Since Microsoft kicked off the next-gen talk at E3 2018, I’ve been… rather pessimistic about it all.
That’s not just because 4K is already a thing – the XBox One X and PS4 “Pro” already provide those options, so we can’t just simply suggest that Gen-9 is all about the increased resolution because… why did they bother pushing it as a mid-gen-mid-gen refresh? – or that I can’t realistically see these next-gen consoles being cheap, particularly in an age where we’ve had massive increases in graphics cards costs and significant parts shortages on the whole. I don’t actually think the hardware nor the price will be the worst challenges facing the industry with Gen-9, though they will of course be challenges to overcome.
Rather, the biggest hurdle to overcome will be the continued decline of “Triple-A” publishers, brands and franchises.
It’s easy to forget that this generation third parties like EA, Activision-Blizzard and UbiSoft were considered “The Kingmakers”, the arbiters of which console would come out on top. Many still believe that, despite the fact no matter the support the Wii U and XBox One were doomed largely from the outset for a variety of reasons. Sony was crowned “The King Of Gen-8” not because of anything Sony did right (and people still, even to this day, miss the point of that Sharing Video; Microsoft was going to allow ‘digital sharing’ of games but it was so convoluted and lacking in common sense and logic that the punchline to Sony’s “give the disc” joke was more about simplicity than consumer rights. Why complicate what should be a very simple thing?) but because of everything the competition did wrong.
Then it was up to “The Kingmakers” to flex their stuff and show why they are so important.
With falling sales figures for major brands – FIFA, Call of Duty, Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy, Battlefield and more besides, the industry has spent the best part of five years fanatically and fundamentally undermining their own argument; we’re the people who matter, we’re the people who ‘make’ a console. And yet the Switch has already built itself a very sizeable audience to this point without that backing; Nintendo has been shifting units based largely on its own releases, with Pokémon Let’s Go! nailing the Holiday Season to this point, outselling the PS4 and XBox One combined by a massive margin.
Thing is, this shift has little to do with “quality” and more to do with the business behind the industry. Loot Crates were implemented so quickly and with so little regard for the consequences or implications of such a change that it has led to some damning research results, such as the rampant growth of underage problem gambling in the UK (from 50,000 cases in 2016/2017 to 250,000 in 2018). Season Passes have become rampant, to the point that many have become worthless or resulted in content whose value is staggeringly overstated (the Batman games, Resident Evil 7). And Microtransactions have become somewhat nonsensical to boot – who remembers “Easy Fatalities” in Mortal Kombat X? Because it’s so hard to pause the game, go to the moves menu and read the fatality button prompts from said menu, isn’t it?
Trust and confidence in the industry has been undermined, and there’s never been a more clear disconnect; many big games have wildly different Critic and User Review scores on Metacritic, as companies give reviewers a different experience to the end user. The end result? Call of Duty sales are down 50% on last year. Battlefield V sales were down 63% on the last game, Battlefield I. Fallout 76 sales are down 82% compared to Fallout 4. Even FIFA 19 sales were down 25% on equivalent sales from the previous year. And there are many more examples of games which failed to hit their targets – Resident Evil 7 has reached about 5 million sales, but that’s still way short on Resident Evil 6 and half the anticipated sales figures. Final Fantasy XV hit 7.7 million within two years – despite Square-Enix predicting 10 million within the space of a single year. And Tomb Raider… look, you get the point. It’s not a pretty picture right now.
And these are the brands and companies who’ll be expected to help push Gen-9 hardware; a generation which will probably be the most expensive console generation to date. GPU’s are still rather more costly than they’ve been in the past, not helped by the rise in Cryptocurrency Farming. And most hardware research has been shifting rapidly towards mobile development, hence the reason the Nintendo Switch can exist as it currently does. Let’s not forget also many will also need to shell out for a 4K television to go with their 4K-standard games console, further increasing the current expense of a generational shift.
As for the Switch… well. Nintendo hasn’t to date needed these companies to shift 25 million+ units. And with a 2019 line-up of strong first-party and second-party content, like Animal Crossing, a new-generation Pokémon game, Metroid Prime 4, Shin Megami Tensei 5, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Daemon X Machina and Luigi’s Mansion 3… it looks like that trend is likely to continue. This is, by the way, just the stuff we already know about. Nintendo has a habit of dropping some bombshells throughout the year in its Direct Showcases. The Switch is being driven by strong, exclusive content – and thanks to a barnstorming first year of unimaginable quality, confidence in Nintendo to deliver on these games is at the highest it has been since… well, since the Super Nintendo, back in the early 1990’s.
There’s a reason for saying this; the next-gen shift will, as ever, begin with last-gen sensibilities.
Games take at least two years to make; some take up to five years, and it’s difficult (and expensive) to drop what you’re doing just to push a 4K game. So next-gen releases will be more or less cross-generational; this is the norm, as a few dirty ports will keep the new console users happy for a while. Except, with the Switch having showcased how to push a new console in the first year and growing discontent with the traditional annual or bi-annual franchises… how many will honestly feel comfortable buying into a “next-gen” early? How many will trust that they’re not going to see huge price gouging, or an RRP increase (which happened this generation, by the way) or microtransactions to make up a perceived fiscal shortfall?
Of course, the industry could make concerted efforts to clean up its act before Gen-9 arrives. But that is likely not more than 12-18 months away (I suspect more and more that Microsoft will drop the “Scarlett” late-2019), and when you consider how long it took Nintendo to clean up after the Wii U, or Sony to clean up after the PS3, such a short window when the industry can barely shift fast enough to accommodate the Switch right now seems like fantastical optimism. And then you have to ask; even if they did, can they maintain that facade for long? In a period where sales figures are plummeting off a vertical slope (down past the Dark Souls fanbase scaling that vertical difficulty curve, who look over and think, “Pfft. Noobs.”), can they really survive a next-gen shift where initial sales could be even lower, through a lethal combination of distrust in the industry and perceived consumer expense?
I see people honestly expecting this to be the true wipe-down; and it’s true each hardware iteration is a clean slate, but as anyone who’s seen “Mr. Edwards Is A W***er” on a Blackboard will attest, leave it up there long enough – like, say, an entire eight-week summer holiday, and chances are that message will be extremely hard to get rid of, there’ll always be a slightly ghostly remnant of that message that will require the whole thing be replaced (and no, it wasn’t me. I liked Mr. Edwards, my English teacher. I got on with all my English teachers. Big shock, I know…).
Yes, there’s also far more baggage from Gen-8 that could carry over as well, but again, I’m waiting until Gen-9 proper hits before I tackle most of that stuff.
We exist in a messy time, where gamers are increasingly angry and frustrated and companies are chasing their tails and putting out fires. There’s so much going on and going wrong right now that anyone expecting the industry to have the time, forethought or stroke of genius to consider the coming change and adapt for it is probably used to wishful thinking. The market isn’t in a good place right now; but thinking that will magically change through a next-gen transition is downright dangerous. And any manufacturer who thinks this is going to happen (Sony and Microsoft, I’m looking at you) is probably going to have a VERY rude awakening when the proverbial brown horse matter hits the proverbial spinny ceiling thing. I’m just saying, Gen-9… you’ll probably need an umbrella.
Can all of it be fixed? Sure… I mean, I have to believe that, as weird as it sounds. But it won’t be in time for the Gen-9 push… it’ll probably be more during the Gen-9 mid-gen refresh. Meanwhile, I predict the Switch will become the console of choice whilst the rest of the industry runs around trying to hose everything down. It’s the boring prediction that every analyst is making, but eh. This time I have to say they’re probably right. If only because it’s the most obvious no-brainer of a conclusion to get to.
Still, games industry, tip – febreze everything as well. Clean walls won’t help if the furniture still smells like doo-doo.