Big Pic­ture Mode

In­dus­try is­sues given the widescreen treat­ment

EDGE - - DISPATCHES PERSPECTIVE - NATHAN BROWN

Like the rest of you, I ex­pect, I was shocked by the news that Square Enix was look­ing to off­load IO In­ter­ac­tive. Af­ter all, the Dan­ish stu­dio has spent the past few years mak­ing, re­leas­ing and then con­tin­u­ing to make per­haps the best Hit­man game of them all. It got an Edge cover in 2015 and an Edge 9 in 2016, but in 2017 the stu­dio that makes it is be­ing cast aside while Square Enix fo­cuses in on what it calls “key fran­chises and stu­dios” – a phrase that roughly trans­lates as “things con­nected to Fi­nal

Fantasy” and will have sub­sidiary and part­ner stu­dios twitch­ing ner­vously ev­ery time the phone rings in the weeks to come.

Square Enix is cer­tainly keen to off­load the stu­dio. Reports claim it’s let­ting IO keep the rights to Hit­man, and it was pre­pared to slap a loss of al­most £34m on its ac­counts to get the stu­dio off its books. As I write, it is do­ing the things pub­lish­ers must in th­ese cir­cum­stances – wish­ing the stu­dio all the best while try­ing to find it fresh in­vest­ment – but IO has al­ready had to lay off a chunk of its staff and, if no buyer is found, things may reach their nat­u­ral, un­pleas­ant con­clu­sion.

The in­stinc­tive re­ac­tion in sit­u­a­tions such as this is to blame the pub­lisher. We did it when Ac­tivi­sion shut down Bizarre Cre­ations, when Sony dropped the shut­ters on Evo­lu­tion and when Mi­crosoft killed off Lion­head. It’s al­ways eas­ier to blame the big­ger boy, es­pe­cially when he just put the mak­ers of some of your favourite games out of work. And the pub­lisher must bear a share of the blame for the cre­ative and fi­nan­cial mis­steps that ul­ti­mately con­demned the stu­dio to fail­ure. Square Enix will have signed off on Hit­man’s bold episodic struc­ture: in­deed, af­ter the un­ex­pected suc­cess of Life

Is Strange, it may have pos­i­tively en­cour­aged it. So it must share the blame for Hit­man’s ev­i­dently poor sales. On PC, ac­cord­ing to the rea­son­ably re­li­able track­ing site Steam­spy, it sold around 620,000 copies. Ac­cord­ing to the same web­site, Ab­so­lu­tion sold a shade un­der three mil­lion.

For it was surely the struc­ture, rather than its in­dis­putable qual­ity, that did for

Hit­man. There are a few strands to this, I think. First is that the episodic ap­proach to re­leas­ing games, that felt so novel when Tell­tale told its heart­break­ing tale of sur­ro­gate par­ent­hood in The Walk­ing Dead’s first sea­son, is no longer so ap­peal­ing. The main cul­prit in that has to be Tell­tale it­self. The stu­dio’s busi­ness model is an im­mac­u­late, but weary­ing con­flu­ence of be­ing able to crack out an episode in a mat­ter of weeks while also be­ing un­able to say no to any of­fers. And so it is po­si­tion­ing it­self as a sort of HBO of games, if Band Of Broth­ers had an­i­ma­tion glitches, The Wire was prone to hard crashes, and Game Of Thrones would oc­ca­sion­ally for­get your progress and punt you all the way back to the first episode. Tell­tale pop­u­larised the episodic videogame and, by be­ing at once in­creas­ingly pro­lific in its out­put and dis­mally stag­nant in its tech­nique, may well also have killed it.

Yet we’re prob­a­bly to blame too – and by that I don’t mean the royal Edge we, but you and me, and mostly prob­a­bly you, be­cause I get ev­ery­thing for free any­way. I am just be­ing po­lite. De­spite Tell­tale’s best ef­forts, as a game-play­ing pub­lic we re­main largely un­ac­cus­tomed to games be­ing par­celled up in this man­ner. When the first episode of a TV show ap­pears, we hap­pily take a punt on it, be­cause do­ing so costs noth­ing but time. But a game costs money, and when only part of a whole is on of­fer, we can­not see the en­tirety of the ex­pected-value equa­tion. So we hes­i­tate. And if we’re not in on the ground floor, we’ll prob­a­bly skip the next cou­ple of episodes too, and see how things shake out. Un­like Tell­tale’s work, how­ever, IO’s

Hit­man im­proved greatly over the course of its sea­son. It had its peaks and troughs, sure, but the fi­nal re­sult is a game that ben­e­fited hugely from its devel­oper’s abil­ity to im­ple­ment the les­sons it learned from the re­cep­tion to ear­lier episodes into the mak­ing of the later ones. Sadly, once the fin­ished ar­ti­cle is avail­able in one pack­age, we feel as if we’ve missed out; we who play games are in con­stant pur­suit of the new, so when

Hit­man’s com­plete sea­son dropped onto shelves in Jan­uary, it was al­ready old, and too eas­ily ig­nored. This story should give us all pause for thought: about our at­ti­tude to episodic games, about our re­lent­less pur­suit of the new, plus – and this ap­plies to Square Enix too – about the ex­tent to which we re­ally value qual­ity as a mea­sure of a game’s worth. I wish ev­ery­one at IO all the best.

It’s al­ways eas­ier to blame the big­ger boy, es­pe­cially when he just put the mak­ers of your favourite games out of work

Nathan Brown is Edge’s ed­i­tor. Next is­sue’s col­umn will be re­leased one para­graph at a time over a 12-month pe­riod

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