This is how you ruin my hobby - The Video Game Industry

It gets harder every day not to look around myself as a geek-of-all-trades and go "What are you doing to my hobbies?" I don't know what I hate more, the elements of those hobbies that provoke such a response, or the fact that I'm slowly turning into that old, grumpy geek that can't enjoy anything because "nothing is as good as it was twenty years ago".

I make a conscious effort to avoid such a mindset. Every new generation of movies, TV series, anime, video games, and RPGs has provided me enjoyment. I try not to just degenerate to complaining for complaining's sake, like so many, many blogs.

But sometimes I need to vent and just be unabashedly negative, so that's going to be what this series is going to be.

Video games tend to hold the greatest share of my gripes. Much of this probably stems from the fact that video games are more or less where I started as a geek. They are very near and dear to my heart as a hobby. Started when I asked my parents for an NES, and got an SNES, and continues to this day.

But, there are some things that worry me.

Gaming is far from ruined, and I still enjoy most games to come out, but I think most people who play video games as a hobby have one complaint or another about the industry right now. Many of the complaints are two divergent groups arguing style. Nintendo/classic gaming fans arguing that the industry is full of same-y cover based shooters starring grunting caucasians bristling with muscle and testosterone. "Core" gamers [an ill defined term that I dislike even more than the term "gamer"] lament that their hobby is being taken over by motion controls which are unreliable in their responsiveness at best and by casual games that are of relatively low production value.

Funny thing is, neither of them are necessarly wrong.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with the gaming industry is that it has come to the unfortunate realization that the movie industry came to years ago.

Quality does not equal profit.

It seems counterintuitive at first, I admit, but hear me out. In theory, you would think that game publishers would push to make the best games possible, because the best games sell the best, and, therefore, make the most money.

In reality, people don't buy games based solely on the quality of the finished product. EA makes money hand over fist on their yearly Madden output, while new IPs are lucky find a fraction of that success. Further problems arise when you look at the average hobbyist gamer. Once again, in theory, they should drive the market, because "gamers" buy more games than the casual consumer. In reality, there are two problems with this assumption. Just because gamers seek to purchase more games, they don't necessarily have more expendable income. Oftentimes, hobbyist gamers are more likely to turn to used game sales [which net 0 profit for the game studios and publishers], or worse, piracy. These options are not as commonly used by the more casual gaming populace, who head to their local Wal-Mart and buy whatever looks good.

And, the topper of it all is, crappy games are cheaper to put out. Product without effort costs less time and money, which means a lower bar for success. It's why you see so many formulaic, churned out movies in the theaters each year. They generally sell as well, if not better, than high concept indie flicks, and requires less effort to make, therefore making more money. This isn't to say that a good product can't be successful, but it does mean that putting time, effort, and money into a product ceases to become the default smart decision and becomes risky. Publishers are generally business-like in their approach. It is their job. And businesses like to avoid unnecessary risks. Hence the Wii shovel-ware and the dozens of gray-to-brown shooters.

And the medium suffers as a result.


Antisocial Multiplayer

When did being a geek become so complicated? What happened to the days where there were games that came out that everyone could just agree were good. What happened to the days where people gamed face to face? What happened to the friendly local game store? What happened to the arcade? What happened to the anime clubs, the sci-fi clubs, and the aspiring fantasy author clubs? What the hell happened to geek culture?

I suppose technology carries some of the blame. With the advent of the internet, geeks no longer needed to risk face to face interaction to meet others of their ilk. With the advent of high speed internet, face to face interaction was no longer required to take part in those geeky activities that would normally require more than one person in the same room at the same time. Even tabletop role playing games are being played over voice chats using mapping programs to visually represent the terrain. Who needs an anime club when even the most obscure title can be ordered from the internet, and can be discussed later on an online forum? And gaming, well, there isn't a multiplayer genre that isn't dominated by online play these days.

But, I don't think that is at the heart of it. Technology only removed the necessity for face to face interaction. It didn't make it undesirable. There was a time when even PC gamers, who's hobbies were the quickest to go online, would still meet in person in large groups for LAN parties. While this is not totally unheard of now, it has become much, much rarer, to the point that many PC games are releasing without an option for being played over a LAN.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that online interaction is a bad thing. That would be hypocrisy of the highest caliber, considering where you are reading this. What I am saying is that online and offline geek interactions should not be mutually exclusive. Online gaming does mean the convenience of finding players anywhere at any time, but the modern model for most lobby based multiplayer tends to make your fellow players almost as faceless as bots. Even in the earlier days of online FPS gaming, you would go and seek out servers to play on. There would probably be some that you would favor, maybe because you had low latency when playing on it, maybe because you like the map circulation, or maybe because you enjoyed some odd rule set or mod that server used. So, you would frequent this server. So would others. There would be some who came and left, but the server would have regulars. You would meet these regulars time and time again, and speak with them, despite the fact that they were the enemy, and you would know them as your fellow gamer.

Modern lobby style multiplayer does not foster his sort of camaraderie. Every time you log in, you get shuffled together with a new, random group of people. Unless you take time to specifically hook up with someone you know ahead of time, it is likely that there will be no familiar faces. Chat will be done by voice, but if you are playing teams there will be no discussion with the enemy. No exchange of well-meaning taunts or congrats on a kill well executed. And when all is said and done, the group shuffles away, and you will likely never see that combination of players in the same lobby ever again.

Now, not all games are quite this dismal in the regard. MMORPGs are designed to bring gamers together by necessity. But overall multiplayer gaming has become a much more detached experience. Many modern multiplayer console games don't even offer multiplayer on the same console. It is just assumed that you will plug into the internet and use their matchmaking device to play the game with the rest of the faceless masses.

I blame this sort of thing for the phenomena of the stereotypical Xbox Live gamer. Who needs to act like anything resembling a decent human being when you will likely never see these people again. If you get booted from the lobby, who cares, there was nothing special about it and there are a near infinite number of other suckers who will get to put up with your loud, obnoxious, homophobic, racist, and generally irritating commentary. And no, this behavior isn't relegated only to Xbox Live, but few other environments nurture such behavior as effectively.

I miss arcades, but even more so I miss the days when a group of my friends would pile on the couch and in chairs around my TV even though the system only supported two or four players, and took turns facing off with one another in whatever game we were playing at the time. Loser gave up their controller, and you would wait anxiously for your turn. As the common host of these middle school gatherings, even I was bound by these rules, for there were no special privileges, no advantage or prestige for previous outings, no gamer score or titles to identify the great from the mediocre. There was only the game, and how you were playing at that very moment.

And it was fucking awesome.