Three Things I Wish The Game Industry Would Do And Why They Won’t

Adam Sessler posted a video a couple months ago just on the eve of the Sony Playstation 4 reveal, about shit he wished the next gen of videogames did or fixed. He mentioned a bunch of things and minor quibbles that didn’t resonate with me at all.  I have to give him some credit, though; the guy has what passes for clout in the videogame industry, which means we don’t scream YOU MARKETING WHORE for at least thirty seconds when he recommends a game.  And he had a good idea; posting open letters on the internet sure is a positive driver for change in any industry! Here are my ideas to make the next gen suck less.

Yeah, right.

1.     Crib from a wider range of shit

Deus Ex: Human Revolution art director Jonathan Jacques-Bellêtete gave an amazing interview with Gamasutra last year. He hit on something that I wish more people in the industry noticed.

I think the problem is that we’re a little circular in our industry. I think we self-reference ourselves too much. I think that’s the problem. We look in the mirror too much, and a reflection looks the same all the time.

That’s because the “core audience” that plays videogames is – you guessed it, and I’m totally going to go there – NERDS. People can jerk off for years about how supposedly 90 percent of World of Warcraft players are non-nerds, or how substantial clusters of non-nerds are playing non-games on their non-techie overpriced ithings that a REAL NERD would not be caught dead with. The industry realized at some point that Nerdy was Marketable, and ran in circles trying to figure out how to make this palatable to the non-nerds. The glass walls of “hardcore” and “casual” quickly followed, as marketing divisions tried to figure out the demographics.

Truth: Nerds tend to like a lot of the same shit, in a broad sense. Someone who likes scifi is most likely going to splooge at you if you mention that you’ve never seen Blade Runner, or Aliens, or Star Wars. For bonus points, mention you liked the Transformers movies, and stand well back. Preferably behind inch thick bulletproof glass.

What does this mean for nerd culture? Well, it means that a lot of our influences are going to be exactly the same. I bet you at any given moment in game developer boardrooms across the globe, a bunch of guys are going “Make it just like Aliens”. It’s telling that a lot of game developers these days, when forced to give an elevator pitch for their game, usually say “Like [insert game or movie here], but…”

Here are a few examples.

Like The Walking Dead, but the comic, not the TV show.

Like Star Wars, but based around survival on a single planet.

Like Aliens, but the enemies in the game are based around light and darkness.  So, like, Pitch Black.

Like Terminator 2 except you’re in that totally cool future that they showed for a few brief seconds. And no, Terminator Salvation doesn’t count.

Sound familiar? And if you’re working in games you’ve probably been privy to a few of these conversations. In fact, you’ve probably started a few of these conversations. I get it. Nobody goes into the industry wanting to make Barbie Horse Adventure. Unfortunately, our creations will only be as good as our culture. It says a lot about how homogenous games are these days when most of the people in the business of making these things all like the same things and are influenced by the same things. There’s no sin in it – it just all comes down to nerds patting each other on the back. We’ll be trapped with the inability to move beyond what we already have.

I’d just really wish the game industry would go outside its comfort zone a little. Deus Ex: Human Revolution brought in a lot of fashion designers and Renaissance experts to help craft the world of the future. The results were tremendous. Shame about the piss filter on everything.

Why We Won’t

It’s because we like what we like and fuck everyone else.

No, seriously! Nerds LIKE patting each other on the back. For many of us, our cool nerd shit was a way to find solace away from the worlds of locker rooms, meathead jocks and the chicks who’d never talk to us. Now we’re connected by a network that spans the globe we’re finding out we’re not alone, and we want to make things for the people like us. Who “get it”.

I’m guilty of this myself. Seeing someone mention Browncoats sticking together will bring a smile to my face.

Unfortunately, this also means we’re closed-minded and judgemental of new shit, just like everyone else. Humans are programmed to fear and distrust anything different. Part of learning to understand each other is to step over that gap and learn to see the world differently.  I just hope one day we’ll be able to step outside our safe, familiar little bubbles and experience more things. It’d be pretty great for games.

I think it’d be an interesting social experiment to have a bunch of pasty, sweaty game developers, blinking from sunlight they haven’t seen since they began working in the industry, dumped on a deserted island for three months. They’d have only one knife and a solitary poster of Bear Grylls punching a shark or something. I’m pretty sure that by the end of those three months, the few who survive will make the goddamn best Far Cry 4 of all time, you mark my words.

2.     Less Graphics, More Game

If I had a gyoza for every time I heard someone say “I wish games weren’t all about the graphics”, I’d have a fucking shitload of gyoza. And I love gyoza. My gyoza quotient would stay positive, despite attempts from me to finish them. I’d have gyoza for days.

There’s something there, though. I’ve seen this repeated often enough (and had enough gyoza) to not completely write off the idea. However, I also play, and like, Crysis.

I remember playing Crysis for the first time. It took me two years from Crysis launching to actually getting to play it, because I didn’t have a PC capable of handling that thing at even low settings for the longest goddamn time. Then I played it and my eyes melted. God stared at me from within the game. He rubbed his gigantic phallus all over my eyeballs, and dared me to not look at it.

People who say graphics don’t matter in videogames are fucking full of it. Look at Crysis. Just fucking look at it. Look at it running on the highest end, thousand-plus-dollar PCs. Look on its glory and despair.

Games are a visual medium, and to play a game we have to look at it. This argument is usually followed by the usual bullcrap line about “immersion”.  Immersion is an argument for another time, however, because I cannot properly contain my rage enough to finish the rest of this list.

Videogames for blind people might be pretty awesome if they were based around tactile sensation. Just a thought.

I love graphical improvements. I ooh and ahh at the latest demos NVIDIA is showing, and the drop-dead gorgeous Unreal Engine 4 demonstrations. However, I’m not going to pretend that I wish we’d dial it down a bit. Crysis was in 2007. It took me two years to get around to playing it. 2009. And the game still held up. Go home. Photorealism is done. It’s time to move on. Art direction can and should drive the next generation.

The next generation of video game consoles will pack fairly powerful (shut up PC gamers, I can hear your sniggering through the internet) hardware and push a hell of a lot more pixels than this gen, that’s for damn sure. However, we often wish this wasn’t the case, largely because there seems to be this idea prevalent among both gamers and the industry that impressive graphics and good gameplay exist on both sides of spectrum, where one is sacrificed for the other and vice versa. It’s easy to see where this idea comes from – old games kick hella ass today, even with graphics counted in single or double-digit bits. GAMES WERE SO MUCH BETTER THEN BAWW AWW HAWW BECAUSE GAMEPLAY INSTEAD OF GRAPHIX BLOOBLOOBLOO.  I wish it too, in fact, because despite packing a gaming PC these days the games I spend the most time on can be maxed with a freaking integrated graphics card. There’s nothing more sobering than realizing your $1000 GTX Titan GPU is only going to get a real workout playing two or three games on a TV the size of the Colossus of Rhodes.

Why We Won’t

Relax, graphics whores. Your high-resolution, ambient-occlusion anti-aliasing future is safe. Know why? This may come as a shock to many of you.

Games are funded by people who know jack shit about games.

I’ve spent some time in the toy industry, as a content writer. The amount of “creative” work I did boiled down to finding words to express the shit that came out of the boss’s mouth. With no basis whatsoever, the boss would say “robots” or “aliens” or “pod people” or “bugs with other bugs for eyes” and we’d have to deal. That’s what it means to work in the creative industry. And at no point did anyone ever tell him he was full of shit, because we were a private company and he was the one fronting the cash for this to be put into production. Even if we knew that putting bugs with other bugs for eyes on top of motorcycles was a monumentally stupid idea suitable for five year olds who were dropped on their heads repeatedly every day for all five years they were alive.

Games are not quite like this. Game companies are contracted for a project. They have funding from multi-media conglomerates. Big people. Rich people. White people. Most of these big rich white people are old and have been in power since before the internet. They’re the same people who thought they could press a switch, throw some bags of cash around and stop piracy. They’re the same people who think hiring CompSci “experts” just out of college and telling them what to do every morning makes them the next Steve Jobs.

They’re morons, plain and simple. They see money, and they circle like vultures.

I have been in meetings with some of these people, and the shit that comes out of their mouths borders on the unbelievable. Imagine they’re paying you substantial amounts of money to make Game X.

Game X is an open world game with tons of player choice, a variety of crazy weaponry, a deep and flexible melee combat system, and arcade-esque driving. Here’s the kicker. Not one of these rich white people will understand jack shit about your game, or all the things you’ve done to make this a quality title. You want them to understand? They barely understand that “social media” isn’t a game genre, and they only discovered how Twitter works sometime last Tuesday.

At some point one of these people will ask you, in an accent similar to that asshole Count from Sesame Street – “Where is my money?” He signed a check for 20 mil. All you’ve got to show is some gameplay prototype and an ugly-ass alpha build.

So it’s no surprise game developers are going to push the graphics boundary, as it’s simple to just point to an expensive, gorgeously crafted pre-render and say “We’re making THAT”. It’s easy to justify the cost of production when you can see every dollar spent on special effects. As game budgets balloon into the hundreds of millions of dollars, more and more game developers will be forced to use the “It’s going to be like James Cameron’s Avatar” argument in boardroom meetings with these moneyed idiots, while promising large returns on investment.

3.     More Game, Less Movie

This actually branches out from my first point. Nerds love movies, and to ignore the effect movies have had on games is supreme folly.

I remember the game Enter the Matrix. The Wallabingbongski Brothers made a big deal about this being a bridge to the official Matrix Sequels, back when we thought they were going to be as fuckawesome as the first Matrix movie. Of course, we all went out in droves, drank the marketing kool-aid, and wondered why the game was so short and why nearly half the levels blew donkey. They touted it as a “unification of game and movie”, and said a bunch of shit about how Now We Have The Technology we can do things that have never been done before, such as launch multi-media PROJECTS that could be franchised and exploited in revolutionary new ways also never seen before.

Guess how that turned out?

I remember when the future meant hoverboards and flying cars and Iron Man suits for everyone. I also remember a future where videogames were the same, just Bigger and Better and Shinier.

Guess how that turned out?

I went to a store that sells physical copies of games today. Imagine that, digital-sales-are-going-to-save-us pundits! There was a large bucket. Inside the bucket were used PS3 games. It was filled to the brim. And this was a bucket you could fit, like, 10 babies in. A big goddamn bucket. Darksiders II was on top. I paid around $20 for it. As I opened the game box I felt a deep rush of empathy for 2K and the hundreds of people who slaved away for dozens of man-and-woman hours (Look, I’m gender-issue aware!) in both normal and crunch to make this game. The finished product, sold used.

What happened?

Well, two incredible games happened. The first one was a little game called Final Fantasy VII. The second was Half-Life 2. These games bookend what I call the “Cinematic Era of Videogames”. Videogames weren’t just games anymore. They had to be huge monolithic productions, incorporating hundreds of artists and thousands of man-hours. They said it couldn’t be done. But we’re there now. Final Fantasy VII brought us high-production interactive stories. Half-Life 2 perfected the Scripted FPS Moment. This is the future we inherited, rivaling movies in size, scope, and sheer ambition. And partly thanks to these two, games are now seen more as a storytelling medium than ever before.

And no, I’m not mentioning visual novels or adventure games. Discussion for another time.

I hear people bitching about videogames costing $60 all the time. $60 for the latest annual update of a game, just some DLC and a few new maps. People whining to high heaven about how much games cost now. Unfortunately, history tells us otherwise – games used to cost more. Thanks to the good ol’ silicon shortage, cartridges were priced at super premiums, even without taking inflation into account. Games cost a lot more back then. Why is there so much more whining now?

There are two uncomfortable truths, one uglier than the other. The first is that during that golden era we were kids and we didn’t have to worry too much about paying for our own videogames, unless our parents had to worry about where they were going to get the cash to put food on the table.

In which case we probably ended up mugging people or selling crack or sexual favors saving up for months in order to get the games we wanted.

I really, really like Sega Genesis.

The other uncomfortable truth is that we fucked ourselves. Hard. The proliferation of cinematic gaming has become one of the blights of this era. History will not look on this kindly. In our rush to become the next great entertainment medium, we looked to our inspirations – movies – and sooner or later there was no difference between the new medium and the old.

Honestly, how many blu-ray movies, DVDs, or VHS and Betamax tapes do you own? Probably quite a few. Less, if you’re poor, or even less, if you download or tivo everything you watch. Out of those, how many do you watch regularly? I mean, I love Wesley Snipes’ Blade. I own it on both DVD and VHS. I’ve watched it maybe fourteen times.

If we’re counting playtime in hours, that gives us a 2-hour-runtime times 14. I’ve spent a full 28 hours of my life just watching Blade smack the shit out of vampires. If that statistic depresses you, you probably don’t want to know how many hours some people have spent marathoning the complete Lord of the Rings collection.

How many hours does a good videogame eat up?

It has everything to do with length and challenge. Videogames cost more than ever to make now. The idea that someone buys a game and isn’t able to complete it is complete anathema these days. Can you imagine spending $60 on a game and not being able to complete it? The horror! You’d feel ripped off. You’d feel cheated, and angry that a company dared charge you that amount of money for something you hit a brick fucking wall with. Not to say anything about the developer, who is probably infuriated that the “narrative” he was telling isn’t being experienced to the fullest.

(That’s also why most games are so easy nowadays.)

I watched Bambi as a five year old. I was fucking addicted to that movie. I was at summer camp. I wore out the tape. I watched Bambi back to back, surrounded by other kids. I watched Bambi so much the other kids started losing their minds. They clawed at the walls and the plaster. They started eating their own diaper residue. Anything to make the Bambi stop, or to make me stop quoting entire chunks of that movie’s dialogue.

No matter how much you love a movie, there is a limit to the amount of times most people are going to see it before they start losing their minds.

If you’re playing a cinematic game, there is a limit to the amount of times you are going to play it before you start losing your mind.

That’s why most of us have shelves full of games we don’t play. They sit on the shelf collecting dust after our first playthrough. What is there to do with it but trade it in for the next title? This goes double for “narratives” game developers have fallen in love with, the kind that has gloriously stupid Shymawingwong TWEESTS and shock reveals. There’s no surprise in it a second time.

That’s why I’d like to see less “cinematic” games. Games are not movies, and they shouldn’t be. If you’re going to work in games with the desire of making a cinematic story – just fucking go and work in movies instead. It’s a better medium for your stories. Failing that, write a book. It’s cheaper and it doesn’t make you privy to the whims of some rich old white guy.

Why We Won’t

Crack dealers will never have trouble getting rid of stock. You’ll never see a crack dealer going “Damn, how am I gonna sell alla dis crack?”

For a long time there was this common perception that videogames were “recession-proof”. Ha, haha, and also ha. The idea came from the fact that we really love videogames. Come rain or shine, we will shell out the money for the next iteration of a beloved title like good little capitalist drones, keeping the grindhouse of game development running. Shit, I don’t even need to think about whether or not I’d pay money for a new Tales game coming out of Japan to grace us filthy non-Nipponese with its glorious gaming presence. I will throw money at the screen so fast it’ll go through my monitor. We love games so much that we’re actually willing to pay money for games that aren’t even out yet, or aren’t being made.

The industry is at war with content. This is the nature of the beast. Why give us everything we want in one game when you can sell it to us in pieces, knowing we’ll buy it anyway? Why make a 60 hour game when you can make a 30 hour game and sell us the next 30 next year?

Cynical parallels can be made to the pharmaceutical industry and the way it releases new drugs. There’s no money in the cure. The money is always in the comeback.

Look to the competitive scene! Look at how every year a new version of Road Beater-Upper is released. Look at what effects it has on the competition! Everything you’ve learned and all your skills are now invalid! Welcome to the new game!

If the Best Game In The Universe was made, game developers would shortly go out of business, because everyone would play That Game and buy nothing else.

There have been repeated attempts by many game developers to emulate the success of World of Warcraft, or find some way to convert all those millions of WoW players to a new title. It hasn’t worked. Even the Star Wars license hasn’t worked. Invariably, some people do pick up on new MMOs, but within a month or so they’re back to WoW again. Marketers and developers alike scratch their heads, confused.

The game industry would much rather have us pay for disposable, cinematic games. Games we play once, or twice at the maximum, and then leave alone so we can play the sequel as soon as it comes out. Games that don’t take long to complete, so we’re left wanting more and more and more, never satisfied or satiated. If we’re satiated, why would we ever buy the next game?

That’s the real reason why we feel $60 is too expensive for a game these days, and why so many of us insist on being cheapskates and buying used copies. Movie tickets are, what, $15 a pop? More if you factor in that whole 3D thing. If you’re going to make interactive movies, you’d better damn well expect people to pay prices similar to those of a movie ticket.

This is the state of the game as of 2013.

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