Videogames have become too big. I don’t mean the number of people playing them is too large — in my mind, the more people playing the better. No, I mean that the gaming industry as a business is too damn big.
Last E3 is a perfect example as to why. The entire show was dedicated to well-known publishers parading their franchises around as the next Call of Duty or World of Warcraft. Horror games were masked as bro-shooters, open world sandboxes were turned into neck-stabbing simulators, and character-driven stories were boiled down to blood-spattered action sequences. It was insulting, to tell you the truth.
It wasn’t the violence itself, that wasn’t the issue; videogame violence has never been something that I find offensive on its own. No, what found so offensive was that incessant pandering to a crowd of gamers who probably paid about 1/10th of the attention to the convention that I and other hardcore gamers did. I’m not alone in this; most postmortems of the convention seemed to echo this sentiment. In fact, I’ll be honest in saying most of my feelings weren’t fully articulated until I read editorials from others who all observed the same phenomenon: all the games looked alike.
For about the next 6 months I took a big step back from covering videogames, as I’m sure most of you noticed.
When the PS4 announcement hit, suddenly I felt myself pulled back in. Why? Because it sounded like Sony was trying something new. They are opening their platform up just enough so that they can score indie support (an aspect of any machine which I consider very important); they claim to be their system easier to develop for, and assured not just gamers, but the game makers themselves that they had listened and were making a system as much for them as for the rest of us. Of course, at the end of the day I still find myself budgeting out PC parts instead of clearing a new spot under my TV, but that’s for reasons besides what the PS4 is or isn’t doing. The point is, I was happily surprised by the route Sony is taking. I think more so than any other company, they can see the tides of this sea shifting.
There’s a lot still up in the air with regards to the next console generation — will mobile games continue to rise? Is the PC renaissance permanent? Just what exactly will new consoles require of users? Will Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft all still be making consoles? — there are several things we are certain of. The first, the AAA model of development doesn’t work. “AA” companies like THQ have been pushed out after trying to keep up with the ever-engorging cost of game development. This increase in development cost is due to massive commercial successes from very specific games (the aforementioned Call of Duty, World of Warcraft), and companies desperately trying to capture that same market (or re-capture, as the case may now be). This has caused a shift away from the creativity and experimentation of previous console generations, and instead towards pumping more money into increasingly similar looking projects hoping to replicate these fluke success stories.
The main impetus for the mid-80′s videogame crash was an over abundance of low-quality, and uninspired games. Today, have way too many games coming out trying to capture the exact same audience. Imagine if every couple months, a new movie was released trying to be the next Avengers or Transformers. These movies might be aimed at the largest movie-going audience out there, theoretically setting these films up for success. But only a fraction of that audience would go see every single one. Furthermore, a large portion of the movie-going population that does not care for these types of movies would be alienated, and any revenue from them lost.
This is exactly what’s been going on in gaming this past generation, and it seems to be coming to a head. More and more development studios are disappearing; yet at the same time more and more smaller projects, aimed at very specific yet sure-fire audiences, have begun to crop up. These projects cover genres and cater to audiences that have been woefully under-represented over the past half decade. Speaking for myself, seeing all these old-school RPGs and classic side-scrolling platformers are exactly the kinds of games I want to be playing. I’d be willing to bet there are games you’d like to see make a comeback.
But that’s not all: Chris Roberts is returning to space sims with Star Citizen; Everquest Next is promises to bring sandboxes back to MMOs; Mechwarrior Online and Hawken are resurrecting Mech games; Tribes: Ascend has reuinited PC gamers with arena shooters; Path to Exile and Torchlight have given players hours of loot-driven ARPGs; Double Fine and Himalaya Studios are bringing back point and click adventures; and XCOM: Enemy Unknown has proven strategy games are still financially relevant. The best part? Most of these are indie games players can pick up for smaller price points — or better yet, for free.
This is what game development need to move towards on a much larger scale than just these fringe projects. Buying a $60 game should be a big deal, much like seeing this year’s summer block buster is. I purchased Tomb Raider last month, Bioshock Infinite is currently preloaded on Steam, and all things considered those will probably be the two biggest games I buy this year (in terms of budget). Everything else — from Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen to Shovel Knight – will be anywhere from $10 to $40, prices much more conducive to compulsive and frequent purchases. Tiered pricing, smaller budgets, and niche games aimed and smaller yet more secure audiences could transform videogames from a giant mess of corporate meddling and content homogenization, and into a sustainable and inviting hobby once again.
I still want the BioShocks and Skyrims of the world to exist, and don’t think they’ll ever really go away. They may shrink slightly, and certainly won’t take any less to to develop. But in between these large tent-pole releases, I see space growing for the Ridiculous Fishings and Fezs to exist and thrive. The crash of the 190′s led to a burst in high quality, innovative games from Nintendo and similar companies. If a tiny downsize of the industry leads to a wider variety of games, on a vast array of devices, all being made with passion and creativity and played by people who care about the games they play, then I say bring it on.