The first 12 months of the Xbox 360’s life were a bit touch and go. Hardware failures and a market that wasn’t really in the mood for the shift into a new generation plagued Microsoft well into the life of its shiny new jet-engine of a console. Add to that a software drought and being an owner of a new Xbox in 2006 wasn’t all smiles.
Its crazy to think of the plenitude of budget software that flooded the market disguised as full-priced at the launch of the Xbox 360 almost a decade ago. They didn’t review well and for the most part they didn’t deserve to, but they filled an all important gap in the market. And in that regard it was merely business as usual as cheap-to-develop games sat on shelves for consumers who either couldn’t afford (or didn’t know better to buy) higher-priced triple-A titles or were so desperate for software that they’d probably buy a game about buttocks. But they played an important part nonetheless, and for many probably characterised their early experiences with their shiny, brand-spanking new HD consoles. Whether it was the silly fun of Earth Defense Force 2017 or the dogfighting action of Over-G Fighters, budget games were everywhere, and everyone probably consumed at least one in the early days of HD console ownership. Perhaps not what owners expected when they plonked down 700 bucks for their new toy, such games represented something to play, even if what was on offer wasn’t perfect.
This wasn’t necessarily a new phenomenon, although the timing of it was unprecedented. Budget software has always been a part of any console’s life. What seems like eons ago I wrote about how the latter years of the PS2 were full of some pretty innovative games that took significant risks because of the cost profile of developing for ageing technology. The same logic, albeit in a slightly different guise, holds for budget games, and so the Simple 2000 series and publishers like Funbox Media, Phoenix and Midas took to the skies with low-budget and often low-rent productions. Low costs of production mean you can sell at a lower price; and combine that with reduced barrier to entry for consumers with lower prices for hardware and you’ve got the perfect market for low-budget games targeted at the mass-market. It has been like this for years and it has been generally accepted as the way of life as consoles enter their twilight years. But the edge on price that gives these products a viable and commercial place in the market may be at risk of being eroded.
It’s no surprise to anyone who follows the industry that it’s gone through a bit of a structural change over the current generation. The bigger studios consolidated, those that didn’t want to go formed indie studios, and the middle guys have been starved out of the market as the scraps left by the other two segments haven’t been enough to sustain their businesses. And this leaves the indies to eat up the rest of the market. Indie games are often cheap to produce, cheap to distribute and cheap to buy products that are in no way sub-par. My review of Hotline Miami paints a glowing picture of what the indie space can do at the heights of its talent. I’m far from a black-rimmed-glasses-wearing indie game elitist, but I appreciate what the indie guys do for the industry (and for themselves). If often from a distance. Combine this with the onslaught of cheap offerings on Android and iOS and you’ve got the perfect storm for the death of the budget publisher.
This leaves these dedicated budget developers and publishers in a somewhat precarious position somewhere between n0-mans-land and six-feet-under. The traditional battleground for budget was physical retail, an avenue that is likely cost prohibitive and perhaps not as lucrative as it once was, meaning that they can’t compete on their one key difference: price. Leaving them with digital distribution as the obvious method for delivery, a market segment that is becoming increasingly saturated by indies who sit on the very price point advantage previously occupied by budget developers and publishers, and they again can’t compete on price or in many cases quality and are being pushed out of their own market. What this means is that the actual form of budget games has changed – no longer are they these low-rent, arse-ugly games that prey on an eager and often uninformed market when consoles hit a relatively high install base. They are different beasts that don’t compromise on quality or game design, but rather skimp on other areas to cut the costs of development. Budget has been beaten at its own game.
Most people won’t miss them and perhaps rightly so. But I will miss budget games. I will miss the satisfaction of uncovering a hidden gem, a diamond-in-the-rough, if you will. The market will miss them because there is less access to cheap software. And platform holders will miss them because their absence may result in the tail of their hardware being cut short. But no fuss will be made, and budget games will die a silent death in what will likely be the first real casualty of the next hardware generation.
Rest In Peace Budget Software.