Posted August 3rd 2012 by Jordan Mammo.
Last week, Ubisoft co-founder and CEO Yves Guillemot declared that a new generation of consoles was overdue. "What we missed was a new console every five years," he said. "We have been penalized by the lack of new consoles on the market... it's important for the entire industry to have new consoles because it helps creativity."
Guillemot went on to say that, "If you can't take risks because people don't buy, you don't innovate. And if you don't innovate, customers get bored."
The month before, Square Enix's worldwide technology director Julien Merceron chided Sony and Microsoft for letting the current console generation go on as long as it has, saying "It's the biggest mistake they've ever made."
The biggest mistake... ever? By both Sony and Microsoft? The current generation has, so far, lasted a year or so longer than the previous one. How could that have possibly screwed things up to such a degree?
Merceron explained, "You have a lot of developers that work on a new platform, and perhaps will not succeed, so they will wait for the next generation, and will jump on that platform. You could not do that with this generation though. So these developers went elsewhere to see if the grass was greener. They found web browsers, they found iOS, they found other things and a lot of them won't come back to the hardware platforms."
To be fair, there are definitely signs that people have become indifferent to what's happening on current systems. Hardware sales for all major platforms have slowed and, as the Gamasutra article linked above reports, game sales themselves have dropped for the last seven months as well. On top of this, the new Android-based Ouya console shattered its Kickstarter goal of $950,000 by raking in more than $6 million dollars from people interested in seeing what new hardware can do.
New console launches also offer developers a clean slate with which to bring original creations to the table, despite the fact that the installed base for impending hardware is tiny compared to those of already established systems. These new efforts benefit from the lack of competition with entrenched, heavy-hitting franchises, increasing the odds that they will break through and find success.
Considering how devastating this generation has been to numerous developers and publishers, though, one would think they'd be a little more wary about leaping headfirst into the next one. More complicated hardware. Even bigger budgets. A still-stagnant global economy. It's already the case that every few weeks a publisher lays off staff or a developer shuts its doors. The small launch window cracked open by the sale of new consoles can't be the only thing necessary for developers to try out new ideas.
The mainstream console experience has become rather homogenized over the last generation; there is less variety, and it can't simply be pinned on an overlong lifecycle because it's been this way for years now. Certainly, platforms like iOS and Android, as well as independent developers, have benefited from the malaise. The fact that they're so convenient to use and easily accessible helped them surge in popularity, and it would be silly to think a new round of consoles will carry developers back to familiar territory.
More troubling is that Guillemot and Merceron's comments resign videogames to being held hostage to the acceleration of growth in technology rather than the creativity of designers. They are indirectly commenting on a core question that's been difficult for the industry to discuss candidly, especially due to the consistent release of new peripherals and add-ons: Is the promise of videogames based more in novelty or in the designers' depth of imagination?
There's no question that innovation in hardware has the potential to spur creativity on the software front, but perhaps companies are also misdiagnosing some of their problems.
In this Wall Street Journal video, Kill Screen's Jamin Warren recommends some games to the WSJ's Simon Constable. After describing the mystery game Datura, Constable says, "And that one is 5-10 hours of playtime. That's a really – a heck of a lot of time." Most people who dive headfirst into videogames would scoff at his comment, recalling the once widely-held belief that you can't truly decide if a title is good until 15-20 hours in.
Well, that belief is and was ridiculous; we just had way more time to kill a few years ago. Many console videogames are bloated and filled with unnecessary techniques used to artificially extend gameplay and pad the number of hours players invest. Meanwhile, the booming mobile platform isn't home to nearly the amount of excesses seen in the console business. Games are shorter and more varied. Their gameplay elements are more focused. Their whole experience is leaner and fit for more efficient consumption in a hectic and ever-changing world. And they're cheaper.
Maybe it's time for console developers to learn a lesson or two from little brother here. Don't toss out the bombast and great production values that big blockbusters are known for, but start cutting the fat. Many console titles would benefit from becoming more focused, direct, and cheaper. That, in turn, could make the investment in new ideas less risky. New systems can generate interest, but people are also less willing to deposit the amount of time and money needed to complete these kinds of games when so many others are already offering virtually the same experience.
Guillemot and Merceron are complaining that the current console cycle can't sustain the burdensome development practices they've nurtured for the last two decades. Instead, the question should be focused on changing those practices for the better, on making creativity less of a risk.
The gaming landscape is changing. There will always be room for budget-busting, life-consuming videogames. But for everyone to keep driving down the same road after it's already been torn up? Now that would be a mistake.
This was an excellent, excellent article, and nicely puts what I've been saying for almost this entire generation. Games are too expensive, so publishers are, understandably, taking fewer risks. What we've seen because of that are AAA games that, while polished, feel like they've been churned out of a factory as opposed to being crafted by artists. How many Battlefield games do we need? Call of Duty? Halo? All these generic feeling shooters that are at best marginal improvements on their predecessors, but keep selling anyway. Nintendo tried something interesting this generation, and is trying something interesting again next generation. The experiment has been, so far, very profitable for them, but the quality of their games has suffered severely as well. The company hasn't put out a truly inventive and maddeningly fun game in ages, instead relying on wacky gimmicks to sell their games. I don't think it will last into the next generation. The established video game industry is simultaneously too big and too young, and it's starting to collapse on itself. Like the music industry, publishers need to evolve, or they will die.
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