Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hideo Kojima and Console-Exclusive Game Releases

Last week, a friend of mine said that he had heard that Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 4 (warning – lots of Flash) had been confirmed for the XBox 360. Of course, I immediately began searching the internet for further evidence of this fact, and I found nothing – MGS4 for the 360 is still vaporware, if vaporware is even the term for something that was never intended or announced in the first place. But the search for more information did find me a 26 August 2008 Eurogamer interview with Hideo Kojima, creator of the Metal Gear games, that didn’t sit right with me. I feel the need to respond to what seems to me to be dramatic hubris on Kojima’s part.

Console video gaming is rapidly becoming the entertainment medium of the future – a quick look at the 57.7 million video game consoles sold globally in this generation of systems (Microsoft XBox 360, Nintendo Wii, and Sony Playstation 3; normalized for 93 weeks after launch; compared to only 8.3 million two generations ago (Nintendo 64, Sega Dreamcast, and Sony Playstation) shows a positively stratospheric climb in the popularity of the hobby over the last fifteen years. Humanity is demanding a more interactive entertainment experience, and video gaming is the only medium that is responding in kind. But the genre suffers under a brutal yoke.

Multiple incompatible formats are an accepted and entrenched reality of the console gaming market, whereas in most entertainment media, multiple competing formats are discouraged by production and consumer pressures. Vinyl fought hard and maintained a market share alongside 8-tracks and cassettes, but in the current age of the CD it is almost unheard of. VHS beat Betamax. HD-DVD lost out to BluRay. But ever since the creation of the first consumer video game console in the late 1970s – 30 years ago! – the console gaming industry has been home to three to four contemporary and incompatible formats, with no clear winner ever emerging.

Individual generations always seem to have a victor who claims momentary dominion over the battlefields of the “console war.” In the early 1980s, Atari held the crown, succeeded by Nintendo, whose reign bridged the late 1980s and most of the 1990s. Sony conquered the market in the mid-1990s with the Playstation, and may still be on top of the heap today despite stiff competition from Microsoft’s XBox platform. But this has proven to be largely meaningless.

A video game hardware manufacturer is only as good as their next console, as evidenced by such dramatic fumbles as the Nintendo 64, a cartridge-based system that tried to contend with CD-based competitors in the mid-1990s, and the PS3, a modern system that blows its contemporaries away in terms of raw processing power and flexibility but suffers from poor public reception of its high price point (on which Sony took, and is still taking, a loss). The prince of one generation can become the whipping boy of the next very easily. More so than any other medium, console video gaming is driven by improvements in CPU and GPU power, and so Moore’s Law ensures that every few years failing hardware manufacturers will have a chance at redemption. And so the cycle continues.

For the most part, today’s console gaming fans do not suffer the way an early Betamax or HD-DVD adopter might have suffered, because the vast majority of modern console video games are produced by third-party companies who have no stake in a single piece of hardware. When a console “fails,” games are still produced for it throughout its lifetime. The most popular console games are typically released on multiple consoles, even those that are not selling as well as their contemporaries – and so gamers are largely free to pick the console they prefer based on the minor differences in the libraries available for each, and are not forced to pay large sums of money in order to own every system available in a generation. Considering that the total price tag for all three major consoles available in 2008 is close to US $1,000 after significant price cuts on both the PS3 and XBox 360, that is no small consideration.

But some popular third-party games buck this trend, hearkening back to an era when nearly all console games were proprietary, and multiple-format releases were rarely if ever simultaneous. One such game is MGS4.

By now it should be obvious to the reader that I oppose the idea of platform exclusives. As far as I can tell, the only beneficiary of the platform-exclusive policy is the manufacturer of the console on which the game in question is released. The game designer and publisher do not benefit – it limits their maximum sales to the sales of a single console. They save the cost of the port, but I have trouble believing that is significant in the grand scheme of development costs. The players of the game do not benefit, either – excepting considerable schadenfreude, which is certainly in abundance in the console gaming “community,” an XBox 360 player has no real advantage over a PS3 player if a game is XBox exclusive rather than a multiple-platform release. I am against things that benefit corporations at the expense of their consumers and employees to begin with, but I find the idea of a third-party company making a decision that benefits a business partner over their potential customers particularly distasteful.

In his interview with Eurogamer, Hideo Kojima complains that half of the questions he is asked at his appearances focus on the possibility of an XBox 360 release for MGS4. He expresses the desire to hear more fans asking “about Metal Gear, about us, about our future projects,” and the hope that fans “will stop caring about the hardware.”

Personally, I would love to talk to Kojima about his game, and not about the hardware that it runs on, but unfortunately I don’t own a PS3 and I have no intention of purchasing one. It’s entirely a matter of personal preference – of the top 20 PS3 games (according to, I am interested in exactly five, three of which are also available on the XBox 360. For me, Resistance: Fall of Man and MGS4 are not worth buying a whole new console for, no matter the cost involved. It is a shame, but there it is. I’m just not that big a fan of either game.

It seems to me that what Kojima implies in this interview is that if someone wants to play MGS4, he or she should not think twice about shelling out the cash for a PS3 and the game. I have to hand it to him – it takes balls of brass to claim, even indirectly, that you have designed a game that is worth ten times the asking price of its contemporary releases. If that’s not what he is saying, Kojima ought to knuckle down, put his money where his mouth is, and port MGS4 to the XBox 360. He clearly wants more people to enjoy his game, and that’s the only point of control he has over the situation.

That said, I suppose that I might as well weigh in on the question of whether or not I believe MGS4 will be ported to the XBox, despite Kojima’s reservations. To be honest, I’m not certain that it is the slam-dunk case it was back in January. Right now, there are five million more XBox 360s sold than PS3s, but that number is misleading because the 360 has been on sale for a year longer than the PS3. At 93 weeks past the XBox 360’s launch date, however, 11.2 million consoles had been sold. In comparison, 14.9 million PS3s had been sold after the system had been on the market for 93 weeks. And that number is growing faster than the total number of 360s sold. If Sony can keep up the momentum (and that is a big if, with many variables), it seems like they could pass or at least match the XBox 360’s cumulative sales numbers by this time next year. Some analysts are even suggesting that Sony will best Microsoft in 2008. With an average console generation lasting approximately six years, we will be only about halfway into the lifespan of these consoles at that point, and game designers will only just be hitting their stride with the new technology.

How does this affect a potential XBox release of MGS4? Well, with a theoretical release date of 12 to 14 months after the PS3 release, the game would be coming out just as the PS3 was making its play for dominance in the market. I’m not certain that I see any additional advantage to releasing for the XBox then than there is currently, and the current advantage is clearly not enough for Konami to justify a multiple-platform release.

It’s a shame, but there it is.

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