who aren’t using revolutionary ideas here, and for whom reliability has been a big part of its appeal for almost three decades. If it needs to start replacing U-Pads that are malfunctioning or technically not reliable, then that’s almost $100 per replacement. With almost four million machines on the market, that’s a considerable sum of money to pony up.

Thing is, none of this is necessary.

The industry seems to think that we need new, and we need it now. I love new IP; I am a big fan of new IP, as my love of Dark Souls, Dishonoured, Journey and BioShock indicate. That said, Sony had buckets of old IP to play with; Maximo, MediEvil, Primal and more. Microsoft had plenty to play with too; we’re sorely missing a new Oddworld right now. New IP is fantastic, but not at the expense of just focusing on new IP each generation. They have plenty of amazing material already there; they invest millions into new stories and characters when they’re all sitting on a potential goldmine that they made for themselves. Also, New IP doesn’t need to be expensive – Dishonoured, Dark Souls, Journey and BioShock were all made on realistic budgets and made money. Okay, not Wii Sports money, or Mario Kart money or even Call of Duty money. But they still made a lot of money in their own right.

The same argument can be applied to consoles; all these new fanciful ideas are nice but ultimately superficial. A games console has one primary function; video games. That’s what it has to do. Everything else is garnish, everything else is completely irrelevant to the discussion. If a games console cannot deliver video games, then it’s not a games console. Each company is far too fascinated right now in the garnish, the thing that makes them stand out, the gimmicks. And they all miss the one gimmick that is important, the one thing that above all else will guarantee them sales not only now but well into the future – games people want. This is where I slip Nintendo back in. They obviously know they’ve been burned lately by third-parties. Which is a shame because it was a calculated risk that Nintendo clearly thought was worth taking. But with E3 coming up, there’s talk of a wide range of Wii-U games in the pipeline from Nintendo and its first and second parties. Games people want, asked for, campaigned for and idolised over the years. Nintendo seems to be trying right now to reposition itself back as a games company; which it is. It’s no secret that they have some of the biggest IP in the world. No secret either that people want a new Metroid, a new Zelda, a new Eternal Darkness. Nintendo are trying to get back to the position where its own content can fuel its own sales, which is ultimately a big thing. But it’s a lesson Nintendo should have learned with the 3DS – it went through exactly the same problem. The definition of insanity is repeating the same action expecting a different outcome, right?

That said, Nintendo will still have to deliver on its ideas; there’s nothing worse than ideas that aren’t delivered upon, much like many of the originally promised ideas in Age of Conan. If you can’t deliver them, then the market will simply lose interest that way. It’s a self-made bear trap that they fall into on their own accord, in the quest to deliver these new ideas and concepts they realise that it may be too expensive, or too prone to glitches, issues and legal wrangling. No-where is this more evident on the Wii-U than it’s not-there-in-Europe TVii idea. It took a long time before BBC iPlayer was put onto the X-Box Live service because Microsoft refused to give way that it had to be free to all UK residents. Nintendo are likely having similar issues – Miiverse is free, of course, but it still has to knock out the legalities of licencing and execution before things get moving. And it’s not just the iPlayer – you have 4OD, Demand 5 and the ITV Player as well as new services like PlayTV coming. Nintendo may have wanted all this under one big umbrella – that may indeed have been its nice plan. But channels don’t want to be tied together in this manner, and it’s obviously going to provide Nintendo with a huge headache in the coming weeks and months.

We have heard a lot about the new ideas of these new consoles. Been exposed to the hype. Been told how we should be excited and thrilled they are coming. But I find myself wondering if in the quest to be as new and daring as possible to generate press inches and publicity, that everyone has forgotten that money is finite; some of this generations biggest successes – Terraria, MineCraft, Dark Souls and Deadly Premonition – aren’t built on piles of money, but they do finish on piles of money. It’s an important distinction to make. What you put in doesn’t inherently reflect what comes out. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have all scrambled for new ideas, new ways to captivate us and grab our attention, both good and bad. But ultimately, I’m still looking at one thing; games. This is, of course, a video gaming blog. I thrive on video games. I love video games. And I need more than concepts and blue-sky thinking, I need more than trailers and short demos. If these consoles are to succeed, then all of them will have to deliver a quality range of video games. Many of them will need to be first-party; but this will in turn attract third parties.

Unfortunately, the more features and gimmicks you put in, the more money third-parties will need to spend to make things work properly. At least, that will be the public line. That will be what they want us to believe, to feel sympathy for them as they frittle away more and more money on cheap tat and stupid ideas like sharing videos on the fly, and maintaining servers and services for only so long as a game makes them money. The industry is terribly short-sighted; it on one hand loves this stuff because they get to play with new toys. And yet they find themselves down the road frustrated it costs so much in relation to what it makes back. It’s not healthy. They want the garnish, but find it hard to stomach when the market just doesn’t give back the investment.

Publishers and developers need to go back to the idea of little in, lots out. Similarly, consoles need to in the future realise that all of these concepts and ideas they have will have a small window of opportunity to be anything like a flash of brilliance; and then, nothing. The novelty wears off, we get bored and we look for the games, we eagerly look for new content. If that isn’t provided, then the industry really will have hit a dead end. When the novelty has worn off, it has to have functionality. It has to have games you want to play. If it doesn’t, then all that money and all that publicity and hype counts for nothing. People aren’t stupid – look at the 3DS. Healthy sales happening now in a year when there are plenty of important games coming out for the machine. A sensible promotion from Nintendo – if you’re buying three of it’s big eight games this summer, it will give you one of the others for free. Some good press for the machine at a time when Nintendo needs it, with lower than expected Wii-U sales. People are buying into it because the future looks bright and promising and full of content. Right now, the Wii-U’s future looks pretty devoid of content, because there’s a fog limiting visibility. If people can’t see where things are going, how can you expect them to believe in the journey?

We do need new consoles. Now is the time for new consoles on a hardware level. But it’s also the time to get back to basics and the industry to stop thinking it has attained immortality in the face of destruction. It hasn’t even hit the bumpy road yet. What these new consoles need is old ideas – old fashioned concepts of how to do business, games which people want once more – even perhaps ones that Sony and Nintendo thought would lie in the dusts of time forever more. Stripping back on the layers of make-up and showing us what it really means to wake up with their devices every single day of our lives.

This happened to the Romans before their downfall, of course. As the empire faced collapse, the Colosseum games became more and more extravagant and silly; with miniature ships performing for the crowds amusement on a flooded arena floor, reckless animals being put together in order to eat, attack and brutalise each other, more and more sadistic cruelty to expose the darkness in every man’s heart. The industry is thundering into a crescendo of fantasy; a land of unicorns and fairies and strawberry milkshake rivers and where watching My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic isn’t considered weird or inappropriate for a thirty-something man at all! The industry is doing all of this; yet, underneath, financially it’s all insecure. Technically it’s all a bit of a muchness. It’s also a socio-political powder keg just waiting for a spark.

Unless it gets back to business and strengthens all of this, then like the Roman Empire, there will be many casualties. It’s not like there isn’t a precedent for it – hell, the market even crashed in the mid-80’s! It’s been here before. These things are well-documented enough that we shouldn’t have to remind them of any of this. Except they don’t seem to be paying the slightest bit of attention. They are gone; whisked away on their clouds of dreams and ideas without once checking if the cloud is capable of carrying them all the way to their destination before it chucks down with rain and drops them in it from a spectacularly impressive (but rather gruesome!) height.

Edwin Land said; “It’s not that we need new ideas, we need to stop having old ones.” It’s not true. Old ideas at least give you stability. Without old ideas, new ideas have nothing to stand on, nothing to show how new and exciting they are. Everything is meant to be “new”. New ideas are great. But throwing out good, solid ideas for the sake of “new” isn’t always a great idea either.

Again, most of this generations biggest success stories didn’t start on piles of money – but they finished on piles of money. It’s a lesson that needs to be learned.

Kami

I'm the big cheese here. Comment, subscribe, direct waves of hate at me - all the same. Just hope you've had some partial enjoyment here!

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