Gaming : Multiformat Releases == BAD?

peteIt’s hard sometimes to pick out quality among the huge amount of just average mediocrity that paves our games market.  Finding something truly stunning and groundbreaking is not only difficult but sometimes almost impossible.  It’s true to say that a great title comes along around 3-4 times per platform, per year.  For your average casual gamer, that’s about right in the spending department.  Unfortunately these rare classics don’t always fall into the genres that we either like or adore.  However why are there so many rare gems around?

One of the reasons for this, I believe, is the notion of multiformatting and in the 7th generation of games consoles it seems to be widening a chasm which is going to be difficult to fill.  We currently have three 7th generation consoles, 4 if you count the PC, the Wii, the XBox 360 and the PS3.  In fact, sometimes I sit here and wonder really what is so similar about them, apart from the fact that they all play games.  Taking a quick look at these machines, and I’m not going to go into any real details here, we have the following contenders.

Weighing in at the top end, in terms of raw power is the 8 core monster that is the PS3, its sheer architecture requires a completely different way of coding games, which according to some coders is frustratingly difficult.  Next in line is the XBox 360, which although is a console in name, is really just an non-upgradeable super powerful gaming PC at a very reasonable price.  Last in line is the tiny white fruit-esque, though we can’t think why, Wii.  At its core, there’s precious little extra in terms of processing power than its predecessor.  Many people have called it a GameCube with Bluetooth, because essentially, technically, it’s not far from the truth.  Where’s the PC I hear you ask, well, quite frankly, it could be in all three of them.

I’m not going to venture into the realms of handheld consoles such as the DS and the PSP, but you can see already the shear difference in the machines that are available in today’s gaming society.  So what’s wrong with that I hear you ask?  Variety is a good thing, it’s what keeps our society and industry moving.  I totally agree with you here dear reader.  Variety is the spice of life and it’s what keeps one manufacturer from hogging the entire market.  It forces companies to constantly reevaluate their current product and come up with something better and new.

Whilst for the overall market variety is a good thing, the problem comes when publishers want the largest slice of the pie.  I am of course talking about the main subject of the article; multiformat games.  Multiformat games allow publishers to target the broadest range of gamers imaginable.  From the timid and often amateurish nature of the Wii owners, to the down right dirty, all out war, dukem nukem, rockem sockem, die hard PS3 owners.  Although multiformat games have a great advantage for the publisher, ie, more monata, the benefit for the consumer is often less so.

I can hear some of you in the audience already with their hands half up, wondering whether to say something or not.  Yes, I agree, multiformat can be a good thing for the consumer as it allows them the opportunity to play the same game that their friend has on an entirely different platform, but it’s worth looking at the overriding argument of, wait for it, quality.  And you thought I was going to mention the cost of producing all those different covers.

“a supercar body, which was the original design idea, is going to handle like a pushbike with a jet engine when placed inside a three wheeler„

Spare a thought for the coders of these ill-fated franchise games.  Whilst coding for any console is no easy ride, making sure a game is physically implementable on several must be a nightmare.  Having little insight into the actual process behind multiformat game developing makes it difficult for me to come up with some definitive citations, however one thing seems abundantly clear;  multiformat games are generally of lower overall quality than their platform exclusive counterparts.  I recently ran across a thread on a forum where some XBox 360, PC and PS3 gamers were battling out one of the age old troll wars; “My console has better graphics than yours.”  Whilst I agree graphics isn’t everything, it does seem to be one of the more important aspects for gamers.  I’m as much a sucker for slick graphics as the next CG fanboy, but I do feel deep down that there is some truth behind graphics being one of the more important of the console ideals.

Of course this used not to be the case, before we had fancy controllers and console OSs, it had to really be plainly squared on graphics and playability, now all of a sudden we have a new contender in the “Mine’s better than yours” campaign.  It’s true that Nintendo has revolutionised the way people interact with their gaming consoles.  Having not used an XBox I cannot comment here, but the Sixaxis feature of the PS3 controllers does tend to feel a little tacked on and definitely doesn’t have the same level of responsiveness as that of a Wiimote.

Of course I’ve digressed quite wildly, as is the nature of my articles on numerous occasions, however the user interface is yet another aspect that the poor developers have to think about when converting a game’s core ideals to several platforms.  It’s like building the exact same car body around a supercar, a centurion tank and a three wheeler.  What fits one isn’t necessarily going to fit the other and here’s where the consumer gets hit in the face.  Coders will and do make cut backs in functionality in order to make a game fit to its intended platform.  If you think about it, they have to because a supercar body, which was the original design idea, is going to handle like a pushbike with a jet engine when placed inside a three wheeler, and is going to have to be subjected to many rounds of panel beating to get it to fit on the Centurion tank and even then, it’s just going to look naff and half finished.  Ringing any bells here.

How many times have I heard people say that a game feels more unfinished on one platform than it does on another, that games feel flat on one platform than on another.  It’s sad when a great game gets its guts reorganised to ensure that it’ll still remain usable on another platform.  What’s even scarier is the amount of innovation that may be left out of a game, purely because it isn’t implementable on another console.

So why do the graphics looks better on one console than on another? Probably because initially development may have been for one platform in particular and then developers were forced to include more, leading to a less glossed finish on the subsequent implementations. However, platform exclusivity can lead to some of the most awesome games ever.  At the moment I’m thinking about Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy X, KillZone 2, Little Big Planet, World of Goo, Super Smash Bros.  For me Killzone 2 has some of, if not at the moment, the best graphics out of any game I have personally ever played.  I’m hoping I’m not going to receive a torrent of, X looks so much better than KZ2 or, Y beats the stuffing out of KZ2, because quite frankly I don’t care.  These are my opinions, and you know what, I’m entitled to them.

“we have to remember that we are all just pawns in the publishers ever more difficult and strategic game to make the stockholders more money„

There has been some speculation that Sony played a part in the success of KillZone 2, purely because of the disappointment at the first installments wow factor after the initial tooting it was given.  To be honest I don’t really care, but it does go to show, that when a game is designed exclusively for a particular platform, it can absolutely shine.  Little Big Planet is another great example of this.  The very nature of the game just wouldn’t be possible on the tiny processing power of the Wii, the physics would be far too complex.  Contrast this with the beautiful Lost Winds on the Wii, and you can see how development around the Wiimote has really played to Nintendo’s advantage. 

Several people on one forum were comparing a multiformat game’s graphics and saying how much more superior it was on the XBox 360 to that of the PC and the PS3.  I must admit, I’ve experienced a differing quality in F.E.A.R 2.  The PC version has far superior graphics to that of the PS3, in comparison I’d say that KillZone 2 on the PS3 beats the graphics in F.E.A.R 2, both on the PS3 and on the PC, but I guess some level of subjectivity is needed here.

So why don’t developers and publishers alike put the effort in and make every game on every console a winner?  Quite frankly the large factor is the same as it’s always been and it’s cost.  Tada! Suprised?  I have no figures to back this up, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the development cost of KillZone 2 on a single platform, equaled or exceeded that of Tomb Raider:Underworld on all the platforms it was released on.  At the end of the day we have to remember that we are all just pawns in the publishers ever more difficult and strategic game to make the stockholders more money.  It’s all about maximising profit at the end of the day and developing for one console may be much easier than another.  Optimisation is always key here, as it drives down the expense, and raises the profits.  Coders will try to reuse as much code as they can.  So, and this is just an example here as there are probably built in routines for this, whilst a rendering engine built for the Wii may perform exceedingly subpar on the PS3, if it can be adapted quicker than writing a separate engine exclusively for one game, for one platform, which option do you think they’ll pick?  It really is a no brainer.

So who’s the real winner here?  Well unfortunately it appears to be the publishers again.  The wool has once again been pulled squarely over our eyes.  It’s a shame, but it really does seem like multiformat games tend to perform poorly on at least one console.  At the end of the day there really “ain’t a lot we can do bout it guv”.  The situation is here to stay.  Consoles will be different.  Publishers will want to do multiformat releases.  Personally I’m hoping that the dual release of Final Fantasy XIII on the XBox 360 and the PS3 doesn’t hurt it too much.  Hey I might get lucky.  Mightn’t I?

    • Jared Spurbeck
    • May 14th, 2009

    And this is yet another problem that open-source graphics libraries — and, hopefully, open hardware designs — can solve! ^.^

    We can also put pressure on designers, of course, by being selective about what games we buy. Anyway, great article! And have fun gaming!

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