Update 8/29/2017: And now the original XBOX One has been discontinued to make room for the XBOX One S (which is *different* from the XBOX One X). Only two years and nine months after it was released. Think about that, and remember how the SEGA Dreamcast was considered a colossal failure.
Can I make an appeal to the video game industry? Can we cool it with the technological determinism shit already, please?
I want to apologise in advance if this turns into more of an angry, ranty polemic than what I’m comfortable presenting these days, but I’m deeply upset this week. I’ve always been exasperated and annoyed with the line of thinking in games criticism that graphics tech is the most important thing in the industry and needs to be privileged above all else, but at this point I’ve officially had it. The state of the current industry is so out of control I don’t really even have words to express how stunned and aghast I am by the aggressive, mindless technofetishistic lust that seems to be driving almost everyone on both sides of the Pacific right now. The most blatantly obvious example is the grotesque display that is the current console market: We’re supposed to have hardware cycles of 5 years or so between revisions and new machines, but then somebody told Microsoft and Sony about Apple’s business model with smartphones and suddenly we’re in an era of “mid-generation hardware revisions” for $500 computers. We didn’t even get 3 years between the PlayStation 4, touted in 2013 as the most powerful thing to ever anything, and the PlayStation 4 “Pro” that supports 4K resolutions, which Sony seemed so embarrassed about they didn’t even announce it until it came out. Meanwhile, Microsoft is about to unleash the XBOX One X, a machine that is so obscenely overpowered I’m convinced it comes from some outer space futurescape and that mere mortal humans aren’t worthy to wield it. Certainly nobody I know is rich or crazy enough to be able to get it to do what it’s supposed to do.
(Meanwhile, Nintendo came out with the Switch after just managing to squeak five years out of the WiiU, but that’s primarily because with the WiiU and 3DS Nintendo momentarily forgot absolutely everything they learned about branding and marketing in over a century of trading. I’ll come back to them a little later.)
None of this is of course new. Microsoft’s strategy with the XBOX One X to push 4K reminds me of what they they tried to pull with the XBOX 360 in 2005 to push 1080p (the one that forced them to rebrand and slash prices a couple years later). And there is, of course, a precedent for this going back decades. I like to pick on Sony here for how they set the discourse for the fifth generation with the original PlayStation, but I probably also have to blame SEGA of America for how they marketed the Genesis in the United States, openly bullying Nintendo and Nintendo’s fans by saying that faster processors and better graphics chips were blatantly, objectively better in every instance and anyone who thought otherwise was a dumb crybaby. Notably, SEGA of Japan did not do this, instead focusing on the Mega Drive’s ability to deliver a home experience that was closer to that which you might find in an arcade. Which is probably part of the reason SEGA imploded spectacularly in the early 2000s, as SEGA of Japan and SEGA of America refused to speak to one another.
What bothers me more this time around is the sheer rapidity, and rabidness, with which it seems to be happening now. Sony appear to be back up to their old tricks by flat-out lying about what their console is capable of, as seen in the case of the recent controversy surrounding Anthem, which I can’t see working out for them any better than when they did it with the PlayStation 3, which caused the near-collapse of the industry in the late 2000s by contributing to a climate wherein developers were forced to go bankrupt overbuilding and working with arcane and Byzantine architecture that was nowhere near as capable as they had been led to believe it was. More worryingly, I’ve seen quite a few developers come out recently with outright sneering disdain for anything that’s not the latest and greatest cutting-edge technology.
Mostly, this discourse seems to be surrounding the Nintendo Switch. Now before I go any further, I want to formally make apologies for everything I said about Nintendo and its new console back in January: Over the course of the summer I’ve turned around on it immensely and will likely end up with one myself by year’s end. In my defense, all I can say is that it’s become evident I was outright misled by elements within hardcore gamer culture and the gaming press (even up to and including Nintendo enthusiast press) that seem driven by a desire to see the system fail for whatever reason. The biggest shock came when I realised that I’d been outright lied to about the functionality of the system’s controllers by a relatively big-name outlet that seems to have produced a fake headline about needing to buy a separate accessory to charge the JoyCons in the aftermath of the reveal event, when in fact they can be charged when connected to the tablet or through the normal AC adapter. At the very least the website in question worded their article very poorly, implying that potential users would have to spend a lot more money to enjoy the base Switch package then they would in fact actually have to. There are also reports of angry and bitter gamers fabricating intentionally and deliberately inaccurate negative Amazon reviews on Switch consoles and accessories in an attempt to mislead customers and damage sales.
Why this is happening I can only speculate upon. Perhaps it comes from the same right-wing fundamentalism in gamer culture that is directly responsible for the current political situation in the United States, and if Nintendo has come under fire because of this it can only speak favourably for Nintendo. Certainly a console that preaches inclusivity and positive, constructive social fun would seem to be something that would draw the ire of Nerd Culture’s basal desire for a New Atheist Nerd dictatorship. That’s not something I want to get into today, though perhaps I’ll revisit it when I “review” the system for Eruditorum Press whenever I get it. Rather, I want to use this as context for this latest backlash against Nintendo on the most hoary and hackneyed of battlefields, tech specs.
This has of course always been an argument leveled against the company and its machines as far back as at least the Wii, but with some precedent dating back to the Nintendo 64 era. It’s also one of the reasons why hardcore gamers of the late 80s and early 90s wouldn’t have anything to do with the Game Boy. For those mercifully unaware, Nintendo has historically been criticized by gamers and developers alike because their consoles tend not to use cutting-edge hardware in an effort to both keep costs down across the board and provide a framework that’s easier to work with and understand. Nintendo’s design philosophy in this area is best summed up by a quote from the late Gunpei Yokoi, inventor of the Game & Watch, Game Boy, WonderSwan and Metroid: “Lateral thinking with withered technology”. The “withered” referrers to technology that is well worn, time-tested and understood, while the “lateral thinking”, obviously refers to just that: In brief, Yokoi-san was telling us to look at old problems and solutions in new ways.
But withered does not mean impotent. In fact, a better understanding of Yokoi-san’s meaning might be “tried and true” (and a better translation might be “seasoned” instead of “withered”). Julian Eggbrecht, former president of Factor 5, recently gave an interview in which he states the Nintendo Switch is somewhere between a WiiU (itself roughly comparable to, but more powerful than, the XBOX 360 and PlayStation 3) and an original XBOX One in terms of power, though obviously the resolution takes a hit if you’re not playing on an HD TV. Eggbrecht and Factor 5 have always been big fans of and close defenders of Nintendo, even having a hand in developing the GameCube (and thus the Wii as well, which was built out of GameCube tech), and they worked technical wonders on their hardware with such games like Super Turrican 1 and 2, the original Star Wars Rogue Squadron and its spiritual successor Star Wars Episode I: Battle for Naboo, the N64 port of Resident Evil 2 and the Pokémon Stadium series. Factor 5 did things with Nintendo consoles everyone else in the industry laughed at and said was impossible and yet, somehow, they did it anyway. If anyone embodies the spirit of “lateral thinking with withered technology” it’s them, and so when they come out and give an interview enthusiastically defending and supporting the Switch, I believe them.
(And indeed, this is a lesson they had to learn the hard way and that cost them dearly. Factor 5’s collapse in the late 2000s can be read as stemming rather directly from a doomed exclusivity deal they made with Sony and the PlayStation 3 for Lair and Animal Wars. A deal they struck *specifically because* they wanted to work with the latest and greatest console hardware and were initially “baffled” by Nintendo’s business decisions with the Wii.)
The bottom line is that the Switch is not a weak machine (again, the original XBOX One, which came out in 2013, isn’t even all that old), and even if it was that shouldn’t matter to a genuine craftsman. But Eggbrecht’s passion stands in stark contrast to the sentiments espoused by other developers: Oddworld creator Lorne Landing spoke very disparagingly of Nintendo’s console, essentially saying it’s doomed to failure because it’s not as powerful as the other home consoles, it’s a waste of time and money to invest in and that Nintendo is hopelessly backwards-thinking, even insinuating that this supposed conservatism killed the company’s late former president Satoru Iwata. Landing similarly has no sympathy for the Wii, which he considers a failure in spite of being the industry leader by a considerable margin throughout the entire seventh generation because of a lack of third-party support.
Landing is right the Wii had little support in the way of AAA third party titles, but it’s indicative not of some failing of Nintendo or the Wii, but rather the toxic culture of technofetishistic elitism pervading the video game industry. Any arguments that a lack of third party support on the Wii was due to Nintendo’s dwindling market share as was the case on the GameCube are provably, factually nonsense. The simple reality is that the Wii could not run the games the AAA publishers wanted to make, and at the time they preferred to take a massive hit into potential profits than release a product custom-tailored to a platform deemed “inferior”. I’m sure the fact the Wii sold phenomenally well to people outside the hardcore gamer culture, especially women, probably played a part in it getting that reputation as well. Just like the Game Boy before it, another console built around “withered technology”.
We can already see this happening again to some degree on the Switch. The console is doing quite well, selling out everywhere and pushing up against the very limits of Nintendo’s manufacturing capabilities (remember, Nintendo is manifestly not a tech giant like Sony or Microsoft: They’re a toy company with massive brand recognition), but that’s apparently not enough for some people. Capcom wants their new Monster Hunter game, World, to be a top-of-the-line, cutting-edge graphical powerhouse that will break the series into the Western market in a big way, so it’s coming out on the XBOX One and PlayStation 4, but not the Nintendo Switch. This is in spite of the fact Monster Hunter games have traditionally sold phenomenally well on Nintendo handhelds because of Japanese gaming habits (and to be fair Japan is getting an exclusive Switch “port” of another Monster Hunter game that’s also out on the 3DS).
I stress I’m not making the typical argument Nintendo fans have made in regards to Capcom these past few months, that they’re somehow “abandoning” some special “relationship” the two companies supposedly had over the past two generations, that’s silly-I’m merely expressing concern that Capcom is shooting themselves in the foot because of some potential hangup I fear they’re having about tech specs. There’s certainly no reason the Switch shouldn’t be getting the likes of The Disney Afternoon Collection or Mega Man Legacy Collection 2, and they seem genuinely disinterested in the new platform: The Switch port of Super Street Fighter II was lackluster at best, and Capcom seemed shocked that the console was actually selling well, having to pledge their support to the system noticeably later than other publishing houses. I’m not even a fan of Capcom’s games, but their business decision here doesn’t make sense to me.
(In fact, some of the arguments raised about why the Switch is doomed to failure seem to me to go beyond elitist and ill-informed and swerve straight into bizarre “you’re just trying to come up with any possible excuse to mock the platform no matter what” ravings. Dan Nanni of Boss Key Studios, headed by infamous ex-Epic dev Cliff Bleszinski, said their new arena shooter LawBreakers couldn’t come to the Switch because Nintendo’s system doesn’t have enough buttons to play it. Except for the fact that, no matter which controller you use, the Switch has just as many buttons as the PlayStation 4’s beloved DualShock, and that console can apparently run LawBreakers just fine.)
The controversy over the Switch seems part of a larger swerve towards elitism and classism that’s only gotten worse in the past few years. Famous composer David Wise, a man whose work I typically respect, gave an interview a few months back about his time with Rare and Nintendo in the late 80s and early 90s where he actually called the NES and Famicom a “doorbell” (in reference to the consoles’ sound cards, which actually were based around the same technology used in doorbells) and expressed his constant frustration that Nintendo’s hardware didn’t give him the freedom of CD audio technology. This echoes the complaints of many, many other developers over the years, is the same sentiment behind why so many of them jumped ship to the original PlayStation in 1995, and is strikingly reminiscent of criticisms leveled against the Wii and Switch. Nevermind that “doorbell” was responsible for some of the most iconic and memorable music in the history of the video game medium (including many songs Wise himself composed), *specifically because* its limitations forced composers to craft instantly recognisable jingles that would stay with players without getting old.
Ironically, Sony’s Jim Ryan has been one of the Switch’s biggest champions, saying the industry is healthy when Nintendo is healthy, encouraging PlayStation fans to buy both a PS4 *and* a Switch, and even all but saying the Switch is the successor to the PlayStation Vita.
This isn’t just worryingly noticeable in the discourse surrounding Nintendo and the Switch: I’ve already mentioned the rush to replace the PlayStation 4 and XBOX One after what seems like an appallingly brief time on the market, and there are other scary signs too. The otherwise reliable Digital Foundry just ran a reprehensibly clickbaity headline questioning whether Unreal Engine 4 was a “good fit” for the upcoming Dragon Quest XI, because it was “middleware”. Now, in case you’re unfamiliar, Unreal Engine 4 looks like this. It’s a famously developer-friendly engine known for being an accessible and easy-to-use way to quickly and effortlessly craft AAA-quality visuals and physics. It’s a favourite of indie devs (Titanic: Honor and Glory uses it. Their game currently looks like this), but even the big names use it too: Square-Enix is using it in their much-ballyhooed remake of Final Fantasy VII, and Rocksteady uses it Batman: Arkham Knight. Digital Foundry eventually concludes their article by saying Dragon Quest XI looks fine (of course), but it’s hard to read their headline as anything other than scaremongering for the benefit of hardcore gamers because Unreal Engine 4 is “casual-friendly” and used by a lot of first-time indie devs for games released on Steam.
A more benign, yet no less worrying, example comes from Rez creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi. The cult classic game, designed to recreate the experience of synaesthesia itself, just got a surprise release on the PC for the first time. When asked by Metro about where he’d like to go with Rez from here, Mizuguhi-san said
“I like to use the improvements from new technology all the time. But now I’m waiting for new technology after basic VR, mainly the resolution. We need to get from HD to 4K and from 4K to 8K. And when we have 8K for each eye, I think that is enough. I think that is kind of the singularity point. If we get to 8K it looks real and we can make a true illusion.But I want to create more, if you can move and feel in 3D space maybe you can touch the sounds, you can touch the music. So in the future we can create a new type of experience. Whether that is a game or a new type of entertainment though, I don’t know.”
I’m not a vision specialist and can’t comment on the specifics, but I’ll just raise few more general concerns. Firstly…Do we actually need video games to look completely photorealistic? Who decided that was the end goal for the entire medium? I was perfectly happy with the way polygon graphics looked in 2011, just as I was with the way they looked in 2002. I was also perfectly happy with the way sprite art graphics looked in 1992, just as I was with the way they looked in 1985. It’s a matter of art style, and I think the problem is not raw technical power, but the way developers accommodate for and design around it. I think the big problem with the seventh generation (and also the fifth) was that developers got overexcited and overambitious and wanted to make games well above and beyond what the current hardware could handle and, in the former case, were actually misled into thinking the hardware was more powerful than it was.
Here’s a good case study of what I mean that’s near and dear to me. I’ve recently been playing Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires as part of what is apparently my new life’s mission to play every Omega Force musō game ever made. Now this one I think is incredible and would be just about everything I ever wanted out of a musō game (seriously, the Free Mode alone makes this one worth purchasing: I’ve logged almost 50 hours just on it) except for one thing: Omega Force released the Dynasty Warriors 8 series on both 7th and 8th generation hardware, and most people probably played this one on the PlayStation 4. But I’m playing the PC version, and Koei-Tecmo decided the PC should get a straight port of the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita version of the game instead, which is noticeably technically handicapped. Dynasty Warriors never looks *amazing* graphically, but that’s fine: All of the horsepower goes under the hood instead. Except, graphical fidelity is not the problem for this game. Rather, the reason Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires feels compromised on the PC, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita is because of so-called “spot turrets”.
In Dynasty Warriors, or any other musō game, the big draw is the 1 vs. 1000 gameplay, and it’s exhilarating to stylishly flip, somersault and slash your way through an unceasing army of enemy mooks and monsters. The Samurai Warriors 4 series in particular just about perfects this feeling, with the ground seemingly alive and undulating with the mass of humanity you’re up against, creating a tactile experience unlike anything else. Sadly however, this feeling is truncated in the otherwise-excellent Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires because the older build of the PC, PS3 and Vita version quite obviously cannot render that many models on screen at one time. Instead, the technical detail went into making the game look nice with god rays, fancy lighting effects and detailed terrain and environmental textures.
The goal of the Empires games is to capture enemy bases by and supply lines, thus increasing your army’s range and defenses. You do this by whacking a bunch of dudes, which whittles down a given base’s troop strength. It’s a very Eastern approach to strategy, based around territory control, surrounding tactics and endurance. Well, this game gives you “spot turrets”, which, after you punch them a bit, disappear (like, literally clip out of existence), which counts for 100 or so guys. Every base has three or four of these things, and a completely effective approach is to just concentrate your efforts on taking them out, allowing you to capture a base within seconds without ever crossing swords (or throwing daggers, or whatever) with another soldier. I can’t escape the nagging suspicion that the reason these things exist is to make up for the fact the game can’t render all the character models it needs to, and the consequence is that this allows the player to handily sidestep the whole “1 vs. 1000” thing. You know, the entire point of Dynasty Warriors.
This is not to say the PS3 and PS Vita are in some ways “inferior” because of this. It was perfectly possible for Omega Force to design this version of Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires in such a way that did not compromise the series’ core gameplay for graphical fidelity. The original Hyrule Warriors for the WiiU, a machine that was at least comparable technically to the PlayStation 3, didn’t have any problems like this, and that’s because The Legend of Zelda’s art style has never attempted to chase photorealism (in spite of certain entries kinda pretending they did to keep fans quiet). But they chose not to do that in this case, and I think that hurts what is otherwise a superlative game. In spite of Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires offering all the game modes I want in a musō game, I have to admit it’s a far more satisfyingly visceral experience to play Samurai Warriors 4-II, which is a modern build designed for 8th generation hardware…or the *original Samurai Warriors on the PlayStation 2! The PS2 was the weakest console of the 6th generation and boy does the original Samurai Warriors look spartan (some of the environments have next to no visible detail), but, crucially, it can still get all those character models onscreen and it’s still every bit as satisfying as you’d hope.
But my second point inspired by Mizuguhi-san’s statement would simply be a call for introspection. Is the reason we want photorealism in video games *really* so we can get to the point where games are indistinguishable from reality? And if so…Why? What’s wrong with reality such that we feel we need to craft an artificial alternative to it? This is all beginning to sound alarmingly like Singularitarianism, and indeed Mizuguchi-san even *uses* the term “singularity”. Rez‘s creator seems to want to create a video game that can serve as a spiritual awakening, and I think using that language leads us to some dangerous places. No matter how powerful a work of art Rez may be (and I’m very much looking forward to playing it myself, as I never had the chance to before), it remains just that: A work of art. Art is by definition imperfect, a flawed artifice created as a form of self-expression for some very tangible creators. Once we get to the point where we think art, let alone video games, can replace something ephemeral and eternal we feel we’ve lost, we’ve let ourselves get too far gone. Art can help you learn things about yourself, maybe even set you on the correct path, but it can never replace that which is missing within yourself.
And even if it could, what would be the point if enlightenment was only available to the rich and affluent upper classes? The electronics industry is one of the most wasteful and ecologically destructive of an already-destructive capitalist system of overproduction. And I fear in our rush to create the perfect artistic simulacrum, we’ll loose touch with what’s truly important in our lives: Our environment, our natural homes, and each other.