The tyranny of games-that-were
Last week’s tempest in a teacup was the announcement that Nintendo was finally hopping into the mobile games arena, a fact which the rest of the gaming industry responded to chiefly with a sigh and perhaps a muttered “welcome to here” or something similar. This is not revolutionary or stunning. Mobile gaming is as genuine a form of gaming as, well, anything that’s been coming out over the past decade.
What was surprising were the number of people clinging to the idea that this was some major change, as if Nintendo’s refusal to get into the space before now was indicative of a philosophical stance rather than a deeply calcified corporate structure incapable of forward motion.
Nintendo’s issues as a company are best addressed in another article (and probably will be), so I’m not going to go into that here. But it’s always surprised me, to this date, how many people think that the way games were released was indicative of anything more than how things were in terms of technology. The idea that the game arrangement we grew up with as children is in some way indicative of how things ought to be, from here to eternity.
When I was younger, I vastly preferred consoles to gaming on my PC. Gaming peripherals on a PC were a pain in the rear to hook up properly and usually expensive, and most PC games seemed to be obsessed with having the most convoluted and unnecessary detailed controls imaginable. If you had told me that my console was, in fact, a particularly useless computer with a whole lot of hardware and software limitations, I wouldn’t have believed you.
You would have been right, though.
As computers have become both more ubiquitous and more powerful, consoles have started lagging behind more visibly. Getting a decent controller on my computer is a matter of plugging it into the USB port and then going. Controls are far more streamlined in all but the most ornate sims; there’s no need for keyboard overlays any longer. About the only thing that my PS3 can do that my computer can’t is play blu-ray films, which is more a matter of me having no particular need for the drive on my desktop.
“Oh, so you don’t like consoles any longer?” No, that’s not it at all. The point is that the differences between them have eroded. The idea of a pure console is silly now not because consoles are silly, but because “it just plays games” is no longer as compelling a function. You can argue that you have no use for social media integration in your games, and I totally get that, but I’m not exactly upset at the idea that I can have a single thing hooked up to my television to serve as movie player, jukebox, game console, and so forth. Having it just play games with no other functions makes the thing feel less powerful.
More to the point, consoles have to keep up with computers just like arcade cabinets had to keep up with home consoles. Back in 1985, there was no competition – the amount of money required to buy a cabinet was significant, and home consoles were struggling along with 8-bit hardware. By the time we reached the 32-bit generation, arcade cabinets had no real advantages over their home equivalents and no longer drew in players, which led to the large-scale arcade shutdown in the US.
Games and the ways we play them are always changing. Pretending that a specific format or a sort of hardware is somehow inherently part of gaming is ultimately just plain silly, because we have to ignore the huge amount of changes that have taken place in gaming over the past three decades just to maintain that fiction.
Honestly, it’s just another form of gatekeeping. It’s associating the parts of the world that you grew up with are somehow inherently better than what things used to be. I can list dozens of reasons why cartridges are worse than disc-based games and how digital downloads are the most reasonable way to purchase games, with a handful of corner cases against other formats not stopping an overwhelming pile of evidence… but none of that really matters if in your heart you still feel like cartridges are the right way to do games. Hell, part of me still feels like there’s something really weird about not plugging a little gray rectangle into another gray rectangle when I want to play a game.
Mobile gaming is the currently accepted frontier for gatekeeping, a landscape full of terrible games that do nothing but exploit users. That is, of course, ignoring the huge number of mobile titles that have received widespread praise, or the huge number of terrible cheap shovelware cash-grabs that existed on consoles throughout history, changing the narrative to focus only on the elements that suit it. Confirmation bias at its finest.
Entering the mobile market doesn’t make a developer horrible, it makes them intelligent and aware that there’s a huge market there. In some ways, mobile can be one of the easiest markets to develop for – it has a lot of the advantages of a desktop, but with a narrower range of possible hardware and more application standards. Monetization is important to think about and talk about, but part of that simply has to do with the fact that we now have an infrastructure that can support microtransactions at all.
And it’s unfamiliar, and it’s different, and it’s not how games used to be. Movies aren’t how they used to be, either. Books aren’t how they used to be. I’m not how I used to be. The morning I write this, a new comic was released that I purchased on release day completely digitally, because I have a comic subscription for the first time in years. Sure, it’s digital and something could prevent me from accessing it… just like my cats could destroy a hard copy of a comic, or it could get lost or thrown out or whatever. We live in a world with different technology than when we were younger.
So let’s embrace this strange new world and all its wonders. Things used to be one way, but we need to let go of this fiction that there’s a way things ought to be or that the state of games as they were was anything more than a reaction to the hardware and technology of the times. It’s a harmful, gatekeeping narrative, and we have enough of those in gaming to tear down anyway.