Mainstream media is recognising gaming as something that a wider demographic than goths-with-guns(tm) and overweight basement dwellers do, and the industry is raking in more money than Hollywood. The problem is that they are facing the same problems as the moribund entertainment industry, and we could be on the verge of another 80s style crash.
Is the apocalypse nigh? I sure think so. The last one happened at the height of Atari's power, they were invincible, pumping out hit after hit. Pac-Man, ET, Asteroids, movie tie-ins, overflowing arcades and a rabid fan base. They were in the spotlight of the mainstream press, songs making the top 10, and money coming out of their ears. What could go wrong?
To start with, a flood of games that, for lack of a better term, sucked. There were gems, but they tended to get drowned out in a sea of mediocrity. Magazines were afraid to give big titles a bad review, and scores creeped up in the name of advertising dollars. Comic books were awash in ad pages for the latest Parker Brothers 2600 cartridge, and the magazines covering the industry were thick and glossy.
Throughout the era, there was an underlying theme, originality and creativity. Rocks floating around to shoot? Eating dots in a maze? Aliens moving left, right and inexorably downward? Centipedes? Who thinks this stuff up, and what were they taking? As an aside, from what I am told, if they were working at Atari, the answer is just about everything you can possibly imagine. Things could not possibly get better.
Then it all crashed, almost overnight. A string of big budget titles sapped the money from some companies, and the public soured after purchasing one lemon too many. The industry died, almost before anyone realized it. The 2600, Colecovision, Intellivision and others made way for a string of mediocre market failures like the 5200 and 7200, all of which probably didn't make dollar one.
The industry went dormant until a tiny playing card company from somewhere across an ocean came out with a clunky little box called the NES. Before you can say phenomenon, the industry was alive again, and has been building up steadily to this day.
Far from being the strong robust industry many see it as, the current 'next gen' consoles will probably break the industry in the same way the old one broke. It will collapse in a heap quickly, and few will lament its loss. Why? The same old reasons are there, and all but one is new.
First is the sea of mediocre titles. 90+% of them are crap, pure and simple. The old creativity is utterly dead and gone, that is the one new twist. How many games are not sequels, fight games, drivers, or FPSes? One look at the resoundingly mediocre crop of XBox 360 sports games shows there is nothing new under the sun, and they really aren't even trying. RPGs have become barely interactive PG-13 movies, and I won't even get into the whole crop of disasters that are movie tie-ins. There is one, possibly two titles a year that can be considered innovative, and that is not enough to sustain an industry.
These titles however coated with lukewarm vanilla syrup, are shockingly expensive to make. Each gen of consoles demands more and more content, and more and more detail to that content. You went from animated bitmaps to shaded polygons to textured polygons. Now, we are at the point where each and every blade of grass needs to be modeled, and every brick in a building must be unique. Artists are expensive, talented artists are more expensive, and you can't shortcut this anymore.
Programming, net code, and everything else has taken what was a job for a single person to teams of 150+. Development cycles have gone from a few months to years, a team is extremely lucky to put out a third game on any given console before it is EOLed, so experience pays off shockingly little. You have costs going from 5 digits to 8.
What does that mean? If a company rakes in $10 per title sold, they have to sell nearly a million of them to make a dollar. If you get a stinker, you can lose many millions on a title, so companies don't take chances, they can't take chances. The little creativity that was out there gets quashed to make room for 'Urban Kombat 4', a game that is like GTA, but has elements of Mortal Kombat, with all the interactivity you would expect from Counter-Strike. The driving is a lot like Need For Speed, so it just has to be a winner right?
You end up with focus grouped mediocrity, make something so simple that even an idiot would like it, and only an idiot would like it. The few huge hits drive the industry toward the abattoir of sequels and clones, no one can afford a miss. If you do miss, and everyone does occasionally, it can take your company down.
The problem is that everyone is missing by design, and high fliers are indeed popping like zits. Companies that have been around for 25 years are dying like flies, or are so weak they are desperate for anyone with a checkbook to suck them up. Acclaim was a recent victim, one with a long rich history, and a quick death. Even the biggest of names are teetering on the edge, and no one is happy. One miss, and it is, pun intended, game over for even the big guys.
You have the new gen consoles pushing costs up, economics pushing risk taking down, and prices going up. The XBox 360 titles, and presumably PS3 ones, have gone from $50 to $60, but I am at a loss as to what that 20% buys you in terms of enjoyment. To me, you get eye candy limited by the TV you play on and gameplay that did not change from the original Playstation version.
Madden 06 for the XBox 360 is a shining example of this mediocrity in action. It adds almost nothing to the previous versions, but people complain bitterly that several key features are missing, and it is buggy. Luckily, there are no sports games on the 360's compatibility list, so you can't play the old ones on the new console. Far from being an incentive to upgrade, it is a glaring neon sign flashing 'stay away if you like sports'.
Spikes of goodness are sinking beneath the waves with startling rapidity. The cost of testing one that has an interesting looking box just went up 20%, and you are more likely than ever to be disappointed. Customers don't like this. Game companies don't like this. Console makers don't like this.
There is one way out though, read reviews before you shell out a day's wages for a potential stinker, read anything you can on the game. Remember when I said in the old days there was a co-opting of magazines, that was in the pre-web 1980s? Well, now it is worse. The pestilence of flash aside, most gaming sites and magazines are so far from publishing a real review it is laughable.
If you want a good example of this, take the new Madden game. Go to the major sites and look at the scores they gave it. Read the reviews, and compare that to the numerical scores. Then look at sites that put reader ratings next to the official scores. Notice a discrepancy? For bonus points, find me a major ratings site that regularly gives out a score of 6/10 or less. Once again, they are owned.
So, you have the same situation that you did in the past, swathes of high priced boredom. Mediocrity with no way of picking the good from the bad. Anything that could help you has been co-opted, and you have to throw darts with $60 attached to each one.
Sadly, the gaming industry is in a self-imposed death spiral. Everyone is putting on a brave face, touting the latest v6 of a game that came out before most of it's audience was born. What was a fun hobby full of creative geniuses and their mad art has become a grey corporate parking lot. We are about to take that dive again, the industry is desperately trying to speed up the process with each passing day.
Rather than take a step back, they are addicted to marketing plans and money men. It will kill them, and in a few years, good will arise from the ashes. It happened with arcades, it happened with the first wave of consoles, and is about to happen again. It is high time someone flushed the toilet that the games industry has become, it will do us all a world of good. µ
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