Launch Libraries (or Why We Need to Stop Shooting our Loads)
(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
Whenever there’s a new gaming system on the horizon, one of the burning issues surrounding its release is that of its launch library. What games will be available to buy the same day as the system? Over the years, we’ve conditioned ourselves to not only expect, but demand a vast launch library. We need that initial sign of publisher support to convince us that the machine we’re dropping several hundred bucks on is going to have the wealth of content needed to sustain our entertainment for at least a few years. Both Sony and Nintendo have impressed the public lately by boasting of large launch libraries for their recent and upcoming hardware — namely the PlayStation Vita and Wii U. A system that launches with over twenty titles available the same day is a healthy looking bit of technology.
But is it really that healthy or sensible to launch hardware with over 20 games? Does it really say anything about a system’s support? Judging by how the PS Vita’s fared, I’ve started to think that maybe a strong launch library really isn’t that important — or at least shouldn’t be in the industry’s eyes.
There’s no doubt that, on paper, the PS Vita had a remarkable launch lineup. In fact, it was proudly announced that the Vita was to have the largest lineup of any Sony product, boasting 25 games from itself and third parties. Big hits like Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Lumines: Electronic Symphony, and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 were arrayed in dazzling formation, ready to impress us and make us feel like we were purchasing a worthy product that would keep fans amused for as long as they could dream. Unfortunately, the reality was not quite so good, not when you broke it down.
The first problem with a large launch lineup is that, of course, not all of those games will be appealing, and this was definitely true in the Vita’s case. Only a few of the launch games were really that good, and several of those were ports or barely refined sequels. It’s all very well saying you have 25 games, but when the reality is that most consumers will only like or care about a tiny fraction of that number, it’s really not too impressive — especially when dire games like Little Deviants and Modnation Racers: Road Trip make up your collection. Getting an audience all fired up for a mass of games might be counter-productive, since when they realize they only want or like a few of them, their initial enthusiasm gives way to disappointment.
One contributing factor may be that, with any launch library, a portion of those games will invariably be rushed to meet the deadline. It’s hardly surprising to see a good number of ports in the Vita’s library, given that they’re the easiest games to produce — they’re already made and so just need the necessary changes required to bring them over. Ubisoft was particularly proud of supporting the Vita heavily at launch, but it did so with games like Rayman: Origins, Michael Jackson: The Experience, Asphalt and Dungeon Hunter. A lot of these early games will just not look or play very well, making the entire system running it seem poor. Modnation Racers looked and played like shit on the PlayStation Vita, and did a terrible job showcasing the handheld to anybody who’d heard about its superior graphics and gameplay capabilities. Perhaps if it had been given more time to improve itself and enhance its aesthetic, it could’ve done far better.
We’re only now seeing more games than just Uncharted: Golden Abyss looking visually impressive on the PS Vita. The Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, Silent Hill: Book of Memories, and upcoming titles like Killzone: Mercenaries and Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation do a far better job of making the Vita look good, and it’s hardly surprising. They’ve had a lot more time than those games cobbled together to ensure Sony had 25 titles to preen its feathers over. I can’t deny I’m excited for some of the games on the horizon, but that doesn’t alter my initial disappointment in a slew of games that just didn’t do the Vita justice.
This ties into what may be the most important problem with a launch library — it’s the very definition of a platform shooting its load too early. Again, let’s look at the PS Vita’s launch. 25 games of varying quality. So, after the early adopters have selected the one or two games from those 25 that appeal to them, they’ll inevitably ask the question — what’s next? And what was next for the Vita? Not. A. Lot. After the system released in February, March had a small assortment of middling titles, but it wasn’t until May that things got interesting with the high profile (if dreadful) Resistance: Burning Skies and critically acclaimed (if merely decent) Gravity Rush. After that? Well, it wouldn’t be until August that the system got its next must-have in Sound Shapes, and even that was a shared title with the PlayStation 3. The rest of the year is seeing a mere sliver of headline-worthy exclusive games — LittleBigPlanet, New Little King’s Story, Liberation, Zero Escape, and Black Ops Declassified. There may be some more obscure titles you’re personally into, but those are the heavy hitters. It’s really not been much of a year. Not with whole months lacking any sort of attention-getting release and a 2013 that currently looks threadbare.
It’s all very well to have a strong launch library, but if you haven’t got much of anything after that to remain in the public eye and keep potential consumers looking at your product, what use is it, really? One has to wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to have saved some of those launch titles, continued to develop them a little longer, and spread them out more evenly over the year. Surely it’s better to have a consistent release schedule than one made of heavy peaks and troughs. It is certainly better for the end user, who will have more regular reasons to switch the thing on rather than have these short bursts of activity followed by lengthy periods of owning a glorified brick.
The Wii U has pulled a similar trick, with Nintendo recently revealing 23 launch titles. The shrewd consumer can already see that number shrink when searching for must-have exclusive experiences that’ll truly showcase what the system has to offer. There are a lot of ports in that list, games like Darksiders II, Ninja Gaiden 3, Batman: Arkham City and more. Many sequels. Only four original IP, two of which are called Sing Party and Game Party Champions (therefore fuck ‘em). The whole “big launch library” thing is smoke and mirrors, and says nothing about how well the hardware will thrive after the dust has settled.
This is not to diminish the Wii U. I’m quite excited for it, and I hope — as I do with all gaming systems — it’ll perform really well and get a ton of support. However, it’s not the launch library that’ll convince me of its successes. I don’t think any launch library is indicative of a system’s support or future triumphs, and I wonder if the faith we place in it as industry members or consumers is completely misguided. Really, it’s never proven a thing to date, and who has ever bought 25 brand new retail games regardless of whether they like them or not? Only the rich and/or eccentric.
Maybe we should be demanding not a strong launch library, but a strong library overall, one that’s sensibly paced, and not full of ports or rush-jobs. Telling me you have over 20 games for your system at launch just doesn’t impress me anymore. I want to know what you’re doing to keep me invested in your product every week of the year. I rarely go a day without using my iPad for something. I wish I could say the same of my game devices.
Let’s stop shooting our wads at the first hurdle, yeah?