Gaming is Dead; Long Live Video Games!
My brother came over to visit a few days ago, and in the middle of the conversation we were having (which, as I remember it, had nothing to do with games at the time) he blurted out “You know what video games I’m excited about? None of them!”
“None of them?”
He shook his head. “Not a single one.”
What’s depressing about this exchange is that earlier that very day I gave a rather heated reply to a guy posting in a friend’s thread on Facebook (note that this guy is not on my friends list, and for that I am thoroughly embarrassed) asserting that there are “no more great games.” And by God he meant it. I posted under him, subtly implying that he surely couldn’t believe that there were no great games – just less of them. He wouldn’t hear of it. He truly believed that there are no great games anymore.
I’ve been hearing this sort of doom saying a lot lately – forums are full of people proclaiming the “death of gaming”, and even the less hyperbolic among us (though it’s hard to imagine something like a “non-hyperbolic gamer” isn’t it?) have begun to ask the question: why are we not excited by games like we once were? Are we “growing out of it”? Is game development hitting a rut, or worse, a dead end? Are there really no such things as “great games” anymore?
Leaving aside the obvious fact that what constitutes a “great game” is subjective, the problem that I have with this type of thinking is that it’s asking the wrong questions. I think anyone with two brain cells to rub together and a moment of free time to think about it would agree that there were a whole raft of great games released last year. I mean, Minecraft? For fuck’s sake.
No, the problem isn’t that there aren’t great games; the problem is that the great games aren’t readily visible; it’s a marketing problem, not a quality one, and I couldn’t think of anything better to happen to video games in the last decade.
I’ve been telling friends for years that triple-A game production is an unsustainable model; the production costs are rising too fast, teams are getting too big and subsequent sales have to be higher and higher to break even. Until maybe two years ago these friends would hand me a tin-foil hat and pat me on the head. “That’s nice,” they’d say a bit condescendingly while they went and payed their three monthly subscriptions for MMOs they no longer played and bought the latest microtransaction DLC that was cleverly sold in such a way as to fragment the player base.
Of course these days most of us recognize this brand of shameless monetization for what it is and we can pat ourselves on the back every time we make an angry internet post railing against “THOSE SLIMEY FUCKS AT BLI$$ARD!” (am I doing this right?), but I think the conclusion that a lot of people are missing on their way down to the internet forum is that continued monetization is less a sign of greed and more one of desperation. I’ll give Activision the benefit of a doubt for the sake of my argument and say that the Real Money Auction House in Diablo 3 isn’t a cash grab – it’s an attempt to keep treading water. And they’re failing.
Another by-product of rising production costs (besides there just being less triple-A games) is that the industry is incredibly risk-averse. You want to tell your publisher that your fifty million dollar game that has to sell three million copies to break even doesn’t have a multiplayer mode, preferably one that involves large guns and shooting men? Yeah, me neither. The thing is though, that right at a time when the industry seems unwilling to try anything new, gamers are becoming fed up with the predigested mush the industry’s been offering us for almost a decade. Watching Jim Sterling talk about mistaking Crysis 3 for Battlefield 3 (Premium Edition! Suck our dicks, paying customers!) is enough to convince me that triple-A gaming has pretty much hit the Sequelitis Singularity. The idea that EA is suing Zynga for IP theft is almost laughable; at this point EA seem pretty content to rip THEMSELVES off.
This is all completely separate from what I see as the biggest problem: The ways in which we consume interactive media is becoming more fragmented. PC. Consoles. OnLive. iOS. Android. Facebook. Steam. Desura. GoG. I’m a reasonably intelligent twenty-six year old man who’s been playing video games non-stop for more than two decades and I can barely keep up with it. One of my favorite podcasts, Gamers With Jobs (http://www.gamerswithjobs.com/podcast), spends half its time talking about games for platforms I have no access to. How the hell can you possibly sell a game in large numbers to a user base (nominally called “gamers” though at this point they’re more just “people”) that’s split itself up over potentially dozens of platforms? Well, you bloody can’t.
And make no mistake about it: this is the one that terrifies the triple-A industry. Budget concerns, myopia and lack of innovation are things that can be cured, and anyway if people don’t have any other options they’re going to eat whatever shit you shovel them; just look at Hollywood’s continued success. But the fragmentation of the market takes the budget problems that are bleeding the industry dry and magnifies them each time a new way of making and playing games pops up. In short, games have now become impossible to advertise.
Before I go any further, let me stake out my position: I don’t think advertising has any place in games. This isn’t a matter of principle, but a matter of function.
Any ad man or marketing 101 student will tell you that advertising has nothing to do with the product itself and everything to do with whatever abstract ideas you can attach to the product. In a world where there are hundreds of similar products competing with yours, how can you possibly set your widget, which is functionally the same as any other widget, apart from the crowd? You attach ideas, emotions or feelings to your widget that one wouldn’t normally associate with it. Things like patriotism, the spirit of competition, or happiness.
It’s all bullshit of course. To paraphrase Naomi Klein, Nike may make a very good shoe, but it’s functionally no different from any other shoe on the market. And however much we want to pretend otherwise, a shoe is not an idea.
The same can’t be said about video games. Each one is a distinct piece, more akin to a painting or a song or a film. And while we’ve figured out ways to advertise movies and albums, what I’m saying is maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe, by their unique nature, things like songs and films and video games will sell if they’re, you know, good. Minecraft has sold more copies than a lot of triple-A games could ever hope to, mostly through word of mouth. There’s also that little thing about the game being simple enough to port to a number of different platforms, which Mojang has enthusiastically done. Hmm.
I guess that, if pressed, I couldn’t come up with many games that I’m anticipating myself. Borderlands 2, Dishonored and Torchlight 2 just about covers it. And yet every single day I hear about some new game, some small project, that slipped beneath my radar, and I’m excited all over again. Besides visibility, I think the other major problem is one of viewpoint: gamers are incredibly forward-looking (not to be mistaken with “forward-thinking”), and we often have an inability to dig deeply into the games we already have before the next piece of over-marketed tripe is crammed down our throats by our good friends at IGN.
The industry, thankfully, is reaching a point where ignoring genuinely good games over the incessant, slightly satanic buzz of The Next Big Thing is becoming impossible. It’s 1997, 1998 all over again, and it has been for the last few years, but you’re going to miss it if you keep looking ahead instead of around you.