From The Rejected Pile: Will 2017 Be The Year Consoles Get Their Groove Back?

 

The following article is one I wrote for another service, but the editor there didn’t like the comments I made about EA and wanted changes that I felt would move away from what I actually wanted to say.  So I’m presenting the article here, for your interest.  Obviously this is an Op-Ed piece, and the following views are my opinion, not anything “provable” in the sense of hard news.

Looking back on 2016, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that something was missing in gaming. It wasn’t that there were no good games – games like Far Cry Primal, Doom, Battlefield 1 and Watch_Dogs 2 were all a lot of fun. Instead, the excitement around them seemed to be missing, possibly in part because the US election cycle bought up all the TV ad time, but the general anxiety felt by most people these days has made us forget what it’s like to actually have fun.

It’s hard to get excited about video games when fun feels like a foreign concept. But we’re through that now, so it’s time for consoles to get their groove back. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There’s another major factor explaining why consoles have seemed so “meh” the last few years: they weren’t supposed to be this successful. If you’d told many industry executives four or five years ago that there would be fifty million Playstation 4s in people’s homes, they’d have laughed in your face. Consoles were supposed to be dying! This was supposed to be a bust cycle! So they didn’t invest in big budget exclusives, leaving third parties to pick up the slack. Third party publishers have been in a protective crouch as well, however, with Activision going full bore with this annoying “games as services” concept, streamlining the number of titles they publish in favour of more regular content updates.

Meanwhile, EA… well admittedly I have no idea what EA is doing, and that’s because it’s still behaving like a walled garden mixed with the most popular girl in school. Electronic Arts comes across as thinking we should feel grateful whenever it pays any sort of attention to us, while representing all that is shallow in the industry. It’s important to remember that EA exists in its current form because it forced takeovers of a bunch of independent studios. So as a company, it structurally has no soul. That can change, fairly easily, but they don’t seem to want to change. EA seems to want sure things, and they might as well ask Santa for a unicorn, because in gaming, there’s no such thing as a sure thing.

(Note: that paragraph was written before the news that Mass Effect: Andromeda is releasing in March, meaning it will avoid the media scrutiny of E3.  Releasing a major title without providing meaningful access to gaming press professionals on a non-preferential basis is precisely the sort of “walled garden/popular girl in school” thinking I was referring to.)

Ubisoft has been the outlier in terms of output, taking risks and releasing titles with some excitement around them. Ubisoft’s corporate mentality is designed to promote consistency in leaner times, so this is no surprise. It’s far from a perfect corporation, but at least it seems to vaguely care about employee retention and an element of job security. Unfortunately, they’re small compared to monsters like EA and Activision, so their stock is slowly being consumed by Vivendi. Insider trading sanctions haven’t helped the company’s image either, but that happened in France, so xenophobes in bigger markets don’t seem to care much. In general, Ubisoft is the lone Western company that actually seems interested in talking to people outside a boardroom. It’s also possible that other Ubi brands got a chance to shine this year because the Assassins took a break.

But there is still hope, because of the actions of the console makers themselves. Sony seems to be willing to try anything, combining creative risks like the deliberate frustration of The Last Guardian with novel funding models like the crowd-funded experiment of Shenmue 3. Microsoft has also benefitted from large servings of humble pie, finally releasing games this holiday like Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3 that don’t feel rushed and underfunded. Sure, these games don’t come across as hugely innovative, but they don’t feel stale either. Sure enough, the sales of the Xbox One are finally competitive.

I haven’t mentioned Nintendo yet, because the Switch is still a huge unknown. There’s a preview event coming up in early 2017, so I’ll delay comment until then. Nintendo’s big business is in the mobile and handheld spaces, with Pokemon Go and Super Mario Run completely messing up their monetization models, but offering pretty robust player experiences. That’s not sustainable, but in the short term, people can get hours of play time for free.

The Playstation 4 is decisively driving this console cycle, and the ads running this holiday are a sure sign that the best days of that console’s content are very much to come. Instead of promoting titles available now, the current PS4 ads feature Horizon: Zero Dawn, God of War PS4, and Spider-Man PS4. Only Horizon: Zero Dawn has a release date or even an official title yet. This is an indication of the raw power of that PS4 install base. A market of fifty million potential players on one system, only three years into its lifecycle, is very tempting to developers.

2017 will also be a marketing year with reduced distractions from Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and other types of reality that cut you off physically from actual reality. Headsets of this sort will hopefully continue to be a robust niche, but a niche nonetheless. The core focus will shift back to traditional on-screen titles, because more and more people have big fancy 4K TVs that they want to actually use. 4K is a rare tech advantage that consoles have over PC gaming simple due to viewing distance and screen size. However, 4K tech has possibilities beyond just better picture, the most exciting of which is full screen living room co-op using special glasses.

Developers forsook couch co-op at their own peril early this console cycle, because the fundamentals of why people play games don’t change with technological upgrades: people want to play the way they want to play, and Microsoft has done great things for its future prospects in this regard with its “play anywhere” feature on first party games. PC gamers no longer have to mess with ports of first party Xbox games. They come standard with Xbox One titles. That creates huge future potential to make the next “Xbox” a living room windows 10 machine, which will finally minimize the separation between the PC experience and the console one. Imagine a world where the PC master race and console peasants live as one.

However, consoles will continue to dominate because things with numbers – 4K, 60 fps, 120 Hz and so on – are far less powerful for your average human than things with faces. You want to sell 4K? Show people pictures of people in 4K and let the magic happen. Rattling off specs makes people’s eyes glaze over. I say this as someone who actually likes specs.

But gaming marketing forgot this and shoved a bunch of numbers down people’s throats instead of explaining to people what they could do with these machines when they hook them up to their TVs. That’s changing. PR firms are finally remembering that you have to tell people WHY they want to play a game, as oppose to just what they can play or how they can play it. Story matters.

Why do we care about Horizon: Zero Dawn? Because it’s a chick shooting dinosaurs with an electrified bow and arrow. Why do we care about God of War? Because Kratos is mythic history’s most powerful constant loser. And why do we care about Spider-Man? Because he’s freaking Spider-Man!

Stories matter, and with the cost of triple A games, it had better be a great story. Gaming forgot that for a few years, because it forgot that gameplay itself provides an interactive narrative. Gameplay just replaces the action components in a linear narrative. Instead of “Indiana Jones steals the idol”, it’s “The player can choose to make Indie steal the idol”. It’s still story. It’s still something with a face.

I have big hopes for 2017 regarding stories in video games, and future years, with games like The Last of Us 2 on the way, will likely be even better. Much of the games press will lag behind, more obsessed with people’s genitals than what’s in their heads, but that won’t matter. The best days of this current console generation are most definitely ahead of us, because a great story is a great story, especially when someone can participate in it.

The power of interactive narratives will keep gaming alive no matter how badly the executives and the cynics try to screw it up. Since the world seems currently poised to explode, people are going to want stories of hope, kindness, and even villainy that seems manageable. For all the complaining about consoles, the sales data show that people still want them. And that demand is just beginning to be met with a supply of great experiences.

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