Trends That Defined A Console Generation

by Mike Futter on Jul 21, 2014 at 09:28 AM

Our month of features celebrating the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii is halfway done. If you have not seen our lists of the best Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii games, then spend some time deciding if we hit the mark or lost our minds. If you don’t agree with us, maybe you’ll find one of 35 developers who you align with more closely.

Today, we’re looking at how the last generation changed the landscape of video gaming for better and for worse. These trends have altered the course of the industry.

DLC Is Here To Stay
The single largest change for console gaming in the last generation was the way in which developers approached their products. Prior to last generation (with a few first-party exceptions), what was shipped on the disc was the final word on a game. Bugs and glitches (even those that could break a game) were untouchable once media was pressed, packaged, and shipped.

The ability to update games, something that wasn’t fully understood by consumers when first announced, revealed itself to be a double-edged sword. Like all tools, gamers found that this one could be used for both good and evil.

Playing Dress Up
One of the earliest pieces of Xbox 360 downloadable content was the now-infamous Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion Horse Armor. The $2.50 add-on, which blends cosmetic glitz with increased armor for your mount, is the punchline to many jokes, but it’s Bethesda that is laughing. 

When I sat on a PAX East panel with Bethesda vice president Pete Hines, he intimated that the inexpensive item (what we’d now call a “microtransaction”) has been wildly successful. Anyone who plays League of Legends can attest to the allure of purely aesthetic customization items. 

The idea for new skins and decorations isn’t new. Games have offered up hidden costumes and cosmetic items for ages, but they used to be unlockable via progress or cheat codes. Now, players are often asked to open their wallets to pretty up their in-game avatars. Unfortunately, this opened up some avenues for abuse.

(Note: We originally attributed the Horse Armor as the very first piece of Xbox 360 content on April 3, 2006. It appears that Kameo beat it out with Winter Warrior skins on November 11, 2005. We apologize for the error.)

On-Disc DLC
Seeing the success of cosmetic items, Capcom decided to get crafty about its delivery of skins for its games. Content for Street Fighter X Tekken, Resident Evil 6, and other games was shipped on the disc but locked away behind a paywall.

This resulted in outcry from gamers who felt they were entitled to completed content that was located on the media they had purchased. Some even went so far as to hack the game to release the locked the content, for which Capcom was charging $20 (via extremely small downloads for unlock keys), all of it already on the disc and complete.

Day One DLC
Only one other DLC-related element is loathed by the masses as much as locked on-disc content: day one DLC. This largely stems from a misunderstanding about development timelines and an assumption that the content is completely finished when the game is done (and therefore should be included for free).

In many cases, DLC is started by a team of people who have completed their jobs on the core game. This enables developers and publishers to keep staff working (and employed) when they’d otherwise be waiting for the next full project.

The public relations pressure around significant, walled-off content releasing alongside games has mounted. BioWare, which had an additional character tied to DLC for Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2, Mass Effect 2, and Mass Effect 3 has said it won’t be continuing the practice with this fall’s Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Because of the PR challenges, we’ve seen many in the industry push out their first DLC content away from the day the game releases. It’s becoming more common to see drops at 30, 45, and 60 days (or even more protracted if the game has enough sales momentum). 

The combination of knowing the content arc (and having some of that work done) with a later release cycle has enabled a trend that has grown since the second half of last generation. Enter: the season pass.

Buy Now, Play Later
Back in 2011, Rockstar/Take-Two and NetherRealm/Warner Bros. had the brilliant idea to let people know early that more content for L.A. Noire and Mortal Kombat would be coming. The former got a “Rockstar Pass” filled with two suits for Cole Phelps, four new cases (rolled out one at a time), and 20 collectibles that unlock another suit.

Mortal Kombat’s offering was similar. Four characters were revealed and distributed over time, along with new costumes for existing characters. Both Take-Two and Warner Bros. found success, and other publishers took notice.

Season passes are a huge win for publishers, because they generate guaranteed revenue up front. Gamers are enticed with discounts that are especially critical when season passes disappear with the final content drop (as Sony did with The Last of Us).

The season pass model has some significant drawbacks, which have hopefully served as cautionary tales (and motivation to improve practices). For instance, BioShock Infinite’s season pass took a while to get off the ground. The first release, the underwhelming Clash in the Clouds (essentially Horde Mode), came out three full months after the game’s March 2013 release. The first story-based add-on, Burial at Sea: Episode 1, wasn’t made available for nearly seven and half months. That’s a long time to sit on collected revenue. 

Season passes don’t even necessarily cover the entirety of released DLC. Parsing out which content is included, which is standalone (typically cosmetic and weapon items), and which straddles both categories is confusing. Some publishers have found the way around this, though.

For Batman: Arkham Origins, Warner Bros. spelled out in advance what players would get. The publisher promised costumes, one story add-on, and one new piece of challenge mode content. A graphic helped make things even clearer, dispelling any confusion.

The season pass isn’t going away, and it’s only getting more expensive. It’s conceivable that add-on content at this discounted bundle rate will double the cost of the base game, as Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Forza have all had $50 add-on packages for some time.

DLC Replaces Cheat Codes
1986: Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A

2006: EA suggests you pay $10 for in-game currency in The Godfather

2009: Capcom sells bundles of five Street Fighter IV costumers for $3.99 each

2011: Gotham City Impostors launches with more than $200 of in-game customization items

Back in the day, you could punch in a button code and fill your in-game bank account, unlock characters and costumes, and speed your way through a game’s more challenging parts with upgraded weaponry. In the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 era, cheat codes became a rarity.

Instead, publishers realized they could sell you the things you used to get for free. Cheat code sections in magazines (or full books of tricks and tips) used to be your price of entry. Now, players are willing to spend hard money for soft bonuses.

We wish we could say that this was inevitable, but it wasn’t. People fell for it, paid the money, and are now reaping what they sowed. This practice might be tweaked from time to time, but expect that you’ll be asked to pay for bonuses like in-game currency until the end of time.

Online Passes (R.I.P.)
Celebrate, gamers, for you have slain the dragon. Well, one of them. Back in 2010, EA introduced “Project $10.” You probably know it better as “the dreaded online pass.”

The intent was to monetize copies of games acquired via second-hand means (read: used). In order to play online (or access bonus content), players who didn’t purchase new copies would have to pony up $10 for an online pass in order to get online.

As the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 era began to sunset last year. EA terminated the program (because of consumer feedback, according to now former vice president of corporate communications Jeff Brown). Ubisoft followed suit after we reported that some of Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag’s single-player content was locked behind the paywall.

Read on as we look at important system features from last generation.

Consoles Begin To Evolve

Plug in your NES, Sega Master System, or even your Xbox or PlayStation 2, and you’ll find that not much has changed since the day those consoles were released. The menus and interface are still identical.

By contrast, the Xbox 360 that launched in 2005 isn’t much like system operating today. As you can see in our retrospective on the evolution of Xbox Live from last year, things have changed quite a bit.

As for the PlayStation 3, the XMB menu that holds games, media, settings, and the friends list hasn’t undergone a significant evolution. New categories were added, and the menu became accessible from within games. The PlayStation Store received a recent facelift to make it snappier and easier to sift through. Animated themes, which spice up the desktop, were added later.

The Wii saw a number of updates in the form of “channels.” The menu screen, which looks like a number of television sets, was updated with weather, social polling, news, and other apps.

The most important app to come to all three consoles has nothing to do with gaming, though. Xbox 360 was the first to welcome the Netflix streaming option (now the primary way many engage with the company) in 2008. In 2009, PlayStation 3 users were able to start streaming Netflix movies through the use of a disc. Later, they were able to dump the media with a downloadable app. The Wii followed the PlayStation 3’s path in 2010. Netflix was first a disc-based application, eventually dropping the hard copy and becoming a standalone service on the hard drive.

Since then, apps have flooded the console space, giving gamers more viewing options. Premium channels, sports leagues, and streaming services have all been getting in on the action.  

Wireless Freedom
For the first time, all three platform holders decided to cut the cord. The Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii all came standard with wireless controllers (unless you opted for the less expensive Xbox 360 launch model). 

Cutting the cord meant new freedom, but it also meant some interesting new problems to solve. The DualShock 3’s internal battery meant that you weren’t paying for AA batteries, but your choices when low on juice were tethering or changing controllers (if you owned a second).

The Xbox 360 controller uses disposable batteries, with rechargeable battery packs available for an additional cost. Unfortunately, the accessories tend to develop a memory quickly, meaning you’ll probably find yourself replacing them at some point.

The Wii Remotes also take AA batteries, but don’t offer an official battery pack option. Instead, many users opted for lithium-ion batteries to power their controllers. The Wii Remote also introduced some unforeseen consequences. All of the controllers come with a wrist strap, but some people found that to be a little too inconvenient.

Nintendo offered replacement wrist straps with thicker cabling and easier clasps, and eventually made silicon sleeves. At that point, users were on their own if they decided to avoid the safety warnings.

Motion Control Invades Consoles
Nintendo’s decision to broaden the gaming market with accessible controls was an overwhelming success. The Wii found its way into the homes of people who wouldn’t normally identify as gamers. 

Your parents (who told you to stop playing video games and grow up) and your grandparents (who never understood what you saw in “those things”) were suddenly bowling their hearts out in Wii Sports. The demand was so high that retailers were sold out for over six months, making the Wii one of the most coveted items for far longer than anyone expected.

Because of this monumental triumph, both Microsoft and Sony decided to follow suit. Sony’s solution, the PlayStation Move, was similar to the Wii Remote. Unfortunately, because it was an add-on as opposed to an integral part of the system, the install base was relatively small. Developers didn’t commit heavily, and the library never flourished. It’s only now, with the introduction of Sony’s Project Morpheus virtual reality headset, that we see that the Move might have been ahead of its time. The ice cream cone-shaped controllers are a good fit for a virtual environment, as we noted at E3.

Microsoft decided to dump the idea of a controller altogether with the Kinect peripheral. The camera sensor sold well, but also never earned a solid library, except for Harmonix’s three Dance Central offerings. As we know now, Microsoft bet big on Kinect 2.0, having so far lost that bargain. The company recently pulled back its commitment to the peripheral and removed it from the Xbox One box at retail.

Achievements and Trophies Change The Way We Play
Remember when magazines used to feature photographs of proud gamers with their high scores? How about the arcade machine you revisited to see your initials (only to find out the machine had been reset and your triumph erased)?

Microsoft figured out a way to fix that with its achievement system. You don’t get anything tangible for them. You can’t trade them in for cash or content. They’re simply badges of honor, and a lot of people love chasing them.

Xbox 360 Achievements (and later PlayStation Trophies and Steam Achievements) had a bigger effect than you might realize. The connection between gaming and YouTube became indelible, as people flocked to find videos to unlock the most challenging of the intangible awards. Whole enterprises sprung up around the lists, tricks, and tactics for maximizing gamerscore. People love seeing those little popups on the screen, and we’re confident that the concept isn’t going anywhere. If they did, we imagine that Ray Cox, the first person to hit 1,000,000 gamerscore, would be pretty disappointed.

Some feel that achievements have negatively impacted their gaming, though. We’ve heard from people who have turned off the notifications, because they otherwise feel compelled to spend time on busy work when they’d otherwise move on to new experiences. Thankfully, if you want an experience free of those little nudges, you can make that happen.

Next, we discuss how the business of video games changed during the last generation.

The Joy (And Terror) Of Online Interactions
During the last generation, the Internet grew up. By that we mean the technology, not the people. Social media became a common term, and our networks exploded, as we were put into contact with more faceless strangers than ever before.

Unfortunately, that anonymity breeds a level of toxicity. This is no better exemplified by the long-running website “Fat, Ugly, or ***,” which chronicles some of the more offensive things said to female gamers online. If the text messages aren’t bad enough for you, it’s not uncommon for players to spew racist, sexist, and homophobic garbage over voice chat. Thankfully, there are mechanisms in place to mute, block, and report offenders.

It’s not all bad news, though. Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and the Wii’s online services have the ability to bring people together from across the globe. We’ve all likely met friends online with whom we stay in regular contact without having ever met in person.

These services are new social networks of their own that allows friends to reconnect, even if separated by hundreds or thousands of miles. We still see our college friends online and get together for the occasional game. Voice chat and gaming are a great way to stay connected, even if life has taken you and your friends in vastly different directions.

The Birth Of Annualization, The Growth Of AAA, And the Death Of the Middle Class
Call of Duty, Battlefield, Assassin’s Creed, Just Dance. These titles have one thing in common: you can count on one every year.

Before last generation, annual titles were restricted to sports gaming, where it made sense at face value. Thanks to Activision, Ubisoft, and EA, that approach has spread to other brands and genres.

“For a core game, it’s a lot harder, because it takes a ton of resources to annualize a product,” says Tony Key, vice president of marketing at Ubisoft. “You can only successfully annualize a product if you have several teams working on it and that you are determined to innovate and bring breakthroughs to each version and every year. For something like Assassin’s Creed, it’s always a different time period, or a different assassin; it’s a new world. There’s always some sort of breakthrough feature that adds to the experience.” 

These perennial releases continue to grow each year, but so have their budgets. Budgets have exploded since the start of last generation. Call of Duty 2 (a 2005 Xbox 360 launch title) cost $14.5 million to create. Darksiders 2, which released in 2010, cost $45 million to make, and 2013’s Disney Infinity reportedly topped $100 million.

At a PAX East panel, former Harmonix director of communications John Drake made the point that $60 per customer simply isn’t enough to cover the cost of development. (See the DLC section at the top for more.)

With budgets getting larger and DLC becoming a requirement for some to break even, it’s also become harder for budget titles to compete (or even exist) when the definition of “budget” has changed so significantly). The concept of a $20 - $40 retail game has all but vanished, but two things have popped up in their place.

The last console generation solidified the importance of digital-only games. Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and WiiWare offerings are a vital part of the ecosystem.

Along with the surge in digital goods came a wellspring of indie development that has spread to consoles. Last generation, that often meant onerous publisher agreements, but all three platform holders are adapting to accommodate self-publishing.

Open-World Overtakes Linear Gaming
Grand Theft Auto used to stand alone, offering huge cities to explore and denizens to terrorize. Last generation saw enormous growth, as technology allowed developers to pack larger worlds full with NPCs, architecture, and activities.

Assassin’s Creed, Saints Row, Infamous, Crackdown, and a huge number of role-playing games began to offer gamers living environments. The sandboxes got bigger and more diverse, taking us from ancient cities to futuristic dystopias. 

Titles once restricted to PC were finally able to make a foothold in the console environment. Games like Crysis 2, The Witcher 2, and Metro 2033 were possible on consoles for the first time. Living room hardware is unlikely to ever fully catch up with PCs (or offer the same breadth of experiences), but the gap is narrowing in the best places.

The next innovation for open world games took its first step last generation. We’re seeing a growing trend of blended single-player and multiplayer experiences. Titles like Deep Silver’s Dead Island allowed players to see others that were nearby in parallel game worlds. Street Fighter IV gave players an arcade-like experience allowing them to play solo until a challenge request came in.

Everything Old Is New Again
Last generation brought gaming from standard definition into the HD era. To celebrate, all three platform holders found ways to update, repackage, and resell older content (even Nintendo, which had to be more creative).

It all kicked off with the God of War Collection, which brought together the PlayStation 2 titles on PlayStation 3. Following that, Sony and others flooded the market with polished versions of older favorites.

Square Enix updated Tomb Raider with an older trilogy, Ubisoft touched up its Prince of Persia games, Capcom gave us Resident Evil 4 and Code Veronica, Konami collected previous Metal Gear Solid games, and Activision updated Tony Hawk Pro Skater.

Microsoft got in on the action with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. Nintendo took a different route, as the Wii wasn’t an HD console. It updated some titles to make use of the Wii Remote control scheme. The Metroid Prime Trilogy (now extremely difficult to find) and both Gamecube Pikmin games got the treatment. Mario Power Tennis and Donkey Kong Jungle Beat rounded out that line.

Even though the visual resolution difference isn’t as drastic in the new generation, publishers are tapping their back catalogs for “definitive” editions, with Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, Halo, both Metro games, and Grand Theft Auto V confirmed. A number of collections are ripe for re-release, and we fully expect this trend to continue throughout the generation.