Fuck a State of the Union address, that shit’s boring. How about something that actually matters? You know, like video games.
That’s what I did. I decided to mix things up a bit here on the site (because things badly needed mixing…) and give you guys some new and different content. So I wrote this thing over a couple weeks, and now here it is. It’s long, I know, but it’s not too bad. If you’re a gangster, read it all past the jump.
I am not an English major, and I don’t care about perfecting either my writing technique or my grammar. As far as I’m concerned, this article more than passes my quality standards. I’m sure there are numerous grammatical errors, and I know that I have a bit of a tendency to compose overly complex sentences (I kinda go crazy with commas and parenthesis in informal writing like this). But it’s certainly readable.
I also talk far more about consoles and other dedicated gaming devices than I do PC’s. There are two reasons for this. First, I am a console gamer. Forgive me, but I am (and this won’t come as a surprise to any of my friends). Second, the PC doesn’t face the same issues that consoles do, for obvious reasons. I do eventually address the problems it does face, however.
Lastly, I talk a lot about a select few titles, namely Modern Warfare 3 and Uncharted 3. I do intend to express my feelings towards these two games, but my primary reason for repeatedly bringing them up is to make points, not just to bash them or cram my overwhelmingly positive thoughts down your throats, respectively. And once more I bring up Apple (I know, I’m sorry… it’s become a full-fledged problem now), but again it’s to demonstrate what I think needs to happen with specific arguments I raise.
This thing went longer than I thought it would, but it’s still easily readable in a single sitting. I hope you enjoy it. And even if you disagree with me, I hope it makes you think critically about the gaming industry. Because that’s what far too few people are doing right now.
The State of Gaming
With 2011 now come & gone and a brand new year staring us all in the face, I, GPC (aka the co-host at the command post), felt it was a good time to take a broad look at something we here at Spiny Shell Radio care (and talk) a lot about, both on the show and off: gaming.
There’s a lot going on right now in the world of video games. For one, I think it’s finally viable to say that gaming has fully and powerfully arrived. Not that it was an unpopular hobby before this year, but 2011 was, in my opinion, when the proverbial levee broke. From traditional console gaming absolutely smashing records of all kinds (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 sold 6.5 million copies in 24 hours in the US and UK alone, making EA over $400 million. That’s the most successful entertainment launch of any medium ever, people), social networking-based games like FarmVille blowing up nuke-like (so successful that it’s developer, Zynga, is now positioned as the 4th most valuable game developer- behind Nintendo, Sony, and EA), and last but certainly not least, the near-infinite rise of mobile gaming via smartphones and tablets (this year, Angry Birds reached over 500 million downloads- compare that to MW3’s paltry 15 million sold).
These are figures of an industry in unstoppable motion. Here’s a fact: it took Avatar and Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone 17 days to reach $1 billion in sales. That’s billion, with a “b.”
It took Modern Warfare 3 16 days. Another record.
Video games are now unquestionably a fully competitive industry next to moviemaking and music. Obviously not all games do as well as the Call of Duty series, but even your average, no hype, middle-of-the-road release like Dead Island sells great: about 2.35 million copies in that game’s case, which fetched it’s developer Deep Silver a cool $141 million.
And like moviemaking and music, there is little correlation between quality and sales. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was 2011’s most successful movie, followed by Transformers: Dark of the Moon (I still hate that title), making $1.3 and $1.1 billion, respectively. Now I’m not saying that HP7 Pt.2 was dreadful, but it was far from the great conclusion it could’ve been. And Dark of the Moon was terrible. Really terrible.
MW3 is, in many gamer’s opinions (and mine), a bad game. It’s repetitive, obnoxious, simultaneously easy and frustrating, and is essentially the same game as last year’s version- and the year before that, and on down the line. This is important to acknowledge when looking at the industry as a whole, because it is the final step in gaming becoming movie’s and music’s equal. In days past, the best games of the year were the ones that sold best. Now that’s not the case, with MW3, Just Dance 3, Battlefield 3, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim rounding out the top 4 sellers for 2011. Out of those games, I’d be willing to call Skyrim good, but even that is littered with dozens of problems.
And keep in mind, I’m not even including the numbers from the aforementioned mobile and social networking games. That is where the real action is right now.
Ok, so now you’ve been brought up to speed on how well games sell, and how the industry has positioned itself. What’s next?
Well, that question might be the best way to sum up the gaming industry right now. We know it sells well and that it’s here to stay, but where are we going now with gaming?
We are on the cusp of a new generation of consoles.
The “big three,” (Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony) are all readying their next generation systems. At e3 2011, Nintendo unveiled it’s new hardware: the Wii U (didn’t learn anything from last generation’s naming fiasco, did we Nintendo?) While there is always potential in any console, I don’t find anything that Nintendo revealed last year to be all that promising or interesting. That the company is only now embracing HD visuals is, to put it lightly, an abomination. The aim of the Wii U, as per Nintendo’s words, is to recapture the all-important “hardcore gamer,” the ones who buy all the Call of Duty’s and Battlefield’s. Apparently, Nintendo thinks it best to do this with a console that is only marginally better (visually speaking) than its competitor’s current consoles, and by betting everything on an entirely new control scheme which, like the Wii’s remotes before it, seems destined to fall into a maze of quickly-made, poorly conceived mini game collections like you see in the bargain bin at your local retailer today. Bins packed to the top with old Wii titles nobody bought or enjoyed.
Obviously, I don’t have much confidence in Nintendo. What, then, of Sony and Microsoft? No doubt we’ll see two new machines that are incredibly powerful, rely primarily on traditional controls (that ‘Kinect’ and ‘Move’ bullshit aside, of course), and are totally connected with the internet. Remember that amazing-looking demo that Epic released earlier in 2011? I’ll bet these new consoles will handle stuff like that with ease.
Read as: more of the same.
I think graphics are important. Very important, actually. And while I’m not above blockbuster shooters and triple-A titles which push graphics to their limits (hell, my favorite game of last year was Uncharted 3), I think traditional home gaming needs a total redesign. In a word: simplicity.
No matter if you’re a PC or Mac person, you can’t deny one thing: Apple has been kicking truckloads of ass the past few years. In the post-PC world, Apple stands towering above everyone else. And that’s because they understand that the best products are an interplay of technology and liberal arts. That is to say, technology that doesn’t feel like technology. An iPad is so easy to use that a baby can pick it up and instantly start playing with it.
Not that home consoles need to be tablets (hell no), but they need to embrace this same ideology. Making things simpler, not more complex. Enough with multiple user accounts for different games, services, and online communities. If you’re using a console, one username and password should handle everything: from playing games online, to watching movies (through Netflix, Hulu, the PSN Store, whatever), to buying music or any other kind of content. And it doesn’t end with usernames.
Imagine this: every time you watched Seinfeld re-runs on Fox then switched channels to watch the new episode of Eastbound and Down on HBO, you had to use a different screen. What if Fox, CBS, and Showtime only offered their programming on one device, and NBC, ABC, and HBO on another? Would that make any fucking sense? No! So why the hell is this still the case with gaming?
That the big three still duel it out to the death with hardware is insanity. To take it a step further, it’s a stupid, outdated, needlessly complex, pointless business strategy. We all know that the big three sell their consoles at a loss, profit-wise, right? Well if you didn’t know, now you do: Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all didn’t start making money with their current generation of consoles until years into their lifetimes. No, they make their money with software sales. Why not cut out the costly step and pool your resources?
I know this isn’t likely to happen (at least not for a long time), but this is my article, damnit, and really: what doesn’t make sense about this? I mean, when it’s so overwhelmingly obvious that software is where the money is, what is keeping these internationally-run, incredibly profitable and depended-upon companies from making the smart move with this?
The next couple of years will see millions of us going to Best Buy or wherever and having to choose between the Wii U, the Playstation 4, and the Xbox whatever-the-fuck. Imagine instead seeing just one console sitting on the shelf. It has Sony’s superior graphics, Microsoft’s mastered online experience, and Nintendo’s, uh, games. And the games for the other two companies, too. How much would that kick ass? It’s better for both the consumer and the uniting companies, who now have thousands fewer headaches to put up with thanks to a unified think tank of development to handle software updates, customer concerns, and all the other shit that I don’t know about. It’d make things easier for developers too, who would then only have 2 versions of every game to make instead of the 3, 4, or 5 they do now.
I know this “Super Console” is currently just a pipe dream, but there are other things that can realistically be done right now.
Big three: give us a standard UI for everything. Again, take a page out of Apple’s book: they’ve managed to accomplish the seemingly impossib- wait, fucking obvious task of making each app look unique while simultaneously being instantly familiar. Once more: simplicity. If it doesn’t make sense, then don’t fucking do it! It seems so obvious, but this industry still doesn’t embrace this philosophy. Different consoles for different games, piles of unique usernames and passwords, applications for viewing movies, TV, and music that aren’t easy or fun to use…. it all leads towards a user experience that’s actually pretty shitty when you really think about it.
These are the true problems that home console gaming is facing, not the small complaints from fanboys on all sides. I exclude PC gaming from this discussion because it’s problems are directly tied to another issue that I’ll address later on.
And then there’s mobile gaming.
2011 saw the release of Nintendo’s successor to the massively popular DS: the imaginatively titled 3DS. You know, because it has 3D. And it’s glasses-free 3D to boot (which actually kind of sucks, because despite it being a handheld device, you have to keep it perfectly still in the “sweet spot” in order to keep the 3D effect looking good). This year also saw Sony hyping their soon-to-be-released PS Vita (it comes out in February of this year).
While Nintendo’s device is graphically superior to the previous DS and has the aforementioned 3D capabilities, it’s small potatoes compared to what Playstation’s new handheld can do (here is a demo of the upcoming Uncharted game that will be a launch title).
The 3DS got off to a rocky start, with it being priced far too high and having a shitty game lineup at launch. Now though (after a price drop), it seems to have found it’s stride, selling more units than the original DS did in the same amount of time and finally having a strong collection of titles available. Unfortunately, you still have to put up with it being a poorly designed and, well, kind of ugly device. How so? Nintendo is so brilliant, they only included one control stick on the left side of the device in an age when having two is an absolute necessity for true 3D gaming. Nintendo knows they fucked this up, too, because they recently released a terrible looking add-on which includes the all-important 2nd analog stick. Seriously, it looks ugly. It makes an already ugly-looking device even bigger and uglier.
The PS Vita, while a technical powerhouse, is, like the 3DS, priced far too high and is perhaps too powerful (early reports put the system’s battery life at around 2 hours when connected to the internet). At a certain point, it starts becoming unfair to call such a device truly portable.
And if you take a look at the Vita’s sales in Japan thus far, you’ll see another troubling sign: the new system sold an acceptable 325,000 units in it’s first 48 hours on the market (December 17th and 18th), but has only moved an additional 72,479 more since then (as of 1/8/12). Compare that with the 3DS’ sales (which were considered weak at launch) of 580,000 units during the same period. Hurting.
The real problems these systems face though, is that they’re up against insurmountable competition from the likes of iOS and Android devices.
While one can argue that these dedicated gaming handhelds aren’t in the same category with smartphones and tablets, and thus needn’t worry about competing with them (and this is partially true), there is one certainty: the talent and energy is spent where the money comes from, and this means that true innovation and development will be coming almost exclusively out of the smartphone and tablet sector. Sure, you’ll be able to depend on good titles from Nintendo and Sony’s own studios (as is always the case), but third party support will, in this fledgling radio star’s opinion, dwindle. And as we all know, third party support is what allows a platform to breathe: there’s only so many games that Nintendo and Sony can develop in-house, and that number isn’t enough to satiate a gamer all year long (and of course, not every one of these titles will be good).
I’m not saying that these dedicated handhelds aren’t worth buying. Go ahead. I mean, if that’s your thing. I for one will stick with the platform that I carry around in my pocket everywhere I go, all the time, and which is nearly equal to the 3DS graphically (and in my particular phone’s case, it even has the same glasses-free 3D capability- silly!) Not to mention that this gaming machine can also make phone calls, flawlessly peruse the internet, send texts and video calls, and has access to a virtual marketplace of apps that Nintendo and Sony can’t touch. And, you know, the games cost at most $5. That’s when they’re not free. This includes a complete collection of all NES, SNES, Sega, N64, and Playstation titles via the wonderful selection of ROMs and emulators out there that work on any smartphone (of course, having one of the newer dual-core chips in your handset really helps here, but is not a necessity). Sure, the battery life kinda sucks, but rest easy: it does on the gaming-only handhelds too!
Right now, whenever I have the inclination, I’ve been playing Quest 64: seamlessly dropping in and out of an instantly-loadable saved game that picks up exactly where I left off- no menus or bullshit like that to put up with. DJE is doing the same thing with Ocarina of Time. Try doing that with a 3DS or a Vita.
But yeah, the dedicated handhelds are cool.
So as for mobile gaming, I’m saying that dedicated handhelds are obviously not dead (yet), but are entirely too overpriced to consider when such great smartphones, and not to mention tablets, are available. My word is gospel.
Social networking gaming is both mega popular and mega gay, so I’ll not waste my time writing about it or your time reading about it. Here’s what you need to know (and might already):
- It’s widely used (FarmVille has 40 million monthly users on average, and it’s only the third most popular Facebook game).
- It makes it’s developers billions (as mentioned earlier, Zynga is now among the top 5 most valuable game developers- I want to vomit).
- It’s leading big time developers like EA & Epic to add annoying and needless Facebook and Twitter integration to major titles that nobody uses (believe it or not, developers, we don’t need or want to share our scores from our latest match of Gears of War 3 on Facebook).
Other than that though, I’m giving it a wide berth until I deem it anything other than a (very) profitable time waster that’s played by people who spend too much time on Facebook.
What, then, is left to say? Before I wrap up my stream-of-consciousness rant on all things gaming, I’d like to speak broadly about the state of game design, and not the industry surrounding it. Because really, this is the most important aspect of gaming. All the powerful consoles in the world don’t mean a damn thing without studios that know how to properly harness the tools available to them.
This is also where PC gaming’s problems are. Because PC’s needn’t concern themselves with the issues that still plague consoles, all that matters here is the way games are designed.
I liked an adequate number of games that came out in 2011. I think that Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is the best game I’ve played since Resident Evil 4 back in 2005, which is very high praise coming from me (RE4 is a top 5 game for me). I also really enjoyed Dead Space 2, and Portal 2. The new Zelda is good too, although at this point calling a recently released Zelda game “new” is almost as wrong as calling Call of Duty games “new.”
These other games I enjoyed, while certainly satisfactory, are nowhere near the level that Uncharted 3 is, however. And I don’t expect games that exceptional to be released every year either, but it’s obvious: gaming is in a state of total redux, and has been for a good long while. Just look at all the titles in the paragraph above; look at all those numbers (although this redux issue extends beyond there simply being too many sequels).
Now again, to be clear: I don’t expect every game to reinvent the wheel. But what I know for sure is that there are far too many games that are far too alike. When the Call of Duty franchise out-earns it’s previous installment year after year, I’m always left scratching my head. Activision has been releasing the same game since 2007’s first Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and even that was just a modernized version of Call of Duty 3 which came out two years before. Same engine (mildly updated of course), same gameplay mechanics, same total lack of effort towards any story at all, everything.
Call of Duty catches a lot of flack (and I’m obviously someone who dishes it out too), but really, it’s just the most successful version of the almost universally identical first person shooter genre. It’s a genre which relies entirely on graphical prowess alone to differentiate itself from it’s competitors. While this leads to some great-looking games like Crysis 2, it doesn’t lead to any innovation.
And if you take a look at the other genres, they’re not too far off from this same model either. RPG’s either take the traditional swords-and-sorcery path or they go the almost-action-game route, a la X-Men: Destiny. Here again, there is a dearth of true innovation. The best-reviewed RPG by far this year was Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and that brought absolutely nothing new to the table. It was just really great looking and fucking huge. It’s graphics were so impressive that almost nobody docked it any real points come review time because of it’s numerous game-breaking bugs, and just poor game design in general.
Sports games are a genre so completely void of innovation that it’s laughable. Graphics rule the hierarchy again. Although to be fair, this is a genre where innovation is tough to imagine. Christ, why does Madden sell so well every year? It’s not even the best sports game series! (That honor goes to the FIFA games, by the way.)
Action/platformers are the same. So are open world games. All of gaming is the same, save for a few select titles made by the so-called “indie developers,” who seem to be the only people capable of coming up with new ideas. The problem with these games, though, is that they aren’t full games: they are all downloadable (read as: short as shit and usually one-dimensional conceptually). Titles like Flower and Amnesia: The Dark Descent are great examples of what is possible with the medium, but they aren’t as big, long, available, and good-looking as games like Fallout 3 (and again- I don’t mean to suggest that graphics aren’t important, just that equal care must be taken in all areas of design).
Flower is a game with no main protagonist, no set “story,” and gameplay mechanics that, while repetitive, are a fresh breath of air (in that they’ve never been done before, see). Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a fantastic example of how removing gaming’s biggest reliance (killing lots of shit) is perhaps the easiest way to make a game great. Especially in a horror title. In Amnesia, your only defense against terrifying monsters from beyond the veil of time and space is running away from them. How much scarier is this than a Doom game, where you’re armed to the teeth and have the ability to blow the shit out of anything you see? (And I realize that I listed Dead Space 2 as one of my favorite games of the year. I look at it as less of a horror title than an impressive action/shooter experience that happens to have a hard-on for The Thing and Event Horizon.)
We need more games like these, but by major studios with major budgets. That, or get the current formula right. My beloved Uncharted 3 is not a new concept, but simply a perfected version of an action platformer. It combines those all-important beautiful graphics with the things that make a game really work: a good story (it plays like Raiders of the Lost Ark), characters you actually care about (the entire game is motion captured by real actors, giving it a level of professionalism no other game can touch), and gameplay that is both fun and error-free.
When you play Uncharted, it seems so effortless: why aren’t more games like this one? Why, when Naughty Dog has shown everyone else how it’s done, are all other games still made the “old-fashioned” way? Small touches like how Drake (the main character) touches a wall when he passes one close by, or how his feet don’t clip through the environment or dead enemies are godsends. These are things that every game should have, but only one does. And it makes no sense.
Developers: put a premium on new ideas over new engines. Use graphics to the best of your ability, but don’t let them rule every minute of your development time. Give us stories and characters that we care about by using live human actors who are motion captured, not shoddily conceived and programmed (rather than performed) experiences. Take killing out of damn near every title that isn’t made for children (and even some of those have it, like Mario) and replace it with a different gameplay focus. Or even just reduce the number of people (or zombies, or monsters, or aliens, or animals, or braincells) you do kill: let’s say you kill only 3 people throughout a 25-hour game. Imagine how much more each kill would mean, how much more you would feel it, than when you kill 150 soldiers per level in Homefront.
These suggestions seem pretty obvious, don’t they? It’s because they are! I do not understand why developers can’t seem to open their minds to new ideas. Either they are being totally controlled by the Call of Duty zeitgeist, or this is the most unimaginative industry of all time.
2012 should be an exciting year for gaming. We’ve got new consoles on the way, great titles like The Last Guardian, Bioshock Infinte, and Diablo III to be released (well, DJE says Diablo III will be good- I frankly couldn’t give a shit), and the next group of tablets and smartphones will be constantly beating the hell out of our wallets (I guess this last one applies to every year).
Personally, 2012 will see me finally get an iPad: I’ve waited the long period between the last generation and this year’s “3” to finally jump on board, and I can’t wait. I’ll no doubt continue my trend of upgrading my phone every year instead of the two that my contract wants out of me (quad-core baby!) And most exciting of all, this is the year that I’m finally upgrading my fucking ancient desktop PC. Maybe I’ll at last be playing on Steam with all of my terrible friends who harp on me constantly like a leper. ….Nah.
Take a look at all my suggestions that I’ve thrown out in this article. All the changes and requests are as huge as they are numerous. I don’t expect these things to happen overnight, but I bet they will eventually. At least they will if gaming is to continue to be a viable industry alongside movies and music.
This article has gone on longer than I thought it would. I hope it’s obvious beyond anything else that I care a lot about this industry. I think that with some tinkering, gaming can really become something special.
Of course, there’s the old debate about whether or not games are, or could ever be, art. My answer has always been no, and it still is. Years back, I had a discussion with SSR show personality Ratboy about this. I said then that there is an art to making games, but that the final products do not fall under that category. I’m one smart son of a bitch, because that’s still about as well as I could describe/answer the “games as art” question. I’m willing to amend my position on the matter, however.
I now think that games can be art, but as of yet, none of them have been. I’ve never gotten the same feeling from a game that I have from Black Swan. I hope that will change in the coming years.
Gaming: as in all matters, follow my lead and everything will turn out perfectly. It’s like they don’t even know. Someone should tell them.