Tobold's Blog
Monday, June 11, 2012
A washing machine convention

There has been an unusually high amount of negative feedback in the aftermath of this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). The general commentary was something along the lines of few surprises, plenty of snubs for gamers, and that was just the Washington Post. People expected great things, and were disappointed. Me, I just wondered whether that isn't the sort of normalcy the business is heading to. Would journalists complain about too many similar products and lack of innovation when writing about a washing machine convention? Or would they realize that there wasn't much chance of anything revolutionary to start with, and that the new model with the improved child-lock and 10% lower energy consumption is nice enough?

As somebody who has been around since the first Pong console, it appears to me that there are more games around than ever. Hundreds of games are released every year, and that is just from the big names studios on the big platforms, there are thousands more on mobile platforms or from smaller developers. Steam has over 1,500 games. There are over 750 games listed on Wikipedia for the PS3. And nobody can agree on how many MMORPGs there are, as that depends very much on how you define the term. One thing that is for sure is that there are far too many games to play them all.

While the number of games has exploded, the number of game genres has pretty much stayed the same. So with each genre now having so many games, the differences between any two are relatively small. Somebody who isn't into shooters could be forgiven to not be able to tell the difference between Battlefield 3 and the latest Call of Duty. Just like you probably couldn't tell the brand of a washing machine if it wasn't printed prominently on the thing. Just like washing machines, games have become to a certain degree interchangeable. You might have some personal preferences for one or the other, but you could probably play any game of the same genre without any problem if your choice was somehow limited.

I don't think the games of 2012 or the games announced at the E3 are bad. Many are just solid games with small incremental bits of innovation in their respective genre. Take any of them and send them back 10 years in time with a time-machine, and people back there would stand in awe about something we today consider as meh. TERA would have looked brilliant compared to Everquest, UO, and Asheron's Call. It is because we are now so overloaded with games that we end up finding all them a bit boring. It isn't easy to stand out from a crowd if that crowd is so huge. At some point buying a new game becomes as mundane as buying a new washing machine.

Perhaps we are both just curmudgeonly old gamers Tobold but this post resonates with me.

The market is flooded with high quality games and even the most average modern game is actually "better" than the classics of a decade ago in the same way that a modern Toyoa Corolla is better than a 1920's Rols Royce. Yet modern games do not excite me in the way the classic games did and they do not feel as important.

This actually has a personal impact. Twenty years ago it was quite unusual for a grown man to be a computer gamer and I felt like a pathfinder of sorts. I was proud of my geeky hoobby even if many of my peers didn't understand it. Today there is nothing special about being a gamer.

I wonder if a nostalgia for the past is part of the reason for the current enthusiasm for pixellated indie games.
I don't think it's a very apt comparison. One of those Es stands for "Entertainment", don't forget.

A better benchmark might be something like the Frankfurt Book Fair or the NATPE Market & Conference.

But yes, on the substantive point of mainstreaming, it's inevitable.
I think much of the anger directed at E3 comes from the fact that it failed according to it's own criteria. When sites such as Gamasutra and VG247 turn against a games convention, then it's not unreasonable to state that it failed to meet the expectations of it's target audience (there's a good round-up of E3 commentary on RockPaperShotgun).

The problems seem to revolve around a few themes, and none of them being about mainstreaming of games.

1. The specific console focus of E3. Consoles are very old tech, and the new generation is still 18 months away, so little of any technical interest can be done with them at the moment (the few interesting console games announced were assumed to be making use of next-gen tech, just not permitted to say that).

2. The lack of other types of gaming represented at E3. There is huge innovation in gaming - in PC gaming, in mobile gaming, in social-media gaming - that isn't represented at E2 because it's console-focus. None of the interesting innovation in gaming - from business models (F2P barely exists at E3) - to populations (Female gamers, the social game space) - to game play (with Friends games; TSW-style meta-gaming) - was present at E3.

3. The consequent focus on that demographic that still buys console games: males aged 16-25. Pc gamers average age is much higher - in the US it's 42, according to NPD; the typical casual gamer according to PopCap is a female in her 40's.

This creates what we might politely describe as 'cognitive dissonance': all those inane gameplay vids based upon shooting people in the face (or even better, shooting hookers-in-nun-outfits in the face if you're Hitman: Absolution) when this demographic is a small part of the gaming population. Just happens to be a large part of the last-gen console demographic, but only a minority of actual people who play computer games. E3's pretence that these people are the majority of gamers is, indeed, an insult to everyone's intelligence.

There's an additional problem that E3 pretends to be a trade show, like GDC, but is really a consumer show; which causes professional game journalists to grind their teeth in frustration.
With the uncertain global economy, risk taking in business is very low now. Innovation takes economic risk. It makes sense that the industry is focussing on polished clones.

"Just like washing machines, games have become to a certain degree interchangeable."

Except that my beloved 4 year old main character lives only in WoW. Creating brand loyalty is a huge reason that the young adult demographic is so valuable. I believe that personal identification with and time investment in game characters is the equivalent to brand loyalty.

Just like trusting G.E. appliances because my Mom did.
I think antidote for many seasoned veterans of PC and console gaming has been the indie development renaissance. Things like the Humble Indie Bundle and games like Minecraft, Limbo, Amnesia, Bastion, and countless others are a breath of fresh air in their limited scope, focused artistic intensions, and revolutionary choices in gameplay, atmosphere, or storytelling.
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