Coming of age: has the current generation of consoles finally matured?

At only 27 years of age I already hate teenagers.  I really can’t help it – they wear stupid shoes, stupid hats, stupid pants and have stupid hair.  Worst of all they speak entirely in vowels and the word ‘like’ features far too prominently in their conversations.  Perhaps not an apt analogy for how I feel about video games, but sometimes I don’t feel like it’s far off.  But in good time most of these fast talking teenagers mature to become upstanding citizens ready to contribute to society.  Video games are no different.  The launch of a console is generally one of the most hit and miss periods when it comes to the availability of engrossing, quality software.  The Playstation 2 had its fair share of clunkers at launch.  But over time, the gaming experiences became more varied and interesting as developers grew into the hardware and the Playstation 2 found its way into more houses across the world than any console before it.  Eventually toward the end of its life cycle, the PS2 was home to some of the most divisive games and interesting in history, with veteran game designer and Clover Studios alumni Shinji Mikami-san leading the charge with God Hand.   While not a great success story, God Hand is exactly the kind of game that you wouldn’t see at the start of a generation.  It’s crude.  It’s weird.  And its tongue is planted firmly in cheek.  These are the games that define a console, despite often coming so late in its life cycle.

Some of the most successful consoles of all time have been plagued by poor launch line ups.  My  memories of the first year with my go-to portable console, the 147 million unit seller Nintendo DS, mainly revolve around playing Final Fantasy Tactics Advance on the way to econometrics lectures at University and Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance before going to sleep at night – games that although backwards compatible were designed for the system the DS replaced.  The same happened with the first cab off of the next generation rank which sat idly in my living room next to its less powerful console brethren collecting dust.  It seemed that the shiny high definition graphics, wireless controllers and admittedly poor line up of launch titles was not entice me from the comfort of the then current generation of 128 Bit consoles.  As a result I didn’t really give the current generation of hardware the go it deserved when it first started arriving on the scene back in 2006.

All that said, however, eventually I do grow into the new generation.  The current generation of hardware did eventually fight its way into my heart in 2010, as games like Vanquish and Bayonetta made me remember why I loved gaming in the first place – a positive trend that seems to be continuing with Shadows of the Damned, which I am itching to get my hands on.  I could write pages upon pages about how Vanquish and Bayonetta are possibly two of the greatest modern video games ever made, and that they successfully bridge the gap between retro-gaming sentiments while still managing to hopefully appeal to a broader audience of modern gamers expecting pretty graphics and obscene acts of violence.  What makes me the saddest is that I saw both of these games in the bargain bin about a month after their respective releases.

Vanquish (Platinum Games, 2010)

So after 5 years of owning the first piece of current generation of console hardware, despite playing a whole stack of games that I had a great time with, at no point did I have the smile on my face that I did while sliding around the awesomely cool environments in Vanquish, or dancing around killing angels and the like as a cool, sexy and witty witch in Bayonetta.  Not a great testimony for the current state of the video game industry is it?

Actually I’ve perhaps misled the readers with what I’ve written above, because although they are the highlights for me in many ways, they aren’t the only great games of this generation.  In fact one could argue that, pound for pound, this generation has provided gamers with more top tier video games than at any other time in our pastime’s short history.  And that argument would be highly defensible in even the toughest of high school debates.  We’ve had games with high production values, amazing set pieces and mind blowing visuals and stories coming out of our orifices consistently since 2006.  This year alone we’ve been graced by such amazing titles as Portal 2 and Dead Space 2, which continues the amazing form we saw from developers last year where I was so amazed by Red Dead Redemption and Mass Effect 2 that I practically wrote a love letter to them in a former life.   It is so great to be a gaming enthusiast right now and generally speaking I am pretty darn happy when I come home from a busy day at the office to my ever growing game collection.

Bullet Witch (Cavia, 2007)

But what I’m talking about isn’t these games that set the gaming world on fire.  I love those games as much as we all do, trust me.  I’m talking about those games that turn up later in a console’s life cycle – games that while they may not be million-seller set piece fiestas, they fill that niche gap between top tier mass appeal titles.  And because I’m not into online competitive gaming, with the exception of fighters, that gap is exceptionally large.  It is these titles that the current generation just hasn’t really supplied me with en masse, despite getting off to a good start at the beginning of the console cycle with games like Bullet Witch, Earth Defence Force 2017 and the Dutch-developed semi-masterpiece, Overlord being released within around 12 months of the console’s release in PAL regions.  Games like these – while perhaps not masterpieces, were a sign that some of the smaller more niche Japanese developers had taken a fancy Microsoft’s behemoth.  Unfortunately these early signs weren’t indicative of how things would turn out – for the first few years at least.

To me, this is what a console’s coming of age is all about – a well rounded catalogue of games from the triple-A to the barely playable.  So naturally given the nature of developing for new hardware, this takes time.  At a console’s launch everything is shiny, new and best of all, profitable for a big developer with the propensity to spend big on developing tech at the start of a console cycle.  And while this is great for those of us (me included) who want the next Epic Games blockbuster or Id tech driven monster-piece, it doesn’t really extend the olive branch out to the smaller developers who develop for niche audiences or perhaps don’t have the profile to launch new IP successfully.

As noted however, it really is just a matter of time before this happens on any console because as the costs of development fall as tech ages, more risks are taken by developers releasing games in markets that may or may not be receptive to their game.   A few years in as the current generation consoles starts to find their way into more homes, these risks become more calculated, and even those developers who were on the margin start to feature more prominently on store shelves with full retail releases.  Which all means I get some more interesting and obscure games to sink my teeth into.

The cost of gaming (both consuming and anecdotally, developing) this generation has followed a very clear and rapid downward trend, even in comparison to the stickiness of software prices in previous console generations – evidenced by the fact that I can go to either of the proprietary software delivery platforms of the consoles and download a well-rounded quality game like Limbo or Super Meat Boy for less than the opportunity cost of me walking to my local store to pick up a second hand copy of Gears of War.  Whichever you choose, both options are a win for gamers because either way you’re going to be a satisfied customer once you boot up the game on your favourite console.

But there is no doubt that downloadable games on consoles has had the greater impact on the gaming industry, and one that is likely to persist beyond the short term.  The rising prominence of XBLA and PSN as delivery methods for short and more niche gaming experiences that may not perhaps be viable for retail releases has given developers the push they needed to realise that gamers’ collective appetites are varied enough for them to fill a void in someone’s collection.  Not only that, but it is a more palatable test environment for new IP, and provides small niche developers, who often are the innovators of the industry, the revenue stream to fund larger games aimed at a retail market.  These are the developers that have the potential to provide the masses with new gaming experiences that will become future cult classics or perhaps even give birth to major franchises.  Most importantly they are the developers that may provide us with some variety in our gaming experiences.  This diversity in play experiences is the bread and butter of what made the last generation, particularly the PS2, so successful and well-rounded last generation.

Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad (Tamsoft Corporation, 2009) - While this may not be to everyone's taste, it certainly represents diversity of available software

Although it REALLY doesn’t feel like it, we’re more than five years into this console generation which was kick started by the release of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in North America in 2005, and the rest of the world in 2006.  Now let’s put that into perspective.  The Playstation 2, also the first console in the next generation console war (excluding Sega’s Dreamcast) was released in October 2000 in North America, and in its life span, which could for all intents and purposes,be considered to have ended  in 2007, it had its fair share of amazingly innovative and game changing titles.  It wasn’t all guns and glory for Sony’s record breaking console, and its first year in the ring was full of games that were far from inspiring.  But in stark contrast to the Xbox 360’s beginnings, for every one of those games there was a Sky Odyssey, Ring of Red or Summoner to soften the blow of the best game available for the PS2 being released for the PS1 only a few months beforehand (Vagrant Story still remains one of the better games across any of Sony’s consoles).  The  Xbox 360 on the other hand had owners of the new system literally moving from game to game – seemingly regardless of quality simply because of the relatively limited number (and variety) of games available – and the story wasn’t much better on the Xbox 360 a year later.

Throughout its 7 year reign at the top, the Playstation 2 amassed a catalogue of over 2000 games in PAL regions alone.  Its ever increasing install base meant that a developer or publisher could employ economies of scope in its development and distribution to produce titles, that on any other system, would not be economic to do so. Amongst this cornucopia of titles, the PS2 housed a number of groundbreaking and unique titles like Ico and the Disgaea series, as well as being the system responsible for kicking franchises such as Grand Theft Auto, Onimusha, and Devil May Cry into the limelight and the hands of gamers across the world.  I don’t want to bog this tale down in economic theory, but the fact of the matter was that the market dominance of Sony in the console stakes gave them an insurmountable edge in attracting and supporting developers to develop titles specifically for their console.

The economic fortunes resulting from a very clear market dominance meant that the Playstation 2 represented the the first time in some time that a number of niche developers were able to rise to prominence as a result of the sheer number of consoles in people’s homes.  Nippon Ichi is one such developer, and although the studio itself had been around since 1994 and had released games into western markets (Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure), it wasn’t until Disgaea : Hour of Darkness was released in 2003 that Nippon Ichi as a developer started to increase in popularity.  While the success of the game was not instant, the word of mouth was so positive – particularly on the internet, that even though the title remained a niche title that only resonated with a certain type of video gamer, that was still enough to ensure Disgaea’s success outside of Japan.  Since then Nippon Ichi has developed a dedicated fan base and has gone on to release multiple sequels and spin-offs to Disgaea and a number of other RPG-type games to success across multiple platforms: success that was launched on the platform of the Playstation 2’s dominance.

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (Nippon Ichi Inc, 2003)

The onslaught of unique and niche video games on the PS2 continued through to the end of the console’s life cycle proper.  In through the major game release period between 2005 and 2006, the Playstation 2 maintained its place as a home for high quality and sometimes niche titles that could not be found on any other console – including the newly released Xbox 360.  Shadow of the Colossus, Okami, God Hand, Valkyrie Profile 2, Siren 2 and Shadow Hearts: From a New World were all incredible games released in the twilight years of the PS2, at a time where the current generation competition was winding down the release of games on their systems.  This trend continued through to 2007 when Level 5, the developer of the popular Professor Layton series of games, released the incredible cell-shaded space pirate RPG, Rogue Galaxy in North America and Europe. To put this into perspective the Xbox 360’s top line RPG, Blue Dragon, was released one month before. Even in 2007 the Playstation 2 was still a viable competitor to the ‘next generation’ consoles built simply on the relative strength and variety of titles its back catalogue, and surprisingly, the sheer number of gaming experiences that could not be found on any other platform.

It has taken some time to get going, but I would argue that we are reaching the point of maturity for current generation consoles.

I have already mentioned Platinum Games’ incredibly stylish 2010 releases Vanquish and Bayonetta, but this is only the tip of the iceberg of incredibly interesting innovative and fun releases to burst onto the next generation scene in the last 12 months or so.  In the lead up to Christmas 2010, the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 was home to a slew of titles that will in the future likely be viewed as cult classics, as many gamers look back and regret not getting their hands on them earlier.  Game Repubic’s Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, and Ninja Theory’s Enslaved were two such games that were good enough to go toe to toe with the best that the top tier developers had to offer gamers in the prime holiday sales period.  Unfortunately by Christmas both games had been been discounted heavily and sales still haven’t picked up with Majin only managing to sell 22,000 copies across both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 worldwide to date.  Enslaved faired better and has shifted around 610,000 units to date (all sales figures sourced from

By comparison Call of Duty: Black Ops has sold just under 23 million units to date across console platforms, and Halo Reach has shifted just under 8.5 million units.

Of course sales aren’t everything (the first Overlord sold just over 410,000 units and spawned a sequel) and while this highlights a minor weakness for the video game industry as a whole – the gulf between sales for a top tier mass market title and a smaller more niche title surely isn’t sustainable – the signs for the rest of the duration of the current generation are positive. The current generation of hardware seems to have hit its stride, and developers seem able to recoup their costs even with their titles posting only modest sales numbers.  More importantly the install base of both of the major next generation consoles, with both now having hardware sales numbers in excess of 50 million, is high enough now that those calculated risks to develop and release games and new IP into the market are being taken on more and more often.  The result of this market maturity is games like Shadows of the Damned, and the efforts put in by developers to enhance and remake games like No More Heroes for the HD generation, which is further evidence that it may now prove economic to introduce games that aren’t surefire hits.  This is the precise point where new IPs and innovative titles start to materialise.  It was no accident that Clover Studios’ divisive swan song, God Hand, was released so close to the end of the PS2’s life cycle.

God Hand (Clover Studios, 2006)

The single most important factor that defined the success of the Playstation 2 last generation was the rate at which new IPs were pushed and supported by publishers.  This certainly hasn’t been absent this generation, and the big studios were fast to adapt to the new hardware and produce new IP for the systems that have become some of the best examples of gaming this generation, Uncharted for the Playstation brand and Gears of War for Microsoft among them.  But if this isn’t supported by the medium to small studios acting in the same manner, these titles alone aren’t enough to push a console to maturity.  As I have noted this generation hasn’t been without its new IP and innovative titles, some of which came very early on in this generation: Monolith’s Condemned being one that immediately springs to mind.  But that ‘trend’ seemed to drop off for while, so the fact that we are again starting to see publishers and developers of smaller titles acting in this fashion now can only mean positive things for the industry, and gamers moving forward; and with all signs pointing to a longer console life span this generation than almost any other prior, things can only get better from here on in.  The question is, will the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 get their Persona 4 long after their successors enter the market?  Only time will tell.

[researched and transcribed by Sir Gaulian in The Library]