On Modern Gaming
by Adam B
I am a gamer. I’ve always been a gamer; from the Amstrad CPC 464 I had when I was five, through the Master System, Mega Drive, N64, Dreamcast, Wii and 360 with various PCs all along the way. It’s pretty safe to say that I love gaming, but in recent months I’ve found myself becoming less enthused about most of the new games that have been coming out, and it’s starting to worry me.
I think I know why this is happening though, and it’s because I’m stuck in my ways; I like my games pure and unsullied by the evil hand of populism, with depth, complexity and a sense of value, and this no longer seems to be the primary focus in new games.
Like it or not, gaming these days is a massive commercial enterprise and so, inevitably, the games designers and publishers are going to choose – or be required – to work within that framework to maximise profits and, in turn, their chances of making another game. The problem that seems to have developed is that many games are now being released on a regular schedule (usually annually) with anything too deep or complex that could potentially “scare off” new players being stripped out, and with an insanely-complex series of pre-order bonuses and special editions. Now, before I start sounding like some kind of anti-capitalist revolutionary, I’m not advocating some kind of glorious workers’ paradise where all games are free of corporate influence and handed out to the people gratis; my concerns are for content, quality, and accessibility.
First problem: Regular Releases. There have almost always been annual games franchises, mostly in the sports arena where it makes sense to keep all the teams and stats up to date in addition to the game engine along with feature updates and where, until fairly recently, not enough people had a decent internet connection with which to patch these things in. However, games such as the Call of Duty series and, seemingly, the Assassin’s Creed franchise have now also slipped into the yearly release cycle and it introduces serious constraints on the amount of content you can put into a game, as well as the quality. I’m not sure if the ever-decreasing length of games is a symptom of this or not, but there’s certainly a correlation there. Five or six hours of content is very rarely worth £50 to me, especially where there are games with just as well-conceived storytelling, quality content and engaging gameplay that have tens or even hundreds of hours of content for the same price. By all means, have deadlines and fixed release dates – nobody wants another Duke Nukem Forever – but please don’t feel that you’re being forced to release a new game every year because a) the quality will suffer, no matter how hard you try and b) players will get bored of your games at a much faster rate than they would otherwise.
Second problem: Simplicity. I love deep and complex games. By complex, I mean detailed and satisfying to engage with, not impenetrably and frustratingly complicated for no discernible reason. I don’t necessarily care about fancy graphics, celebrity voice actors, flashy set-pieces or even epic story as long as a game has engaging mechanics that reward my efforts. Games like UFO: Enemy Unknown (which I still play), Uplink, the original Deus Ex, Football Manager, The Elder Scrolls games, even games such as Bayonetta or Pacman Championship Edition DX all have systems in place that reward you for investing time in understanding them and feature more than just a series of waist-high walls to hide behind with a gun.
Now, simplifying can be a good thing; sometimes games are too complex or have features that don’t really serve any gameplay purpose other than to annoy you, and I’ve nothing against games with straightforward mechanics (case in point, I loved the original Serious Sam games), but when you start simplifying everything down to a lowest common denominator because you don’t want to risk confusing new players (that’s what manuals are for, by the way – my Sim City 2000 one is heavy enough to bludgeon someone to death with and sometimes that’s a good thing) you end up removing part of what makes games so much better than TV shows or movies, and eventually you’re producing things like Asura’s Wrath, which may as well just be sold as a film for all its interactive content. This is, at least in part, a result of the massive success of consoles and a desire to appeal to the less hardcore gaming demographic, not to mention the necessity of making games playable on a controller with a low resolution display (1080p is not a particularly high resolution, no matter what the TV marketing people tell you); successful consoles are not a bad thing, but they can be a really bad influence.
Third problem: Pre-Order Roulette: Almost everyone is guilty of doing this these days, but EA stands head and shoulders above everyone else. Take Mass Effect 3; getting all the pre-order bonuses, collectors editions, DLC (thus far) and other extras will set you back over £500, which is insane. When you have to publish a bloody guide book to help people work out all the pre-order bonus combinations, you’re doing it wrong and tying bonuses to hardware purchases is verging on pure evil. I’m not against DLC when it’s used to provide additional content (they used to be called patches and expansion packs, history fans), but I am against it when the core, day-one, just-released game has things missing unless you purchased the DLC or bought the collectors edition – that’s not a bonus, it’s a punishment. In the case of ME3, I actually decided that I couldn’t be bothered with any of it and just bought the standard edition from the cheapest vendor (Amazon) without any pre-order bonuses. It might sound old fashioned, but I’d really like to be able to buy a version of a game at release that comes with the whole game in it (and waiting six or more months for a GOTY edition that may contain some, none, or all of the previously released DLC and bonuses doesn’t count).
After all of that ranting, it must seem like I’ve given up on games altogether; thankfully that isn’t the case, as I still love gaming, but more and more I find myself playing old games, indie games and less mainstream games (I’ve never really got into gaming on my phone) in an attempt to avoid the things that the majority of “AAA” titles are doing. I wouldn’t say that I want the games industry to revert back to the pre-360/PS3 days of relative obscurity, because the current popularity of games is a Good Thing™ overall, but I can’t help but feel that the need to give every big budget title “mass appeal” is harming gaming as a medium to the point that the £50, annually released, five-hour-long, run-cover-shoot-repeat, pre-order disaster is becoming the norm rather than the exception and, as a gamer, that makes me sad.
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