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Can the Thief reboot survive on only next-gen platforms?

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Imagine Garrett here representing Square and Eidos, and the guard representing current-gen consoles.

When the upcoming reboot of the Thief series, simply titled Thief, was unveiled, it was announced only for the next generation of consoles, those being the PS4, the PC and whatever Microsoft will call their new Xbox. Not a single mention was made of any current-gen versions of the game.

This means that current generation consoles like the PS3, Xbox 360 and (let’s be brutally honest) the Wii U will likely not be getting the game, leaving each platform’s considerably large install base out in the cold come Thief’s release time.

If you can’t tell by now, I believe this is a problem.

Say what you want about the stealth genre returning to relative popularity last year with games like Dishonored and Mark of the Ninja, but the fact of the matter is that they’re still very much niche games, designed for a specific audience who appreciates patience, challenge and flexibility.

You can also say what you want about next-gen consoles being awesome, but the fact of the matter is that the economy is far from bustling and next-gen platform price tags will be far from low. There will be gamers out there who will be more than happy to try out Thief but either won’t be able to afford a next-gen machine or won’t be convinced enough to buy one just so they can play the one game they’re interested in. Thief certainly won’t be a system seller on it’s own, I can guarantee you that.

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Even though stealth games are rising in popularity, they’re still part of a niche genre.

So what we have here is a genre with a somewhat limited audience coupled with consoles that require a pretty significant investment to acquire. Not exactly a match made in heaven, if you ask me. This will almost certainly be a bottleneck for the game’s overall sales, and if the game does underperform (and it likely will knowing Square Enix’s over-inflated budgets and sales expectations), then any sequels to the game will probably be canned and the entire franchise’s future will be in jeopardy.

Eidos Montreal’s argument seems to be that the game is simply too ambitious for the current crop of consoles. The developer has stated that they’re aiming to implement features that would only be possible on more powerful hardware, and this is certainly a valid case for staying exclusive to next-gen.

However, what I’ve seen and heard so far about the title doesn’t exactly scream space-age tech. Unreal Engine 3 and 30 frames per second? I’ll admit I’m no programming wizard, but that sounds quite doable on current-gen hardware. The raw power behind the visuals certainly looks good, but again, I’m not convinced that they’re so jaw-dropping that they couldn’t somehow be fit onto the PS3 and 360. One could always make the argument that next-gen technology could allow for larger levels and less loading times, but after experiencing sprawling, interconnected worlds with little to no loading like in Red Dead Redemption, I’d have to hesitantly disagree with that too.

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Beautiful? Yes. Undoable on current-gen hardware? I’m not so sure.

The only facets of the game that I do see as being improved by next-gen tech are the physics and artificial intelligence. A first-hand report of the game by Forbes‘ Dave Thier described phenomena such as “fire burns down hallways and produces new light sources as it does so — pieces of the ceiling crash and burn in what I’m told are real-time physics… complicated AI scripts that wouldn’t have been possible before…”. He stated that these elements didn’t feel tacked on, but rather “served to bring it to life”. In short, the article certainly made a strong case for keeping Thief next-gen, at least at first glance.

However, I can’t help but bring even these aspects into question. Are such complex physics really necessary for a stealth game like Thief, one that will (hopefully) be largely devoid of things like set pieces, environmental destruction and combat? And doesn’t great AI typically rely on intricate, extensive coding rather than hardware? Even Thier himself said these improvements are “no revolutionary changes” and “a lot of small touches”.

It sounds to me like Thief could still be squeezed onto current-gen consoles, even if it required slight downgrades and alterations for those particular versions, of which current-gen gamers will likely have no problem with. They’d be able to play the game and not miss out, while purchasers of the next-gen game can still be satisfied knowing that they have a better version and therefore still got their money’s worth from buying the more powerful console. Yes, such ports will take some time, money and effort, but there’s no way it won’t be the worth the extra sales Square will get from those versions. Dishonored did magnificently in sales, and that was released only a few months ago.

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Much like this maneuver, releasing Thief in the first place is risky and shouldn’t be made any harder.

Basically, my point is that Thief is putting itself in a risky position without adequate reason to do so. I simply can’t shake the feeling that Thief will be exclusive to next-gen consoles for little reason other than ‘because it can’. It’s almost as if Square Enix wanted something to fill the vacant release schedule on next-gen platforms, something that people would buy simply due to a lack of competition from other parties.

That may sounds like a good business decision on paper, but it could very well backfire, as it limits the game’s already limited audience by shutting out those interested who are happy with their PS3s and 360s for the time being. I firmly believe that a current-gen port, even if it required slight downgrades, would be very much worth Square Enix and Eidos Montreal’s time and effort, and would end up paying off. A reboot of a long-running stealth series is a risky endeavor by itself, and Thief could use all the help it can get if it’s going to survive in today’s market.

Of course, there’s always the possibility I’ll be wrong. Perhaps the vast majority of stealth and Thief fans have all become rich, putting their dexterous fingers to work by becoming software engineers, tailors and professional sewing needle makers. And perhaps the PC version, which is supposedly getting a lot of attention from the team, will be the version of choice for most players anyway. Only time will tell what other circumstances will or won’t help Thief in the long run.

 

What do you guys think? Should Thief stay a next-gen exclusive or not? Is the game technically demanding enough to need next-gen tech? Let us know in the comments section below, or drop a line on our forums. Be sure to keep an eye out for more news on Thief here at OnlySP.

 

Michael Urban
Now an occasional contributer, Michael Urban is the former Editor-in-Chief at OnlySP and has the nickname "Breadcrab" for reasons his therapist still doesn't understand. From the moment he first got hacked in Runescape, he's been uninterested in multiplayer games and has pursued the beauty of the single-player experience, especially in terms of story and creative design. His hobbies include reading, writing, singing in the shower, pretending to be productive, and providing info and feedback regarding the games industry. It is an industry, right? You can ask him a question or send him spam at michaelurban@www.onlysp.com. Also, follow him on Twitter or the terrorists win. (@MichaelUrban1)

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1 Comment

  1. what if it would be major downgrades? lets remember that the xbox 360 and ps3 have only 512MB of RAM. making textures low resolution alone probably wouldn’t be enough, and the advanced features you mentioned look like they’d probably require 512MB of RAM all by themselves. Maybe they want to protect the game’s artistic integrity. Also Unreal Engine 3 is so versatile it’s probably way far away from most current gen implementations in their case. and hey, at least thief won’t be alone, The Witcher 3 is also releasing exclusively on next gen and PC as well!

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