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February 9, 2013

On Possibilities

You know, I’ve been thinking...

(Warning: real talk imminent.)

Once upon a time, my brother said that he wanted to get into video games.  He wanted to be a designer, or a programmer, or something like that -- whatever it was, it was at least something to aspire towards.  Some way to say “Hey, video games!  I see what you’ve done before, and soon it’ll be my turn!”  If nothing else, it could give our mom a chance to fill in certain blanks in conversations with her friends…though I’m pretty sure the fact that he didn’t want to become a doctor or singer and instead get in deep with more virtual nonsense made her cringe daily.

It didn’t pan out, of course.  As he explained to me in an off-hand conversation, making video games isn’t nearly as fun as playing them.  Programming is tedious and unfulfilling.  Testing and QA are just as bad, if not worse.  Creative vision?  Ha!  What’s that?  Go back to slaving in front of a computer, you worthless code monkey!  Granted he had (and still has) a habit of putting the most negative spin possible on things -- he’s the Cynical Avenger to my Eternal Optimist -- but as I understand it, his words ring true in the case of the games industry.

Still, I couldn’t help but admire games, and the industry that crafted them.  Hundreds of people coming together in hundreds of companies -- clans, as it were -- to create hundreds of varied titles and hundreds of hours of gameplay destined to make mothers dizzy and resentful…and leave chores undone.  I can’t stress enough how much video games mean to me; they’re stories that inspire and amaze, and have been doing so for as long as I can remember.  And they’ll keep on doing so long after I’m dead and buried.

At least, that’s what I’d like to believe.  But then I get on the internet, load up my favorite gaming sites, and I’m repeatedly bombarded with bad news.  Stuff that makes me angry, depressed, confused, and…honestly, just plain tired.

Look, I don’t like talking about -- or even thinking about -- the politics behind the game industry.  I’m more concerned about the end product, i.e. the gameplay and story and vision and all that good stuff.  I would much rather leave the particulars to bloggers like Grahf (whose blog you should probably be reading instead of mine) and let the actual game do all the talking.  But it’s becoming harder and harder for me to divorce the politics with the game itself -- and if you’ve kept an eye on things recently, you may know why.

A question for you, fair reader: given the choice, would you rather spend more money or less money?  Yes, that’s right, exactly -- almost immediately, the answer (in most cases) is “spend less money”; it’s not just a matter of hunting for good deals or budgeting; in a modern-day climate, we’re inclined to take money into consideration.  So of course, there are game developers willing to blow as much as two hundred million dollars -- and maybe more -- into putting out one product.  That’s an unfathomable amount of money; while I assume (or at least hope) it’s the exception rather than the norm, I know there are companies pumping just as much cash into their products and hoping for the best.  Sometimes it works.  Other times it’s fifty million dollars for naught.  And still others, we get things like…

Yeah.  That.

Pretty much everybody who knows about Destructoid is aware of the problems with the industry.  The crippling addiction to violence.  The homogenization of countless titles.  The almost-damning fear of innovation.  The idea that single-player games are a relic of the past, and every game needs multiplayer to even be worthy of a gamer’s time.  Marketing becoming as big a factor as the games themselves…rather ironic, given how so many other games have been sent to pasture by virtue of not being marketed in the slightest.  An onslaught of DLC, with one executive actually starting an E3 conference with “A few years ago, the game you got was the game you bought.”  Closures and bankruptcies all across the board.  I could go on, and on, and on about the problems of the industry, but that’s been done elsewhere and done better.

Like I said, I’d rather let the games speak for themselves…and they have been for years now.  Street Fighter X Tekken’s release was a debacle; it really shows what’s going on in the heads of its creators when, instead of getting helpful hints about how to overcome tough enemies in a single-player mode, Dan pops in to recommend equipping (and likely buying) gems.  Final Fantasy has pretty much imploded at this point, thanks in no small part to this retroactively-named “Lightning Saga” and the still-missing Versus 13.  People eagerly gave EA and Bioware trouble for a lackluster ending to Mass Effect 3, but it’s hardly the only one worth slamming, and at the very least offered good content prior to its end; the biggest titles are not only struggling to keep their charm, but regularly straddle a thin line.  On one side, there are franchises that have reached the hallmark, the third installment in the series, and have every reason to end it there -- and on the other, there’s the financial obligation to pump out an additional game by virtue of an open-ended (or even confusing) ending, obfuscated details, or just plain unanswered plot points…and said franchises are straddling the line with all the grace of a three-legged elephant. 

I would gladly point to Capcom and Squeenix as prime examples of “losers”, in that they’re sabotaging some of their biggest properties far more than a game-breaking bug ever could.  But you know what?  It’s starting to look like at this stage, everybody’s losing.  EA’s losing money.  Capcom and Squeenix are losing money.  THQ’s gone belly-up, and by the sound of things Atari’s not in a very good place either.  Hell, even Sony and Nintendo -- Nintendo, of all companies -- are losing.  Now, why exactly each company is losing money will vary from one to the next, but when the solution to the problem in the eyes of most developers (and the bigwigs behind them) is to make sure their game sells five million copies by any means necessary, you start to run into problems.

Try to turn your product into something it’s not, and you get Resident Evil 6.  Try to pump out a game and assume it’ll be a revelation just because of its name, and you get Final Fantasy 13-2.   Try to start fresh by gutting the essence of your beloved franchise and taking the piss out of fans, and you get DmC.  Try to kick up your feet and coast on blank checks and a less-than-discerning audience, and you get Halo 4.  And those are just the failures I’ve experienced in the past year (and not even a full list); I would personally like to know what was going through EA’s heads when they sanctioned the release of Medal of Honor: Warfighter…and right before the release of a new Call of Duty.  That’s like thinking you’ll steal all of the ice cream man’s customers because you’re selling your patented Hairballs on a Stick.

Look, I know I’m sounding particularly negative during this post, but I want to stress that there’s still -- and always will be, I bet -- hope for video games.  I’ve seen proof of that myself, both in the past year and years prior.  Devil Survivor 2?  Great.  Ratchet and Clank?  Great.  Xenoblade Chronicles?  Great.  We’ve seen wild and crazy releases like Lollipop Chainsaw, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Tekken Tag 2, Skyrim, Far Cry 3, the Mass Effect series in general, Saints Row 3, Bioshock, Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, Valkyria Chronicles, the Dead Rising series in general, damn near every title released by Platinum Games, and more.  As time passes, games and their creators are destined to evolve.  New technology breeds new abilities.  New abilities breed new possibilities.  And in the end, I think that’s what I want most out of games.  Out of fiction in general.  Out of me, and what I can do as a would-be writing hero.  I want the canvas to be tapped thoroughly and effectively; I want to see those possibilities being realized and taken advantage of by an enlightened group -- be it a single penman or a cadre of programmers and designers.

And therein stands the problem.  Video games, by and large, are becoming more limited.  And those limits are what could potentially lead to an irrevocable failure.

It’s easy to blame everything on a handful of companies and a handful of games; whether you like the franchise or not, you have to admit Call of Duty takes a LOT of abuse.  Some of that is deserved abuse, in the sense that its successes narrow down what games should be, rather than what they can be.  Its billion-dollar earnings have left other companies wanting; it’s left developers and publishers alike pining for, and then boasting about, record sales the moment the numbers are all tallied up.  It’s a scapegoat, but it’s stigmatic, symptomatic, and maybe worst of all, a standard. 

Maybe it’s just human nature to look scornfully upon those in power.  The gamers may be the one dictating who gets wealth and who gets power, but ultimately what are we, the lifeblood of the industry, but peasants to be controlled and commanded by kings growing fat and sluggish?  In the end, who’s to blame for Call of Duty teaching the industry what gamers want?  Who’s the real villain in the grand scheme of things -- those that make the games?  Or those that buy in droves?  What is a gamer if not an enabler, telling developers to aim for well-treaded ground and let “par” be a substitute for “excellence”? 

And what does “excellence” mean for a game these days?  What is the standard, if not review scores and professional testimonials?  Am I supposed to believe Halo 4 is a heart-moving adventure when its leading man has as much personality as a dented Hummer?  Am I supposed to believe DmC is supposed to take storytelling in games to the next level when its most infamous cutscene has our “hero” throwing swears at an enemy straight out of an episode of Futurama with none of the self-awareness and wit?  Am I supposed to believe that being a badass, one-man-army killing machine in every other game today is supposed to be me?  A hero, or even someone worth having a conversation with? 

I know games take a lot of effort to go from an idea to a disk in the hands of gamers.  Just setting up a crappy thirty-second clip in Windows Movie Maker is a hassle for me, and I’m just one guy with a laptop.  So I’m not about to devalue the efforts of developers and the people within them -- primarily because I know that they’re real people with real jobs on the line, and at this stage in gaming history you aren’t allowed to put out any bombs.  So no, I’m not going to say “Everyone working on [insert miserable game X here] needs to be fired!”

What I AM going to say is that too many people have fallen into a rut.  The mark has been missed so badly that it’s as if several companies have inadvertently kneecapped Mark Wahlberg and Mark Henry simultaneously.  This isn’t a matter of replacing those of the old paradigm with those who uphold something new (although that would certainly help); it’s a matter of those in power realizing that this shit needs to stop.  They can have their business.  They can have their personnel.  They can have their franchises and their plans to extend them for as long as possible.  But what they need to do is focus on what’s important.  Cut down the chaff.  Stop pining after mystical audiences.  Make creative, innovative video games with a vision in mind -- stop trying to be like Hollywood, because you’re just going to crash and burn.

But I guess that’s a lesson the industry will learn too late.  Comments on posts and forums have been rumbling about a second video game crash, one that’ll bring ruin to the industry and completely shut down this little hobby.  There’s an argument to be had that it’s on the way…but others would argue that we’re already in the middle of it.  Studio after studio has closed down; development costs are skyrocketing, and the only way to make back that money is by going with big damn triple-A trappings; gamers are getting manhandled and pressured into buying more on top of sixty-dollar releases, and despite that still end up getting treated like unruly sheep in need of a smacking.  Cynicism and mistrust have bred throughout every rung of the industry.  We call them greedy; they call us entitled.  We treat them like tyrants; they treat us like pirates.  We treat them like enemies; they treat us like enemies.    And amidst all of this, everyone ends up losing something precious -- be it their company, their games’ quality, their creative vision, their loyalty, their faith, or even their ability to be amazed and have fun. 

In the end, what can we do?  Are we supposed to tolerate this, and limit ourselves to a handful of titles?  Are we just supposed to take whatever comes our way, and accept “par” as the new “excellence”?  Are we supposed to whine and moan and complain, hoping dearly that our preferences will reach the ears of our lords -- lords who have no reason to listen with their nightly showers of dollar bills? 

I know what I’m going to do.

The best part of any creative medium isn’t its ability to give us awe-inspiring heroes and loathsome villains.  Those are certainly good qualities to have, but not what I’d consider the best part.  The same goes for unpredictable narratives that’ll leave your jaw on the floor with one well-placed plot twist, or themes running throughout that will make you question your worldview for years to come.  The same goes for emotional torque, a well-defined framework of one’s fictional universe, a balance between tonal and literary elements, and yes, even the spirit of a work.  The “best part” even goes beyond just having good technique -- it’s everyone’s intent to tell a good story, and definitely something that one should aspire towards, of course…but it’s still not the best part.

The best part, in my eyes, is the potential.  It’s the fact that, if you make a trip to the bookstore to get a new story, you have hundreds of choices in the space of a child’s arm span, let alone the length of a whole shelf, and let alone an entire section’s worth.  There might be similarities, and there’s no guarantee that the quality will be absolutely fantastic, but you have options.  You have a wide array of selections.  You have just what each writer has: possibilities to pursue and enjoy.  Creative mediums are empty canvases, and each work offers its own artistic flourish and tribute.  In the end, that might be what’s most important.  That might be why video games may still have a ways to go before they become accepted as a truly legitimate medium -- because the moment you start to limit yourself is the moment you start to fail.

Don’t get me wrong, though.  I’m almost certain that the writing world and the particulars therein are full of issues and complications -- the sort of things that would immediately shatter my rosy view of the medium.  But the divide between the two is more notable than it’s ever been before.  Let me put it this way: all it takes for me to write a chapter of I Hraet You is a laptop, a bit of time, a full stomach (preferably, and with a cup of water nearby afterwards), a mind that’s willing to dream up new scenarios, and some fingers ready to type.  That’s it.  Write it, post it, and I’m all done.  Conversely, it takes teams of hundreds, millions of dollars, thousands of man-hours (in working conditions that can vary from acceptable to damn near indentured service), an onslaught of marketing, testing on focus groups, and the shadowy hands of executives and investors to get games from a concept to a consumer.  Now, it’s pretty obvious just which one of these approaches is going to be more successful in the long run -- though again, studio closures are a constant nowadays -- but by now you understand what I’m getting at.

The stakes are too damn high with video games.  Too many people to please.  Too many obligations that need to be fulfilled.  And of course, too much money on the line, putting pressure on everything and everyone involved.  I don’t have a good solution to the industry’s woes, both current and upcoming -- and if I did, I’m fairly sure someone would have thought it up already.  All I can do is grab the games I like, and avoid the games that I don’t.  Even if I’m just one non-buyer or non-player, I know that at the very least I’m staying true to myself.  I know that there’ll be games that’ll continue to entertain and excite me, and make me hopeful for the future…just as there will be utter disappointments and disasters running parallel.

Know this, industry -- the industry, the gamers, and even you readers of this little rant.  If games aren’t going to explore the endless possibilities available, then I will.  Because in many ways, that’s why I’m out to become a writing hero.

So.  Let’s see how Metal Gear Rising turns out.


  1. Heavy stuff, but it's a topic that shouldn't be avoided. I'm not idiotic enough to think that anyone that has read even half of what I'd write would think of me as anything but a complete and utter cynic; they'd most likely be right in that assumption. Still, even having said that I don't believe that even if a second crash does occur that it will be the end.

    To me, at least, there has been a growing distinction between games. Certainly it's become trendy to throw around the indie label, but I believe that true independent developers are still putting out great content. It's the console that I regard with an ever increasing amount of pessimism. I don't think I'm completely off base when I say that the die is about to be cast. If February 20th is indeed what many people think it's going to be, then it might be make or break for Sony. I know that I am close, dangerously close, to simply turning my back on console gaming ... and being none the worse for it.

    If even some of the rumours regarding anti-used games, even more intrusive DRM, and other heavy handed methods do come to fruition for the next Sony and Microsoft consoles, then I'm happy to simply wash my hands of the entire thing. It's sad, because there will doubtless be some amazing titles, even if only a handful. But is paying out the nose and also acquiescing to the potential lock-downs worth it? Sadly, I think the answer is no.

    I completely agree with your assessment that gaming needs to stop thinking of itself like Hollywood. The expenses have gotten beyond ridiculous at this point; you might as well start just putting out diamond discs ... they'd probably sell better in some cases, too. Strangely, I would say that video games have been mainstream for quite some time and were still fine. It was only really when the people realized it had become mainstream that things started to falter, and falter badly. Rather than the "what" in this case being enjoyment, it became more about the "how" better graphics, bigger budgets, more stars, more violence, more, more, more. That may work with some movies (and even then perhaps not depending on whether you agree with the Michael Bay school of film-making), but games aren't movies, nor should they strive to be movies. They have their own advantages and disadvantages.

    I'm not deluded enough to say that the gaming industry shouldn't be run like a business, because that's what it is. At the same time though, I believe that there needs to be a fundamental retrograding into past practices. Treat gamers like gamers, not like commodities or walking wallets. Aim for enjoyment, innovation, and above all FUN, and then the profit thing tends to take care of itself. It doesn't hold true in every case, just look at the Dreamcast, but I don't think we would have even made it this far if the industry was running on the same principles then as it does now.

    Of course, those are just my two cents. Thanks for the shoutout by the way, I appreciate it.

  2. Hey, no need for thanks -- I'm just doing what little I can to give you the recognition you deserve.

    But yes, you and I (and plenty of other gamers) can agree on one major point: video games are not and should not be like movies. I mean, think about it: the format of sorts might be similar for games like Uncharted or Gears of War, but not every game is like that no matter how much developers aim for homogenization. Some games are mostly incompatible with a cinematic approach. I mean, how is a strategy game supposed to convert? What about fighting games? I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's pointless to expect a good product from the broad-strokes style (sure, let's call it that) of the summer blockbuster trappings games are hellbent on tapping.

    I have a lot of problems with the industry, as do plenty of others...but in the end, I can't help but wonder if our voices are enough. These games have seriously huge audiences; even if people consider Assassin's Creed 3 to be weaker than its predecessors, that didn't stop Ubisoft from making HUGE profits off of it (I think they sold 12 million units...?). I know about the whole "speak with your wallets" deal, but in the face of overwhelming numbers, what the hell are we supposed to do?

    I don't know. It's just so frustrating...maybe this phase of the industry -- developers, players, and all -- will pass, and we'll enter a much brighter era. Lessons have to have been learned by now, and tastes will have to have changed come...say, next year or so.

    I want to believe that things will get better. Because if they don't -- if I don't believe -- maybe I'll end up dropping the hobby somewhere down the line. And the mere thought is one of the most depressing things I've ever encountered.

  3. You really love that DmC screenshot. It does such a great job at encompassing what the video game industry is striving towards... and not doing good at it. It's just as priceless as creepy Sheploo. XD

    [Failed] joking aside, this is definitely an excellent post.

    Before I got my PS3, I would keep an ear open for what this generation of consoles had in store. Too bad that all I heard was online multiplayer, Call of Duty, and "pwetty gwaffixz! #_$ 10/10!" You have addressed a bit of the Call of Duty and online multiplayer bits already, and you're quite right. But I think the graphics issue needs to be brought up too. As much as reviewers and developers delude themselves into believing it false, graphics mean jack and squat. I'd bet that's where a good nasty chunk of the millions of bills are going. Though there are a ton of other problems as well, this overemphasis of graphics is nauseating. For the sake of making one killshot "realistic", one facial expression "breathtaking" developers ignore all the other technical features.

    Some of the "best looking" games I've played had consistent presentation ('LoZ: Windwaker', 'Catherine', even some of the 'Harry Potter' movie-based games were presentable). As much as I love 'Mass Effect', it kills me every time I see incomplete textures, obvious pixilation, or still character models. Even the 'Assassin's Creed' games give me a killer headache if I look at them for too long. Sure, maybe some series are more known for their plot, but even 'Silent Hill: Downpour' has fewer hiccups on a bad day!

    When everyone was raging about how awesome 'The Last of Us' looked with the PS3 "not at its greatest potential", all I could wonder is how glitchy the initial product will be before patches are made.

    Man, patches and DLC are another can of worms... what happened to the days when games were expected to be complete, tested, and safe on the launch date? Business-wise, it makes sense, but this candy is starting [or has started] to smell moldy and rotten.

    Anywho. Your posts are a good source of brain food. Pointing out problems while still being optimistic means that you have a sane, critical head on your shoulders. This pessimist approves.

  4. It's true, I do like that DmC screenshot -- it's like the mere existence of the image (and by extension, the game) is trolling of the highest caliber. Still, I wouldn't mind finding one more creepy-faced image; I've got Dante, I've got Shepard, and now I just need one more for the hat trick.

    But back on topic. I can't say that I've ever cared about graphics -- I've gotten a lot of mileage out of my DS, even to this day -- but I will admit that when a game has good visuals, I tend to take notice. Honestly, though, I think the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm games have been the hallmark for good visuals this generation. There are probably some issues (and it's just a shame about that gameplay), but I would prefer a game that uses all that power under the hood for style instead of...well, brown and gray. Seriously, how is it that triple-A fare manages to look duller than a licensed game?

    Generally speaking, though, you're right. It's a catch-22, of course; fixing all the little graphical hiccups requires even MORE money spent, and at this stage that's the last thing developers need to do. I'd also like to ask the bigwigs at Bioware where the people I'm talking to go whenever I'm finished having a conversation. Seriously, it's like they just step off-camera, and when the scene's over they're nowhere to be found. My brother even calls it "The Bioware Exit."