Monday, April 03, 2006

Life after the crash

A lot of people "outgrow" videogames. I don't necessarily believe that's accurate, feeling rather that it's more a shift in interests. Did I ever think it would happen to me? History would imply otherwise, but now I'm really starting to lose hope in the games industry. Maybe the only thing that can renew my faith is this fall's glut of console releases (PS3 and Nintendo's.....thing), because I felt like things had really opened up in the shift from SNES/Genesis to Saturn/PS1/N64, but with every console since then (Dreamcast, PS2, Xbox, GameCube, Xbox 3shitty[360]), I feel like things have been regressing, sticking to the tried and true. Most of the best games of the last several years have been sequels or threequels to games that were great on the PS1 and are now just losing steam.

The industry crashed back in 1983 in Atari's heydey, mostly due to no quality control, too many sub-par titles, and too many me-too derivatave games, like sequels or one-offs like Ms. Pac-Man, Super Pac-Man, and the like. So what's the state of the industry today? Very similar. QC is at an all-time low (mostly a money issue) where companies want to push something out to retail as fast as possible, then fix all the bugs and broken bits later on with subsequent patches. So they're releasing beta (unfinished) software, hoping to patch up the mess later.

This became the accepted norm for PC gamers, but now it's moving to consoles since many come equipped for Internet connectivity and have hard drives pre-installed for saving downloadable content. What worries me is that since many console gamers have no idea what the PC gaming climate is like and have never experienced the horrors of buying a broken game KNOWING you'd have to wait for unfortunate patches, they may immediately grow accustomed to it, which just enables the game companies to get more and more lazy with testing their products to make sure they work. Is it any wonder that Microsoft was one of the first companies to start this trend on game consoles? They've been releasing unfinished products for the PC for years.

Products lately have also become largely derivative today once again. Every year we see the same football game (Madden) with a new coat of paint and roster updates. Some series are up to a fifth or sixth entry when many players lost interest after the second. A few of these have been reprehensibly bad, like the PS2's first iterations of the Syphon Filter and Driver series. Simply awful, by the developers' own admissions! But these games have higher and higher budgets and go to retail simply in the hopes of recouping some of that expense on name recognition alone. Hope the suckers snap it up before word of mouth gets around. Kind of like when I went to see the sequel to The Crow in theaters. Holy god that movie sucked, but I saw it simply based on the pedigree of the original.

I realize that the Dynasty Warriors series is ridiculously popular, and is quickly taking the Madden route of crapping out a sequel or two every year with minor improvements and a few sacrifices made along the way. I used to like this series. The first (a sequel to a PS1 one-on-one fighting game) opened up battlefields to one-on-thirty melee combat, and it was a rush. The next game brought enough new elements to warrant a look, but every entry since then (there have been about six) does nothing but add alternate costumes and other frivolous elements. They don't improve the gameplay or the combat system. They're still telling the same story. They haven't added online play, the ability to hot-swap playable characters mid-game, tolerable squad control, intelligent AI, or anything else. They realized they don't have to because enough people just keep buying essentially the same game. If it ain't broke, why fix it? The money's still coming in.

So nothing's getting any better, and in many ways has either stagnated altogether or taken steps back. I recently wrote a feature for about games that were ahead of their time (it's not posted yet). These were titles that added in a slew of great features and snuck out to retail below anyone's radar. Some were noticed, some were not, but they advanced what we could expect from a given genre, and were then subsequently ignored. For example, Red Faction was a first-person shooter with deformable/breakable terrain, buildings, and other objects that could be reduced to rubble. That game came out five years ago. Only in the last few months has any other game even tried to incorporate the same type of realism, a flashy but ultimately shallow title called Black. Innovations are being made, but studios don't want to spend the time or money to keep up with the trend, and wind up reversing the trend by the end of the day.

Stagnation isn't just limited to software. Hardware is missing the boat in many cases as well. When the Dreamcast came out, it was around the time DVD movies were starting to get popular. Did they include a DVD drive in the DC? Nope, largely because it was expensive tech at the time, and because Sega wanted to use proprietary discs to curb piracy (which didn't slow down the software pirates one iota). They later released some attachments to amend for their possible oversight, but it was too late. Add-on technology for game consoles is notoriously under-supported by the consumer. The PS2 comes out next, offering DVD playback right out the box. This seemed like the new standard. Then Microsoft and Nintendo bring out the Xbox and GameCube, respectively. The Xbox only allows DVD playback if you buy an accessory attachment/remote, and the GameCube goes the Dreamcast route, shooting for proprietary disc technology. Neither one stood a chance against Sony. They'd sold so many units at that point, many of which went at a lower price than standalone DVD players. This was certainly a huge selling point for the system in Japan. Heck, I wouldn't have bought one on release day if it didn't have DVD playback. Yet another example of someone setting the bar and everyone else ignoring it.

Sometimes a company's principles get in the way of doing something better or smarter as well. When the Xbox was in development, Microsoft made it pungently clear that it would not just be a set-top PC, even though it was made entirely of off-the-rack PC components (Pentium CPU, Nvidia GPU, standard RAM, DVD-ROM, and hard drive). They didn't want it to be a PC-port box (though it got more than its fair share of them), and for some reason wanted to "reassure" gamers that this console was all about console gaming, meaning it wouldn't be "complicated," as they apparently think we view PC gaming. In doing so, I think Microsoft missed a great opportunity do something that could have made their market share explode: Make a closed-box (no hardware upgrading/modding) console that can play PC games as well. Someone else--I forget who now--tried this idea of making a standardized PC architecture that would run a given list of games, and had a proprietary loading/installing routine where all you literally had to do was pop in the PC disc and play. As it is, PC gaming requires installation of the game, rebooting, tweaking, optimizing, and making sure it's compatible with your unique hardware, and while this is a largely automated process now, it is time consuming. The Xbox had built-in Ethernet and hard drive components, meaning that adding support to run specific PC games (i.e., getting any necessary drivers installed) wouldn't have been that taxing, but could have attracted a far greater number of people to the console, myself included. A $200 PC that hooked up to your TV? Bye bye WebTV. But they didn't.

I can remember being excited to go to the game store just a few short years ago. I looked forward to it. The very thought of checking out new releases made me giddy. The quality of software has been so watered down lately and with the prices remaining unusually high, the thought of going to the same stores simply makes me tired and bored, disappointed and even annoyed. As it is, instead of games demanding more of the player, they've begun to demand far, far less. The lowest common denominator is now the target audience simply because there are so many people in that demographic with low expectations, willing to pay to play tripe. It's about money. It's a capitalist world out there, so on one hand I don't blame them for wanting to cover their bottom line. However, reading about the Gizmondo CEO buying million-dollar cars (and then letting some mythical guy named Dietrich wreck them) while his company goes bankrupt gives the industry a black eye.

As it is, I feel like I'm on the precipice of leaving gaming behind altogether. I'll still cling to the classics of yesteryear and check out anything from the independent scene or developed in someone's garage, but that's about all. It's not that I've just grown up and think gaming is for kids. Far from it. I didn't outgrow gaming. Gaming is just something else now, something that's great for a bunch of people who don't expect as much of their entertainment. I'm off to find something better, if it exists. While gaming seems to be heading for another crash for people like me, the recent absorption of hip hop and ghetto culture is attracting more people with money to burn and no demand for quality; this will probably keep the business alive. It's just not a business that's exciting for me anymore.

On a related note, read THIS for a live dissection of gaming between myself and a like-minded friend.

1 comment:

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