Opinion: Publishers too reluctant to embrace new consoles

The new generation has been an unquestionable success. PlayStation 4 is selling at a faster rate than either the PS2 or PS3 at this point in their lifecycles, and Xbox One isn't too far behind. Given this success, why are publishers so reluctant to embrace it?

The release calendar tells the tale. More than anything, this is a year of hedging bets. Much has been made of the flurry of delays, and by looking at both the delayed games and the ones that remained in this year, a pattern starts to emerge. Pop quiz: What do Batman: Arkham Knight, The Witcher 3, The Division, and Evolve have in common? All of these high-profile delays are new-gen exclusives.

Cross-generation games, by contast, are consistently staying in this year's calendar cycle. Almost every third-party game still on-tap for this calendar year will be on both the current and last generation of consoles. The notable exception is Assassin's Creed Unity, which today received a slight delay but remained within this year. Still, Ubisoft has gone out of its way to make sure a last-gen game is coming too with Assassin's Creed Rogue.

Given the pattern, it's hard to shake the distinct feeling that publishers are simply uneasy about this generation. An extra holiday season would give them the opportunity to launch into a marketplace with higher install bases.

But why should they be nervous, when the new consoles are doing so well? 

The unprecedented longevity of the last generation may play a role. Generations of consoles had always lasted roughly 4-5 years before being replaced. PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 went almost twice that long. Through a combination of longevity and general growth in the games industry, publishers were able to enjoy a period of greater success and profits than ever before. Each console counted its number in the tens of millions of units. Capturing even a tiny fraction of those could put a game into the black.

Enter the new generation. Development costs are on the rise, and the most successful new console has sold a comparatively paltry 10 million units. While before a game could easily recoup by capturing only a small fragment of console owners, these hurdles mean a new-gen exclusive needs to get into a much higher percentage of console owners' homes to turn a profit. It's no wonder third-parties are hedging.

It's notable that first-party games aren't falling into the same trap. Games like Driveclub and Sunset Overdrive are still on-track, specifically because they're tied to the fate of the new consoles. Instead of publishers avoiding a release in an uncertain market, these are being funded to help sell more consoles and, by extension, make the marketplace safer and more inviting for third-parties. Microsoft has also started to shore up third-parties, with the announcement that Rise of the Tomb Raider would be exclusive to its platforms. When a first-party game is delayed, like The Order: 1886, it's likely for the generally standard rationale of finishing or improving the game. 

While that's fine for the short term, third-parties will need to take a bolder approach, and preferably soon. Holding on to the safe, reassuring glow of the last generation is bound to stifle creativity and progression in the medium. The new generation was already overdue with games starting to spin their wheels, and a leap forward in technology will help ambitious developers create new experiences. As long as publishers are playing it safe with cross-gen titles, the new-gen versions will just be prettier versions of the games we've already been playing for years. That hurts everyone involved.