12 April 2013

Upcoming Consoles

A friend asked what I think about the upcoming Xbox and PlayStation consoles, with a link to this video. I wrote an absurdly long reply.

Errrrrgh. Why are you doing this to me? You know I have billions of thoughts on the subject. Where to even begin?

I guess I'll start by answering the question posed in the video's title: No. I don't need them. No one does. And to be clearer about my feelings, I don't want them, either, just as I haven't wanted any PlayStation or Xbox system to date. The games which define these systems do not appeal to me. I'm going to try to list every game ever released on an Xbox or a PlayStation - but NOT on a PC or a Nintendo system - that I even kind of like:

PaRappa the Rapper
Deadly Premonition
Double Fine Happy Action Theater

One of those games is 16 years old, the next is distinctly so-bad-it's-good, and the last is a playful mockery of the hardware for which it was released. And I'm not being flip; I just looked through lists of hundreds of games across seven different systems and I came up with three games that I KIND OF like, but haven't actually bothered to even play because my interest level really isn't that strong. I love video games, but I'm not the audience here.

Clearly the Xbox and PlayStation brands appeal to someone, though. In fact, they appeal to millions of someones. So let's change the question to, "If you like Xbox 360 or PS3, should you upgrade when the opportunity arises?" And the answer to that is, "Probably not." Not right away, at least.

I'm a huge Nintendo fan, but I still wouldn't recommend the Wii U to anyone who isn't such a fan that they wouldn't be asking me for advice. At this point, there are a number of good exclusive games available - Nintendo Land, New Super Mario Bros. U, Zombi U, Lego City Undercover - but of those four, I only own the one that came packed in the box with my console. Since getting my Wii U, I've enjoyed playing it, but I've also spent much more time playing Wii, DS, and GameCube games. The Wii U is a great piece of hardware, but there are far more great games available for much cheaper on older systems, and that's what I'm playing.

I'm glad I got my Wii U at launch because I like being a part of that new system zeitgeist, but the actual launch period software has been spotty, which I guarantee will be an issue on the new Xbox and PlayStation (more on that in a moment) and, on a system level, the Wii U is a mess. Turning the thing on a transitioning between system menus takes forever. Games freeze with alarming frequency, and the only way to get things working again is to - I'm serious - physically unplug the power cord and plug it back in again. Everything is tied in to the Internet, but the connection will come and go, and all the online features will suddenly vanish. It's bad.

These are OS problems; not hardware problems. There's a major system update scheduled for release later this month which should mostly alleviate these issues, but it's only coming MONTHS after the Wii U's release, and I promise you that other new consoles won't be any better. It is a product of consoles in the Internet era, overambitious hardware, and the security of the knowledge that shoddy user experiences are now (thanks in no small part to the embarrassingly blundering early years of the Xbox 360 and the PS3) the accepted norm. How many people eagerly kept shoveling their money to Microsoft even after their third Xbox 360 Red Ringed? Consumers have proven their complacency when it comes to getting screwed, and if I'm putting up with this nonsense from Nintendo now, don't think Microsoft and Sony won't match it. And there's plenty of reason to believe it will be much worse.

There's been talk from various (albeit uncredited) inside sources for a very long time now that the new Xbox will require an always-on Internet connection in order to run any games. It's something publishers have been attempting to get away with as an anti-piracy measure on the PC for years, acting though it's a completely harmless practice, but it's caused nothing but problems for players. The days of games that work as intended upon their release are...well, I hesitate to say over, but server problems, patches, basic content being gated behind pay walls are becoming the norm. I could point to dozens of examples of egregious offenders. If you haven't heard about the recent SimCity debacle, check out this article:

Oh, and according to EA, the only problem was that players "were having such a good time." Disgusting.

When asked if the next Xbox would have similar always-online requirements, Microsoft Studios creative director said he didn't understand why that would be a problem, and that anyone complaining should "deal with it." He's since been fired, but make no mistake: He was fired for putting the sentiment bluntly; not for thinking it.

Orth isn't the only person in video games who's lost a job recently. EA CEO John Riccitiello was recently asked to step down. Same for Square-Enix CEO Yoichi Wada. In fact, Square Enix recently blamed poor sales of key games such as Tomb Raider (3.4 million copies sold), Hitman: Absolution (3.6 million; the article below has that number wrong). How completely out of touch do you have to be to sell about 3.5 million copies of a reboot of an old series and still be disappointed that you've fallen so far below expectations? Yet Square Enix was predicting $37 million in profit for the year, and ended up losing $138 million. $138 million!

And entire companies have been shutting down left and right. LucasArts was just closed after more than 30 years of making games, as have loads of lesser known developers, and it may seem as if I'm getting off subject with all this inside baseball, but it matters. Thanks to the incredible (and technologically premature) demands the last round of Xbox and PlayStation consoles put on developers, games have become outrageously expensive to make and market. This means more safe, proven ideas and less risky experimentation. It means more consumer-unfriendly piracy-combating garbage that prevents games from working as intended. It means more obtrusive and expensive in-game purchases. It means a handful of over-produced, cookie-cutter, Call-of-Duty-style retreads released around November/December each year because they seem like the only sound investment to publishers on such expensive hardware, and more tiny, unpolished indie games made by teams of 2-3 people working without pay or health insurance in the hopes that they'll score just enough success to break even on games that present huge personal risks in their development, with little in between.

Which is not to say I'm not hopeful for the future of video games, but the prevailing attitudes in the games industry right now are fear and an almost-willful naïvety. Traditional console game developers are terrified of competition from phones and tablets, and can't afford to take risks. Indie developers have this world-beating optimism that shows an alarming ignorance of the history and the current state of the medium. We go through crashes of various magnitudes every few years. We're right on schedule for another one. This always happens. Anyone who pays attention anticipated it. The trouble is we're not dealing with it well. This isn't going to be holistically industry-stopping in the way that the whole 1982 Atari thing was, but with the amount of energy and money now wrapped up in the business, the effects actually could be much worse.

But there will still be those who survive the shake-up, and there will still be good - better than good! - games.

So turning our attention back to new Xbox and PlayStation 4 specifically, what can we expect? Well, nothing official has been announced about the Xbox, so treat anything you read about it as pure speculation, although Microsoft has a really embarrassing history of being unable to keep anything secret, so no doubt their are a few genuine leaks mixed in with all of the noise.

The PlayStation 4 has kind of been revealed, with specific games and hardware features being announced and even shown to some extent, and Sony is making much smarter choices than I would have expected. Putting Mark Cerny in charge of the system's development was inspired. I think Gakai will have huge issues upfront, just as OnLive has for years, but I think it will ultimately pay out as a good investment for Sony. The simple Share button definitely won't be for everyone, but it's new and aggressive in its way, and it will find its fans. Sony has shown far more pluck in courting indie developers than Nintendo and Microsoft, and I think you can expect to see the fruits of that in their downloadable exclusives in the years to come, although those games won't be major system-sellers, and they'll do little to make use of the power offered by new consoles that isn't already available in current systems, because indies typically lack the resources (and the desire) to take advantage of bleeding-edge technology.

And the big new games look exactly the same as the big current games. Many of the key PS4 titles are being simultaneously released on the PS3.

These are games I, personally, have no interest in playing. For the type of person who excitedly buys the same bland Assassin's Creed game every year, whoopdie-friggin'-doo, now you can buy the same bland Watch Dogs game every year (which looks for all the world like the same game in a new setting, and will still be released for current systems). But the PlayStation 4 has its own version of Kinect now, so yay.

And, of course, with the exception of the first-party series which even fans are beginning to agree have been run into the ground (new installments of God of War and Gears of War came out a few weeks ago - does anyone care?), better versions of PlayStation and Xbox games are usually available on PC. Now, I've mostly stopped buying PC games because I got sick of buying games that don't work, and without investing a lot more in my computer, that's always going to be a problem, but we're increasingly seeing console games that don't work very well, or are missing features, or get patched later, or a whole host of other malarkey.

So here's what I think: Video games are awesome. Enough video games will continue to be awesome to, without a doubt, maintain my interest in the medium. But! We're in for a few rocky years. Unless you're talking to an idiot like me who just has to be there to experience the roller coaster of a console launch firsthand, these system launches are going to be more trouble than they're worth. In time, if you like the games that are out now, you'll find reasons to be excited by the games on new hardware, but don't buy a console on the promise that those games will one day arrive. Enjoy the games that are already available - there are plenty of good, cheap ones available - and consider the purchase once these systems have proven themselves. Because right now, they haven't done that.

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