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Ubisoft has knowingly, blatantly and whole-heartedly betrayed its fans. Or so I've been told. Ever since Assassin's Creed Unity was announced as a new-gen exclusive back in March, there's been a grumbling from cyberspace that Ubisoft is leaving behind fans who don't own a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. This is a condensed version of a well-known Internet argument: "Game devs are idiots for making games exclusive to a system I don't own." Though the folks at Ubisoft took the leap regardless, many developers like to hedge their bets, turning to cross-generation development as a response. It's safe, it's profitable… and it's kneecapping industry advancement. If gamers really want to experience next-gen quality and avoid stewing in stagnant last-gen waters, it's time to cut cross-gen releases loose.
Of course, making games for multiple console generations is smart during a launch window. In the frightening no man's land that surrounds a system’s birth, cross-gen releases are a boon, letting early adopters see what their new toy can do without leaving the established fanbase in the dust. The setup is equally attractive to developers, since it gives them the freedom to build for new consoles without sacrificing last-gen profits. However, if that goes on too long and games keep coming out for both old and new systems, gamers won't feel the need to invest in an expensive upgrade--if all the games they would upgrade for are coming out for a system they already own, why bother?
That leaves devs in the awkward position of developing the same game twice, taking up resources that could otherwise be used to make one better game. This is the exact reason that The Witcher 3 won't be coming to last-gen consoles when it releases next February, according to CD Projekt CEO Marcin Iwinski. "We’d have to put a couple of years of development into [360 and PS3 versions], and then the experience would be so-so… we’d never do that," Iwinski noted in an interview with Edge. Ubisoft was gentler about its own new-gen exclusive efforts, saying that AC Unity takes full advantage of the PS4 and Xbox One’s updated tech. However, such a statement underscores that Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag didn't do that, certainly due in part to resource division. Consider the following: Black Flag had an 8-studio development team that divided its attention between six consoles. Unity has a 10-studio team focused on three. In no way does that math work out in cross-gen's favor.
Nevermind that continuing to develop around old tech hamstrings a game at the gate, stopping it from reaching its full potential. One of the biggest complaints about the eighth console generation so far is that few early releases look or play better than they do on last gen. Watch Dogs, for instance, was specifically criticized over the lack of real difference between its new-gen and last-gen versions. That is problematic, since it was billed as the "definitive next-gen experience". Even if it's being done for marketing purposes, you can't say that a game is a true showing of what new and old consoles can do without raising eyebrows. If I'm going to invest several hundred dollars in a new system, I don't want those things to be said anywhere near each other, let alone in the same breath.
This extended reliance on cross-gen releases creates a big negative feedback loop that hurts games overall. When a game is developed for both generations with few changes in between, players see little reason to purchase a new system. Then developers keep making cross-gen games to please their last-gen-anchored audience, and the cycle continues far longer than it should. As a result, the games that are coming out now aren't moving the medium forward, because they're not using the available technology to its fullest. "The Witcher 3 is so large… and everything that we wanted to put inside it, there’s just no way that it would run on current-gen," noted Iwinski, and he’s not alone in saying so. Unity Creative Director Alex Amancio made the same point to International Business Times last month. "This is the biggest city we’ve ever created. If you were to take all of the land mass of ‘Black Flag’ and clump it together, it would still be smaller than the city of Paris." With Black Flag already pushing the Xbox 360's 6.8GB disc capacity at 6.4GB, something as big as Unity's promising to be couldn't be crammed in there--and that leads to a serious loss of content. "The game we wanted to make was impossible to make on last-gen," says Amancio. "Just the crowds--if the crowd was just aesthetic, you can have an old game with fewer people, but the crowd is a gameplay element. If you remove that, you change the experience."
It is, of course, no fun when a new console comes out that you can't afford. You know what that's like, I know what that's like, and it sucks. (I paid for a used Playstation 2 in my youth by depositing 5¢ soda cans at the grocery store, and do you know how many cans that is???) This also isn't a call to end development for last-gen entirely, especially for smaller games that can fit older console disc capacities without much squishing. (AC Rogue anyone?) What I am saying is that demanding cross-gen development for all releases is counter-productive, because it stunts efforts to do something more ambitious. The industry needs room to grow and build on what it's already done, but that can't happen if we force compatibility with old-gen technology.
By all means keep playing your old systems (mine aren't going into storage any time soon) and enjoy the extensive list of releases still planned for them. But as your Bloodbornes, and your Battlefronts, and your Quantum Breaks start the shift to new-gen exclusivity, know that it's for the best. If you love games, set them free--and maybe one day you'll be able to pick up Destiny 5 for the Oculus Rift 4.7 installed in your living room. And it will be AMAZING.
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