The Full Game + Expansion Pack Model, or, Why Wipeout HD Fury = The Future of Downloadable Games
Developers have been wringing their hands over App Store pricing for the past year, trying to figure out how to make money on games that—under the best conditions, but in actuality, very rarely—approach the quality of PlayStation Portable releases. So here’s the answer: Sony’s futuristic hovercraft racing game Wipeout HD Fury. We profiled Wipeout HD last September, a $20 downloadable game for the PlayStation 3 console, praising its pricing, distribution, and most importantly, its combination of cutting-edge graphics and exhilarating gameplay. Yesterday, Sony released Wipeout HD Fury, a $10 expansion pack that requires the original download, adding eight new tracks, 13 new ship models, new music, and a new user interface.
To be very clear about why this particular expansion pack works, and had us excitedly doing a midnight download with no questions asked before purchase, several facts need to be stated. First, the initial release was stunning—not just a console-quality game, but a piece of software that truly showed off what the console could do, priced so reasonably that we wanted to support the developers’ future efforts. Sony treated the initial title not as some half-quality, not-quite-finished game, but rather as a technology showcase complete with enough tracks, challenges, and music to fully justify a purchase. The tracks were as “alive” as visions of largely metal and glass future metropolises could be, with little background details that made each stage feel as if the crafts were racing through real, inhabited places.
Second, the Fury expansion pack offers real value, and it’s apparent from moment one. You boot up the game and see that the previously clean white and blue interface has been replaced with a grittier black and red version, complete with particle-effect rendered versions of ships, occasional and deliberate out-of-phase images—pop-up boxes shudder like a flickering TV—and edgier music. There’s an option to switch back to the prior interface, but after seeing this one, we didn’t want to.
The new stages follow in their predecessors’ footsteps, offering 60fps smoothness, outstanding design, and a level of detail that is almost invariably staggering. Every texture looks great at its normal distance, and you can switch between multiple in-game and paused camera views to see additional details that enable Wipeout HD Fury to look literally as good or better than the pre-rendered art Sony used to create for past Wipeout games. This discussion thread does the game far more justice than these quickly-snapped images; it suffices to say that Sony put as much time into making the new levels look fantastic as it had with the preceding title.
And there have been gameplay additions, as well: an Eliminator mode to rack up as many competitor eliminations as possible, leading to a target score, a Zone Battle mode that forces multiple vehicles to compete to reach a specific target speed first, and Detonator, which turns tracks into shooting galleries with fixed targets and limited ammunition to take them down. There’s also a new instant-180 feature, letting you turn your pack-leading ship completely around in a flash to unleash the weapon it’s carrying on unsuspecting followers. Plus, online multiplayer remains intact, with access to two of the three new modes.
When a developer does just about everything right, as Sony did in this case, the impact on potential purchasers is electric and palpable. Reactions from the PlayStation community have been not just overwhelmingly positive, but almost universally in the “amazing” category—exactly the sort of buzz that a company needs when its console’s sales have been hurting. If Sony can make a business out of $20 downloadable console games and full-sized $10 update packs—for the PlayStation 3, no less—anyone can. And on the iPhone, where the initial cost of development is way lower and the results are far less engaging, $10 premium downloadable games with big $5 level and feature upgrade packs seems to be the “right” direction for developers to take. Cartridges and discs may still dominate leading game platforms today, but every Wipeout-like release makes them feel like the walking dead. This is the future of gaming, and for the first time in many years, it feels like a future that’s worth paying for.
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