Monday, May 22, 2006

2006 and Beyond

When I was at E3, my sense of the show was that Xbox 360 games were everywhere, and most of them looked very, very good. I don’t remember seeing many Xbox titles, and the ones I did see looked extremely poor in comparison to the 360 titles—particularly the games from 2K Sports.

That made me curious.

The software transition from current-gen to next-gen is always a touchy subject—abandoning a console is something that is going to make people angry, no matter how it’s handled. To lower manufacturing costs, though, the user base has to be ramped quickly—the faster it ramps, the more flexibility it creates in terms of pricing, and in the consumer market, pricing leverage is a critical factor.

To find out how the software transition was going, I checked the EB Games website and did a tally of all Xbox and Xbox 360 games listed. What I saw surprised me. Take a look at all games listed for future release (sorry for the ugly formatting here, but importing tables into Blogger is essentially impossible, as far as I can tell):

Publishers will shift almost all of these dates, so it’s far from an exact picture. There’s plenty of water there, though, to at least sense the tide. 45 Xbox 360 games are scheduled for release before the end of the year, but only 31 Xbox titles. Almost half of that 31 will be shipping by the end of June. After that, the 360 titles are listed in a 2-1 ratio for the end of the year.

In other words, in about two months, the transition from Xbox to Xbox 360 is essentially over.

2007? You can see for yourself. 40 titles listed for the 360. Zero listed for the Xbox. Again, that doesn’t mean that absolutely nothing will come out for the original Xbox next year, but even with a few additions, game releases for the Xbox are going to be very scarce.

Let’s take a look at another table (in two parts, due to the width), this one by genre:


------------Advent---Race---Air Combat---Dance---Platform

These are all listed games separated by genre. “Action” is somewhat of a catch-all category for the release listings, since both first person and third person games are included. Even with that skew, however, there are some interesting items here. First, what’s still coming out for the Xbox almost entirely consists of action games, sports, and racers—28 of 31 total titles are in those three groups.

There are a surprising number of adventure games (not necessarily adventure in the Dreamcatcher sense, but still adventures) in the pipeline for the 360. Still, though, Shooters and Action games represent roughly 50% of the future release list.

And even though the 360 has plenty of power to handle simulations and strategy games, there are very few in development. Even with enough system horsepower, the lack of a mouse-type controller is still a big issue.

Fighting games and platform games? Just a niche now. Platformers drove the Genesis/SNES generation, and fighting games were a premier genre in the both the Saturn/PS1 generation and the early Dreamcast/PS2 generation, but no more. Less than 2.5% of the games listed for the 360 are fighters.

Oh, and one final note. That 85 in terms of number of titles for the 360 doesn’t include any of the Live Arcade games that will be released for purchase on the Marketplace. Include those, and we’d be well over 100 games.

So the Xbox 360, in terms of software, is looking very, very healthy.

The PS3? Impossible to tell, really, since nothing has officially been announced. The PS2 has 91 games scheduled for release between now and the end of the year, but only 5 announced for 2007. One interesting effect of the PS3 price is that I believe it gave legs back to the PS2—slower adoption of the new console means many more people will still be using the old console. If we see a slew of PS2 projects announced in the next three months compared to the PS3 announcements, that’s a nail in the coffin. Well, not that Sony needs another nail, since they seem to have their own nail gun at this point.

What will also be interesting to watch is how many additional titles get announced for the 360 in the upcoming months. Companies that were holding out for the PS3 are now holding a $599 bag of, um, disappointment. I strongly believe that far fewer projects will get announced for the PS3 (in the U.S. and Europe) than were originally forecast, and those developers will shift resources into Xbox 360 (and Wii) games.

I'm not going to list the full PS2 table, but if you’re wondering if the PS2 is also dominated by action games and shooters, the answer is no—sort of. Action games alone make up 30% of upcoming releases, but shooters are only 6.5%. Sports games are the second leading category at 15%. So combined, action games and sports games are 45% of games in development.

In other words, all the consoles tend to be dominated by a few categories of games.

That’s why the PC is so interesting.

To begin with, the raw numbers look very strong.


104 games listed, and given the digital distribution system for many titles now, this probably represents half of what’s really out there—you could easily add another 100 titles if you included everything from indie studios. It’s probably true that, going forward, the PC isn’t going to get quite as many AAA titles as the consoles, but if we've learned anything over the last few years, it's that the AAA designation is more related to profile than it is to quality. And there will still be plenty of high-profile games available for the most powerful game platform out there.

Here’s the best part, though. Check out the genre-specific numbers:

------------Advent---Race---Air Combat---Dance---Platform

In one little table, it’s easy to see why the PC is still so important as a gaming platform: breadth. Shooters, action, sims, strategy, MMO’s—and, in a lesser sense, sports games, puzzles (add digitally distributed games here and this category explodes), RPG’s, adventure games, and racers.

Yes, some categories are absent. Fighters and platform games. All together now: yawn. And you won’t find the latest dance revolution game on your PC, either. What you will find, though, is everything else.

Like I said, add the indie projects to this (many of which turn out to be excellent games) and these numbers easily more than double.

So in spite of the tremendous splintering of the PC platform due to technology changes and the introduction of multi-GPU systems, in spite of multiple operation systems, in spite of all the entirely logical reasons why the PC should be declining as a gaming platform, it’s not.


I’m guessing there are two primary reasons. One, the cost barriers are incredibly low. There is a tremendous cost advantage embedded in the PC platform. Guys in their garage can (and have) make a great game on a shoestring budget. I’ve said this before, but almost all of the best young talent in gaming development will start on the PC. It's a simple function of the cost structure.

Second, and I don’t think this can be overemphasized, digital distribution has advanced so far with the PC platform that, for now, it has an overwhelming advantage compared to the consoles. Overwhelming. Not only can developers make games for a fraction of the cost of console development, but they can get their games distributed as well. Yes, the Xbox Live Marketplace is a terrific idea, but it's minute compared to the digital distribution avenues for PC games.

This is a corollary to what I wrote a few weeks ago about talent and the Internet, when I said that if you’re good enough, people will find you. Well, if your game is good enough, people will find it.

On the PC, anyway.

Do you remember a game from 1999 called King of Dragon Pass? It was a wonderful, dense game, truly unique.

And it was released five years too soon.

Today, King of Dragon Pass would be a cult hit and tremendously successful. In 1999, it sold very few copies and quietly vanished. That would never happen today, because enough people play and write about games that they would have kept it alive until it gained traction.

That was a huge digression to end this, but now I'm thinking about King of Dragon Pass again, because I still have the manual on my desk. And if you're curious about the game, you can see the website here.

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