News, Views, and Reviews
Previous console generations lasted about five years; the current generation has lasted eight years. Many developers have been anxious to jump to the next generation for some time, but their bosses, the publishers, might feel differently. Even if the new PS4 and Xbox One reach projected combined sales of five million consoles sold in the next three months, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the one hundred and sixty million PS3 and Xbox 360 consoles already available. Which pool of customers would you cater to? The obvious compromise seems to be developing titles that can be sold for both generations, in other words, attempting “cross generation” sales. Developing cross generation games is problematic, though, as the next generation consoles have a lot more power and more capabilities than the current generation versions. This creates quite a conundrum: How different should each version be? If the next-gen version isn’t as spectacular and amazing as it could be, skeptical customers will question the next generation consoles themselves, and wait for games that do justify buying a new console. On the other end of the spectrum, if the developers pour everything they can into the next-gen version, the less impressive version might anger fans into thinking their current console of choice isn’t being supported enough. Both examples could result in missed sales, even from the dedicated fans that the game was intended for. The differences between these cross generation games is what I want to discuss in this blog, and look at some examples of how different developers are handling that disparity.
Battlefield 4 is the first cross-gen title to hit the shelves. Even though the next-gen version isn’t available yet, we can look at the PC version and assume the PS4 and Xbox One will be similar. I also like using BF4 as an example because it attempts a wider range of compromises which results in the most disparity. It’s also easy to compare those differences: the current generation can only handle 24 player matches, and caps the framerate to only 30 fps; the next generation has vastly improved visuals, can host up to 64 players in a match, and raises the framerate to 60 fps. Comparison videos, primarily of the single-player campaign, on sites like IGN don’t do the differences justice. Sure, the campaign looks better on next-gen, but that’s not what comparison videos should be focused on. Finally raising the size and quality of the multi-player matches to what PCs have been capable of for years is the real story. To enthusiasts like me, that justifies a next-gen console purchase. The console version of Battlefield 3, sold in 2011, had the same limitations of 24 players and 30 fps. I couldn’t tolerate it then, and I wouldn’t tolerate it now. Apparently, about 15 million people disagreed with me and bought BF3, so I can assume there is still a market for current gen versions of BF4.
The secret to BF4’s success as a cross-generation title is one important word: scalability. Most PC game developers attempt to broaden their markets by making sure their games run on a wide range of PCs. A lesser powered PC will have to lower the game settings (lower resolution, fewer special effects, toned down physics, etc.) and it won’t look as impressive as it would on a higher powered PC, but at least the game will run. If the game settings can be turned down, so it can run on lower end PCs, that just means more sales. If the game settings can be turned way up, those that try to keep their PCs up to date with the most cutting edge technology they can afford, they can benefit, too. As some like to say, those PC gaming enthusiasts don’t have to “suffer” with a “dumbed down” version of a game, just because the publisher wanted to get more sales. Because that game was scalable or capable of a wide range of settings, the “lowest common denominator” doesn’t have any effect on the high end. Clearly, this is one advantage PC games have over their console variations, as those HAVE to be locked to a certain setting. It doesn’t make any sense to say this PS3 is more powerful than that PS3 – they are the same. Because console sales of many games have been surpassing the sales of the PC version for a few years now, many publishers have decided to make the console version the “lead platform” they develop the game for. With that set, they can turn around and “port” a version to the PC, which leads to those PC enthusiasts complaining that they are getting a “dumbed down” version of the game. The other way of developing a game, then, is to develop for the PC, first, as the “lead platform” and then scale the settings down to run on consoles. This seems like it makes a lot more sense, but it is supposedly more expensive to develop games in that order, and, the higher sales of console versions typically don’t justify that extra expense. Luckily, a few developers do it, anyway, and Battlefield 4 is such an example.
What makes Battlefield 4 even more remarkable, is that they’ve taken that philosophy of scalability and applied it to more than just game settings, resolutions, and special effects: they’ve applied it to the game play. As I mentioned in my multi-player review, the game adjusts the size of the map based on the game mode being played and the number of players. I feel like I need to repeat that: the game can be modified to accommodate a wide range of settings including the game modes and numbers of players at any given time. Ideally, the game is designed for huge battles on large maps with 64 players, but it can be played on smaller maps with fewer players. And that’s what console players get. I suppose someone could host a game on the largest map possible with, say, only 16 players, but those players might get bored. But that would be their choice; the game isn’t forcing them to play on large maps with only a few players. If the game wasn’t capable of scaling the map size, that’s exactly what the console players would get. They would be forced to play a boring version of the game. Now, to some extent, they ARE getting the lesser version, a version I admit I don’t want for myself. At least the developer, DICE, had the guts to create a cross generation game that would please both ends of the spectrum.
Call of Duty: Ghosts handles the cross generation disparity a little differently. I can only assume that they did not want huge differences between current and next gen versions, perhaps to satisfy that larger pool of current generation customers. For whatever reason, they are not implementing as wide a range of scalable settings as BF4. It does seem like they have taken either the PC or next-gen as their “lead platform” and then toned it down a little to run on the current generation. Comparison videos, so far, haven’t shown that much disparity. But, the PC/next-gen versions can host up to 18 player matches, and the current gen versions are capped at only 12 players. Unfortunately, that means the maps feel a little empty on the current gen, something I’ve experienced myself on the Xbox 360. The next gen version is superior, but I don’t know if its a big enough difference to justify buying a new console. Personally, I’m getting the next-gen version, too,because I was already planning on buying the new consoles. This is just a bonus for me. But I can see how the minor differences might raise some skepticism.
I should point out that both Sony and Microsoft are offering an “upgrade” program. If you buy a game like Call of Duty: Ghosts on the PS3 or Xbox 360, you can “upgrade” to the next generation, PS4 or Xbox One, for only $10 more. (It has to be the same company, obviously, you can’t upgrade your PS3 copy to an Xbox One version, for example.) The progress made on current gen will also carry over to the next gen, which is pretty cool.
Assassin’s Creed IV seems to have even fewer differences across generations. This is just speculation on my part, as I haven’t played either version of Assassin’s Creed yet, but the comparison videos I’ve seen were not that impressive. Both games already look stunning, so this isn’t a criticism, but it is a good example of not quite justifying the new consoles. As a game that isn’t known for its multi-player capabilities, it’s harder to make the obvious comparisons like with Battlefield 4. But, maybe there are improvements that don’t translate well to comparison videos. When I’m playing a single-player game, I like to be as immersed as possible. Finer details in graphics is one way to improve that immersion: adding special effects like the wind moving objects around or environments that can be interacted with. Enhancing the open world is also important, like adding more Non Player Characters (NPCs), improving AI behavior, and so on, but maybe all of these tweaks are too subtle. The game play itself doesn’t change across generations.
Titanfall is perhaps a better example of modifying the environment and getting different results. Considered a “launch window” title, as it’s being released in March, Titanfall is also praised by many sources as the “killer app” or THE game that justifies buying an Xbox One. The developers claim they have melded the single-player experience into their multi-player-only game. They have added a lot of events that happen throughout a match that make it “feel” like a single-player game. Objectives, like neutralizing an enemy base, will be populated by NPCs, giving the player the satisfaction of completing something more elaborate and more exciting than just watching a status bar change colors. The added NPCs, scripted events, and other interactions are supposedly only available on next-gen (and PC) but Microsoft is releasing an Xbox 360 version, anyway. Respawn, the studio developing Titanfall, are even handing the development responsibilities of the Xbox 360 version over to a different studio. Naturally, it will be missing many of these features, which makes me wonder, Why bother?
I think the core problem of cross generation disparity is the question: what gets changed? Do you make the next gen version prettier, or do you go even further and change the way the game is played? For all intents and purposes, Assassin’s Creed IV is going to play the same on any platform; it’s just that type of game. But there are significant differences between playing with 24 players or 64 players, and the relative sizes of maps, which makes that cross generation disparity more obvious in games like Battlefield 4. Can you imagine if a game like Assassin’s Creed removed half of its story to accommodate the current generation? This seems to be the problem with the current gen version of Titanfall; it will practically be a different game. I’m sure it will be fun, and just like Battlefield 3, other people might enjoy it more than I would. But you don’t get to be praised as the “killer app” just by being a little better than current gen.
Fortunately, the “cross generation” conundrum only troubles developers for about a year or so. By next year, we should be seeing even more disparity between generations, or developers jumping ship and developing exclusively for next gen consoles. Some developers will stay behind, as both Microsoft and Sony have promised to continue support for those consoles for several more years. Hopefully, the “dumbed down” versions won’t hold the rest of us back for too much longer.