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Why next-gen consoles can (and must) save middle-budget gaming

AAA gaming just isn’t working. I’m not sure it can any more. Not as the defacto model for console gaming. The reasons why are written all over the shape of this current generation. We saw the warning signs early on, as a handful of once-prominent developers quickly closed their doors after failed big-budget games. Free Radical, the much-loved British developer of the much-loved TimeSplitters series was one of the first notable casualties, going under after PS3 exclusive Haze failed to impress amid what later transpired to be the tricky, abortive development of a new Star Wars Battlefront game for Lucasarts. Then Mercenaries developer Pandemic rapidly dissolved around the time its new current-gen IP The Saboteur was released. 

And the dead pool only continued to fill with the rapidly tumbling bodies of the fallen. What seemed initially to be a brief but sad period of next-gen teething troubles turned into an epidemic of studio closures that has blighted the face of this entire console generation. 

It hasn’t let up. Just over a week ago we heard that stalwart Danish studio IO Interactive had lost half of its staff and consolidated its efforts solely on the Hitman franchise. After three attempts to make the mostly excellent Dead Space 3 series a commercial hit, Visceral Games seems to have put the increasingly schizophrenic series on hiatus. Square Enix has branded Hitman: AbsolutionTomb Raider and Sleeping Dogs as commercial failures, despite great reviews and sales of 3.6 million, 3.4 million and 1.75 million respectively. That’s an insane testament to the cost of developing and marketing a AAA game now. 

And the signs have been elsewhere too. We’ve seen the death of single-format exclusives. We’ve seen the rapid branching out of megacorp publishers into the cheaper mobile and tablet markets. We’ve seen Activision’s merciless, relentless shotgunning of any internal developer not making a Call of Duty game, however well-received their offerings. Poor Bizarre Creations. Poor, poor Bizarre Creations. I still miss those guys. 

The thing is, big-budget console gaming was only viable as the default approach when the budgets weren’t so big. In fact back in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, there wasn’t really such a thing as a AAA game. There were just games. No-one started drawing a distinction between big games, medium-sized games, small games and indie games until the standard-issue scale of production ballooned so large that not everyone could keep up. And herein lies the issue. Not everyone has to keep up, and nor should they be pressured to do so. In fact, screw the notion of “keeping up”. That phrasing implies a minimum standard that must be adhered to in order to remain legitimate, and things just don’t work that way any more. 

AAA games are almost the aberration when you look at the entire modern gaming landscape. They’re the big, bloated Michael Bay summer spectaculars standing out amongst the multitude of dramas, romantic comedies, art films and thrillers filling out the rest of your local cinema listings. There’s no need for them to be seen as Just The Way You Make A Game. But they have been, for too long. 

This console generation has been utterly binary in the way it has allowed games to exist. XBLA, the PSN and even WiiWare offered up great early hope for smaller developers with great ideas, but in reality file sizes, update limits, promotion issues and rigid pricing structures have limited the download services’ potential as havens for a more eclectic spread of self-published gaming. For much of this generation you were either a small-scale download release or you were on a full-priced disc, thrown out into the wild to fight with the big boys on their terms. 

That has to change next-generation. And I don’t say that in a bolshy “This is what I want, so it has to happen” kind of way. I mean that it really has to change. If it doesn’t, then the next-gen is going to be even less healthy for games and the people who develop them. 

Of course, this ludicrous situation isn’t a problem on the open platform of the PC. The PC long ago dropped the silly, black-and-white restrictions and labels that still cripple console releases. With Steam and services like it having been around for nearly a decade now, in the verdant pastures of the keyboard and mouse, games are just games again. There’s a healthier, richer, and much better supported ecosystem of scale, tone, subject matter, gameplay and budget in PC gaming. But PC gamers don’t support this more eclectic landscape because they’re inherently a smarter, more cultured, more open-minded bunch. They do it because the way they can buy and play allows them to. 

But there’s real hope with the next generation of consoles. Sony has already promised a marketplace with a price range of 99 Cents to $60, and pledged support for indie self-publishing and free-to-play. Some games will come on disc, but all will be online. Crucially, there has been no talk of arbitrary boundaries and distinctions between different types of game. Microsoft’s plans are less clear, but talk of real-money transactions and an openness to free-to-play are definitely heartening, as is the just-announced dropping of patch fees. If things follow through as they should, we could soon have a console landscape similar to that of PC gaming; an organic, fluid space where games of every ambition can find a place, an audience and an appropriate price point, with all available just a click away. 

Imagine if Dead Space had been allowed to be a smaller scale, more niche series, able to stick to its survival horror guns instead of being forced to replace them with bigger and more noisy fire-arms in order to compete in the more mainstream AAA arena. Imagine if Bizarre Creations could have put out Blur online as a pure arcade street racer instead of having it turned into a doomed committee-designed mish-mash, intended to appeal to all but ultimately finding the awkward middle-ground between a rock and a hard place. Imagine if IO’s decent mid-tier kids’ game Mini Ninjas hadn’t had to fight on the same turf as Need for Speed: Shift and Halo 3: ODST upon its release. Imagine if IO’s owner, Square-Enix, hadn’t just branded a 3.6 million selling game a commercial failure and fired half of its developer’s staff. 

Square-Enix cited “the challenges of today’s market” as the reason for the cull. As I see it, those challenges stem largely from that market’s very shape and form, not the demands of its audience. Steam has proved that. Change distribution and you change the way games are perceived. Change the way they're perceived, and the old attitude of "AAA or GTFO" suddenly becomes a non-issue. And it needs to be. 

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24 comments

  • alllifeinfate - September 18, 2013 9:42 p.m.

    Whole-heartedly agree...even though I only play on PC, I know this will affect the whole industry and the quality of the games that will follow.
  • draneri - July 1, 2013 11:15 a.m.

    There is a space other than PC that saved mid-budget gaming and that was handhelds. I'm a mid-core gamer through and through. I don't buy very many AAA gaming titles - Borderlands 2 & Skyrim are all I can think of in the past couple of years - but I buy the hell out of handheld games. Genres that have long been dead on the console and some unavailable in PC gaming (when Steam was not so good) - JRPGs, puzzle games, video game novels (Phoenix Wright, 999), simulation, strategy RPGs, platformers, and experimental genres like puzzle RPGs. Western developers need to embrace handheld gaming much more than they currently do now. The lack of creativity, substance, and time on their part has shown in the handful of handheld games developed - Assassin's Creed, CoD, Uncharted: Golden Abyss for the Vita. When you look at Japanese companies like Level-5, Atlus, and Capcom and how successful they are on the handhelds with Professor Layton, Shin Megami Tensei, and Phoenix Wright, it's hard for me to understand why Western developers have not embraced the handheld platforms more. Save mid-core and mid-budget gaming by going the handheld console route. The Vita NEEDS more games and if devs took that chance with a mid-budget game on the handheld, it might really work out for them especially since there's a gap in the market for it. There's no excuse since the Vita definitely has the power to do it. I can understand that the 3DS requires a bit more creativity and doesn't have the graphical power but there's no excuse with the Vita. The only thing that seems to be deterring them is the lack of reception of the Vita but it's a stupid Catch-22 since no one's going to buy the Vita without good software. As a handheld gamer, it's completely frustrating to see how so much of the industry ignores handheld gaming and continues to combine it with mobile games. They are completely different ecosystems. Prices are $40/game in the handheld market with very few F2P & microtransaction games. The industry needs to open its eyes and realize how fantastic a place the handheld market is.
  • NullG7 - June 30, 2013 3 p.m.

    I definitely agree with your two points that studios shouldn't feel pressured to make games bigger than they need to be and that there should be more pricing options for console games (instead of just $10, $20 and $60) to reflect the investment and value of a game. Though to be fair it is clear that many developers & publishers are integrating new pricing tactics into more games (Free To Play, Microtransactions, Subscriptions, Season Passes, Bundles, Online Passes, Kickstarters and Core Content DLCs just to name a few) in order to get more value out to their investment
  • Aquasol - June 30, 2013 3:36 a.m.

    Unfortunately, as long as the "hardcore" doritos-and-dew smushing crowd demands the best in graphics and dynamic scenes, and as long as the biggest AAA titles make all the fame, glory, and money, "middle budget" gaming will always be doomed. The strength of the Wii U could be to play this up(as it's far cheaper to develop for), but with western devs and publishers as hesitant/lazy/power-focused as they are, the studios that need to the most, are the least likeliest to do so. The biggest selling point of CoD at E3 this year was "fish that swim away when you get near" and "BUMPY ROCKS AND INFINITE POLYGONS IN UR SCOPE". We've reached a new plateau of wasteful spending and bottom-scraping features. Even though development should be a little less expensive this new gen, it won't be, because everyone seems to think the core crowd is focused entirely on graphics, and that's why 9/10 major protagonists this past gen were bald guys(with guns usually). It's fear and paranoia that's driving western publishers, that's causing them to drive the developers even harder, that are in turn pumping out cookie-cutter games that get praise everflowing because every game comes with the same familiarity(multiplayer, waist-high walls, jelly screens, bald marines, brofists, dubstep trailers, New York harbor on fire). Dead Space had multiplayer shoehorned in because so many reviews and so much feedback about the games said the same thing-- "where's the multiplayer?". So what WAS a space-set survival horror game, turned into yet another broham shooter with a story attached to it. Indie games aren't much further off from the same, because as "fresh" as everyone thinks they are, they're inevitably going to fall to the same pressures, assuming many haven't already. Gameplay aside, how many indie games with big pixels, retro throwbacks, "quirky humor", and 2D settings can you name? How many are in the same genre? About how many of that count were publicized by team leaders that looked like hipsters? While the games are often great, it's the same on a smaller scale. Eastern devs aren't exempt, but aside from the ones that fall into the same AAA western trap, or have western devs try their hands at classic formulas, the bulk of them either gain even less notoriety, or just never get published. Or get published but then get buried under news stories about the next quarter-annual FPS game. Or try new ideas with familiar settings that get them dismissed. Or are Falcom, and unfortunately have games with a pantscrapping 3,000,000 text characters that need to be translated...
  • pokepark7 - June 29, 2013 2:49 p.m.

    Yea i still am not impressed by the next generation of gaming consoles
  • Hobogonigal - June 28, 2013 9:39 p.m.

    I agree with you all the way Hoots. Ever since I have started PC gaming this year, I have played a lot more indie/lower-budgeted games than I ever did on console; not just because they are cheaper or more plentiful, but because they are given equal standing among the big names. On the steam home page, both AAA games and low-budget games are easy to see and its a shame that on consoles like my 360, lower-budget games are hidden away out of view in hidden menus. Things need to change because the Squeenix games should definitely not have been seen to be failures, they seriously just need to keep control of their finances!
  • Jet - June 28, 2013 1:58 p.m.

    Finally a GR article I agree with. Cliff bleszinki needs to read this and STFU, then GTFO. Good show old chap
  • death4us - June 28, 2013 12:19 p.m.

    It really doesn't cost them a lot to make these new next gen consoles since they are using existing technology that is not at the top(more to the middle if you compare to PCs). They slapped them together rather fast compared to the past.
  • runner - June 28, 2013 10:04 a.m.

    When you think about it, Nintendo's decision to release the console that have last gen specs is kinda make sense in term of development cost. High spec, cutting edge technology console may seem alluring in the market but the cost for developing games for the console will be too much for the time. That's why we got to a lot off DLCs, lay-offs and whatever moves that they pulled off to makes profit. Even though the lest gen tech is still quite capable if it's in the right hand with the development cost that's much, much more reasonable.
  • BladedFalcon - June 28, 2013 11:07 a.m.

    Yet the problem is that by releasing a console with last gen specs... Just when the last gen consoles are about to be replaced means that aside from Nintendo, no one else will be very interested in making a game for last gen after 2014. And I think creating newer, better tech isn't the issue here. This generation showed us that you CAN create pretty awesome AND beautiful looking games without really spending that much. I'll never stop championing Demon and Dark Souls and shinning examples of that. Both games are gorgeous, huge AND marketed towards a very specific niche, and yet both of them sold pretty damn well for what they were expecting. I mean, 2 millions were considered a HUGE success for Dark souls, which is a much bigger game than Tomb Raider, which was considered a failure at almost 4 millions. So IMO, the problem is not in adopting bigger, better tech, but in better spending money and adjusting expectations properly.
  • Scoob - June 28, 2013 2:33 p.m.

    Your thesis disagreed with runner's point, but your supporting arguments and conclusion backed him up. You pretty much said specs matter because they don't matter.
  • BladedFalcon - June 28, 2013 3 p.m.

    No... I said that you CAN use better specs without having to spend that much money. That's pretty much it. Specs definitely matter, and if used right, they can be used to make great games for cheap. But you need to know how to spend. Never in my whole argument did I ever say that specs didn't matter, So i don't get where you got that weird conclusion.
  • shawksta - June 28, 2013 9:09 a.m.

    Yup, pretty much.
  • Sy87 - June 28, 2013 8:16 a.m.

    It's so sad. I agree about dead space. I would prefer a smaller simpler game instead of the call of dutified that came out. That's what is probably ruining big horror games and why smaller ones are coming out to be more terrifying. I guess it is a problem. I will be fine for a simpler smaller game.
  • Shinn - June 28, 2013 7:40 a.m.

    Brilliant article. As a PC gamer, I'm very interested in the PS4 as a more open platform similar to a gaming PC. Microsoft's current DRM strategy (I'm talking 360, not Xbox One) is simply too restrictive and too convoluted for me to adopt their's as wholeheartedly as I do Steam. Sony's digital distribution has been the closest console rival to Steam, day one downloads, fairer prices and a simple license management system are all steps in the right direction. It seems like Sony is willing to make refinements to PSN with the PS4, so hopefully things will go the way we're all hoping. We've already seen Microsoft's willingness to remain competitive with Sony in action, hopefully we'll see them take Sony's lead on this one. That way I'll be able to play the next set of Halo games without feeling like I've wasted $749 (NZ rrp for the Xbox One).
  • FoxdenRacing - June 28, 2013 7:34 a.m.

    This deserves a standing ovation, Dave. It's amazing how much can change in 4 years; when I started saying this back around the time the US stock market collapsed, I was called every name in the book. But it's no less accurate now as it was then; development prices are exponential, sales growth is linear. The two crossed one another early in the generation, hence the move to almost everything having day-one DLC; it was a way to raise the wholesale price without raising the retail price or getting the retailers to rebel. It's no coincidence that online passes were priced at $10...the price a distributor pays the publisher. It's no surprise the big boys are pushing for DD...not for convenience, not for what it offers the customer, but because the DD platform takes a smaller cut than retailers do. The AAA side of the industry has been getting more and more desperate over the course of this generation...and it's not going to end well unless they rein themselves in. Calling F2P a 'savior' or the only 'way forward' is just another band-aid in a string of band-aids meant to cover up the broken economic fundamentals. At the end of the 8th, the industry is going to be a very different place.
  • mafyooz - June 28, 2013 6:44 a.m.

    Bang on. AAA budget rarely equates to AAA quality, so why should people pay AAA prices? Also, I love The Saboteur, so much better than Mercenaries 2 ended up being :)
  • BladedFalcon - June 28, 2013 6:33 a.m.

    *Clap clap clap * Bravo Hooters! Great way to get to the heart of what's wrong with big budget gaming. And I definitely believe that it's indeed developers and publishers that need to be smarter with spending money, or else they are gonna over-inflate themselves until they burst into a bloody mess... Kinda like THQ already did.
  • Peguin - June 28, 2013 6:31 a.m.

    Great article Dave. It is highly concerning the state of gaming at the moment. Sony and ms need to adapt and fast.
  • Cyberninja - June 28, 2013 6:31 a.m.

    My only question is show much do games cost to make today, I am not saying I am defending Square for their poor decisions but there has to be a good reason 3.6 million isn't a good seller, my only question is is it because it didn't break even or is it because it didn't make a profit?

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