As we approach the next console generation, one of the major players has attempted to design its next-gen console to be more developer and consumer-friendly. How the PlayStation 4 eventually turns out remains to be seen, and we still don’t know much about Microsoft’s next-gen plans, although rumours have been flying around thick and fast.
How the platform owners and game publishers approach the next generation in the face of the steady rise of tablet and smartphone gaming will be interesting to see. While we may argue that consoles and tablets cater to different audiences and that there’s enough room for both, Sony and Microsoft will still need to adapt to consumer demands and expectations, which have changed drastically since 2006.
However, it’s not just the walled gardens built up by the console makers that are at fault here. Game publishers will also have to take their share of the blame, particularly with the way some of them have approached their PC games.
One step in the right direction would be to undo, or at least minimise, the effects of some of the unhealthy and anti-consumer trends that have punctuated this generation.
Ill-conceived DLC strategies
The core idea behind post-release downloadable content is great – it extends the shelf life of a game and expands the experience beyond what you get from your initial purchase. However, DLC has been severely abused by many developers and publishers this generation, often reducing the amount of content available at launch and then drip-feeding it as DLC over a period of time.
Oblivion's legendary Horse Armour DLC
Of recent releases, Gears of War: Judgment comes to mind, which only features four multiplayer maps across all modes at launch. More are on the way via DLC. It’s also not uncommon these days to see developers outlining DLC strategies well before the game’s release. While that is probably done to let players know beforehand that there's more on the way, why not just put all of that in the game itself? Then there’s preorder DLC, which is fine most of the time, but it’s counterproductive to restrict certain multiplayer maps or game modes to preorder customers because those will end up quite deserted if all players don’t have access to it.
The worst form of DLC though is that which is already included in the game at launch, but is simply locked away till you pay for it at a later time. It's lazy and makes the publisher look greedy. Capcom has been guilty of this, and has even come out and said that it sees nothing wrong with that approach, which is quite worrying.
Anti-piracy measures that penalise paying customers
Remember when you complained about SecuROM in your PC games? You’d welcome that with open arms today as opposed to the DRM strategies adopted by so many major publishers. Ubisoft was first out of the blocks with its always-online DRM strategy that dumped you out of a game the moment you experienced a drop in your internet connection. Needless to say, the system was an absolute nightmare for paying customers, while pirates managed to pirate the game anyway. The publisher discontinued the system for good last year.
EA may suggest that the always-online nature of SimCity was a creative design decision and not an anti-piracy measure, but they surely didn’t mind that it also helped curb piracy. Nevermind the fact that they didn’t have the network architecture in place to support the game in the first place.
A familiar sight for SimCity's early buyers
So much have PC gamers been wronged over the last few years that it’s reached a point where we jump for joy when a game is announced to be Steamworks-enabled. Steamworks itself is a rather restrictive DRM, locking games to a user profile and thus locking out other users even if they’re using the same PC. The reason it works, however, is because it provides a solid, reliable service and several additional features (cloud saves, achievements, friends list, etc), something neither Ubisoft nor EA (with SimCity) have managed, making Steam’s DRM easier to stomach.
Steam’s success proves that the modern gamer has learned to live with DRM, but not the kind that penalises paying customers or in any way hinders the gameplay experience.
Locking away online features
It was EA in 2010 that first thought up a method to restrict used-game sales with what it called ‘Project Ten Dollar’. It was designed to penalise those who bought the game second-hand by making them pay the publisher an additional fee to access online features. The online pass has now become a standard fixture in triple-A games, used regularly by EA, Sony, Ubisoft and others.
Publishers have for long complained about used game sales affecting their revenues, and the online pass goes some way towards allowing them to benefit from the sale of used games. From the gamer’s perspective, however, this means that new games purchased now have lower resale value, while used games are now more expensive. It’s an anti-consumer system that is in place only so that publishers can get a piece of the used game pie.
EA's online pass
The sale of used games isn’t illegal, and so a move to penalise used game buyers and sellers does seem a bit harsh. It’s even more of a bitter pill to swallow for retailers, as this move majorly impacts the part of their business that is the most profitable. That’s the last thing they would want considering the fact that they’re already faced with the growing threat of digital distribution.
The online pass is only useful if your games have enough multiplayer content for gamers to care about, and so there’s been a growing trend, as this generation has moved along, of developers forcing multiplayer modes into their games, often just for the sake of it.
Game franchises that started out as purely single-player games have been shoehorned with multiplayer modes in the hopes that consumers won’t trade them away and will keep spending on the game through DLC, which is far easier to develop for in multiplayer games.
Now, not all single-player games that went the multiplayer route did a bad job of it. Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed have made the jump rather well, but others, like God of War and Tomb Raider, haven’t quite caught on. And while no one is going to complain about being given extra game modes, the problem arises when the single-player modes of such games suffer on account of the time and resources that are spent developing multiplayer. God of War: Ascension is a classic example, with most critics finding the solo campaign underwhelming in comparison to those of its predecessors.
Tomb Raider multiplayer
Formulaic annual franchises
For years, we’ve heard people sneer at annual sports franchises for their supposed lack of innovation year-on-year, but it’s a trend that’s become all too common even in other genres.
Call of Duty started off the trend, but even having two different studios alternating releases between them hasn’t stopped franchise fatigue from setting in. Assassin’s Creed too has taken to annualisation with a vengeance. After releasing three games in as many years based on Ezio’s saga, Ubisoft failed to shake off the feeling of sameness with Assassin’s Creed 3 the next year despite its new setting and protagonist. And surely enough, there’s Assassin’s Creed 4 scheduled for release this year, with reports that Ubisoft has already begun work on next year’s release.
EA took a slightly different route with its shooters, aiming to alternate between Battlefield and Medal of Honor, but with the latter being shelved indefinitely, we could well see the follow-up to Battlefield 4 in 2014 itself.
Publishers put their reliance on sequels down to the fact that consumers aren’t giving new IP a chance, which is true to an extent, but in the process, they run the risk of running successful franchises into the ground.
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