The fault of modern gaming is our own
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.
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.
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.