Monday, July 11, 2016

Oversaturation in Gaming

Originally appeared on The Grim Tower. 16 May, 2015

It seems that not a day goes by these days that I am not treated to an article on some video game outlet bemoaning the proliferation, and in some cases the very existence of AAA games. Today’s outing was courtesy of PC Gamer. According to a contributor of theirs called Tom Marks, yearly AAA games oversaturate the market with “unfinished and unoriginal games, warping the perception of gaming as a whole.” I don’t feel the need to quote him further because the rest of his article is a constant fit of whining around that premise. In his mind, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, and Madden now represent the whole of gaming to the public at large. I don’t know about you, but reading that made me throw up in my mouth a little. Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, and Madden do not, by any means, represent the whole of gaming. I routinely hear people complain about the glut of Assassin’s Creed releases, I haven’t played or seen a Madden game since 2001, and Call of Duty’s demographic is not exactly the hardcore gaming crowd. Ubisoft, EA, and Activision pump out never ending sequels to these games because they know they will sell. These games are the spigot that keeps money flowing into new and interesting ideas. At the end of the day, gaming is a business and the lifeblood of business is money. You can not change that, not even in a full blow command economy. A quick perusal of the economic history of the Soviet Union will show that. The problem with his logic, and the logic of many an indie hipster attempting to position themselves as a gatekeeper of gaming culture, is that these companies do not make these games successful year after year. The gamers do. Games exist in a free market. The AAA games are readily available right alongside the supposedly unique but often times ripped off of an older game and sometimes unique but so pretentious it’s alienating experiences offered by indie games. Who wants to spend five hours walking around an empty house to deduce that the player character’s sister has run off with her lesbian lover (this is seriously the plot to a game, somebody actually thought that was entertaining, can you believe it), when you can spend 100 hours in a beautiful and immersive game world hunting monsters and running afoul of ancient demons and other dastardly entities? Couple this with the fact that many an “innovative” and “interesting” indie title has proven to be vapourware or a scam or has died somewhere in the late alpha or early public beta stage. Gamers these days have a choice: naked pretension masquerading as entertainment or fun? They have routinely and consistently chosen fun. This is not me advocating for yearly or quarterly sequels. There’s a reason why out of fourteen Assassin’s Creed games, I’ve only purchased four of them. Too much of a good thing can, after all, be a bad thing. There’s no sense in publishing long articles in vaunted gaming publications pissing and moaning about it though. Eventually, the very same free market that afforded these gamers the ability to make these games a success, will allow them to punish their wallowing in sameness. Case in point: music games. Just a few short years ago, music games were all the rage. Harmonix and Activision’s respective Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises were moving huge numbers. It was not an uncommon sight to walk into Game Stop and see people standing in line to buy drum sticks. Drum sticks for god’s sake. People who couldn’t hold down a steady rhythm to save their lives, standing in line at a store that had nothing to do with music to buy a pair of Vic Firth’s. The walls were lined with little plastic instruments, youtube was flooded with idiotic videos of “(insert person here) plays (insert song here) on expert.” Then suddenly, seemingly overnight, it was done. The games stopped selling, little plastic instruments became a rare sight (and I had to drive 45 miles to get drum sticks again). So, what happened? Over saturation. Between 2005 and 2010, there were nine Rock Band games and fourteen Guitar Hero games (give or take a few because of spin offs). After so man entries without much change, there was a market revolt. The same thing will likely happen to games like Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and Madden at some point in the future. Of course, unfortunately for the self-appointed gatekeepers, this does not mean that indie games are going to explode into financial juggernauts. At least not until they realize that people want to play games that are entertaining. They don’t care about playing through a feminist diatribe or a preachy or a lazy re-imagining of a classic game with worse game play. The simple truth that the indie snob brigade needs to realize is that AAA gaming is the Atlas of the game world. It is the titan that holds the entirety of the industry on its back. Nobody decides which new console to purchase or whether or not to spend a few hundred dollars upgrading their PC gaming rig based on which platform(s) the next installment of Fez is coming to. The existence of the indie game market is a trickle down effect based on the success of AAA gaming. To bemoan the existence of AAA games is to bemoan the existence of games in general. Of course, at the end of the day, the indie scene is no better in terms of the sheer glut of releases. There may not be a rush of sequels year after year, but there certainly is a profusion of indie games. This is a problem that Kotaku spoke about at this time last year. According to Kotaku’s Luke Plunkett, by May of 2014, there had already been more new release than there had been in the entirety of the previous year. Of course, this wasn’t just the assertion of a writer at a journalistically compromised online gaming magazine, it is an idea also asserted by indie developer Jeff Vogel. As fashionable as it is to ask the question “are annual AAA releases bad for gaming,” one could just as easily flip that and wonder is indie gaming’s constant stream of clones, misfires, and half-ass spiritual successors bad for gaming? The constant stream of releases may be seen as a good thing, but how many of these games has anyone actually played? According to Ars Technica, there are roughly 781 million games registered to various users (as of April, 2014), and of those nearly 37 percent have never been loaded once. A study conducted by Kotaku (conducted last March) of roughly 1400 Steam users found that the average steam customer had purchased 11 to 25 games between March 2013 and March 2014, and that of those, they had not played 40 percent. No sector of the economy is immune to the business cycle; that includes video games. The game industry has been riding high for a long time, and even seemed to weather the recession fairly well. The bottom line is, while it is fashionable to try and blame AAA games for every perceived drop in the quality of games, there are no innocent parties. Oversaturation is oversaturation. It doesn’t matter whether the entity peddling the product is a 30 year old software conglomerate with a staff of hundreds developing on the latest incarnation of the Unreal Engine or a couple of enthusiasts in an apartment working in Blender on a cheap Linux rig. The gaming industry has had a correction once before, it will happen again.

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