Death by Variation

[THIS IS A RE-POST OF SOMETHING WRITTEN IN 2011]

sonymsnintendoHideo Kojima of Metal Gear infamy recently announced that high definition iterations of Metal Gear Solid 2, 3, and Peace Walker would be coming to both the PS3 and Xbox 360 in the near future. Such re-releases are nothing new, currently all the rage and by and large no great shame (unless of course one adopts an air of cynicism and rejects the project as nothing more than a ditch attempt at more money). What’s interesting is the fact that they’re heading to both current mainstream HD consoles in two subtle variations. The core games will be the same for both Xbox and PlayStation owners, however people playing on the Sony machine will have the chance to take their game and save data over to their PSP to continue the stealth action on the go. This is a nice touch for owners of both a PlayStation 3 and a PSP and whether you care to use it or not, its existence can be seen as nothing short of a bonus. This is noteworthy only insofar as this trend of offering a ‘variation’ on effectively the same product is increasingly the only way companies seem to be able to get you to favour buying a game on their system over that of their competitors. And it’s all rather tiresome.

Metal Gear Solid, as a franchise, is no stranger to multiplatform releases. In the past, Nintendo have offered a home to Solid Snake and his ilk as have Microsoft. The fact that the HD re-releases are heading to Microsoft’s console when the last main game in the series, Metal Gear Solid 4, was exclusive to Sony is not anything to get worked up about. But it’s this move away from console exclusivity that has opened up another more infuriating practice – the ‘pick-me-because’ form of game marketing.

Console exclusives are no longer as prevalent as they once were. Higher production costs means that your install base better be vast, or your game so good that every current console owner (and a few million yet-to-be buyers) will rush out and snap it up immediately. In reality, huge franchises that used to be synonymous with one system are increasingly playing the field. Final Fantasy, while once a Nintendo property, jumped ship and established itself as a Sony franchise for two generations. The releases of Final Fantasy XIII, however, saw the necessity for a multiplatform release and all of a sudden Microsoft is in with a trump card. Hell, it was only last E3, when Hideo Kojima walked out onto the Microsoft stage to announce Metal Gear Solid: Rising as a multiplatform release, that Microsoft boasted the fact that nearly all the major ‘big hitters’ of Sony’s yesteryear were now MS properties too… (minutes before they pealed back their plastic faces and cackled to a backdrop of champagne, forked-lightening and the haunting blare of the Imperial March).

But a loss of exclusives is a baffling state of affairs. The types of experiences you could only get on certain consoles was the major hook. Oddly enough, the hook still remains. It’s moved from the consoles themselves and deferred to the games. Publishers may want their games out on every platform under the sun but the console makers are constantly cutting deals to ensure that the wandering eye of the consumer favours their shinny treats. We’re left with a sea of semi-variation, things that are almost the same but annoyingly different. You could buy a game only to find it’s better supported post-launch with DLC on one system over another. You weren’t necessarily to know this before you made your choice and so the revelation that you’ll only ever get this or that map-pack or side-story on the console you didn’t buy the game for is nothing short of infuriating.

I know that there is good to be mined from multiplatform releases. If you don’t own a PlayStation and now get to experience once ‘PlayStation-only’ releases then that’s thumbs up for you. But what of the folk with more than one system? It’s easy to assume that if they can afford all major systems in a given generation that they deserve no pity and should be shafted at all possible turns. I can attest, however, that it’s not easy being a multi-system owner in a generation where the lines of exclusivity are constantly blurring.

Owning a console exclusively for one or two games and then making your purchasing decisions about multiplatform releases based on controller preference or how many disks it comes on is the very definition of opulence. But it was once a luxury that meant you could play all games no matter the system they were released on. Nowadays it’s seeming increasingly likely that in order to get the most out of a franchise you’ll have to buy the same game for all systems just to see everything. The core game may be the same for both systems, but the PlayStation version may come with one set of bonus features and content, and the Xbox version an entirely different set. Who does this benefit? As a consumer, I get the feeling that it sure as hell isn’t me.

This doesn’t happen elsewhere either. Your choice when picking up a DVD player is a matter of size, price, colour, functionality. Aside from price, these are largely superfluous choices. But companies like Nintendo, Microsoft or Sony cannot let the games industry become like that. There has to be more behind your choice to pick up one console over another than just price or colour convenience. The opposite would just be to have one universal system that does everything. The merits of such a thing are surely a topic for another day.

So we’re left with the current state of affairs – a world with dwindling console exclusives and increasing games with ‘buy-me-because’ features. E3 is mere hours away and the list of known games is long and multiplatform heavy. What delights will Sony and Microsoft have to offer in a bid to tempt you to get a game on their system? As Nintendo sits poised to enter the HD market with their next console I get the feeling we’re staring at a three-way attention-grabbing spree with each major player jostling against each other screaming, “Pick me!”