The fault of modern gaming is our own

And you were doing so well for a couple of games there.

Taking a bold step of bringing in stubble-covered white guys, but this time they’re wearing hoods.

We’re in the wake of another year’s E3 when this is being published. Maybe you’re reading it after. Maybe you’re reading it at an E3 long after it’s been written. Maybe you’re even reading it during another convention, or just on an otherwise idle day when you’re thinking about the state of video games, wondering how it all turned out like this.  How did we get to a landscape with all these generic shooters, with games that run longer and longer with less and less to say, how did we get to all of this?

Simply speaking: we asked for it.

I don’t mean that in a snide fashion, I mean that we, as gamers, asked for exactly what we got as modern gaming developed.  Each part came down to us asking for something en masse, then deciding after we had it that we didn’t want it much to our detriment.  And rather than blaming developers for doing what we asked, if you’re not happy about the state of games, it might be time to look at what we asked for and admit that really, this is what we said we wanted.

I can be upset with what they've done with it, but if I don't like what they're doing with it, why am I still giving them money?

I’m the one who kept giving these guys money; I can’t exactly complain that they used that money to be bigger.

There’s an ancient essay on Acts of Gord about the Gamecube, written back when it was relevant, that contained what I still think is a spectacular line: “If you buy video games, you are the result of marketing, not the student.”  It’s something that we tend to forget, and yes, I’m including myself in that list despite the fact that I’ve worked in the game industry as a journalist for nearly five years now.  I force myself to regularly spot-check myself with a hard dose of reality, but the fact is that I’m still a gamer, I get excited about games, and I’m as guilty as anyone else of letting that excitement blind me to the reality of the industry.

And the reality is that we, as gamers, have shaped that industry.  We complain about the industry as a sclerotic behemoth, which it is, but it is what it is because we told it what we wanted and it responded with the sort of single-minded devotion you only get from gargantuan beasts.

DLC exists because we wanted more game, more often.  We wanted games that lasted longer.  We wanted a lot of things that cost more and more money to produce, and so we got it, and now we complain about things that are on the game disc but still require DLC to access.  Ignoring the fact that people who delve into older games often find tons of stuff that was on the game disc but never used, the stuff that would have been used in DLC if those games were released today.  The difference is simply that we didn’t know about it.  (This article goes into a lot of depth about precisely that.)

Why is there still console competition?  Because we said that there was money in it.  It seems almost ridiculous, when you think about it – a DVD made by a specific studio won’t refuse to play in a certain brand of DVD player, for instance – but we made it clear that we were totally on board with the idea.  Because we cheered for these enormous companies as if they were athletes, because we spend a lot of time forming complex opinions of EA and Blizzard and Valve and Nintendo and Sony and so forth, as if they needed us as a cheering section.  Two teams enter, one team leaves, except that both leave, and the most likely casualties are the studios and smaller publishers that get dashed against the hulls of the monsters.

Sequels come out every year for games that are, essentially, a celebration of the military machine, and they keep coming out because they keep selling.  I’ve seen people lament this and then go on in their next breath to talk about the various Call of Duty installments in comparison with one another without a slice of irony.  Why do the companies keep releasing this derivative stuff?  I don’t know, buckaroo, maybe it’s because you bought every single one despite saying they’re derivative.  Not being derivative at this point is like leaving money on the table.

I'm not going to assume that the people who complained were ones who did not buy it, but lots of things are possible.

There was a huge fan outcry that this game wasn’t localized – and when it was, people still just flocked to more Mario games.

Why do we get games with shitty narratives and pretty graphics?  Because players will throw a fit if one of two things happen: if a game doesn’t have the best possible resolution on their platform of choice, and if a game has an ending that they don’t like.  Why do we have developers acting like rock stars?  Because we treated them like rock stars.  Why do we see online functionality pushed as being the big deal?  Because we dutifully bought every big multiplayer shooter that got released.  Because we complained, but we still bought it.

We have seen the enemy, and they are us.

Some of this comes down to the simple reality of Sturgeon’s Law.  90% of everything is always going to be crap, and video games are not immune to this.  I’m sure you remember the SNES or Genesis or whatever fondly and think that’s not the case, but you have the benefit of filtering out that 90% of crap from your memory.  And, again, I’m not immune; I find myself thinking back to the SNES and saying “wow, there were so many good RPGs here, what happened?” until I go back and play them and realize that “so many” was closer to a dozen-ish amidst a field of games that were either crap or haven’t aged well at all.

But a lot of it comes down to the environment that we made, and quite frankly, it’s an environment wherein we asked for a whole lot and then made it clear we should not be listened to.  We ask for bigger games with better graphics and then get mad when they cost money.  We whine that there’s no innovation taking place and then don’t buy games that are innovative.  Why would anyone even try to write a story for a game that pushes boundaries when fans reacted to Mass Effect 3 having an ambiguous ending with what amounted an Internet-wide temper tantrum?

“Oh, well that’s not us, that’s the other part of the gaming market!”  No.  You don’t get to take with one hand and blame someone else when you don’t like the results.  You aren’t entitled to buy every Halo game on launch day, jumping into endless online matches as soon as you can, and then bemoan the huge number of drunken frat boys doing the same thing.  Your enjoyment of the game is not somehow more valid than theirs.

We, as gamers, created the modern gaming landscape.  And that’s not a bad thing, either; there’s wonderful things here, spectacular games, games that do push the envelope.  But they’re not the majority, and we need to understand that we, as gamers, are not innocent of this.  We are not passive observers but participants, and what we do as the students of game marketing has an impact.  What we collectively accept determines the future.

Why is gaming the way it is?  Because we asked for it.

About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

6 responses to “The fault of modern gaming is our own”

  1. Tyler F.M. Edwards says :

    For the most part, I agree. Gaming is a business like any other, and business is dictated by the market. Companies make what sells.

    I think you might be painting with too broad a brush, though. More than likely you’re just doing it for dramatic effect, but it still feels a little unfair.

    For instance, we’re not all buying into everything the mainstream gaming industry produces. I haven’t played a single CoD title since the first. I spend most of my time and money on intelligent or unusual games like The Secret World, Remember Me, Divinity: Dragon Commander, etc.. I buy a lot of DLC, but I’ve never complained about the existence of DLC, either.

    Not that I’m boasting. I don’t do this out of altruism. Those are just the games I happen to enjoy. But the point is not all of us are eagerly snapping up every big name title that comes out even as we dislike their lack of originality.

    The one case I can think of where I indulge in some hypocrisy is WoW. I complain bitterly about many aspects of the game, but I still play it. Though I am playing it far less than I used to, and that’s as much due to not wanting to support the game’s current direction as it is due to not having as much fun.

    I would also suspect — though I can’t prove this — that most of the complaints about derivative gaming, DLC, and the like come from a vocal minority. I suspect most gamers are buying these things and enjoying them without complaint. We just don’t hear from them. I find it hard to believe such things could continue to be massive successes if everyone truly despised them.

    The one thing that frustrates me is when people bitterly complain about the lack of originality in gaming, but blast any original or unusual game if it displays even the slightest imperfection. I am reminded of the constant harping on TSW’s combat — despite the fact it’s barely any different from the combat systems of several other big name MMOs. Or Remember Me. The combat’s a little clunky, and it doesn’t 100% capitalize on the potential of its premise, so everyone drops it like a hot potato and writes it off as a failure, despite it being a rare case of a game with new and intelligent ideas.

    If we’re ever going to have interesting games outside the mainstream mould, we need to accept that experimentation can sometimes be a bit of a rocky road. If we expect perfection from everything, we’ll always be disappointed.

    Again, though, I do agree with your main point more than my lengthy rebuttal might indicate.

    • expostninja says :

      Hey, I’m the first person to say that I really hate Call of Duty and then show it by, well, not buying Call of Duty. I consider it self-evident that if you’re not complaining about it, you’re not part of the circumstances involved, you know?

      There was a great article a few years back that talked about the split between innovation and polish – by definition, something novel can’t be polished. Gaming, as a whole, can be kind of schizophrenic about that, calling for more polished versions of things that have literally never been tried before.

      Remember Me is a good example; it’s not a very good game on a whole, but I’d really like to see its mechanics taken out and tried again. Sure, it wasn’t very well developed the first time, but it could be done better the second time around.

      • Tyler F.M. Edwards says :

        I enjoyed Remember Me, but it definitely had the potential to be much more. I really think a sequel could have polished the formula and been something truly special. Shame we’ll likely never see one.

  2. Jeromai says :

    Tyler Edwards is probably right that a lot of the complaints come from a vocal minority. The companies wouldn’t keep producing them if it doesn’t sell. Somewhere out there, a whole lot of -someones- are buying, whoever they are.

    Honestly though, I think that’s great. The state of modern gaming is GREAT. There are now MORE games out there, catering to every imaginable desire, mainstream OR niche.

    Yes, there are a whole flock of mainstream, deriviative sequel-after-sequel highly polished distillation of a game mechanic dressed up in the latest modern graphics glitter.

    I personally haven’t made it through Assassin’s Creed 1, bought 2 and 3 at 75% off out of wishful thinking, and with reality hitting me, can’t muster any semblance of interest at picking up 4 (it will eventually go to 5 bucks and stay at that price until I’m ready for it, so yeah…) I haven’t bought a Call of Duty or Battlefield FPS in ages, I put my foot down and still refuse to get Mass Effect 3 due to the Origins-only fiasco.

    But you know what? If other people buy ’em and enjoy ’em, all power to them. I reserve the right to poke gentle fun at them from time to time and be a little more snide to the hypocrites who really do have mainstream tastes but are still in denial about accepting them, but all in all, they’re games, and more people playing games broadens and expands and increases acceptance of the hobby just the same.

    At the same time, between Steam and Greenlight and bundles and digital distribution and the internet, there are MORE indie titles than I’ve ever be able to hear of and sample ten or twenty years ago. THOSE are selling too. Innovation is being chased by smaller more nimble companies than the behemoths set up to produce triple A titles.

    I own 600+ games on Steam, bought at a fraction of the cost, without having to make the once hard decisions to ruthlessly pick and choose the best of the best and ignore the rest. My wallet and me are keenly ready to support the influx of polished-for-today games-of-old catering to the nostalgia niche. (Firaxis’ XCOM is awesome, been playing the heck out of it lately. Grim Fandango, YES. Alpha Centauri sucessor in Civ: Beyond Earth? YES PLZ.)

    In the meantime, DRM-free GoG scrapes up my money when I think about playing the originals during the wait.

    Across a whole bunch of mediums, not just the console wars that a subset of gamers have decided they’ll buy into, but things like iOS and Android for phones and tablets, there are a flock of games. Yes, many are even more badly written carbon copy clones because evidently that market is easily tricked into buying a clone of a clone, but there have been shining gems in that ruthless jungle of apps too.

    The power of that is that they reach out to other people, who might not at all consider themselves a gamer. My aged mom, who looks at a computer as if pressing a button will cause either a deletion catastrophe or an explosion, has found a smartphone much less threatening and has managed to find one or two game apps that she really really enjoys. (I can’t imagine playing Sudoku for hours on end, but she can.)

    The state of modern gaming has never been better.

    And if one can’t see that, it’s time to stop just looking at triple A marketing and check out the rest of the gaming world.

    (The state of the industry that has sprung up to accommodate this, is a whole ‘nother discussion altogether, though.)

    • Tyler F.M. Edwards says :

      I agree with this. Whatever problems may exist with the gaming industry — and I don’t deny there are many — the fact remains that this is the best time in history to be a gamer. Selection is virtually endless, and technology has reached a point where almost anything is possible. For every bland and forgettable game I’ve played, I can think of another that blew my mind with experiences I will never forget.

      Perhaps most important of all, games have become mainstream. Us gamers no longer have to feel like freaks or oddballs. Everyone is a gamer these days — some more than others — and the medium we love is thriving as a result.

      Also, you should totally get Mass Effect 3. I loved it, and Origin hasn’t come for my soul yet. 😛

      • Jeromai says :

        I will only get Mass Effect 3 if it turns up on a platform outside of Origin.

        Maybe one day, when it falls into abandonware, I’ll just pirate it, but not today, when publishers can still change their minds. 🙂

        I disapprove of exclusives as a way of forcing people onto a platform. I always look askance at EA and Blizzard for that. I generally disapprove of any kind of “forcing” or “exclusivity.”

        (I only caved in to Playstation exclusive Heavy Rain because it was a big experiment in narration, I love me my story games, and my ISP was giving a PS3 machine away free for signing on with them for two years, something I was -already- going to do since I need me mah internet.)

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