Playing the Lame: Next-Gen Special Edition

PLAYING THE LAME: NEXT-GEN SPECIAL.

AKA “So why am I buying this again?”

So, a couple of days ago I was sitting down and “playing” Smackdown Vs. Raw 2007. I say playing in the sense that I was interacting with the product, but not in the sense that I was DOING anything productive… I was making a character. As I got to the point of designing my own entrance for said character, I really noticed the lack of custom soundtrack support in the product, and it was about then that it occurred to me that the “next-gen” experience hasn’t really been as interesting of one as I’d have hoped, almost entirely due to game developers.

Understand this: I fully advocate the idea of building next-gen offerings with additional content not seen in last-gen titles, especially since most next-gen games cost $10 more on a per product basis. If I get access to Moon Knight with my $10 more version of Marvel Ultimate Alliance, fuckin’ A, go for it. The impetus is on the developer to offer a product that motivates me, not only to buy the product, but also to desire to invest in the technology behind it. Logically, the argument goes that the enhanced visuals and stronger processing power should motivate me to acquire said technology, but logic has no place in a conversation about products that feature magically adhesive star-making shower massage balls, so let’s not pretend otherwise. The question is then posed: what, exactly, are we to use as a motivation to purchase not only your $10 more expensive product, but also the $300 – 600 product upon which we are to play it?

Activision’s answer to this question is “Moon Knight!” which is at least an actual answer instead of evasive actions. THQ cannot even provide an answer to this question; their products are fundamentally identical to one another, save for the visual performance between the two. While I can appreciate the rendering of a John Cena or a Triple H in the ultra-high resolution the Xbox 360 is capable of, and while I can wholly enjoy that the game looks very nice on my 27” Hi-Def, the distinct lack of ANYTHING beyond visual improvement to differentiate and make it more desirable than its last-generation counterpart is ludicrous, especially considering the $10 more the product costs. And it’s not like THQ didn’t know that the custom soundtrack option was desirable; every interview conducted with the development team shows the interviewers asking some variation of the question “will the game support custom soundtracks”, and the developers saying, essentially, “we don’t know”. That THQ could not, in some form or fashion, advise players that the feature would not be included in the game is predictable; that they simply DID NOT implement this when far inferior titles (Wrestlemania 21, anyone?) supported this is absurd. All told, however, this shows a distinct lack of interest on the part of the developer in regards to increasing the perceived value of the technology. It’s bad enough they canceled the PS3 version entirely, but to release what is essentially a Hi-Res version of the product for more money is virtually unforgivable.

(And as an aside, to save the lot of you from sending me E-mails on the subject, I’m fully aware that the Smackdown franchise has never featured this option previously. I’ve owned all of them, trust me, I know. That said, this is not a valid argument against adding the feature; just because I have never required a bottle of water while walking through the mall does not mean I wouldn’t require one walking through the desert. The landscape of the product is drastically different, and if you refuse to take advantage of those differences, that’s not something do be defended, it’s something to be reviled. The idiocy associated with defending said laziness is not something I want contaminating my inbox, kthx.)

It’s still better than what Electronic Arts is doing, though. Now, understand that the concept of offering “consumables” in a downloadable format is one of the distinct benefits of the next-gen consoles; the ability to update titles like Guitar Hero II with new songs or DOA 4 with new costumes or what have you is a wonderful feature to have available if a developer chooses to take advantage of it. Games like Perfect Dark Zero and Oblivion have already taken advantage of this, to good effect, and I’ve been pleased (by and large) with their results.

EA is not doing this.

EA has come up with a fairly simple concept: they take extras that were unlockable via the input of codes in their last-gen offerings, remove them from the game, then offer them as “downloadable extra content”, which is extra only in the sense that you have purchased a purposely hobbled title. This, in and of itself, is not SO bad; that they’re charging you a FEE for things that were free otherwise is absolutely hideous, morally speaking. It’s fairly obvious that they understand what they’re doing is something that gamers find hideously detestable; when questioned on the matter, EA’s own Chip Lang (VP of Online Commerce) essentially stated that he was not aware of this, which is tantamount to either purposeful deception, willful ignorance, or some sort of scenario where his office is in a hole a mile underground with no access to the outside world, including the internet, which would seem counter-productive for someone in his position. Now, I don’t think I need to know which answer is the correct one; it doesn’t matter, in the grand scheme of human history, whether he’s a liar, willfully avoiding all information, or some sort of hideous social misanthrope. We don’t need the answer to this question to understand that EA IS doing this thing. A thirty second search of Gamewinners.com or Gamefaqs.com provides a wholly sufficient answer to this question: EA is obviously going out of their way to overcharge you as a player, first by charging $10 more for their products, then by charging $5 more per piece of content that comes free with other versions of the product.

I’m not concerned with the morality of this action, mind you. Acclaim attempted to advertise a game by placing ads on tombstones, the Playstation only exists because Sony bailed out on manufacturing a Nintendo CD add-on back during the 16-bit days, and Rockstar could probably fill an entire chapter of the immorality ledger based solely on the content of their products. We’re not here to play God. However, this business practice EA is using says something very simple to gamers: “You’re better off buying PS2 and Xbox games because you get more content for less money”.

When you’re staring down the largest console launch in history, a launch that saw groups of over one hundred people lined up more than twenty-four hours in advance of a system launch based on the HOPE that they MIGHT get a system because the store won’t divulge the actual volume of consoles they’ve released, this sort of mentality is staggeringly asinine. When people are willing to get shot and/or stabbed, or shoot/stab others, for a console on day of release just to be able to play whatever games are on it, asinine becomes a word that is simply no longer powerful enough.

And here’s a perfect example of this at work: Bethesda, when asked whether or not the PS3 version of Oblivion will include all of the content featured in the various download packages that have been released, answered “No”.

Allow me a moment to reflect, if I may. Capcom was forced to delay the launch of the PS2 version of Resident Evil 4 by nine months, but made up for that by cramming a ton of extras into the game, including a whole new mission for players to undertake. Capcom, Tecmo, and Lionhead Studios, when placed in the position of releasing reduced price versions of their games (Devil May Cry 3, Ninja Gaiden and Fable, respectively), they chose to add in additional content prior to release to entice gamers into investing in these games. But Bethesda has chosen instead to release their PS3 version nearly a year after the original two versions, in virtually identical condition save for one quest that will (according to their own website) be available a month prior for the other two versions.

Assuming they do not change their mind in the next few months and decide to cram all of this on the disc, this is what we like to call “being a bit greedy”, and this accusation is coming from a guy who defended the Horse Armor, okay?

But greed isn’t my issue either. My issue, in its entirety, is that these companies, when one asks what they are doing to stimulate interest in the next generation of consoles, would have to (with few exceptions) say “not much”. Exclusive content is virtually non-existent, features that one would assume would be a no-brainer are left out, either due to gross incompetence or laziness, and next-gen offerings are hobbled so as to encourage owners to pay MORE money to, eventually, own the game they could have bought in its entirety for $50.

And for what? Pretty pictures? Really? Do we really care so much about our pretty pictures? Is that ALL that matters? Are we so shallow that we are willing to accept that Gears of War, a visually stunning title (with, admittedly, some of the best gameplay on the system), has a single player mode with the half-life of one of my packs of cigarettes? Are we so blinded by visuals that we’d be willing to buy Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 when it’s essentially an identical product to its predecessor, with expectation of nothing else?

If that’s so, then why is Uno one of the highest sellers on Xbox Live?

And I’ve PLAYED all three systems at this point, and to be honest, I’m generally far from impressed with any of them. The Wii has the distinction of being the most impressive of the three systems, but only by virtue of launching with more than one game that could be considered both “exclusive” and “great”. The Wii has managed to launch with a bunch of great titles, but it falls to developers to release titles that will take advantage of the hardware to its utmost capability, and if the first year of the existence of the DS was any indication, this will be a depressing proposition for quite a while.

The PS3 debuted with ONE (maybe two) game(s) that A.) doesn’t suck and B.) can be considered “exclusive”. Resistance, make no mistake, is a fun game (online co-op removal notwithstanding), but is it enough to CARRY the system launch? Not especially. Combine this with documented frame rate problems when comparing identical games between the PS3 and it’s immediate competitor, the 360, and the various other issues a Google search will find you, and I cannot honestly believe any company would want to launch their console this way, especially not Sony.

And the 360 launch wasn’t much of an improvement above that. The most anticipated launch title for the console (Oblivion) was delayed by nearly six months the week of launch, leaving the system to ride on the backs of two really great exclusive games, with the rest of the launch being, again, either rehashes or underwhelming products (compared to what we were expecting). Combine this with accusations of major system problems over the past year (I’m on my fifth console, for instance) and the fact that, a year later, it STILL isn’t fully backward compatible, and even with a solid library of titles, they’re still underperforming, to put it nicely.

But if the software is there, or COULD be in any case, that’s not a problem. And credit is deserved by companies like Insomniac (Resistance), Ubi Soft (Rayman Raving Rabbids), Capcom (Dead Rising), Atlus (Trauma Center: Second Opinion) and Epic Games (Gears of War) for showing us what next-gen can REALLY accomplish, and what it’s REALLY meant to be. But these companies are minority; for every one next-gen game, we’re provided “games that come out on next-gen systems”, which look and feel exactly like hi-res PS2 titles, or ARE absolutely identical to their last-gen counterparts because they ARE hi-res PS2 titles. We’re being asked to pay extra money for games that look virtually identical to their cousins on the less-powerful systems, and there’s absolutely nothing to distinguish the versions, except for the odd case where the MORE expensive version offers LESS.

And this isn’t a message to gamers, folks. I think that, when you get to the point where there are one hundred and fifty people lined up in front of a store that claims to have received one hundred PS3’s TWO DAYS before the official launch, you’ve officially lost the ear of the general public. Rather, this is a message to developers and publishers.

You’ve been handed the keys to a far more powerful castle than the one you were using before. You have so many options available to you that you weren’t privy to or didn’t take advantage of. The console market is steadily losing money by the day (or so we’re told), and instead of blaming the used game trade of the over-saturation of the market, how about instead you provide us with products that TAKE ADVANTAGE of the technology you’ve been given? If you want to offer a multi-console product, give us a reason to buy the more expensive version. If you want to offer downloadable content, stop crippling your offerings and make some ACTUAL extra content.

Let’s put it this way: is that $5 for a formerly free special car or gun worth the long-term losses when people stop caring about your games? Is the lack of custom soundtrack support worth the lack of dollars filtering in for the sequel? Is the lack of exclusive content worth watching the more expensive version draw less of a profit?

Something to think about.

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