Friday, April 17, 2009

Sane Gaming: Conclusion

I've been pushing myself to get this one finished and posted sooner this week, back into a more regular posting habit again. Not so easy, largely in dealing with not only the arrival of spring, but the onslaught of the pollen. I am really not a big fan of this time of the year, as my allergies tend to act up to the point at which I can no longer tell if I'm under the weather or just dealing with allergies at their worst. Either way, I generally feel sick almost constantly until the pollen's gone. But until then, I'm stuck afflicted by the yellow death as it clings to every surface outside - mocking me with its allergens.

Yeah, I'm really not a spring person.

I'm also getting older this weekend, and I'd hoped to make it to 100 blog posts for the occasion, having hit 50 on my birthday last year. I thought it'd be kinda neat to have that doubled by this year, but at the rate I'm going now, that won't be happening. Oh well. I'll hit the 100 mark later this month yet anyway.

Let's get to the point of this one, just to finish this series already and generally summarize my thoughts.

The dreaded shovelware. Did not sell well.When you get down to it, the industry's molting. The industry suffered a major crash at the end of the Atari/Coleco era, and a repeat of a market crash seems to be inevitable. When the subject's brought up, it's popular on other blogs to try to blame Nintendo, claiming that Wii shovelware will "destroy everything." This stems, in part, from an avalanche of crap outnumbering the worthwhile games by the end of the Atari/Coleco era, confusing and frustrating a largely uninformed player base that didn't know what was worth buying anymore. Times are different now, however - shovelware is easier to identify, and as sales trends show, most shovelware on the Wii fails to sell, while most good games get attention and ultimately make money. This same crowd hellbent on insisting that Wii shovelware is the scourge of the industry is also known for attempting to paint anything that isn't a mainstream blockbuster title - and sometimes even those too, simply because they're on the Wii - as "shovelware." Their minds are closed and locked.

If anything will bring about a new industry crash, it's lack of competitiveness from third parties - paid dismissal of the Wii, and with it the dismissal of the all-important mass market in their game development process. More dangerous to the industry than shovelware itself - which has largely lost its industry influence over the past couple of decades as the gaming masses have both grown and learned, now that it's easier to be informed about the industry. (And shovelware itself tends to stand out like a sore thumb, making it generally easy to look a game display over and determine which games are designed to be quick, cheap cash-ins, and which are actually well-made. The PS3/360 supporting crowd online often attempts to paint the mass market Wii crowd as too stupid and clueless to make this distinction, because so many of them are new to gaming - like with many other accusations thrown at the Wii audience (Such as that they "don't buy games and only use the system as a Wii Sports and Wii Fit machine," when recent numbers have shown that Wii owners are actually buying more games on average than the average PS3 and 360 owners.), sales numbers by title have shown this to be untrue.

These days, the industry's seriously lacking in new, original thought and young blood, as punk gaming director Suda 51 has observed in interviews. This is very dangerous for any industry that thrives on creativity, as video games do. Bigger developers are hurting themselves by concentrating on the HD consoles, and allowing more room for smaller developers to come in and thrive between Wii disc games and WiiWare. (Being that it's the most successful and profitable of the three systems' downloadable gaming services.) At this point, companies that can't and won't adapt to the changing market and stubbornly choose to keep their focus on failing consoles that are actually shrinking the market - especially during this extremely difficult time in the global economy where most gamers only own one console, and it's not the PS3 or 360 - while focusing on more expensive development and stagnant game ideas are going to lose a tremendous amount of money and risk collapse in the long run.

We've already seen companies at risk in moving on from the past generation continually merge together in a constant trend of market consolidation that isn't indicative of a healthy, stable industry at all. Smaller developers like Factor 5 and Free Radical risked it all on major Playstation 3 titles and faced collapse. Factor 5's current situation is unclear, though it's known that they've shifted back to a couple of Wii projects. (And after previously praising the PS3 excessively, have turned around to say that the Wii can do "everything the PS3 can and more.") While Free Radical was working on a Wii version of TimeSplitters IV - the latest in their series of beloved humorous first-person shooters - when they collapsed. They've since been bought by Crytek, a PC game developer that has expressed active interest in Wii development and has a Wii development kit. Officially, the project's still in limbo.

Following the Atari/Coleco collapse, we saw the rise of Nintendo and Sega in video games, bringing an approach to gaming which defined the controller style we use in home console gaming as we moved away from joysticks and started using more complicated controllers. We continued to use these controllers through the move from 2D to more elaborate 2D and then 3D and more elaborate 3D visuals. After about two and a half decades, this approach to gaming and its general lack of meaningful growth or conceptual innovation is observably running out of steam, and it's become clear that it's time for the industry to move forward into a new style of gameplay with new types of controllers.

Older style controllers are intrinsically inhibiting to the progression of gaming because no matter what you do with them, in the end, you're limited to an interactive gameplay experience involving pushing sticks and pressing buttons. This is simply clunky, unwieldy, and unintuitive as the industry and medium move forward. Games are defined by their interactivity - that's what makes them games, after all - and there's a lot of push to regress things in the name of repeating last generation and its experiences with fancier, more expensive graphics instead of meaningfully improving the medium and making it more accessible to all as interactivity otherwise requires more and more complicated button and stick controls. There's little to work with in focusing on expensive graphics and uncompressed audio, which in no way define the gaming experience - or its quality - themselves, as many today have lost sight of. (In many cases simply out of blind brand loyalty to Sony and Microsoft.)

Video games are all about their interactivity and input: the experience of playing the games themselves. This is something that's been lacking in meaningful development for about a decade now, the industry having just about reached the creative limitations of what you can do with the increasingly over-elaborate traditional controllers and their numerous buttons. (Sony themselves have essentially been using the exact same controller for over a decade now. A lack of originality or thought in design strongly indicative of a company that has no business being looked to as a leader in an industry that thrives on creativity and new experiences. Microsoft's been no better on that front in its efforts to transform console gaming into a less intuitive variant of PC gaming.) In much controversy amongst the more elitist online communities, Nintendo gave us new controls on the Wii and DS that finally began to meaningfully transform how we look at gaming input. The DS gave us a touchscreen to tap, trace, and draw on with a stylus - an input approach that anybody can wrap their head around - in addition to more traditional controls in a directional pad and button set mirroring the Super Nintendo, which back in the day had represented a happy medium in control complexity: something that could allow for more complicated game controls without being inaccessible to the masses or unintuitive to gameplay design at the time - older style controllers are better suited to gameplay in 2D space (Though there are other varieties of control that can work even better in 2D as well) than 3D space, where their limitations become painfully clear.

The Wii introduced motion controls - a major addition to gameplay experiences that tends to be discounted by the elitist crowd as "waggle," in that crowd preferring the disconnected experience of simply pushing a button to interact with a game to flicking one's wrist (Which is apparently too much physical activity for many of them, from complaints I've read in droves), which tends to be one of the more common additions to traditional games on the Wii - and the nunchuk add-on to allow for Wii game control complexity to easily match that on the other consoles' more complicated controllers. In every case, the Wii remote/nunchuk combination surpasses what can be done with traditional controllers entirely with the addition of the motion controls and the nunchuk's tilt functions. Metroid Prime 3 itself is an excellent example of a traditional game that provides a control experience far better and more intuitive than anything doable on the other two, immersing you completely in the first person action.

We're essentially in a chaotic state of transition now - being led by Nintendo again - from the Nintendo/Sega/Sony/Microsoft era of the mid-'80s to the later 2000s into new territory. Video gaming itself is undergoing a fundamental paradigm shift as we begin era of gaming for the masses - an era about new experiences based around new types of input and general growth and evolution of the video game medium itself. Sony and Microsoft are leading an overpriced charge toward a conceptual ceiling, focused on technology over content (Graphical sharpness over artistic design, uncompressed audio over memorable composition), demonstrating their fundamental lack of understanding of both the industry and medium in rather predictable corporate arrogance - something both companies have demonstrated in spades throughout their years in the industry. Gaming's just a side project to both, after all. An "If Nintendo and Sega can do it, surely we can do it better!" When given the very nature and spirit of the industry, video gaming is something largely better focused on by specialists, rather than simply as a writeoff side project to major multinational corporations largely focused elsewhere.

Third parties that don't understand or adapt to the changes that are occurring will either suffer massive losses and shrink tremendously or end up collapsing entirely in choosing to lose mass market relevance. If those that suffer greatly don't learn from their mistakes, they'll likely end up collapsing too, as gaming moves on to something more than what Sony and Microsoft are offering. Unfortunately, both Sony and Microsoft have a well-established wheel-greasing process of sorts - one they've been open about for many years - in paying for support and exclusives from third parties. Many third parties, their leadership having abandoned competitive ideologies, are hungry for this sort of payment in the name of short term financial gain, despite this practice frequently leading to net longer-term losses for the same companies. This was a practice that didn't exist until Sony and Microsoft entered the industry, and in many ways, it's what's bringing the industry and medium down, as opposed to shovelware - the effectively bribery-motivated choice many companies have actively made to take the path of focusing extremely expensive high-end software largely on failing consoles that cannot produce the kind of profits these developers modeled their businesses around in previous generations - and in many cases, fail to be profitable at all. But as third parties continue to make mistakes in failing to provide the kind of quality high-end software there's much unmet demand for on the Wii, a second sort of collapse approaching, it will open up a great deal of room and opportunity for newer and smaller developers to make a name for themselves creatively, with room to actually enter the industry and compete, bringing in much-needed fresh new concepts, ideas, and gameplay refinement impossible on the PS3 and Xbox 360.

A few developers like High Voltage Software, Marvelous, and XSeed fall into this category. Sega does as well, unsurprisingly, after their departure from the hardware market with the Dreamcast, an innovative platform that was in many ways the Wii's spiritual predecessor. So as I said, the industry's essentially molting - casting off the bad, the stagnant, and the deadweight as we move forward into a new era. In order to remain healthy, giants have to fall, so to speak.

In simplest terms, it's time the old guard weakened and fell so that a new generation of game designers, developers, and publishers can emerge and do their part to move the industry forward and make meaningful contributions to the otherwise dangerously insular industry. As the independent PC gaming scene has shown, there's young game development talent out there in spades, with people making fresher games than anything on the consoles. This is the kind of talent that should be leading the industry forward, not the conservative-minded stagnation that has been.

Along that line of thought, in many ways, video gaming discourse can be compared to the current state of American politics. A strong new leader in a different direction - a few missteps along the way, of course, neither's flawless - and a much more conservative, backward-thinking crowd constantly seeking out every reason to irrationally scream that change is bad and their brand of thinking/gaming is better and must be the only true way. In that sense, it's generally a headache and waste of time to listen to the irrational, regressive side, and better to focus on healthier, more positive things.

The image truths.
As for this vocal gaming crowd on the more popular blogs and message board sites, it's astonishing seeing how far so many people are willing to go to cherrypick excuses to be constantly upset about their hobby. The trend seems to be that the more successful Nintendo gets with the Wii and DS, the angrier they're "required" to be in turn, because after a decade of Sony market dominance and the press trying to deem Microsoft the "new market leader" as soon as they could this generation, they hate that Nintendo's successful. They hate that they're leading the market again, and they hate everything they represent in finally turning video gaming into a more socially acceptable, mainstream medium as it continues to move along toward being as normal and acceptable as reading books, watching TV and movies, and listening to music.

In this crowd's eyes, that trend should have meant the same old style of gaming somehow exploding into mainstream acceptance and lauding as high art and brilliant entertainment that makes those who pursue the hobby better people by proxy. (Who's that guy walking down the street? Oh my god, it's one of those HARDCORE GAMERS! I hear he pwns all the n00bz in Halo and has a gamerscore over 10,000!) This crowd wants to think they're "special," holding themselves above others by the nature of their pursuit of the video game hobby, and in the market's growth through the paradigm-shift Nintendo's brought, they're essentially reacting like petulant young children who can't stand the idea of the "new baby" showing up.

In order to cater to this crowd - abandoning all real pretenses of objectivity - we see the media (blogs and professional sites alike) trying to exaggerate the importance of graphics more so than ever before (The minute someone starts talking about the "importance" of screen resolution in video games, you should basically tune them out. No one who enjoys the hobby for what it is cares about whether a game's visuals are high definition or standard definition. Screen resolution has nothing to do with quality of content.) while cheering on failing hardware lines because their parent companies have a stake in how the media portrays them, and so many have chosen to try to break the industry up into the worst factional conflict it's ever seen - based solely on blind brand loyalty (In that sense, not unlike the Nintendo/Sega and Atari/Coleco rivalries of old, but now running philosophically deeper in terms of software design focus) and a learned hatred for the Nintendo name after having spent a decade cheering on their supposed "impending demise."

All that said, if you get this upset over a hobby and have to distort reality to justify blind loyalty to failing product lines, you're doing the whole hobby thing wrong, and should probably consider finding something healthier for you. If you can't enjoy a hobby - or refuse to allow yourself to enjoy it anymore, as many are openly doing in the name of hating Nintendo - it's time to grow up and move on.

Overall, the industry's in a state of transition: the most important transition it's seen in over two decades, in being the transition that allows gaming to break away from its previous stereotypes, stigmas, and preconceptions and become a more commonly accepted form of mass media entertainment. A transition the self-entitled elitists in Sony and Microsoft's crowds have no idea how to deal with, since they see it as an assault on their conservative values and beliefs as gamers, having been brought in and indoctrinated by (mostly) Sony and come to associate their place in the hobby with the Sony brand - an unhealthy approach to a hobby like electronic gaming.

Many gamers from the old Atari and Coleco days grew up and either moved on or got other hobbies and stopped obsessing over video games so much. The same happened with those who played the NES and Master System, and the Turbografx and Super NES and Genesis. Inevitably, as much as they complain, the crowd stuck on the Sony and Microsoft brand in their adolescence (In many cases literally, others, mentally) will have to grow up, find additional hobbies, and either move on or learn to open their mind to other brands and concepts in video games. Where would art, music, literature, television, and film be without a tremendous amount of variation everywhere you look? This is an audience pushing against that necessity in gaming.

Moving past all that, I say welcome to all of you, the new gamers who've just discovered how much fun the hobby can be this generation with the Wii and DS. You're the kinds of fresh players and faces the industry's needed, and I hope you all continue to have a lot of fun with the hobby. Whatever you do, don't let the other crowd get you down. All that matters is the fact that you're having fun - this is something the negative crowd has unfortunately forgotten. But any one of those individuals is capable of bettering themselves, stopping that kind of behavior, and rediscovering their love of the hobby if they try. So while we can certainly condemn them for their behavior and attitudes, we shouldn't try to close the door on them as people. Just because they act like that now doesn't mean that they always will. The best we can do is to continue to enjoy the hobby and encourage them to reevaluate their attitude and perspective. This is how we all grow and change as individual human beings even beyond this particular hobby, after all.

(Aren't you glad this series is finally over?)


E_M_Y said...

Do you play RTS or FPS or all sorts?

Benjamin Fennell said...

I play a pretty large variety of games most of the time, though my tastes tend to trend toward Japanese RPGs and life sims.

These days, I've been juggling Animal Crossing: City Folk, NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams, and Phantasy Star IV on the Wii. I played through Hotel Dusk: Room 215 on the DS recently as well.

The last RTS I got into was Warcraft III a few years ago, but I haven't played it in years now. The last FPS style games I really played were the Metroid Prime trilogy games, though those are more first person adventure than shooter.

Bryce Newson-Dunn said...

I would have to say that as far as the Wii goes, I really don't see many third party titles that are selling well besides the Harvest Moon Series, and a few others I'm sure I'm forgetting. The video game industry as a whole is becomeing more geared for casual gamers, as with the current economic situation, along with the overall growth of the industry I just think that most companies just can't afford to target that hardcore audience that they used to.

Benjamin Fennell said...

Most third party Wii games - the quality ones, anyway - are actually making money, but most aren't achieving their sales potential at all largely due to a complete and utter lack of advertising, unfortunately. Even the major third parties focus their advertising budgets on HD games, while they expect their Wii games to sell on word of mouth - which is completely ridiculous.

But yeah, in general, as was inevitable with the growth of the industry and the paradigm shift it's now experiencing, the "core" is no longer the driving market force. There's just not enough gamers of that variety - a shrinking audience that's only marginalized themselves through blind brand loyalty causing them to spread themselves thin this generation, and far too much to consoles that cost too much to develop for - to hold the power they once did. Though a big mistake a lot of that crowd makes in antagonizing the casual crowd is insisting the casual gamers only buy "casual" games, when they tend not to limit themselves, and buy a larger variety of software in general. Even on the PSX and PS2, these were the gamers driving the market, though that crowd hadn't been as large as the new generation of casual gamers now.

By and large, third parties need to get their act together on Nintendo platforms, start advertising their games there, and work on drawing the "core" gamers to their platforms as they should have been earlier on - just as in past generations, if you didn't own a PSX or PS2, you were simply going to miss out on the majority of the worthwhile games of the generation - and they should try to make their games appeal to a wider audience in general. To succeed on the PS3 and 360, you pretty much have to make extremely high-budget M-rated shooters and hack and slashers, and that alienates far too significant a part of the market to ignore. Traditional games with an accessible approach to the controls and gameplay - and avoiding vehemently sticking to M-rated games for the novelty and spectacle that drives them - can do very well with both core and casual gamers, if made and marketed well.

But yeah, to say the least, all the analysts who kept claiming gaming was a "recession proof" industry were wrong.