Some of you, by which I mean none of you, might remember I wrote an article a few years ago about how the video game industry could never crash the way it did in the 80’s and that saying it ever could is retarded.
Well, while it’s still dumb to say that video games could come to the brink of extinction like they did in 1983, there absolutely is a crash coming. Only difference is, this time it’s going to be hugely beneficial to us. And by ‘us’, I mean, ‘people who don’t give a shit about Halo’.
I ended up writing way more than I originally intended to on the subject, so I’m going to put up each point as a separate article to make it at least a little easier to digest.
[Note: I always feel the need to mention this when I write about gaming, but sometimes I get far too excited about the subject and end up going off on long-winded tangents or otherwise odd segues. Due to the fact I’m my own editor and fact-checker, this often results in small mistakes and/or me being flat-out wrong about stuff, so please feel free to let me know if I’m full of shit in the comments.]
Reason One: Giving Control Back to the Creators
Have you noticed how, lately, the only films that come out in the cinema are either sequels, reboots or based off something on the housewives best-sellers list? More and more, Hollywood are refusing to take any risks with their films and, as a result, we’re treated to watching an over-the-hill John McClane get forced into increasingly contrived situations –well past the point of PTSD where he would either have become a worthless drunk or just shot himself– rather than opening up the door to let some new guys have a whack at the big time. This has been happening ever since I was a kid and it doesn’t look set to stop any time soon, if the abhorrently embarrassing Robocop reboot is anything to go by.
The reasons for this are up for debate, but if you were to ask me, I would say it’s all gone to shit because a few gigantic studios have spent the last three decades buying up all the smaller studios and the rights to just about every existing film property, then started shutting down those studios and shelving projects when they realised that just sitting on the rights to a film wasn’t all that profitable and that there is absolutely no chance of recouping even a fraction of the money they poured into the films they did make because they were mostly literally and creatively bankrupt horseshit or over-indulgent auteur vanity projects. Does this sound familiar yet?
If you know anything about the video game industry then you’ll be more than aware of EA’s aggressive policy of buying and absorbing smaller, talented studios, like Bullfrog and Pandemic, acquiring their properties and then shutting down the studios and cryo-podding the franchises when they fail to meet their ludicrously unrealistic sales expectations, (try to remember that, against all odds, EA expected Dead Space 3 to sell more copies than the first two games, combined. More astounding, still, they expected to do this even though the game was a big, fat bag of arse paste.)
Unlike the first video game crash, what is currently sucking all the talent and creativity out of Hollywood is most likely what will also drive a stake right through the heart of the mainstream gaming industry, as well. Rather than being due to an over-saturation of low quality shovelware, the industry is going to be crippled by astronomical budgets that are, realistically, impossible to recoup, (the Devil May Cry reboot was branded a failure despite shifting 1.4 million units) and bloated development cycles making releases as frequent as a lunar eclipse.
So, who is responsible for the budget-swelling and half-decade development hell? Well, while it’s true that creative types aren’t the best at keeping track of the finances which, in theory, is supposed to be why you have a publisher to control the purse strings, the news would suggest that developers spend more time fighting to get a woman as the main character in their game than they do arguing for an extra layer of expensive graphical polish, or to shoehorn in a completely out-of-place multiplayer element into a series that has always been as far removed from multiplayer as EA is from empathy.
Almost all publishers in the modern mainstream arena seem to hold steadfast to two infallible tenets: graphics are god and no game can succeed without multiplayer, and despite the fact that Skyrim, an entirely single player experience with console graphics that were passable at best, sold seven million copes in a week, they are now so entrenched in their belief that a game can’t succeed without cutting-edge graphics, or multiplayer or whatever else Call of Duty is doing that year that they are literally bankrupting themselves to bring out games that, best case scenario, will be lucky to break even.
Of course, all of that wouldn’t be so bad if it was just the publishers that took the hit, but the problems arise when they decide to shut down further development on a property, because it failed to reach the sales expectations they pulled out of their arse because of changes they forced developers to make. As the wonderful Jim Sterling explains, the real problem is that developers pour a fortune into turning properties that already have a modest-but-devout fanbase into homogenised sludge in a bid to appeal to a broader demographic, and in doing so end up alienating everyone, across the board. Instead of being content with producing a lot of cheaper but solid titles that make comfortable sales, they are betting the farm on one giant, make-or-break blowout with every single game they release.
Maybe this isn’t the publisher’s fault for holding these beliefs, though, maybe it’s ours for always demanding bigger and better?
Well, no, probably not. Ignoring the concept of diminshing returns that makes chasing better graphics ultimately pointless, at this stage, if looks really are all you care about, then buy a high-end PC because PC’s will always be at the forefront of sheer technical prowess. This is proven by the fact that the current batch of consoles, and indeed the last generation, were little more than a pathetic aping of low-spec gaming PC’s. Only without the freedoms that make PC gaming beneficial, like not being beholden to developer-released patches when your new game is released in an utterly broken state.
As long as publishers are stuck in this self-inflicted mindset, then nothing will change. Budgets will continue to swell, sales will continue to fall below expectations, and studios will continue to be shut down.
So why is this a good thing?
Well, the good thing about working in a creative industry is that, just because your current employer screws the pooch and torpedoes your studio, that doesn’t suddenly mean you lose your talent. You still possess a very unique set of skills and, like Liam Neeson in a Pariesienne slum, there are all sorts of places you can apply them. You only need to look to Kickstarter to see there is absolutely a market and an overwhelming demand for creativity to be put back in the hands of the creators, like Tim Schafer and Keiji Inafune.
Imagine if, instead of having to fight tooth and nail with publishers just to get a fucking female character in your game, you could just make that decision, and then get on with making the actual game part of your game. This absolutely wouldn’t guarantee your game was good –Remember Me still managed to be a decidedly lacklustre affair even without the additional chromosome– but if developers are allowed to spend more time developing and less time wrestling for creative control then the chances of creating something wonderful are that much higher.
This is why, more and more, indie developers, both old and new, are beginning to shun things like the Xbox Live Marketplace, and their preposterous patching fees, to instead go down the self-publishing route, or through more reputable storefronts such as Steam. The only thing really stopping this market from utterly exploding into the mainstream is that digital distribution is still a daunting prospect for a lot of consumers and the fact that the majority of people just don’t know or care that there are other options, with many still associating PC gaming with the frustrations of scouring forums for user-made patches and constantly having to tweak settings to keep games running.
That is slowly starting to change, though, with online shopping rising in popularity consumers are becoming more informed every day, and suddenly realising we are no longer beholden to the brick and mortar stores of old; with their ridiculously inflated prices and artificial scarcity. The same will eventually become true of the mainstream gaming industry, as people become more connected and more aware of what else is out there, they’ll start to realise that the only thing that kept them coming back to Assassin’s Creed: Regurgitation or Call of Duty: It’s the Bloody Koreans, This Time, Probably was that they didn’t know what else was out there.
The point I’m labouring towards with all of this is that, while the collapse of the big players in the mainstream publishing circles would probably kill the console industry in it’s current incarnation, that really wouldn’t be such a bad thing, and it would, in all likelihood, give way to a renaissance period for PC gaming and, ultimately, gaming as a whole.
As previously mentioned, consoles are just broken PC’s at this point, anyway, and with the advent of features like Big Picture on Steam or how easy it is to get a monitor cable and connect your laptop to your TV, it’s even easier to turn your laptop into a games console than it is to actually set up a dedicated games console, and you’ll instantly have access to hundreds of thousands of fantastic titles at only a fraction of a price of any of the dross you could find on the high street, but more on that next time.