Yeah, another post about video games. Don’t hate on me. To be honest, the reason that I am talking so much about this and not other things is because right now, there aren’t a lot of other things that are interesting me. For real, that’s it. Come summer, I will have film reviews, and I will actually be able to get back to the series I was doing on here. I haven’t forgotten it. I will get back to it. And I will also be talking about stuff that comes up that gets my attention, most of it things that piss me off or confuse the hell out of me. But right now, video games are the thing, and that’s because this year has a lot of talk about the future of this medium, with the release of the PS4 and the new Xbox console on the horizon. And for those of you who think I should do book reviews, well, you can shove that right up your ass. Because that would take a million years and involve a lot of pretentious discussion about the themes, character archetypes and all that. I don’t want to do that. With films and games, it is a lot easier. So I will enjoy my books at my leisure. Don’t like it? Your problem, not mine.
The fall of THQ took the entire gaming community by storm. We didn’t expect this. We didn’t understand this. We didn’t know what to think. A lot of people talked about why they failed, and there was a lot to talk about. The reality is that the reason that THQ failed (and I am going to be making a REALLY big hyperbole jump here), in my opinion, is the same reason that Zynga is dying on the vine and big companies like EA and Ubisoft have a bad habit of breaking even these days. The reason is this – their formula is getting old.
The best way to show this is to look at two of the games that were not anywhere approaching AAA budgets, but sold unbelievably – The Walking Dead and Journey. These two games are awesome. They combined atmosphere, character development and my personal favorite – story-telling over action. Both of these games were small Indie projects that were done by companies who want to expand the medium and challenge players instead of give them lots of things to shoot at. But the formula of having lots of things to shoot at is almost ubiquitous to the medium these days. That’s not to say that having lots to shoot at is a bad thing. Far from it. Games like Mass Effect, Dead Space (minus the boring third act), and any number of games that have action but don’t have guns, such as Assassin’s Creed or Final Fantasy and the series’ they inhabit have been fun to play and enjoyed by their respective fans. But did you notice something in that list? All these series’ are having their respective problems. Some of them are done, like Mass Effect (hopefully). But on its way out, Mass Effect felt less and less like an action RPG and more and more like just a regular old action game. That’s not to say that it was bad. Far from it. I still did and still do love the series (minus that god-awful ending of the third and the god-awful way they tried to fix it).
Let’s do a tangent here and talk about big-ass gaming companies. Big-ass gaming companies are big. Hence my unofficial and totally dickish approach in talking about them. But being big is not necessarily bad. For real, there is nothing wrong with making money. I may be a far-left whack-job liberal, but I am not against making money. What I am against is making money and not respecting your customers, along with a bunch of other things like not exploiting workers, the laws of your respective nation and the people in general. The problem with being big is that you become so big that you eventually try and think up ways to get even bigger.
Before the crash of 2008, the gaming companies were soaring high with profits that you can’t even begin to imagine. After that, their stock prices plummeted. But so did every major corporation’s at the time. No big deal there. However, the sudden turn of the economy, along with new hardware created a new trend that we are still seeing, even today – the rise of the Indie market. See, the big gaming companies had a formula that was so repetitive that it was getting a lot of gamers bored. More Call of Duty? Yay…(see sarcasm) We wanted something new. Something different. A return to games that tried new things, not knowing if they would work. They wanted to make games instead of having companies make money. The introduction of nickel-and-diming DLC didn’t help. But there were new groups out there. New companies with just a few people who were trying new things and making it work. People were staying tuned. People wanted to learn more. The gamers wanted to see where this new growth of the medium would take us.
You may think that I’m rehashing my “The Future of AAA-Gaming” post, but I’m not. See, the thing that needs to be kept in mind here is that we are talking about the corporate side of this. EA, Ubisoft, Square Enix and Activision have all fallen into step into a predictable formula – get big hits out and get them out quick. Big games like Call of Duty, Battlefield and almost the entire FPS market is full of this. The reason they do this is simple – big money in the short term. But this kind of short-sightedness is going to kill their companies.
For those of you who are going to come back at me and say something like, “But what about Michael Bay? He makes the same kind of shitty movie over and over again and still makes a gajillion dollars!” You’d be right, but here’s the difference – Michael Bay doesn’t have a bad economy to fight it out with. The fall of 2008 hurt the regular Joe pretty damn bad. The job market was torn to ribbons here in the US, and the incompetence of our government is showing that this problem isn’t going to be fixed any time soon. Instead, we are having to do the best we can with what we can get. And getting a game isn’t as cheap as sitting through Michael Bay’s crap.
Steam was a game-changer. Steam is the least talked about next-gen console there is. It is giving gamers the games that they want. It is giving new game companies with small budgets new platforms to have their games on. Sure, it has hit a roadblock or two, but all things considered, it is still doing well. What’s more, it affordable. Very much so.
Then there’s Kickstarter
Kickstarter projects are changing the game in other ways. Now, groups who were marginalized and consumed by bigger companies have splinter cells who want to go back to the way things once were, but still want to make good games. So, they are making games that are pushing boundaries while also giving people a taste of the familiar. You can have both world.s It’s been done before, and well, too. What’s more, it allows small game designers the chance to make the games people want without needing big studios to supplement their budgets. They can get this money directly from the consumers who want their products.
Meanwhile, back at companies like EA and Square Enix, things aren’t looking too good for them. The AAA market is getting more and more unsustainable. The short answer to why is because of the crash of the economy and it’s stagnant growth. The long answer is…well, forget that. Parts of the long answer are because the budgets that these companies need to invest in these games is getting unbelievable, and they are not throwing a bone to new talent and taking chances, because the reality is that their bottom lines are breaking even. They can’t afford to take too many chances. They are stuck in their respective ruts and it will drive them into the ground. Not today or tomorrow, mind you. It will still be a while. But once the ground has crashed out from under them, the fallout won’t be pretty.
We’re already seeing it start. Following the Mass Effect 3 catastrophe back in 2012, EA and Bioware released statements that they would listen to the fans and fix what was widely perceived to be a mistake. By the fans. Not the gaming journalist machine as a whole, and especially not the PR behind them. They promised us DLC that would address this problem and give us a solution. What did we get? We got a continuation of an ending that was already broken and didn’t make sense. And nobody won. The fan base who wanted a new and better ending didn’t win. Bioware lost because they were now losing customer loyalty from the billions of holes that bad forum response gave them. EA looked worse than they already did. A trend they have been continuing, by the way, with their stupid-ass decision to have always-online DRM for SimCity. The media just wanted this to be over so they didn’t have to talk about it anymore. Nobody won. Bioware has redeemed themselves a bit with the release of some fun DLC, like their latest, Citadel, which feels more like closure to the game than the actual game itself. Still, this is the start.
However, for the consumer, all is not lost. Games are going to be still be made. New software makes creating very good-looking and smooth-playing games much cheaper than before. A team of college students with only $100,000 made the game Cube, which looked amazing and wasn’t a massive project. And there is an even stranger trend with games that are absolutely massive being released for free and free to play. These things are awesome news.
For the big companies, they will still be making money, but the ground beneath them is starting to turn to sand. Brace yourselves, people. Years down the road, the same crying that got the Zynga CEO famous will be making other big companies famous, too.
Until next time, a quote,
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” -Apple, Inc.