While home in Chicago a couple weekends ago, I happened upon a most welcomed surprise while browsing the periodicals: Edge Magazine. Edge is published in the UK and is one of the few video game magazines that isn't geared towards 12-16 year-olds. It's also the only game mag I still find tolerable since the departure of Next Generation (now an online magazine focused on industry news).
Previously, Edge wasn't available in the U.S. at all, even from newsstands, which is why I got all excited. It also turns out they're now offering stateside subscriptions for about $80 instead of what used to be $120. Issues are selling on the newsstands for eight bucks.
Edge caters to the video game fan who's looking for more than a three-sentence preview with a page of photos. Their analysis is in-depth and the reviews are thorough. In the two issues I've read this week, a lot of words were devoted to the soon-to-arrive Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Since Edge delves deeper than "Project Gotham Racing 3 will look sick," it's easy to get a sense of how these new consoles may not be all they're cracked up to be.
The Next Generation Could Disappoint
Each developer profiled in Edge mentioned that the cost of development for the X360 and PS3 will be significantly higher. One Japanese house said they'd have to charge $100 for games based on the predicted costs, even though they know that isn't feasible. If that's the case, we're looking at a dark age for creativity in video games. The system isn't really set up to support indie games and the major players aren't going to put $10 million down for an unproven commodity, at least that's the fear.
Hollywood is facing similar issues, the difference being that people can make feature length films for hundreds or thousands of dollars (and have) while that's just impossible for a console game. Does this mean we'll have to wait until the end of a new console's life-cycle before seeing innovative games from small firms? Hopefully the small studios have a strong fight-or-flight mechanism that'll help them innovate quickly.
My fears were realized this year when Madden 06 was the only football title on the shelves this fall. EA Sports purchased the sole rights to the NFL license for the next five years, which means no one else can have NFL players or logos anywhere in their game. Some were hoping this would prod the others to think fast and create unusual football titles. Well, the NFL season is upon us and that didn't happen. This isn't a result of rising costs but it is indicative of the lack of risk-taking.
So, We're Screwed?
I doubt it, but only because I think the five-year product cycle of consoles we know now will cease to exist. The new consoles are too expensive for most people—the Xbox 360 starts at $299, but the cheapest pre-order package at Gamestop is $699 and the PS3 will be at least that expensive—which means people will hold onto their consoles longer.* Developers will keep churning out Xbox and PS2 titles because they're cheap to make, they know the hardware, the upfront cost is lower and the profits will be greater. We'll then see the PS2 still going strong into 2007 and possibly 2008.
Although your casual gamer or gadget-freak will pine for the newest console, if a game is good it won't matter what console it's on (Halo certainly sold a lot of Xboxes), especially if prices stay high and new games go for $60. In other words, I don't think the new consoles will bring in the gamers' apocalypse, but it will certainly shake up the industry. Sony and Microsoft may get taught a harsh lesson, but everyone will come out okay in the end.
* This is also why I think Nintendo may be due for a renaissance. The Revolution should come in cheaper than the other two, and Nintendo historically has a much higher percentage of quality games.