Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Obama Effect


It's all going down the drain.

That's the best way I can describe what is happening to my beloved hobby of gaming.  Right down the drain. I guess it is is apropos seeing that the same thing is happening to this great nation of ours.  Republican, Democrat, console dev, or PC dev...it doesn't matter.  It seems everyone is content to watch the train wreck happen rather than do something about it.

Hence, the reason why I haven't written in a long while.  It's not that I didn't want to write, it is just that there has been absolutely nothing to write about.  Even my leftist opponents in the gaming press have run out of things to talk about - don't blame 'em, after all how can to inject militant feminism into a platformer???

Gaming, it would seem, is dying.

Now, why would I say that?



Well, have you checked out the list of titles on Steam lately?  Or Gamer's Gate?  GameFly?  Any digital distribution site?  Based on the titles listed, I would be forced to conclude that it was 1999 again!  I mean, check out this list of "new releases" from Steam today:

TrackMania² Valley
Racing, Sports


FINAL FANTASY VII
RPG


DARK
Action, RPG

Soldier Front 2
Free to Play, Action

Bleed
Action, Indie, Platformer


Mortal Kombat Komplete Edition
Action

Horizon
Strategy, Indie, Early Access
Infested Planet
Strategy, Indie, Early Access


Platformers, retro-hits, a handful of 2D strategy titles, and a bunch of "early access" (i.e., alpha and beta builds) indie games, and one F2P shooter.  The only modern game on that list is Ubisoft's TrackMania!

Man, how far we have fallen.  I didn't need to upgrade my PC for this nonsense.

Now, to be fair, summer is always quiet.  But having said that, this is one of the worst years I can ever recall.  Proof:  I recently conducted the "Fry Test".  Know what that is?




I went out with $20 today to try and find something to buy and play (not an expansion, something fresh). Came back empty handed. Nothing anywhere.   I can't remember the last time that happened. Yeah, yeah, personal preferences are at work here, but still: I am a soft sell when it comes to gaming and I couldn't find squat to buy.  The only upside to this is that I am now saving a ton of money!

I think Charles Dickens had it right when he said "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times."  One one hand, we gamers are living in the best of times because it is an era where technology can really deliver on the promise of gaming: high speed internet, powerful CPUs and GPUs, digital distribution (with deep sales!), crowd sourced gaming where players get to help design the game, and even free-2-play games. But it is also the worst of times: increasingly invasive DRM for both software and hardware, incomplete indie games that take years to mature, AI that seems to grow stupider with each passing game, and the "iteration not innovation" industry design philosophy that leads to endless sequels from the big studios.

Consider this:  the other day I decided to take a quality inventory of my games from the last few years (six years of gaming, to be precise). In other words, I set about making a list of my favorite games, games that weren't just fun to play at launch, or even for a month or two post release, but remained fun over the very long haul. You know, those games that you always return to, with each return being accompanied by the same sense of joy and wonder that you encountered the first time you played the game.

It turned out to be a depressingly short list:

  1. Crusader Kings 2: Ironic to think that a low graphics, old school grand strategy game would take the top spot on my list, but it is true! CK2 is what I imagined every game in the 21st Century would eventually be like: a game that doesn't force the player to participate in a scripted story that only creates the illusion of choice, but rather works with the player to tell his story with real and meaningful decision points. In other words, in a gaming world overrun with faux CRPGs, CK2 is, in my opinion, the only true role playing game where the player can weave marvelous, and often completely unexpected, stories of his own creation. Every time I sit down to play this game I never know what I am going to get, but I always love the unpredictable experience in the end.
  2. Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion: In some ways the sci-fi equivalent of CK2. Sure, it doesn't have the personality-driven aspects of that game (we can dream), but it does have absolutely fantastic sandbox gameplay. And those battles - finally, a game that delivers the epic fleet battles we always wanted in a "pew pew" space game! Best of all, it is easy to play, making this a title that always sweeps me along for a thrilling ride!
  3. Battlefield 3: A completely immersive war simulator has always been the fantasy of every gamer everywhere, and DICE's Battlefield series has come the closest to meeting that desire. Sure, we all get tired of EA's shenanigans, and DICE's sometimes quixotic design logic, but, by and large, the Battlefield series is a masterpiece of thrilling combined arms combat that never fails to deliver the "Fixed Price War" virtual combat experience we've all been seeking since the day Doom first arrived. 
  4. Skyrim:  The ultimate immersive RPG.  Have to hand it to Bethesda, they really delivered the goods with this title! 

And that is it!

Now, this does not mean that I don't have other games on my PC - a list of fun games would be quite a bit longer, I assure you - but when it comes to games that I must have on my PC at all times....that is it.

Staggering. Despite spending hundreds - thousands? - of dollars on gaming over the last near decade, only four titles make the cut for delivering the gaming experience I expected would be the immersive norm for the 21st Century.  FOUR GAMES!

Now, I am sure that I will see other titles get added to this exclusive list in coming years (I suspect Kerbal Space Program to be one of those, along with Elite: Dangerous and/or Star Citizen, and Mojang's Scrolls), but can we expect very many more? If it took five years to amass a paltry four titles, I am starting to suspect that the future for gaming might not be all that bright after all. This is especially worrying in light of how the gaming console business might finally be breaking up on the rocks. Now, you could make the case that the reason why the gaming industry has been putting out so much rubbish the last few years is precisely because of the influence of the consoles - and that might be a valid point. But whether or not that is true, the failure of the $78 billion dollar console gaming industry would have a severe and deleterious effect on all of us.

I think one of the reasons why the above list is so short is because of the threadbare topics game devs insist on covering. I remember how during the 8-bit days you have devs making games on every topic under the sun. Heck, we even had a nuclear reactor simulator! Today, it is the same game over and over again. Shooters dealing with war against Russians, despite the fact that the Cold War ended decades ago; endless World War II wargames despite thousands of years of armed conflict; space games all modeled after Star Wars, Star Trek, or now Battlestar Galactica; and so on. Where is the modern version of SCRAM? Where are the games about underwater exploration? The bridge simulators? Games about DNA mutation? Plumbing (yes, once upon a time all these topics were covered by gaming during the 8-bit & 16-bit eras)? Heck, but for Kerbal Space Program, I could have added space science to the list as well! This, more than anything, is what is really getting me down on gaming. After having to suffer through all the annoyances of modern gaming, we still only wind up with a title that resembles a dozen other titles that had proceeded it, and a dozen before that (I'm looking at you, 4X devs!).

Now, I know some of you PC gamers are shouting "the indies will save us!".  Perhaps, but I am not so sure.  While there have been a great many exciting Kickstarter projects announced, what we have received so far has been...less than stellar (see Strike Suit Zero, Stardrive & Endless Space, for example).   What is worse, even the indies are getting into the "iteration not innovation" mentality by making sequels to games that are decades old at this point.  Yeah, that might be a bit cynical, but I think it is also accurate. So while I am hopeful about more than a few indie projects, I am suspicious as to whether they can meet the high expectations they have set.  And no, promising an endless series of patches post release is not a formula for successful "game development". 

Gaming has definitely been been grinding to a halt over the last few years.  Without a doubt, this process has been accelerated by the global recession/depression that continues to grip the world due to incompetent leadership - aka the Obama Effect - for almost six years now (funny, remember all those "industry experts" who said gaming is "recession proof"?).  Of course, Obama made things even worse for our hobby when he linked video games to mass shootings (quote: "Congress should fund research on the effects violent video games have on young minds.").  To make matters worse, the games industry has adopted the worst habits of Hollyweird, such as endless sequels and visual effects over compelling content, in a desperate attempt to fend off the inevitable (hasn't worked for Hollywood, so why would it for gaming?). In other words, we have a perfect storm of bad politics and bad industry practices.  And as that Steam list shows, we are already feeling the impact by having fewer and fewer games to chose from as studios go under or are forced to layoff more and more workers to survive.


Let me be clear: I am NOT saying that I am through with video games; I could never imagine giving up such a rewarding hobby. Nor am I saying that video games are doomed. People will always need to play, and as long as we have these entertainment powerhouses sitting on our desks, people will find a way to play with them - I fully expect there to be some great games in our future, especially now that the next gen consoles have made the 64-bit leap. Rather, I am just making the observation that I believe the technology of gaming has finally outpaced our ability to make games. Originality has been replaced by the safe same ol' same ol', and innovation has been replaced by graphics.

So welcome to the great gaming drainpipe, an event I suspect will reset the board of Big Gaming.  The question is: what will that board look like in the near future?  Will PC gaming come back in a big way as the established consoles crash and burn?  Or will the XBox One and PS4 surprise everyone as the comeback kids?  Or is the future of gaming to be found in the mobile and tablet genre?  I don't know, but one thing is clear: gaming as we know it is coming to an end.  And not tomorrow, but right now in front of our eyes. So get ready for a steady diet of low-budget & perpetually in development indie titles (with an emphasis on artsy side-scrollers), and safe sequels from the big gaming studios that emphasize graphics over gameplay.  Throw in a ton of casual games for the tablet and mobile sector, and I think you have a really good idea of what awaits gamers in the near future.

Chess, anyone?





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