What’s Wrong With The Gaming Industry?

Yes, the games industry is in a bit of a rut.

“But Jasper,” you say, “we’re in the midst of a next-gen revolution! Shiny new consoles are being released that are 10-times as powerful as what we were using before! Some of the best games of the generation were released in the last year! Surely these are great times for the games industry, right?”

First off, don’t call me Surely. Second, yes the games we’ve gotten in the last few years have been fantastic. If you time-traveled back about a decade ago and showed them Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto V, they’d wet their pants. Remember that for every good game like these, there are several mediocre ones that somehow get on store shelves, but even those titles are slightly better in quality. But all of these games seem vaguely similar, despite being of different genres. I guess I’m saying after years of gaming, I just don’t feel excited like I used to.

“What are you talking about, Larry?” you ask. Well, let’s put it this way. We’ve basically been playing the same games for a very long time. You use the same button layout on your console gamepad, using the same types of motions to play. Your characters always move with the left joystick, the camera moves with the right joystick. There’s usually a button to jump, to duck, to run, to shoot, to slash, to select, to deselect, and so on.

Ok, it is a nit-picky thought to think about gaming controls. The Nintendo Wii proved that controls could be done a different way, and despite what 99% of the gaming community has said, I actually had fun with it. Sure, the graphics were outdated, and you ended up wagging the remote so much your arm hurt, but it was different, and in its own way a stroke of genius. I think most people were hoping for the Wii HD to just update the graphics power to the same level as the competition, and to include a more refined motion control remote. Instead, the Wii U gives us a tablet, a new but uninspired piece of input that borrows from tablet gaming. And clearly, consumers see it as uninspired, as the sales of the thing couldn’t be much lower.

Speaking of tablet gaming, it became a new option for gamers to play on. I like the idea of a smaller touchscreen to replace my computer, but nearly all tablets seem to be missing basic functions that I kind of need. Things like usb input, on-device programming for devs, an operating system that makes sense, and so-on. Back to the gaming, developers see them as devices that everyone probably has, and these people wouldn’t mind spending a few dollars on something fun to play while on the bus or at the airport. And apparently, these games are actually pretty decent, according to most reviews and press people.

I’ve played a couple games for the phone and tablet, and it is impressive at how good the graphics can be despite how low-end the gpu’s tend to be. But the controls are simply unbearable. Attempts have been made to fix this, but touchscreens are too slippery, to allow you to easily swipe stuff across, and therefore cannot use a virtual joystick successfully.

“But Douglas,” you say, “what about the fun games on iOS? The ones that get 9’s and 10’s in reviews online?” Usually, these games are incredibly simple gameplay-wise, only needing swippes and taps to play. Such developers at least understand how to use these systems, but it still doesn’t come across as fun to me. These games are distractions at best, but not things I would play for hours at a time. Games like Angry Birds and Infinity Blade aren’t that compelling to me, but maybe I’m in the minority.

And remember, almost all games on tablets and phones could easily run in your browser (seriously, they can. You’d be surprised what browsers can do now-a-days.). They’ve existed when I was a kid, but we called them something else… (what was it… oh yes) FLASH GAMES. Such games were shunned by most people back then, but by putting them on a cool-looking tablet and making people actually pay for them (albiet small amounts), they suddenly become popular enough to sell millions of copies.

Somehow, iOS games have a huge exclusive library, even though most of these games are hardly worth paying for. I haven’t even talked about Facebook games, disgusting things that use social networking and obsessive disorders to make their cash. I know a small company that does nothing but make slot machine games for Facebook. They are actually making money. They think they are real game developers. I understand devs need to get money somewhere, and these are all technically games, but they are in the same way that tag or frisbee is a game. We’ve evolved a lot more since then, and video games have risen to a whole other level. Mobile and browser games are getting better, but are still not proper games.

“But Douglas, you hypocryte,” you say, “you clearly don’t like these new input methods, why do you complain about gamepads?” True, gamepads are still better than iffy touchscreens, but we could do better. Why did we drop the Wii Remote and the Playstation Move? Why isn’t Xbox’s Kinect getting used properly and more often? Look into the Occulus Rift, a wearable device that tracks your head to control the in-game camera to great effect. That’s the type of thing I’m talking about, and I hope that a decade from now we will have changed to something, anything better than the old controls. Although with recent news suggesting that a proper controller will be made for iOS devices, they may replace consoles one day… just not for a few more years, at least.

Controls aside, that’s not my real problem. My problem is that games are kindof the same. Look at how many Call of Duties and Assassin’s Creeds we’ve gotten in the last five years alone. And outside of those, are other games really that different, just because they have a different name? We’ve reached a peak in gameplay and graphics, and to me, most new games play and look very similar to each other. And the masses eat it all up. The industry has gotten too repetitive.

And that’s the word I’m looking for: repetitive. Gone are the days of inspired ideas, taking risks, and pushing the envelope. Money is all that matters, and publishers will only invest in what can garentee a return.

“… And that’s the word I’m looking for: repetitive. Gone are the days of inspired ideas, taking risks, and pushing the envelope…”

And the public actually buys it! In every industry, there’s always a few consumers who fight the norm, who want change. But most people couldn’t care less, and will buy Call of Duty: Ghosts on next-gen the day it comes out, and play non-stop for days, even though there is nothing distinguishable about it from the rest of the franchise (and no, the dog isn’t enough to convince me). This is what people want, mind-dead people who have only played a handful of games in their lives. I have played a Call of Duty game before, it’s not that much fun. People like me are anxious to prove everyone else wrong and poo-poo games like these, but look at it differently. I don’t care that such games sell well. I’m concerned that potentially better games will never be made because these continue to sell.

A large reason these sell is because of the trend of online-multiplayer. It’s been revealed that some of the biggest games of the new generation will be multi-player online games only. Most people online don’t undertand what the problem is, but that’s because they are online. Believe it or not, the Internet is mostly regulated to high-density populations only, and most smaller cities and towns have little to no Internet capabilities. It’s frustrating to see that living a few blocks outside a major city could mean your Internet is a fraction of the speed of your neighbour. And had anyone thought about those data-caps certain providers enforce?

Frankly, online-multiplayer is a lazy excuse not to develop proper AI for your games. Most multiplayer games would be great for single players as well if AI-bots were your competitors. But that doesn’t exist for most games. Of course, nothing beats playing against a real person. A foul-mouthed, racist ten-year old who thinks being the best at Battlefield 4 makes him better than you at life, and makes sure you know it. Yes, much better than a AI that actually plays fair and politely.

Is the future of games online? I don’t think so. Video games were what you played when your friends weren’t available. If your friends want to play, go outside and play football or something. If you need to play with people you’ve never seen before to pass the time, you don’t have any real friends. In which case, why not embrace the single-player world? Else, Internet needs to be made available, literally on every inch of the globe, for free. Sure, let faster connections be paid for, but some form of global wi-fi needs to be made before any form of online-only service can be fair and viable from the consumer’s point of view.

If not played online, games may still require to be online for DRM purposes, a practice that the gaming community as a whole has openly spoken against. This has been tried and failed at by the publishers, but it’s clear that they are still very interested in making this a standard one day. Otherwise, games on PC are becoming downloadable only, with Valve’s Steam service as the main standard. It’s a terribly buggy system: even when I buy a new PC game on disc, Steam insists on downloading it from online instead of the physical copy, and even after succeeding at using the disc, it requires a mandatory update to the newest version of the game. I live in Canada, and unless I were to live in downtown Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, you can bet my internet is poor. It’s not that I can’t afford better, it’s that it isn’t offered to me no matter the price. In my current state, it literally takes days to install a game from disc with an online update as opposed to a few minutes without Steam.

Game developers should assume that not all of their customers have internet access. At least not fast, unlimited, consisted internet access. No consumer-driven industry should assume internet is available. Steam desperately needs an update, to first assume that a game is being installed from a disc, and to prompt the user if no disc is found to download online. And to not require updates on a game that should have been completed when it was released. Until then, check out gog.com, a drm-free downloadable site that is much easier to get around, despite a somewhat smaller games library.

“Ok, Casey,” you say, “you don’t like where the AAA games are headed, but what about indie games?” Good point, dear reader. Indie games are games that no one funds. They are made purely on the desire of the developer. And thus, we have seen hundreds of such games that attempt to be different. We’ve seen new gameplay ideas and visual styles come out of the most unlikely places, and some are actually pretty incredible.

“… We’ve seen new gameplay ideas and visual styles come out of the most unlikely places, and some are actually pretty incredible…”

However, these same games have small teams due to lack of funding, and most of the games themselves are incredibly small and simple. Many attempt to be on iOS or Android for extra audience, but at least they are sometimes available on PC or Mac. Most resort to pixelated 8-bit graphics purely because they can’t hire proper artist, and most are 2d sidescrollers and platformers simply because the devs think 3d-programming is too difficult. A handful of indie games are 3d adventures, but even then the game is either too short, or the gameplay too strange.

Basically, every indie game is an experiment, and while most of them are genuinely emotional or fun enough to be better than most AAA games today, they still haven’t made the change in the industry that we seek. And with indie-devs on the rise, its enivitable that many great games will go unnoticed, while Call of Duty 18 and Angry Birds 9 sells a hundred-million copies in its first week. Further, many veteran game developers are leaving AAA studios to become indie developers and finally start making what they want: the problem being that the get way too much attention and money from fans and set developer budgets too high, questioning what defines someone as a true indie.

At least indie games are getting easier to make. Only look to the Unity 3D engine or the Unreal Engine, both with free SDK’s that a developer can download today and start using. With them, you can get a 3d game up and running in minutes, leaving more room to focus on the technical details and gameplay mechanics and art. Again, indie-games will be more over-abundant when more people realize how easy it is to make a game with such systems, but perhaps that’s a good thing. While not good for the individual indie, it’s great for the gaming industry as a whole.

“So then, Flynn”, you say, “what exactly do you want?” First, I want you to stop talking to me while you’re reading, since you clearly can’t decide what my name is. Second, I want to get excited about gaming again. I want to see new games that excite me because they are different, and because they are actually pretty good.

What will it take to get me excited again? I don’t know. Maybe a visual style that has never been truely done before, but is still wide open to possibility. Maybe AI that is smart enough not just to compete against you, but to have a conversation with you. Maybe gameplay and controls that doesn’t make you feel like a loser in a dark room in front of a glowing screen, but like you are part of a whole other world and more alive then you’ve ever been. Will this ever get made? Maybe, a little at a time. Indie developers may be our best hope for such ideas. A Kickstarter campaign might help.

The next-gen of gaming has started according to advertising. But the next-gen isn’t about the hardware of the PS4 and the XboxOne, but of the games that take advantage of the new consoles. For me, the True Next Gen of gaming hasn’t even come close to beginning, and may not for a few more years. Or a few weeks. In the world of indie gaming, who can say?…