E for effort: The Blockbuster game

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Four years have passed since the start of the current generation of consoles and with time the predictions made by industry analysts, journalists and experts based on old obsolete beliefs have been disproved time and time again. The DS and Wii are still alive and kicking, DLC turned out to be a success, the PS3 has yet to fully take off, core games have not been killed or displaced by casual games and digital sales on consoles are a triumph … on small indie-like games at least.

It’s this very last point that is the most interesting out of all the changes the industry has seen in this gen, the success of the little guy that without bloated budgets or hundreds of people still manage to offer games that overshadow their high cost counterparts. 

Their victory is not the result of a demonic pact or passing fad, it’s something that has been prevalent on every critically and commercially successful game (with some exceptions) in history: passion, dedication, the through exploitation of a single brilliant idea, quality and proper execution, which ironically, is something that save for a few big studios seems to have been gradually lost in favor of shinier coats of graphics paint. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that big budget games have traded style for substance. What I’m saying is that the true big budget victors have the aforementioned qualities present at their core along with their cool looks, I’m talking about those games that didn’t conform to the norm, that took a step further out of conventions and that are rightfully deserving of success because of that.

Why include a deep story in a FPS, that is rarely appreciated, right?

At the beginning of the current gen when gamers were in awe of the graphical wonders that the Xbox 360 and PS3 could create, analysts grabbed their heads in horror watching how much development costs would have to rise in order to achieve such interactive miracles, but their predictions were largely ignored … until now. The closing of several studios, the botched offerings of others and criticism about repetitiveness and lack of inspiration attached to slightly above average review tells that reliance on technical prowess instead of gameplay has become far too prevalent on the industry to be ignored by devs and those that have chosen do it anyways, have met their doom.

The advent of digital distribution and publishing methods like PSN, XBLA, WiiWare, Steam and the Internet itself has brought with them publishing options that make viable what before represented a rather titanic task for small studios (some even composed of a single person.) What has passed by relatively unnoticed to most people is how this has affected the usual game release cycle in consoles. Gamers are no longer limited to long periods of tedious waiting between major “blockbuster” AAA releases (especially when the long wait and expectation is met with an outright flop.) Small rising developers have found a way not only to survive and coexist with the big guys, but they do it in a way that patches the flaw in the old system that could condemn a console to oblivion — the game droughts.

From now on we get 3 or 4 Braid like diamonds in between each regular God of War like release? Count me in.

Why is the difference between the PS3 and Wii so notable? I know, first party titles, but that’s only part of the equation. What I’m getting at is why has the Wii suddenly had a resurgence of core titles this year? After all at first the Wii also had few third party games that “cores” could look forward to (and some were downright terrible; looking at you Red Steel) and make the Wii an appealing console beyond the initial marketing hype of motion controls that died quickly. How could the Wii survive four years with few in between gems and reach this point where it’s still relevant enough for devs to release a large wave of core games? Had this very same situation happened on any other console in history, big devs would have flocked en masse to the competition and never would have looked back.

So what was different this time around? Yes, “casual” games and shovelware but that’s not a valid answer for cores. Virtual Console and Wiiware is the answer. The “Davids” that without much resources but burning with creativity and passion could hold the cores attention between the few successful (and quite a bunch of failed) “Goliaths”, like World of Goo, Nyx Quest, Mega Man 9, Lost Winds, Swords & Soldiers and the plethora of old classics periodically released in small amounts in the VC that appealed to nostalgia in the hardcore audience.

The PS3 was designed as a heaven for blockbuster game developers. Problem is, the blockbuster as we have known it has lost its status of system seller/savior long before this gen. For example, Wind Waker, Eternal Darkness and Metroid Prime are games widely praised and recognized by critics and gamers alike, yet they didn’t save the GameCube. Could Twilight Princess have saved it? I doubt it. Ocarina of Time didn’t save the N64, right? That game even shows consistently on “top games of all time” lists to this day.

The problem with the blockbuster is it’s inherent fatal flaw. Its the very same flaw that affects games based on a license but that affects blockbuster games in an reversed way: development time. Where in license based games the short development time affects them reducing quality, the blockbuster requires a long development time to ensure excellence. That’s precisely what has made the big budget blockbusters games lose much of it’s past relevance in the latest generations. They require such large amount of time and resources in order to reach the standard gamers expect that it in some cases almost ties the fate of developer to it’s success.

Would it have been better with more time? We’ll never know.

A console based solely on blockbusters is not sustainable from the economic point of view. Meanwhile, a console solely based on casual or indie type games would have a hard time reaching a market where the difference is set by AAA titles. To put things into simple terms, from now on the new paradigm must consist of reaching a balance or rather and harmonious coexistence between these two polar opposites to achieve victory but more than that, to maintain it through time.

The Wii (and DS before it) is a perfect example of this new standard. It still would have sold a lot with just casual games like Wii Fit or Wii Sports Resort, but without the presence of heavy weight fighters like Mario Galaxy and Mario Kart, the Wii would have lost momentum quite a while ago as everyone initially predicted. In the opposite side of the spectrum, Microsoft and Sony have been forced to release motion control offerings of their own in order to bring balance to their consoles after realizing that dependence of the old blockbuster paradigm is not sustainable in the long run in the current market.

With all this in mind, I’m going to make a wild prediction right now, regardless of the results of the current gen. The winner of the next one will be the one to make the better implementation of the aforementioned symbiosis and despite what company that turns out to be, I can assure you that everyone (cores, casual, big studios and small devs) will be pleased with the outcome provided that quality and fun is the standard no matter if the goal result is a David or a Goliath.

The future, so bright that even dogs require shades.

This promoted blog was written for our April Monthly Musing assignment, “E For Effort.” You too could get promoted if you write something about games you hate but respect over on the Community Blogs.

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