Come all ye gamers, today we speak of our home and our land, the loving touch that nurtured us when we were but children and some of why that magic has faded away in the time since.
Now, I’m not one to wax nostalgic too much. I’m generally optimistic about a great many things, and video games have been a part of my life for nearly as long as I’ve been alive. I’ve watched 8 bits turn into 16, 16 into 32, 32 into 64, and onwards till we don’t even keep track of what a bit is anymore.
But there are problems facing our favorite industry, many more than I could list in just five bullet points. But I’m going to do my best to boil it down for you, feel free to speak your own opinion on the matter in the comments.
For my part of things, I’m going to focus primarily on the AAA side of gaming. While the indie market has its share of problems, I’m actually fairly optimistic about it overall. Whereas the path AAA games are headed down is the cause of no shortage of concern for me.
1. AAA Games cost too much to make
If you keep up with video game news, you know that it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. A single AAA title can cost upwards of $30 million dollars to make. Between artists, writers, programmers, testers, advertising and any number of other jobs needed to put together a game, there is no doubt that making a big budget title costs a lot. This point comes first to me, because really it’s going to be the cause of most the points on this list.
Let’s look at this point deeper however, in what it means for the game itself. Bigger cost to a company indicates a need either to sell more of that video game, or boost the cost of it in order to make a profit.
Most video game companies are run by people looking to make money, not art. So what this means for the games themselves is minimizing risk. When you have multiple millions of dollars on the line, you are going to try and appeal to as wide an audience as possible, and games recently have been doing this by adopting popular trends from other games. Take for instance multiplayer; it’s become such a huge focus in shooter titles that even a story focused shooter has to have a lackluster death-match or co-op mode tacked on, even if what everyone is really there for was the single player campaign.
It all comes back to money however, if you know multiplayer is what a majority of players is going to be looking for, that’s what you’re going to try and give them. This stunts the growth of new ideas and mechanics in games, instead causing developers to opt for the tried and true methods and bring nothing new to the table.
2. Playing it safe with storytelling
It’s rare to find a game that has the chops in the story to set itself apart from others. With perhaps the exception of sports games, nearly every game in the world tells at least a simple story.
The problem here is that due to the risk of making video games, companies want a story that will not offend anyone or stir up any trouble. This leads to no shortage of by the numbers storytelling that we’ve seen over and over again.
There are still several series that have solid storytelling, make no mistake. But for each truly memorable and interesting plot, we end up with at least a few games that may be solid game play wise, but with a lackluster story that doesn’t even warrant attention.
I feel the RPG genre has been hit the hardest by this point, perhaps it’s a side effect of so many RPG’s being made in the SNES-PS1-PS2 Eras, but talk of really fantastic AAA RPG’s has slowed to a trickle in the recent generations, with no sign of return in the near future.
3. Game companies are trying to control us
One of the most uncomfortable things in the console gaming industry right now is that the companies are trying to place more and more strict controls on how we can buy, play and our ownership of games. It started out harmless enough with bonus DLC’s for people who buy the game brand new rather than second hand, or pre order bonuses.
But discussions about this coming generation are quite disconcerting; talk of making games bind to a system so that companies can kill the used game market, asking people to preorder games based on just a few screen shots, making anti-piracy measures that do more harm to honest players than actual pirates. It’s a dark time for console gamers in particular.
This isn’t to say that the PC players are immune, games that require an always active internet connection to play and other such AP measures. Rumors of Windows 8 having it’s own video game market place and a validation process, and of course everyone remembers the trouble that sprang up around EA’s Origin service that was meant to compete with Steam and had some questionable measures in it’s terms of service.
Many of these things are all rumor and conjecture right now, but all the talk of these things only serve to prove that video game companies are scared. They are scared of their profits floating away in the mists of piracy and used games to the point that they are trying to prevent those problems at the cost of annoying and angering honest, paying players.
4. Lack of new IPs
The PS3/Xbox360/Wii Generation was plagued with sequels. Going back to the playing it safe with money and stories point, making a new intellectual property is a dangerous venture, especially for a AAA title.
It’s much safer to continue an existing story in an existing brand, than to try and get people to buy in on an untested story, and thus we ended up with no shortage of 2’s, 3’s and prequels to games that in many cases had already told the story they had to tell.
The main problem with this is that without new IPs, the market will eventually stagnate. With a few exceptions, mostly in Nintendo’s ball park, every story has to have an ending, and you have to let your characters retire. To keep running on about one world, and not making new ones, eventually players will get bored.
5. Dishonesty and deceit towards players
There has always been the gaming industry’s equivalent to snake oil salesmen, companies that promise the best game in the universe and then proceed to produce something that couldn’t have stood its ground if it had been released years earlier.
But this generation has had an uncomfortably high number of these instances, Duke Nukem Forever, Alien: Colonial marines, and War Z all spring to mind as games that promised us that they would be fantastic, be it from the words of the maker, or tech demo’s presented, in some cases both. Games which proceeded to bomb horribly and in some cases outright lied to us about what the game would be capable of.
This sort of dishonesty that some companies are engaging in, cashing in on overly eager players for pre-order money and then presenting them with a big turd of an unfinished or buggy game for their trouble only serves to damage the industry in the worst way.
If we’re to improve as a medium of entertainment, companies and players need to communicate honestly. Players need to up front about what they want, and companies need to be straightforward with what they have. A rift in trust will only hurt everyone involved.
As I said at the onset of this list, there is no shortage of issues facing the game industry today. Many of these problems are a side effect of the advanced era of communication we’re living in, and the technology that we have access to now. But every company needs to grow and change with the times, and it seems that only a few companies have managed to do that in the past few years. I’m hopeful for change and improvements in the years to come, but I fear it may well get worse before it gets better.
I hope to be able to do more articles like this one, including reasons the game industry is improving, and ways a player can help the industry to improve. But all that is for the future.
If you have comments or thoughts of your own, feel free to post them in the comment section, just keep it civil.