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There’s much talk from the gaming industry that the next generation gaming consoles will be the last. Many cite the rising costs of game development, the seemingly inexorable rise of free to play or ‘freemium’ gaming, and of the explosion of handheld gaming on smartphones, as the primary factors driving the demise of traditional gaming consoles. These are all valid arguments,but are they missing the point?
In part 1 of this two part article series, we’ll address the rising cost of game development as a barrier to new generations of home consoles. At first glance, it seems reasonable to assume that as graphics get better, and games get more sophisticated, development costs will rise. As the next generation of gaming begins, graphics will inevitably improve as developers take advantage of more powerful hardware. But how will graphics get better? Could many of the improvements seen in the next generation simply be the consolidation of what was promised for the current generation. Take resolution for example: we could well see a shift to full HD, where it becomes the norm rather than the exception to render games in 1080p, rather than upscaled from 720p or lower. There’s also the thorny issue of screen tearing – could the more powerful hardware of the next generation make screen tearing a thing of the past? There’s also framerate – some of this generation’s games have such a low framerate at times that they are almost embarrassing. Perhaps 30 frames per second could become a bare minimum standard instead of a ‘target framerate’. Yes, changes like these will require new hardware, but they won’t create a massive spike in development costs.
Many of the other reasons for rising development costs are changes to the nature of game design itself – moving from text-driven to fully vocalised conversations will massively increase the cost of a game’s development, and likewise, moving from simple MIDI soundtracks to fully orchestrated musical scores will push costs up further. However, many of these changes to game design occurred within the last couple of generations, and these costs will have plateaued somewhat. Clearly, games will continue to advance as the industry moves forward, but for now at least it seems plausible to suggest that the pace has slowed down. There’s also the huge costs incurred from advertising – are the massive budgets of games like Black Ops a sign of things to come, or are they just the exception within a very young market that is still finding its feet? Look at games like Demon’s Souls on PS3 – almost no marketing budget whatsoever, yet the quality of the game created enough word of mouth to make the game a minor hit – setting up the field nicely for Dark Souls.
To the ultimate extreme, have a think about what Minecraft has accomplished. Unquestionably the most successful Xbox Live Arcade game ever, by some margin, and one of the defining games of this generation. How much was spent on marketing Minecraft? Nothing. How many copies has it sold? Almost 9 million on PC, and almost 5 million on Xbox 360. Yes, Minecraft is the exception rather than the norm, but it shows how far you can go with word of mouth alone if the game is good enough. One of most intriguing aspects of the Minecraft phenomenon is the nature of the game itself: it’s hard to imagine a game more different to the streamlined, high budget, commercial games that many in the industry seem to think are the only recipe for success.
The next generation will be the real test for the industry, and already many developers are starting the process of expectation management. Over the last few years we’ve seen countless high profile developers (Bioware for example) explain how the leap between this generation and the next won’t be as big as between previous generations, and any gamers expecting photo realistic 1080p 60FPS graphics across the board will surely be disappointed when the next generation arrives. Take a look at some current high-end PC games if you want a good idea of what the next generation of console games will look like.
Will budgets go up for the next generation? Almost certainly. Will they skyrocket so much that console game development becomes prohibitively expensive? Almost certainly not.