Now that the digital dust has had time to settle from E3, and the next generation of gaming is upon us, it seems like a perfect time to reflect on the current state of the industry. Regardless of if you choose to enlist for Sony or Microsoft in the coming console war, or if you wave the great banner for PC supremacy; some issues affect the entire community. Sexism, commercialism, moral outrage, and casualization are just a few of these major issues, but something that seems to go largely overlooked is the problem of progressive expectations.
There is an alarming trend making its beachhead in the gaming community: well designed, beautiful games are selling millions....and still failing. Let us look at the ambitious and fairly successful failure that was Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. The game sold over 1.2 million copies (well exceeding EA’s predictions), received decent review ratings ranging from 7-9 (like our review here), oh....and it was a massive financial disaster.
Then look at the recent reboot of Tomb Raider, which despite selling over 3 million copies (and once again, being a game we really liked), ended up failing so bad that Square Enix president Yoichi Wada was forced to resign. What do these games have in common? Massive budgets. Why? It’s simple: because the gaming industry has become so focused on minutiae that they will spend millions on realistic dog jaw physics and have to pray for a miracle that the game sells 5 million, or more, copies to pay for it.
Developers believe that have everything down to a science; “if we do x,y,and throw in some z, we will make the big bucks.” It is easy to say that the big evil corporations don’t understand us and are greedy, but a deeper look shows that they are just trying to live up to the expectations that R&D, focus groups, and good ole’ fashion gamer culture has demanded.
Ask any bro about books and he will tell you two things: reading is for nerds and hand me a brewski. Long ago, in the before times, there was a world where the NPCs were as silent as a Valve protagonist, and things called words told stories. If that sounds terribly frightening, don't worry, calm yourself with a quick jog to Whiterun...wait, “Do you get to the Cloud District very often? Oh, what am I saying, of course you don’t.”
Voiced interactions are now an industry standard, and to many of us that is a wonderful thing. You don't have to be an uneducated sycophant to enjoy the immersive and cinematic effect that voiced dialog brings to a game. The problem is that everything must be voiced, and that eats up space and cash. I alluded to Skyrim above because it shows one of the clearest instances of this problem. You want to have a massive game, you want to have infinite choices, you want each NPC to have personality and something to say........but you also want a huge cast of voice actors, and you don't want them to repeat the same thing over and over again.
To accomplish this, the game must be brought down in scale and ambition, or skyrocket (pun intended) in price. We want to have our cake, and have 5 NPCs tell us in various accents how elegantly we eat it too. Older gamers point to the “youngun’s these days with their ADD and jive talk”, that they have no patience for reading; but to be honest, it is a luxury we all have grown accustomed to and something we of course have come to expect.
If you have been to a gaming forum and have not heard a game derogatively referred to as having “PlayStation 2 graphics”, then you probably have better things to do than read gaming forums all day. For those of us who don’t, this is a great example of how stagnant graphics might be one of the biggest taboos in gaming. Some people can look past them and some even take a lot of pride in that, but the rest of us are spoiled. Not the bad kind of spoiled, like “my dad only bought me one private jet”, but the more mild “yay I get to eat everyday” kind of spoiled.
We expect games to progress in graphical quality the same way we expect medicine to progressively cure more diseases. Technology is always evolving, right? Why shouldn’t it be better? The problem is technology gets better, but not fast enough to meet our desires. While we are able to play games with higher graphical quality at higher frame rates, the technology to do it cheaply is lagging way behind.
They must hire more designers, exceptionally talented designers, and pay them more for a longer period of time each subsequent development cycle just to improve on their previous release. This leads to development costs spiraling out of control. Quickly you get trapped in a depressing cycle: you have to have cutting edge graphics to entice as many gamers as possible, and you have to entice as many gamers as possible to pay for your cutting edge graphics.
Ah yes, game reviews, you foxy mistress. We need you save us from terrible games, but in doing so you bring a cruel elitism, if only you weren't so damn sexy. Hell, you’re reading this on a site that does in fact, review games. They have sort of become one of those “necessary evil” things. Ask any developer what they need to be successful and they will give you a number of copies that need to be sold and a minimum review score they must get. It is no secret that the economy in most places in the world are suffering and in some places (Australia for instance) games are ridiculously expensive.
We are naturally protective of our money, after all it buys us stuff, it is a total bro like that. So, it is only natural for us gamers to expect a way to save ourselves from wasteful purchases. The problem is when this mentality goes too far. We have become a culture of all or nothing, it’s the best or it is the worst. If a site does ratings 1-10, 1-6 are all equally treated as trash, while 7 is passable, 8.5 is the sweet spot and 9-10 are the holy grail. At The Koalition we have tried to push a system with 5 actually serving as our average, but the damage to the industry seems to be mostly done at this point.
Since this acts like a gate to sales, you have games that are designed to be reviewed well. Developers make sure to meet the expectations discussed above, add a gimmick or two for good measure and try as hard as they can to make the same game that scored a 9 the previous release. We expect to be given highly rated games because we want to have the best and avoid the worst, but sometimes the developers for okay games just need a chance.
Hopefully you have noticed that I am not passing judgment on what we have come to expect, I am merely trying to get across that what we want might not be exactly what is best for us. All of the things mentioned have done great things for the industry; most importantly they have helped gaming to be seen as a media art form akin to movies or literature rather than a childish diversion. If we changed our expectations just a little or give some leeway, games may be released that surprise us.
If graphics are left at an adequate, yet stagnant level, then money and game resources can go into creating content, expanding game size, and allowing smaller developers a chance to succeed. If only some content was voiced or if none was, then large branching dialogs can become common, content can become easier to create, and story writing takes on a role that has been neglected since graphics became king. If we lessen our expectations, we could have them exceeded well beyond what we used to consider baseline.
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