It’s hard to go more than a day or two without hearing someone lament the “good old days” of gaming.
We like to complain loudly and often about how terrible games are today (while still playing them religiously of course), and usually the old guard (in this case, mostly people in their mid-late twenties) chime in with how much better things used to be.
Is this just the nostalgic ramblings of a group of bitter non-conformists who dislike change? Is it a particular breed of gaming hipsters who just want to remind you they were there to see the invention of the FPS and the release of Half-Life?
No, actually. In amongst all the hyperbole and bitterness there are points warranting real discussion, so today I’m going to look at five of the main reasons people complain about modern gaming.
The bottom line is bigger, but so are the risks
We created a monster.
When I was growing up, video games still belonged to the nerds, and the geeks. The D&D players, the kids who traded Pokemon cards, the guys who spent their breaktimes reading fantasy novels.
But then it began to grow, like an academic. Computers became a staple of contemporary lifestyles, the internet proliferated information and culture faster than ever before and before long the jocks were playing FIFA and the hipsters were playing Fez, or whatever the hell hipsters deem an acceptable game in their crappy subculture.
Gaming exploded, and became the billion-dollar behemoth it is now. The game had changed, so to speak, and so the rules had to as well.
In the beginning, it was great. More money meant more developers, more talent, more job opportunities and more ambitious games.
Of course, just like the movie industry had Waterworld, we had Tim Schafer. I’d like to say I’m just kidding, but I’m kind of not.
Schafer is a good example because there was a time when he was the king, but then something terrible happened – he made fantastic games that nobody bought. They were innovative, they were ambitious and they were excellent, but all that really mattered was that they were a poor return on investment.
This laid the stage for what we have now – games with budgets so enormous, they can’t afford to flop. A single high-profile failure can close a studio’s doors for good – we’ve seen it happen.
This means that the quality of a game is no longer important, its profit margins are. Sometimes those things go hand in hand, but not always. Games like GTA V make infinite dollars because they’re good games, while games like Assassin’s Creed Unity bank it all on a sellable franchise and pretty screenshots.
Games may be making more money than ever before (and spending more money than ever), but the increased risk has suffocated creativity.
The Internet invented entitlement
Imagine you purchased the original Doom when it first came out. It came loaded on three stiffy disks, you installed it and found that it really wasn’t for you. You couldn’t understand why a disembodied gun was floating around the map, you hated the gameplay and you were offended by the occult themes.
Who do you tell about it? Your friends at school? Your siblings? The shopowner? Probably you never play it again, tell your friends it sucks and regret the purchase for a day or two before moving on to the next thing. You could write John Carmack a letter if you wanted, I’m sure his secretary would have been happy to send you a form letter back.
Now fast forward to present day, and you just picked up the new Sim City. You hate it, you can’t connect half the time and you deeply regret ever buying it in the first place.
Who do you tell about it? EVERYBODY. You vent a bit on a few forums, you find a couple of petitions to sign, you message the freakin’ developer directly on Twitter and demand his resignation. And here’s the amazing thing – he actually sees that message. Hell, he might even reply to you.
You find an entire community of people just as upset as you are, and you band together against a common enemy. Various news platforms are putting out the story within 24 hours, and corporate executives are stuck in the middle of a PR shitstorm they can’t find their way out of.
The internet has given everyone a voice, and everyone a platform to make their opinions public. It allows us to communicate directly with basically whomever we want to. We have the power to pressure people, and we use it.
This has bred an incredible sense of entitlement amongst gamers, who feel they have expert, intimate knowledge on what makes games good and are happy to tell you every time you do something they don’t agree with.
It means that every decision made by developers and publishers alike has to take into account the inevitable internet backlash. Couple that with the amount of money being put into these games as mentioned previously, and it’s a scary industry to work in – you need the internet on your side. The internet is your customer base, and the internet is a fickle, stubborn, unforgiving bitch.
Investors and developers are separate entities
This goes back to the growth of the industry, and the money put into it. Much like the movie industry, games have become too expensive to develop without outside investors.
This means that the ones paying the bills (publishers, mostly) are not the ones making the games. And those two parties have different interests.
Developers want to release games when they’re perfect, publishers want to release games in time for the holiday season. And you can’t blame them – they need to see a return on their investment.
So while Carmack and Romero were happy to release Doom when they were happy with it, the people working on the next Call of Duty right now don’t have a choice – it’s releasing in November, whether they like it or not.
Then we get unfinished games, buggy games, enormous day one patches and all those other things we just love about modern gaming.
Maximising profits means addictive gameplay, and we can’t stop
I’ve combined these last two reasons since I’ve gone way over my self-imposed word limit at this point.
I’ve spoken before about the absurdly unethical techniques game developers use to keep us hooked, so I won’t go into that again here.
The point is, the internet has brought with it the ability to extend a game’s lifespan far beyond what it used to be, which means more and more developers are trying to keep us hooked.
What have realised in all this, however, is that often we continue playing games despite not actually necessarily enjoying it. We all bitch and moan about how shitty games are today, we complain about almost every aspect of a particular title we might spend 20+ hours a week playing.
Games like World of Warcraft are a great example – people can spend hundreds of hours doing pretty mundane, repetitive gameplay just to try and find some rare item. A lot of games keep us hooked with the promise of sweet, sweet loot, but a lot of the time we spend trying to find it we aren’t really having fun.
The bizarre thing is most of the time when people simply uninstall games like this, they find they don’t miss them much. Once that rare item loses its value to you, you don’t miss the experience of searching for it – because that experience wasn’t fun in the first place, it was only the reward you were interested in.
You can see this is in stark, depressing clarity at casinos – next time you’re at one, check out the people tapping away at the slot machines. A big majority of them are sitting there alone, with blank, bored faces. They aren’t having fun, they’re not enjoying themselves. They’re just chasing that sweet loot, same as you or I.
A lot of games aren’t about being fun anymore, they’re about being addictive. The casinos don’t care that you’re not having fun, as long as you keep putting coins in. The same is true for games.