The Price is Wrong
We live in a world where videogame console hardware has advanced phenomenally in the ten years since the introduction of the Sony PlayStation. Yet we play in a world where the apathetic masses embraced the PlayStation 2 and its laughable 'Emotion Chip' despite it barely qualifying as a next-generation release. We live in a world where videogames possibilities are only limited by the imaginations of those who develop them. Yet we play in a world where publishing deadlines, budgetary pressure, and an unwillingness to stray from the safety of formulaic genres continues to trample the power of creation. We live in a world where unique accomplishment is justly rewarded and history is seen to favour the brave. Yet we play in a world where franchise is king and history only favours the profit margins. Let the rant begin...
While the battle of opinion wages fiercely in the comments section of our recent interview with Miami-based lawyer and videogames activist Jack Thompson, it's perhaps pertinent to see the whole 'content quality' issue from a slightly more facile angle. While Mr. Thompson campaigns tirelessly against the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment and strives for the introduction of an age classification system for videogames that will hold the retailer legally responsible for sales to underage children-much like the one we have in place in the UK-let's try to alleviate the mounting tension between play.tm's readers and the battle-scarred lawyer by taking a slightly different, but no less important, tack.
If, as a gamer, you care little about the lack of quality control that infects the industry you love, then that is certainly your right-and any resultant accusations of 'whining' duly directed at this writer will be added to the mounting pile of reactionary ignorance. However, only the technologically blind can fail to see the overwhelmingly obvious lack of software quality that we endure year upon year while advancing hardware platforms 'supposedly' transmogrify exponentially to afford us gameplay experiences far beyond our wildest dreams. Indeed, the hyperbole meter monitoring the emergence of the Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, and PlayStation 3 registered media and consumer anticipation that suggested our industry would be catapulted forward to such a degree that it would render the Xbox, GameCube, and PlayStation 2 all-but obsolete. That simply has not happened.
And why? In the main, because the latest batch of videogames consoles is following a path of performance laid down by the original PlayStation, treading safely in its 3D-world footsteps while offering scant little where on-screen innovation is concerned. But if that's the case, then Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony need to truly push the boundaries of gaming well beyond that which we accept in the present-and, to a certain extent, have become anaesthetised to. So is the answer Virtual Reality, Better Than Life, a more frighteningly tangible version of Plug 'N Play via our ever willing brain stems in order to supply the visceral oomph that we're clearly not receiving? No, of course not. The answer still lies with that which we already have, but more regimented quality control is absolutely vital if we are to glean the most from this much-lauded 'next-gen' experience while guaranteeing that developers and publishers desist in their attempts to bleed us financially dry through the tabling of substandard muck.
Take Halo for example. Released alongside the Xbox in November of 2001, UK review taskmasters Edge Magazine-possibly the industry's most miserly critics-awarded the Master Chief an extremely rare 10/10 and humbly conceded that Bungie's epic sci-fi first-person shooter was "the most important launch game for any console ever." Imagine the sheer delight felt by Xbox consumers everywhere as they battled against ceaseless Covenant forces while revelling in the game's truly astonishing visuals. All those gamers-this writer included-lost themselves in Bungie's stunning game world, safe in the knowledge that Halo was but a launch title, safe in the knowledge that it marked only the first taste of the Xbox's untapped power, safe in the knowledge that it would be swiftly surpassed, safe in the knowledge that this particular next-gen experience was only just beginning and that the future was dazzlingly bright. That spirited and assured sentiment was real, that consumer expectation existed, but what a darkness it was that befell the Xbox after the closing credits of Halo. Some of you may wish to sit down for this, but Halo was (and still is) the very pinnacle of the Xbox's lifespan up to the November 2005 release of the Xbox 360. A first-party launch game that effortlessly set the bar of achievement and was never surpassed; a singularly amazing experience on a new next-gen gaming system that inspired absolutely no one throughout the catalogue of disappointment that filled the following four years-even its own 2004 sequel lacked the same degree of pure impact. Halo was a launch game.
By way of hasty placation for any infuriated readers currently sharpening their knives while prematurely heading for the 'comments' section at the base of this page, Halo was perhaps equalled, but it was never bettered. There are, of course, valid arguments that point squarely to the likes of Splinter Cell, Knights of the Old Republic, GTA: San Andreas, Prince of Persia, and Jade Empire, in terms of honing the Xbox for performance while creating truly stunning game worlds for us to enjoy. Point taken and justly acknowledged. But take a moment to absorb the idea that across hundreds and hundreds of other titles, nothing ever bettered Halo, and often wilted pathetically beside it. It's the sad truth, deal with it.
The problem here is that no quality control exists to ensure that we, the ever-faithful money-paying public, garner a satisfactory return for the price of our latest purchase. If Microsoft had used Halo as a mandatory production yardstick, then perhaps all of the games that appeared on the console would have been equally as good. The potential was clearly there, and companies such as Ubisoft, BioWare, and Rockstar did their utmost to deliver it-so why didn't Microsoft duly implement a system of QC approval that prevented substandard tripe from hitting the retail shelves? Well, in short, it didn't think, need, or care to. As long as gamers continued to willingly slap down hard-earned cash for banal franchise editions and disgraceful Hollywood movie tie-ins (yet another treasure trove of guilt-free profit) then the money kept rolling and everyone (in a suit) was happy. Seriously though, in terms of viable comparison, does no one reading this emergent diatribe recall the abject disbelief of suffering through Medal of Honor: Frontline or Call of Duty following the mind-blowing spectacle of Halo? The sheer drop in quality was staggering to behold, and any dreams of bigger and better Xbox game worlds were swiftly washed away as the first beachhead explosions showered poorly executed debris across badly animated NPCs.
Let us not forget that videogame hardware and software continues to grow ever more expensive with each passing generation, but yet the Halo syndrome persists in its dogging of our collective pockets as supposedly next-gen platforms and their eagerly anticipated exclusives fail to move us-bowel movements not withstanding. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 have promised so much, and thus far delivered so little. With initial outlay prices that leave casual gamers breathless, the only real next-gen impact created by Microsoft and Sony's latest console offerings is felt firmly in the chest-followed swiftly by the pocket if they're prepared to dig deep for the chance to play the best games in the world. However, the pangs of consumer anticipation soon give way to the pressures of yet more videogame disappointment as the next-gen chest pains multiply tenfold. Here's hoping most of you are still sitting, because most original and/or exclusive Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games do not fulfil the next-generation mandate. For every Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, there are half a dozen Over G Fighters; for every Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, there are a host of Enchanted Arms, and for every Resistance: Fall of Man, there are a wealth of Mobile Suit Gundam: Crossfires. The pickings are slim, and the dirge tide of gaming mediocrity doesn't look like changing any time soon.
So what, if anything, can be offered by way of plausible solution? Well, let's look at Xbox 360-exclusive Gears of War, Epic Games' $10 million sci-fi third-person extravaganza. First off, Gears of War is priced at a hefty $59.99 for the standard boxed version of the game-without the snazzy tin, extra disc, and developer bells and whistles. For that price, which is indicative of a next-gen $20 increase over Xbox, PS2, and GameCube titles, players get to partake of a visually stunning game world while engaging in tactical cover-to-cover action against a horde of marauding beasties intent on the demise of mankind-the usual videogame M.O. However, despite its stunning scenery, does Gears of War justify its pocket-destroying $59.99 by delivering a genuine next-gen experience-as defined by the platform impact of Halo? No, not convincingly so. What's more, Gears of War is woefully short, possibly to stave off the onset of rinse-and-repeat boredom, amounting to a mere 6-8 hours of full-trigger action throughout its single-player campaign.
Once again, anyone presently wobbling their jowls in disagreement while proclaiming the significant Xbox Live value of Gears of War should bear in mind the following information: Not everyone likes or uses Xbox Live. Furthermore, of the estimated 34 million combined Xbox and Xbox 360 unit sales only a mere 4 million consumers have taken their machines online through Xbox Live's silver or gold subscription accounts. For the number crunchers amongst you, that equates to roughly a 12% Xbox Live user rate. Granted, Microsoft claims the Xbox 360 user figure to be closer to 50% and that combined subscription numbers should hit 7 million by June of 2007, but the fact remains that Xbox Live-after four years in service-is still failing to attract the vast majority of Xbox owners. Therefore, a 6-8 hour single-player campaign (in any videogame) is simply not acceptable, especially considering the almost unavoidable gamer immaturity/sexism/and flaming that riddles Xbox Live's servers and renders the entire (unregulated) experience largely unappealing beyond scheduled gatherings with close friends.
Yet despite its single-player failings and its lack of sustained jaw-dropping impact, few could argue that Gears of War fails to merit its sizable $59.99 recommended price tag, because it IS a genuine next-gen title-and with a $10 million budget, you'd expect it to be. So how on Earth can the likes of Chrome Hounds, Enchanted Arms, Phantasy Star Universe, Over G Fighters, Ninety-Nine Nights, The Outfit, and Blazing Angels-to name but a few-lay claim to the same retail remuneration when they assuredly do not boast similar production budgets as Gears of War, and arrive as mediocre products at best, many distinctly failing to make the aesthetic or content-defined next-gen grade?
Would it be too far flung to suggest the implementation of an independent gamer-led quality assurance group to assess any and all gaming releases and offer up a box endorsement as to whether those games are fit to be called next-gen? A voluntary group of those 'in the know' made up of magazine editors, industry commentators, media pundits, and real videogame consumers, etc? Would it perhaps be considered beyond the realms of plausibility to have Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo run the rule of thumb over their third-party publishing partners to ensure that developers adhere to prescribed yardstick quality parameters before a game is green-flagged for retail release? Or, beyond that idea, would it simply be a case of pissing in the corporate wind to suggest that games found to be lacking in terms of that aforementioned quality blueprint are released to retail with a price that duly reflects the effort and achievement of the developer and publisher? In other words, Gears of War would exist as a clearly defined example of exemplary effort and applied developer affection, thoroughly deserving of its $59.99 pricing, and Chrome Hounds would be justly labelled as the absolute dog that it is and duly priced at no more than an existing PlayStation 2, GameCube, or Xbox title? Or are these merely the delusions of a jaded mind, clearly embittered with the gaming industry as hair begins to grey about the temples and a life-changing videogame is still yet to appear?
Gamers deserve better, and we shouldn't have to demand an increase in quality to justify the increases in price. The box prices on videogames invariably do not reflect the quality (or lack thereof) held within, and thus discerning a great game from a shoddy dud is all but impossible for the less 'committed' gamer. A killer app is a gem not often uncovered these days, and the fact that it took the Xbox 360 a full twelve months to find one is indicative of the lapsed developmental progress inherent throughout the videogame creation process. The power of current (and future) next-gen gaming hardware, for all its Emotion Chips and Cell processors and HD-DVD and Blu-ray shenanigans, means nothing unless those charged with creating the content it hosts are willing to invest the blood, sweat and tears necessary to push existing boundaries at every opportunity and produce gaming experiences that transcend a five-year-old launch game that sits proudly on a fading and vastly underpowered platform.