I’m seeing some parallels between recent big-media releases: The Lorax and Mass Effect 3. Both seem to be bending their ideals without necessarily breaking them. The Lorax, an environmental parable, is hawking SUVs, and Mass Effect, a deeply story-based and canon-focused game, is trickling out DLC weapons and items (which, by nature of their being optional, make it harder to define a ‘canon’ Mass Effect).
Not that I blame either property, but I do think it shows that the larger you grow, the more external pressures and obligations you have affecting your core identity.
I’m deviating a bit from my game design posts here, but I’d like to break them up with some more general thoughts about the gaming industry.
I’m thinking about games as platforms. Where you might buy or download the core engine, then purchase additional levels, characters, or features individually. The best example of this so far is Rock Band; the retail discs contain a lot of songs, but it’s expected that you’ll expand that experience with additional tracks.
This is a new area for game design, brought about by internet connectivity and built-in hard drives. I’m expecting that over time, more games will move toward a platform or primarily DLC model – the idea, essentially, being that you don’t have to buy the whole game at once.
I started thinking about this during a discussion about Marvel vs. Capcom 3 on Kotaku. It’s going to be very difficult for that game to exist. The MvC series came at a fortunate time for Capcom – most of their fighting games ran on the same engine, and had similarly sized sprites, so they could reuse a lot of assets. Now that we’re in the HD era, it’s going to be prohibitively expensive to create 56 characters in 3D or hi-res 2D…but fighting game fans will whine if they drastically reduce the character roster.
The solution, I think, is to create Marvel vs. Capcom 3 as a fighting game platform, rather than a complete retail game. The retail disc or downloadable client would only need to ship with 15-20 characters. After that, Capcom could produce weekly or monthly updates, with new characters, modes, and game rebalancing. Over time, the roster might grow to 100+ fighters, but they don’t all need to be ready on launch day. The game’s full development cycle might be extended over five years or more.
I expect games to start positioning themselves as platforms in their marketing, too. The selling point is value – suggesting to players that the money and content they purchase for their games will always be useful, and that you’re adding on to your games, not replacing them. That’s where Rock Band has really succeeded. In the early Guitar Hero days, the choices could be painful – do I want to play the music I love from Guitar Hero 1? Or do I want the improved gameplay from Guitar Hero 3? Or maybe I liked the character designs in Guitar Hero 2. Rock Band solves the problem by divorcing the engine from the content. With a few exceptions, you can mix and match your favorite engine with your favorite songs. Nothing ever becomes truly obsolete.
When the next wave of consoles hits, players will expect to carry their content with them. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo have to provide an upgrade path, so that the player’s DLC and progress aren’t lost. Games are no longer one-off experiences; they’re investments. Expressions of brand loyalty. Customized experiences. Games as platforms are going to become multi-generational, crossing from one console generation to the next.
Of course, each of these successful platforms takes up more and more of the customer’s time, attention, and budget. It may be that only the large publishers will be able to support platforms, while indie game designers produce more disposable experiences, gems of gameplay that can be experienced in 10-20 hours then discarded. I think we’re moving in that direction already, and I think the future’s looking pretty good.