Why a Second Crash Would be Good for the Games Industry (Part Three)

Alright, no need for foreplay, at this point: Part One here; Part Two here. Let’s do this.

Reason Three: End the Console Wars, Once and For All
Quick question: how many times, growing up, do you remember arguing over who made the better TV’s, Toshiba or Panasonic?

There was a time when console exclusives were a necessary evil, because they provided a quick and easy way to build brand loyalty –especially in a market that was, at the time, predominantly marketed towards children– and ensure a healthy competition could be fostered between different console manufacturers. Not to mention that a giant portion of games for the original Nintendo were either developed and/or published by Nintendo, themselves, so putting them on an opposing company’s consoles would have been kind of ludicrous.

Nowadays though, with the exception of Nintendo, in-house developers are almost unheard of, and any game that gets a console release practically needs to be released across every platform if it wants any chance of making it’s money back.

This shotgun approach to multi-platform releases, along with the constant sequel-whoring I talked about before, is endemic to a dying industry. The publishers are so desperate to make back their money that they A) won’t take a risk on anything they aren’t certain is guaranteed to sell (see: how Resident Evil 6 became an embarassing mish-mash of everything wrong with modern gaming) or B) will release their game on absolutely every device that can run it. The latter may not sound like a problem, given that console exclusives are now as redundant as a lives system or laws against gay marriage, but the problem with spreading your title as thinly across as many platforms as possible is that the teams responsible for optimising the game to fifty different consoles could be using their time to tweak the gameplay or pack in some additional content to one, unique release.

That last part, by the way, is not an argument in favour of only releasing a game to one console, but entirely the opposite. If consoles were just a universal device for running games on the TV then that would mean studios wouldn’t be forced into dedicating huge patches of development time to tweaking the game and ensuring it ran in a stable condition on everything it gets released for. It would also mean we would be less likely to end up with horrendous ports like the PS3 edition of Bayonetta which was virtually unplayable until they released a patch to let players install the game on the HDD (prior to the update, even pausing the game prompted a loading screen.)

This is yet another benefit held by PC gaming, as the only pre-requisite to play a game is that your rig is powerful enough to run it (well, that and crossing your fingers that the latest incarnation of Windows doesn’t shit the bed and refuse to do anything for no reason). You’d never get a game that can only run on Dell PC’s, so why should a developer be forced to hitch their wagon only to either Sony or Microsoft? Because money, is generally the answer. Both Rareware and Bungie were acquired by Microsoft and as a result only saw their games released on Xbox consoles, and occasionally PC in the case of Halo.

But this is a tired old practice from the days when a mascot could still sell a console and fights would still break out in the playground over Mario versus Sonic; nowadays it makes no sense because there is absolutely nothing unique about either Sony or Microsoft’s consoles, in terms of their target demographics or their output. Whereas Sega were always generally about style over substance and characters dripping with rad 90’s attitude, Nintendo saw fit to maintain their family friendly image, right down to colouring all the blood green in Mortal Kombat so as not to offend the doting mothers who apparently didn’t mind as much that all that green blood was squirting out of a freshly excavated spine stump.

Fast-forward twenty years, and literally the only reason I favour the Playstation over the Xbox is because the controller feels better in my hands. I do prefer the exclusive games that are available for the console, but I would never have bought it just for that reason, and if I could plug my PS3 controller into my 360 then maybe I’d turn it on more than once a year to play Shadow Complex. As it stands the 360 in my house just sits there, gathering dust because outside of the five or six exclusive titles I own for it, I have no other use for it.

My real point with this post isn’t just to denounce console exclusives, but the completely outdated concept of exclusive consoles. Imagine if, instead of having to pledge allegiance to the flag of Playstation or Xbox, you could just go out and buy a games console that would play any game, just like you would with a DVD player. An attempt has already been made to do this with the release of the Ouya and, even though it has received middling to piss-poor reviews, the spirit of such an endeavour is definitely something I can support.

Gaming should always be about the games and never the hardware that runs them. The playground fights about Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario were always about whose game was more fun to play, not about how much RAM it took to run them, but as the Xbone reveal made abundantly clear, console manufacturers now seem to think a console should be sold on the merit of everything you can do with it that isn’t playing video games, whether it’s watching television or using Skype or Facebook to let friends know you’re a moron with more money than common sense. Again, all of this is the result of pathetic bandwagon chasing, this time with Microsoft and Sony jealously eyeing up the Android/iPhone market.

The point they’ve completely failed to grasp is that the reason Android devices and iPhones market themselves as an all-in-one media device is because they are designed to be used on the go. I have a finite number of pockets and an extremely paranoid brain, so the less things I have to carry/check are still there every five minutes, the better. When I am sitting on the couch, playing my PS3, though, I don’t give a shit. I can easily keep my laptop at my side to watch stuff on Youtube, or my phone in my pocket to ignore people trying to spend time with me.

I don’t need to have it integrated into my console to constantly interrupt me when I’m playing video games, and I don’t need any of the other countless features Microsoft proudly touted, because I already own devices that can do them better, and I have done for years.

Don’t get me wrong, one day I would like to own a dedicated device that could do all the things I use my television for, but at the moment all of this is coming at the expense of the games themselves and, with both Microsoft and Sony deigning fit to pay little more than lip service to the games they were going to be offering on their new consoles at their respective E3 events, they have made it abundantly clear that they stopped caring about the games a long time ago.

This is the heart of the problem with console exclusivity: because we can only play Xbox games on an Xbox and Playstation games on a Playstation, we are at the mercy of whatever insane bullshit Sony or Microsoft throw at us. If the consumer had alternative options, then Microsoft would never have tried even half of the anti-consumer DRM bullshit that they did with the Xbone reveal, and it’s only by the grace of god that for once people actually fought back and they changed their position.

But here’s the thing: once they have an installed user base, once everyone has bought an Xbone, there would be absolutely nothing to stop them rolling out the patch that bricks your console if you don’t check in online every 24 hours; nothing to stop them patching your console to not run used games. Because, bear in mind, there was no hardware recall to roll back on all the horrible things Microsoft tried to force on it’s users: they just changed some code and put it to sleep, for the time being.

If it happened tomorrow, if you suddenly found your console didn’t work because you, like millions of other people in the world, can’t get a stable internet connection; if you found out half of your games didn’t work anymore because you bought them second-hand, what would you do? Sell your console? Fair enough, but Microsoft already got your money, they don’t care. And now you can’t sell your games anymore because they’re all useless, unless packaged with the console you’re also selling, that’s assuming that stores would even entertain the risk of letting you trade in devices and software so fiercely opposed to the spirit of used goods.

My point is, if Toshiba announced tomorrow that they were placing a lock on all their new DVD players that meant you could only watch two hours of DVD content before the player locked up, unless you were willing to pay for the premium subscription viewing package, do you think anyone would give a shit? Would they bollocks, they’d just go and buy a different DVD player.

This is the luxury that almost every other market has, and it’s a peculiar strangelhold that is unique only to the games industry. If you don’t like how Apple do business, get an Android phone. If you don’t like how Nike exploits third-world labour, by from an ethical clothing brand. But if you don’t like how your Sony Playstation plays your Playstation games? Sorry, you’re shit out of luck.

Console exclusive games are just a tiny part of the much bigger problem that could be eradicated with the extinction of exclusive consoles, which currently make true console market competition an illusion. If the barriers to trade were broken down and several other manufacturers were allowed into the market –including ones that could make a budget range of consoles for people who didn’t have a months rent to throw away on a hobby– then it would mean an end to this frankly embarrassing tech-dick measuring contest, the chance to expand the market and increase software sales and, just maybe, a return to what gaming is supposed to be all about…

Okay, that’s it for today. Final part coming tomorrow, and gold star for you if you’ve even made it this far.

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One Response to Why a Second Crash Would be Good for the Games Industry (Part Three)

  1. Pingback: Why a Second Crash Would be Good for the Games Industry (Part Four) | Still R.O.B.

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