4 Ways To Make Gaming Better in 2014 and Beyond
I could talk all day about how 2013 was kinda underwhelming for a year with two console launches, but as a famous dead person once said, “[something about how you can’t change the past or whatever].”
I took that poignant quote to heart, and so instead of looking back, I’m here to talk about how our beloved industry can step up its game in 2014 and beyond.
1. Cross-platform purchases
Sony has a very novel thing going on in its PlayStation family of platforms: Many games on the PlayStation Network are available on some combination of the PS3, PS4 and PS Vita, and among those games are cross-buy titles for which a single purchase gives you access to all editions. For example, I bought Flower years ago on PS3, and today I also have it on PS4 and Vita without paying an extra dime. Cross-buy games have become a pretty common occurrence on PlayStation, particularly with indies like Hotline Miami in addition to first-party titles.
This year, with the advent of new-generation platforms that featured cross-generation games like Assassin’s Creed IV and Call of Duty: Ghosts, we got a similar deal on them: buy a PS3 or Xbox 360 version of those games, and you can digitally upgrade to their new-gen counterparts for $10, with DLC season passes like Battlefield 4 Premium making that transition with you at no extra charge. These upgrades stayed within their respective platform families, naturally.
Games are expensive, and if publishers want to encourage consumers to drop more cash on new games, they should provide some real perks. And let’s be honest here — weapon skins don’t count. And as we move into a new generation in which backward-compatibility has apparently been abandoned in favor of updated editions of old games that you have to buy again, Joe Gamer is going to have an ever more difficult time figuring out where the value is in a game and DLC he won’t be able to use indefinitely should he want to. The PC, being a more stable platform, is going to be around as long as gaming is, and so merely the possibly token gesture of providing Mass Effect 3: Citadel through Origin on PC should he drop $15 for it on Xbox 360 would be a comfort. He may never use it, just as I’m sure most owners of Portal 2 on PS3 didn’t use their included Steam code for that game — but I must say that having bought that game on PS3 six months before I built a decent gaming rig, it was quite nice to know I had it ready to go in my Steam account.
And as much as a move like that would help maximize the value of a $60 game or $15 DLC pack or the like, cross-buy is awesome PR. Publishers and indies on PlayStation platforms don’t make that move simply because it’s possible. They do it because it’s great PR, and it engenders loyalty. Sony got all the public love in the console wars this year simply because they were specifically trying to be more consumer friendly with concepts like cross-buy. It’s a spectacular PR recovery from the early days of the PS3. Cross-buy has been one of the more recent tools in that scheme. It’s high time other big names run with it as well.
2. Separate the story from the grind
Sid Meier’s Pirates! is such an amazing game that over the years I’ve bought it for PC, PSP, Xbox 360 and iPad (and probably some other platform I’m forgetting). That game works because it has only the loosest of frameworks: You’re searching for your kidnapped family, but you the player aren’t meant to give a damn about them on a personal level. Thus you have a goal to work toward, but at the same time, grinding toward it is the real point of the experience.
Assassin’s Creed IV is pretty much Pirates! in high definition — which is completely wonderful, from a mechanical standpoint — but with a really in-depth, personal tale slapped on top of that template. And that’s complete crap. In past Assassin’s Creed games, you could simply go straight from one story mission to the next and have a grand ol’ time knowing that the grindy stuff and collectibles are still out there if, at any point, you want to mess around with them. But if you want to make it to the end of ACIV, you’ll need to make sure the Jackdaw is powerful enough to take on a Man o’ War — not exactly a small deal — or you’ll find yourself playing on super hard mode. And you’re not going to get it to that point if you don’t spend lots of time just fighting and looting ships on the open seas.
Meanwhile, Saints Row IV has a similar problem. That game is balanced in such a way that you don’t need to grind up your abilities by collecting orbs and doing side activities to progress, but you’re going to have a significantly weaker experience if you’re hampered by only having low-level abilities. Saints Row IV’s story and humor are wonderful, but being able to go full ham with a dubstep gun that emits explosive wubs or with fireballs that do real damage is as much a part of why that game is good. You’re just not going to get those things unless you cheat — which disables auto-save — or hack stores, collect a bunch of code fragments and play in traffic.
On top of all that, neither SRIV nor ACIV has a new game plus, which demolishes any replay value these games might have. There’s a regular cry against shorter games because of some perceived dollar-to-hour value actually meaning something, but how much does length actually matter? Well, according to PSN trophy data, fewer than a third of GTA V players even finished that 40+ hour experience. And that’s GTA. A quick glance at your trophy/achievements lists on PSN or Steam will demonstrate that it seems pretty unusual for more than half of folks who boot up a blockbuster game to actually finish its campaign, long or “short.” Oh, and a whopping 27 percent of ACIV players on PS3 have beaten it. It’s down at 12 percent on PS4.
So maybe we need to concern ourselves more with making campaigns that a majority of players will actually finish before worrying about padding the length with busywork. Once you start working on that, then consider what most folks are looking for when they buy a copy of a movie: something they enjoy enough to watch many times. It’s not a 1:1 analogy, but it’s something to think about.