Monday, November 16, 2009

Potent Portables

Earlier this year during my trip to Japan, and again during this year's holiday shopping season, I've come to a realization: console games are dead.

That's an overstatement, of course. But more accurately, the kinds of games I used to enjoy from Japanese developers on console have migrated to portables. Though portable systems most certainly have their place, this is a distressing move. Not only does it imply that the Japanese console market is weak, but it also squeezes modern sequels and new IP (such as Dragon Quest IX, Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep, Valkyria Chronicles II, Dissidia) onto last gen (or worse) hardware. The way I see it, the current-gen consoles (the 360 and PS3) have three distinct advantages when compared against the portables.

1.) Graphics/processing power

Next-gen graphics capabilities are a no-brainer. But the bigger innovation (other than more "shiny") is that the extra processing power the consoles provide can be used in other, more creative ways to generate new kinds of gaming experiences - no goofy controller required. Many more characters on the screen, better AI, and more.

2.) Online integration

Especially in the case of the 360, there are so many things you can do by integrating online experiences into your titles. Everything from typical multiplayer games, to co-op modes, to interesting interactions with other players (like in Demon's Souls). The portables are doing some experiments with this as well - and in some ways are better equipped than the consoles for these kinds of interactions. But more often than not these opportunities get squandered. Most games that could use online integration never get it.

3.) Experience/comfort

This is the big one. This is why I'm so mad at the Japanese developers. I love Japanese RPGs. I love playing them for hours, leveling up characters and participating in an incredibly involved storyline full of twists and turns set to an orchesteral soundtrack. What I don't love is playing a Japanese RPG squinting at a 2'' screen, its orchestral soundtrack muffled by the tiny speakers of my DS Lite. If Japanese developers are going for immersion, the absolute worst thing they can do is develop a big-budget RPG on a portable platform. I'm really looking forward to Birth By Sleep - but it's so uncomfortable to play my PSP for any length of time that I probably won't end up finishing it. A shame.

Alas, all three of these advantages are no match for the cost of development. To a Japanese developer, spending $5 million to develop a PSP title for a fairly large userbase is MUCH more lucrative than spending $30 million for a 360/PS3 (or even multiplatform) title that stands to return a fraction of the sales of the portable titles. What this leads to is an incredibly vapid software selection for the consoles - particularly in Japanese games. It broke my heart to be walking through stores in Akihabara and looking through the PS3 library - more than 2/3 of the games being offered for sale were from American and European developers. Again, this isn't the 360 displays I'm talking about here - there were actually MORE Japanese-made games for sale on 360 (yeah, I don't get it either).

In every past generation, the Japanese game development industry has dictated the pace and platforms that made the industry more successful. Yoichi Wada of Square Enix was recently quoted in an interview as saying how a one-console market (i.e. one "winning" console) is ideal for Square Enix. Unsurprising to say the least, considering the publisher was probably less than happy at the prospect of having to develop a version of Final Fantasy XIII that will run on Xbox 360 for the North American and European markets. If it were up to Wada, the marketplace would have welcomed the PS3 with open arms as the PS2's de-facto replacement as "the" gaming console.

Differences in gaming habits, cultures, and the wildcard Wii effect have caused the exact opposite scenario. PS3 winning in Japan (landslide), 360 by a wide margin in the US (bigger than PS3's Japan lead), and a deadheat in Europe. This means that third party exclusives have pretty much become a thing of the past. This isn't necessarily a very welcome environment for Japanese companies, who are used to "doing what works". Portable systems are pretty much the only place they can continue to "do what works" - but in doing so, they isolate a huge portion of their userbase.

A perfect example: Valkyria Chronicles II. The first game was released to PS3 with amazing reviews but tepid sales both domestically and worldwide. Fans of the game were very vocal and demanded a sequel...which Sega eventually announced - with a platform shift. The series would be getting an aesthetic downgrade and will be appearing on the PSP. They justified it in interviews later, claiming a market need for a platform shift. Completely unsurprising.

Look, I'm aware this is the way things are going now. So here's what I'd like companies to do in the future. Make your portable more compatible with your home console. I want to be able to connect my PSP running Dissidia or Birth By Sleep to my PS3, which will upscale the image and run it on my big screen TV. I want to be able to control it with my DualShock 3. And I want to play it online. Technologically, I don't think this is impossible. I just wish they'd realize how big of a need there actually is for this kind of product...

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