There's an arms race going on. A new cold war on the technological front, and its taking place on the consoles. Except, its not the consoles themselves facing off, its the software companies.
Skyrocketing development costs, increasing development time, marathon hours for programmers, new engines that must be created, hired public relation firms to explain delays in production, movie stars cast as voices, more bloom lighting effects(!), anti-aliasing(!), the necessity to create a surefire hit that will bring in Halo 3 type numbers or be considered a failure, etc. In fact, software companies build their own Tower of Babel, the weight perched above them precariously, and if first month sales numbers don't come back stellar, said software company is as good as bankrupt. It truly is, serious business. All these things are part of the new front in video games.
The arms race was about one-upmanship. The software companies are now in their own arms race. With every new game that gets released, we are not only given just the game to experience, but the software companies themselves join the front lines and proclaim why their game is now the king of the hill. They explain the difficulty in creating a game in high definition on a certain resolution, and how they were successful in merging that with the amount of frames per second, thereby proving that they're the best company.
Another company with perhaps lesser abilities in high definition resolutions will still voice that it is not the rival's company's game that is the best, but their own because they reached out to a famous novelist to write the story, and with that, cast the perfect movie star to portray the main character, blending art, video games, and Hollywood in one. So their game is the best.
And then another company comes out, and so on and so forth. You know where this is going. All the gamesmanship only adds to software companies creating shinier and shinier games. Are the games necessarily going to be better because of the higher budgets that we now demand from games? No, not necessarily, but they are going to be shinier, that much is true.
I'm beginning to see software companies going sideways when it comes to quality. A great game is a great game, but the companies are sticking to a status quo that is given to them by the console makers. They say, "Make a sequel to this game...Make a game that's like this...Make a sequel but give it jetpacks..." All these statements are there to insure that the game sells, because the cost to develop them are so steep, so they take the safest path they can.
So software companies have their hands tied creatively, and are forced to engage in this arms race to make sure that the consoles will support their game through ads and television spots, to insure the hype train picks them up and takes them along.
What can these software companies do?
It's actually quite simple.
The home consoles are a make or break arena. Unless you have the development budget of a Hollywood movie, you are never going to make a game that compete with the bells and whistles of other companies, and even then, it must look shiny, or else potential buyers will write it off as "last gen."
With handhelds, the development costs shrink to two generations or more back. Undeservedly or not, expectations of the quality of the game are also lowered, so this one and done attitude is not present. Heads of the studios no longer feel obligated to hype the game as the greatest game of all time. Computers full of programmers are not spending their time making the game more shiny, more bloomy, more realistic.
The limitations of the handheld become a godsend to game developers. No longer hampered by absolutely needing to maximize the limitless potential of the Cell or the Xbox processor or else risk having gamers call them lazy, these developers can concentrate on story, characters, interesting gameplay elements, and a little thing called fun.
I believe you'll start seeing more and more software companies sending their troops to the handheld levels, because the expectations are so high on the console level, that one has a higher risk of failure with all the rules and restrictions that have to work with. However, on the handheld level, there is potential, a potential for amazing quality through contraction.
[My inspiration for this blog came from playing Peace Walker. As I was playing, I began to think that Kojima Productions purposely put it on the PSP not as a favor to Sony or anything shady like that, but because they learned from their experience making MGS4, and all the time they needed to make that game they realized they could make a game equally as good but in less time by putting it on a handheld. They didn't need to spend all that extra time polishing the corners and making them extra shiny. So I see other big names doing this too in the near future if they haven't started already. I for one, welcome our new handheld overlords.]