The Best Console RPG of 2012 Won’t Be Mass Effect 3

Only time will tell, but if I had to guess, I’d venture that The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings will turn out to be 2011’s most overlooked game.  It wasn’t on many people’s Game of the Year lists despite overall rave reviews.  Two obvious reasons for this of course are that it was that it released on the PC and required some pretty expensive hardware to run correctly.

Fortunately, CD Projekt RED had always planned to bring it to the console, and after some delay, the masterful RPG will finally make it to the Xbox 360 on April 17, 2012.  And not only will console gamers get a chance to play one of 2011’s best games, but the Xbox 360 port will be an enhanced version with, “3+ hours of new content, and new gameplay and story elements.”

In addition, console players picking it up for the first time in April won’t have to wait, like PC gamers did, for any of The Witcher 2’s glitches or balancing issues to be addressed through a patch.  If all goes well, the console version might not be as pretty, but it’ll run just as smoothly as its PC counterpart.  And with over 4.5 million copies pirated, I’m glad I’ll have a chance to support the developer when I pick up a new copy in a couple months. 

Because all signs point to this being a tragically overlooked and serially underappreciated game.  As Shacknews noted when declaring it the best game of 2011The Wticher 2: Assasins of Kingshas combat that’s “satisfying to the point of perfection” and remains “one of the few games that genuinely offers players a choice.” Indeed, the game goes even further because, as the editors atShacknews wrote, “it offers an interesting reflection of real-world problems. It’s a political drama where those in command are governed by fear and uncertainty. It shines light on racism and sexism in ways that shows developer CD Projekt RED is unafraid to push narrative boundaries beyond most games in its class.” 

And this is where I’m hoping that The Witcher 2 gives me the experience that the Mass Effect franchise has so far failed to achieve.  I’m less interested in playing puppet master to some identity-less onscreen avatar, and more concerned with playing through a well-conceived narrative that allows player choice and plot outcomes to interact in a truly meaningful way.  Something that the first Mass Effect nearly managed, and which Mass Effect 2 didn’t even come close to doing, but that The Witcher 2 might actually accomplish.

 

BioWare has shown that they can deliver a compelling character experience, and an epic story, but not necessarily both at once.  Indeed, part of Mass Effect 2’s shortcoming arises from its attempts to do both at once, and succeeding at neither as a result.

Plus, The Witcher 2 has deep RPG elements, with item crafting, equipment, and skill trees that go far beyond anything BioWare has recently offered.  And while games like Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (which just came out today) and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim both offer complex level building, status enhancement, and inventory systems, I don’t think either one will end up providing everything in a single RPG package the way Witcher does.

But that remains to be seen.  For now I’ll be eagerly awaiting the Xbox 360 port.

Will Consoles Survive the Next Generation?

 
Edge has a great interview from their upcoming issue with Phil Harrison (former Sony Computer Entertainment exec).

There’s a lot to dig into and I encourage everyone to go and read the full interview, but for now I want to focus on Harrison’s views about where gaming is headed:

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“When do you predict we’ll we see a non-physical media future?
Depends where you live: If you live in Korea, it’s already happened, if you live in China, it’s already happened. That’s an easy prediction to make: there is undoubtedly a generation of kids alive on the planet today who will never purchase a physical media package for any of their digital entertainment.

When do you think the first traditional console will go non-physical?
The console companies, if they wanted to take true market leadership, could do it in the next generation. There’s no reason why Microsoft and Sony, in particular, couldn’t push that change for the next iteration of their major consoles. Nintendo I think will be a little bit further behind, traditionally they have not been at the bleeding edge of technology and I think that Nintendo has got less experience in building their own online infrastructure, unlike Microsoft who’s probably in the lead and Sony who’s catching up fairly quickly.

So browsers would presumably be the next ‘platforms’, replacing traditional consoles?  
Exactly. If that console, physical device goes away that’s fine but that doesn’t mean that PlayStation or Xbox as brands go away. It could be that the game and browser of the future is powered by PlayStation, or powered by Xbox Live or Nintendo. I think that that’s where you’ll see the battleground: not necessarily putting boxes full of chips and hard drives into your living room but giving you a storefront, navigation, discovery, a business model and user-interface.” 
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I couldn’t agree more with all of the above.  The traditional video game model is on the verge of disintegrating for two main reasons.  The first is that pricing has gotten out of control.  No, games aren’t retailing for much more than they use to back in the day.  But back in the day they also weren’t competing with streaming movies, streaming television, digital print, mobile gaming, and the million and a half other ways one can spend his or her time exploring entertainment these days.

So bottom line?  Most games just aren’t worth what they’re priced at.  That’s not a subjective determination on my part, but a developing reality of the new hyper-competitive media landscape we find ourselves in.  Do I spend a dollar per hour of entertainment via a mobile app?  Or two dollars per hour of entertainment via a traditional video game?  In the past and still currently to some degree, a great video game was worth its sticker price because of either its high replay value or the depth of experience it provided.  And so you have that today with CoD which provides hour upon hour of replay through online multiplayer, or Uncharted 2 with its shorter but highly crafted story.  Both of those titles have a place in the current landscape and represent a format that will continue to be relevant in the future.  But for each of those titles, there exist a plethora of subpar products that remain overpriced in an inflated market place.  And I just don’t see a HomefrontBrink, or Prototype commanding $60 in the an increasingly crowded media market.

The second reason why gaming will have to undergo drastic changes moving forward is that multiple hardware formats are inherently untenable. Movies converged on a single format, as did music, as have computers.  Yes, Apple remains and flourishes, but it is the exception and not the rule.  Besides, what’s good for Apple is, well, good for Apple.  Currently, Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony have still dominate the rather insulated “traditional” gaming market.  But already the 3DS and PSV will most likely face a large chunk of their competition not from one another but from Apple and Android.  Three consoles, one of which doesn’t directly compete (at least not yet), is a crowded field.  But four portables, Android, Apple, Nintendo, and Sony, are a lot, not even including the potential for “gaming tablets” that GameStop or Microsoft might be exploring.  And the important thing to remember is that companies can compete over better hardware/software and over who provides better content without needing to design exclusivity into their systems.

And though companies don’t like to compete, if they have to they’ll want to do it in the most cost effective way possible.  Wii remained a profitable alternative for many years not because it was “better” than its competitors, but because it tried to do something completely different, and thereby offer a product for which, at the time, there was little to no competition.  So will the big three continue the console arms race or give up costly overhead and rebrand themselves as something more like media distribution networks?  It’s unclear as of yet, but whether it’s sooner or later, my money is on the future consisting of Xbox, Playstation, or Nintendo “channels” rather than competing units of expensive hardware.  Why compete over costly lines of production when you could compete over lighter platforms like digital “browsers?” 

The Next Extinction



We are about to enter upon a period of slow but thorough decline of consoles.  If the SNES/Genesis saw consoles come into their own as established mediums, where “gaming” could grow and develop, the PS3/X360 mark the extended and exciting, but rapidly concluding final episode in the history of system playing.

Gaming will continue to infiltrate every niche of modern life, but the platform on which it occurs will not be a black or white hunk of plastic and metal that sits next to your television.
But sales are good, the games are great, and the party will never end right?

I’m sure they were thinking the same thing in Rome right before it was sacked.
There will be another generation in home gaming consoles, but it will be too little too late.
Console manufacturers will try to woo indie developers with better networks and less clunky digital distribution interfaces.  They will try to offer better web browsing and increased storage capacity.  So why the long face?

Because PCs already offer all of this.  And their counterparts, smartphones and iPhones, netbooks and pads, tablets and slates, do so with efficiency and flexibility.

Console gaming developed over the past three decades in parallel with, but distinct from, the home computer, benefiting from advances in that technology while taking advantage of a close niche market.  Home computing sought to enter the home through the front door and forced to appeal to mass audiences and casual users.  The console slunk in through the back, not taken seriously by most, and needing only to appeal to anxious, aggressive, sexually aroused teenagers whose tastes were simple and time unlimited.  My point?  The console industry has only ever competed for a fraction of the potential gaming market, and with only one or two rival competitors at a time.

But when gaming does mainstream, the old industry practices won’t hold up.

What sane individual would have put up with Blu-ray vs. HD?  Or imagine a third format?  Imagine the Dark Knight releases on one, Inception on another, and the King’s Speech on a third?

What if Toshiba made special DVD players that would only play specific content according to prearranged agreements with studios?  What if music you downloaded from iTunes didn’t play on anything but an Apple player?

Would any consumer stand for it?  No other entertainment technology utilizes such a vertical monopolies over content.  So why should video games?
Lot’s look at some recent console history.

Sony and Microsoft were forced only to compete with one another, and barely even that, sharing many of the same third-party titles and lacking any major distinction in their technical capabilities.  Nintendo meanwhile benefited from selling to casual gamers, but casual gamers are capricious and flighty, and they quickly moved onto the next best and better thing: Smartphones and iPads.  What this all adds up to is a stagnated gene pool lacking in strong diversity or striking innovation.

As a gamer I could own a cheap Wii in order to be entertained by all my favorite Nintendo IPs while also owning a PS3 or X360, and get access to great third party titles and clean HD graphics.  And if I’m really serious I still tote around a PSP or DS.  What could be better?

Simple: an open format technology that allows me to easily access and interact with content.  No owning two or three different pieces of hardware that do more or less the same thing.  It might make sense for me to own a PC for the home, a smartphone for on the go, and a tablet for leisurely gaming or web browsing.  But not an X360 to play Gears of War, a PS3 to play God of War, and a Wii or DS to play the newest Zelda or Mario game.  It simply doesn’t make any sense.

And not only that, but in the competitive market of mainstream entertainment, the one being entered by any system that offers web browsing, social networking, casual gaming and Netflix, this kind of craziness won’t be sustainable.

These kinds of hardware monopolies may have been feasible in the micro markets of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, but no longer.  And it’s not up to Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo either.  Whether they invite the mainstream in or not, Apple, Google, and any number of other tech companies will bridge the gap.
PCs have always been technically superior in the past.  Currently Angry Birds is what the average person wants to play.  And somewhere between those two phenomenon is the future:  A boundary-less field of interchangeable files and open format hardware that incorporates more power, greater flexibility, and a diverse array of gaming from light to hardcore.
If you disagree, tell me what I’m missing!