A new console generation is like a hard reset on the state of game development in a way, as developers are pushed to prove that each new console is second to none in the features it delivers. Every launch is filled with games that only really exist to show off the new graphical capabilities of the system while others are there to gently remind players that their favorite AAA developers are exclusive to one platform or another. It's also a time in which publishers get to try to change the rules a little, as evidenced from Microsoft's recently failed push at always-online console locked titles.
Alongside the battle against DRM have been a slew of other features all pushing to make the difference for the consumer, such as making consoles easier for indie developers to work with, increased integration as the primary household media center, more editing tools for gamers looking to make their own videos and so on. The features may not appeal to everyone out there but the point is to cast a wide net and catch the interest of as many different types of players as possible. But if we're going to focus on a feature that helps gamers almost universally, perhaps now is the time for these big publishers to finally rethink one of the major trends that consistently hurts almost every level of the gaming industry: Yearly releases.
When we take a look at the development teams of games that are near-venerated for their accomplishments in storytelling their developers often boast long hours spread across a few years of planning to achieve some sort of scope that's never before been experienced. Skyrim, Borderlands, Grand Theft Auto (or conversely Saints Row), and Battlefield are all great examples of series whom have managed to draw in incredible sales figures without sacrificing any of the features that have made their titles such huge successes in the first place. Additionally, with the support of DLC, these games have gone on to provide their players with increased depth and longevity while providing the development teams plenty of time to make plans for the future.
But the real difference between games like these and titles like Call of Duty, Assassins Creed or Halo isn't the sales numbers. No one can dispute the financial success of these yearly release titles, because if they weren't drawing in the big bucks they wouldn't be releasing on such a "˜regular' basis. Where things start go wrong for the industry is in how these games are developed and released, and how gamers are supposed to come to terms with what the value of a premium priced AAA game entails.
A single game doesn't need to reinvent the standards of design and excellence with every single release, but it does need to offer players an experience that not only provides a refreshing outlook on gameplay but is difficult to imitate. That's the difference between playing a game and watching a movie or reading a book; this is a form of entertainment that not only amuses us but challenges and inspires us whether it's in the form of puzzles, exploration, or a gruesome head shot. What yearly game releases do, for the most part, is dilute that. Not by choice of course, no developer ever wants to consciously make the decision to produce a game that's less inspiring than the last, but when attempting to conform to a yearly release cycle (even when working with multiple development teams that stagger their production) the franchise can only advance so far.
When we look at a series like Assassins Creed, one must be careful to accuse the developers at failing to innovate because they really haven't. They've created a unique world, unique characters, a story which spans ages and cultures, combat that stands out, all of the elements of good game design are there. But sifting through each individual title since the very first Assassins Creed in 2007 we'll see a pattern that continues to repeat itself: The launch of a solid title followed by spin-offs and mobile platforms that water down the franchise, then another console release followed by more watered down filler. Wouldn't that development time been better spent furthering the cause of the core console games, instead of simply trying to remind players that Assassins Creed still existed?
Of course the worse offender of this is the FPS genre, when often pits multiple development teams against one another to fight for the largest sales each winter. With updates that can largely be boiled down to patch notes, and maps that are stripped from the single player campaign (or perhaps the other way around) much of the actual new content featured in these yearly releases are quite limited. We've been down this road once before with titles like Guitar Hero, which used an almost kamikaze-like determination to bring the already niche rhythm gaming genre to a grinding halt; and though we're not likely to see anything that destructive occur ever again there's still no reason to encourage developing games that don't provide significant changes if they're going to charge full retail cost. In an age of DLC, patch updates and customizable game features the excuses are slim.
One could argue that yearly releases are responding to a continued demand for the franchise and that the dates are simply set to accommodate this, but to do so we would have to argue with the likes of Mario; who churns out a new game whenever he damn well feels like it and across any platform he damn well feels it should be on. In short Nintendo sets the expectation as to when their next title will be ready, regardless of demand, and although we may be impatient in waiting for the results the wait is almost always worth it. Their iconic characters have seemingly against all odds invented and reinvented the concept of platform gaming time and again and rarely lean on conventions of the past for more than just an example.
Ultimately when innovation and imagination must compete with a small release window it's gamers who suffer in the end. Yearly release titles may have had a place in the past where each game was expected to be some sort of counter against a competitor, but on-board DRM and DLC have proven development teams are more than able to find ways to extend the life of their products. If these consoles are designed to last for another ten years why can't their games last longer as well? Why can't we see a future where FPS titles sell us on their independent mechanics and forever continue to build upon them, only releasing a new game when a superior engine has been designed?
These are the questions that next gen publishers and developers should be answering to try and earn our favor. After all they've done nothing but tell us about how convenient the consoles would be for social networking, design, and multimedia, it's not unreasonable to hope the same amount of consideration and detail can be put into our gaming experiences.