Wednesday, September 26, 2012

#40: Nostalgia and the Perception of the Game Industry

Many of the people who read the things that I write have been playing games for a very long time. We have together poured tons of hours into exploring worlds, meeting people, and doing amazing things otherwise impossible in our regular lives. When you reflect back upon the games of previous eras, the odds are in favor of you looking back fondly, having pleasant memories of your experiences. However, the opposite is often said of modern gaming. When many of us think of modern games, we do not think highly of them. What is the reason for this? Is it because gaming actually has gotten worse over the years, or is there something else to it?

In all honesty, I do not believe that it is the former. There have been vast improvements in the way games play as the years have gone on. I know this from experience. Recently, I went back to replay a franchise from the Playstation 2 era, Jak and Daxter, because it had been re-released in the form of an HD Collection. When playing through, I realized something: Older games are much less fun than I remember. While I still enjoyed the series, I was also amazed at how much I tolerated when I played those old games as a child. I had forgotten about how aggravating it was to die at the very final part of a boss fight or a platforming segment and have to start over from the very beginning due to a lack of checkpoints. The frustration and tedium that is born from having to do many pointless, uninteresting, and arbitrary mini-games and challenges in order to unlock bonus content and extras seemed almost alien to me. This was the moment, for me personally, where I realized how far games have grown. Just like how PS2-era platformers grew out of the lives system of their predecessors (itself a hold over from the bygone arcade era), modern games in all genres have streamlined their mechanics and learned how to alleviate frustrations in order to make the experience more enjoyable. While I do not think modern games are perfect, I do not necessarily long for the “good old days” of gaming. So why do we get this feeling that old games were awesome and new games suck? This week, I will try to find the answers.

One of the most obvious reason for the nostalgia we have for previous generations is a combination of Sturgeon's Law and human nature. For all of the two of you who frequent the internet, yet are completely unaware of Sturgeon's Law, it is a rule discovered by science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon in 1951. When critics of the science-fiction genre said that the vast majority of its works were of poor quality, Sturgeon made the realization that, in fact, all genres and all forms of creative works are composed of mostly inferior, crappy productions with only a few real gems standing out. This rule has stood the test of time and has been condensed to “90% of everything is crap!” In that sense, works from this period in gaming are no different from previous eras. However, when we look back upon the games of old, we rarely remember all of the sub-par works. In fact, we mostly focus on the best works from prior generations simply because they are the ones that became more popular, widespread, and long lasting. These circumstances combined conspire to make us feel like we are surrounded by a pile of crap. While it is true, it is no less true than it was before.

But even with that in mind, we have not quite accounted for all of the nostalgia. No, there have to be other factors at work. I have a number of theories as to possible factors of this. My first theory is that the internet has made it much easier for dissenting opinions to become widespread. Think about it. In the old days, the only way we would be able to hear other people's opinions of games is through gaming magazines and friends. Nowadays, we have ready access to the opinions of millions of people at our fingertips. Notable dissent like the Retake Mass Effect movement among other vocal elements of the gaming community were almost completely unheard of until recent history. This is a unique era in that respect. The prevalence of the internet has had an amplifying effect on the spread of information. Not only do we communicate faster, we form opinions and do critical thinking/analysis much more rapidly as well. Furthermore, negative opinions are much more likely to be spread online than positive ones, which results in an overall warped perception of gaming culture.

Another factor working to reinforce our nostalgia for the “good old days” are the increasingly intrusive business practices of gaming publishers. In the old days, publishers did not have much choice in what they did with their games. Since most consoles lacked reliable internet connections, they had to release the complete final product on the disk without the capability of altering it in any way. Back then, for better or worse, the product you bought was generally the product you got simply due to the technological limitations of the consoles at the time. This meant that it was necessary to do extensive bug testing and proofreading. Nowadays all consoles (except for those of the unfortunate group of people that live in rural areas) have access to stable internet connections, which means games can be patched and extended after the fact. Of course, since publicly owned corporations tend to value profit over all others, it was natural that they would try to milk these new innovations for all they were worth with things like On-Disc DLC, Day 1 DLC, cutting corners only to patch the game later, and DRM schemes. which I have discussed in the past. Make no mistake, this would have happened earlier if the capability to do so was more widespread in prior console generations. Nonetheless, this has caused a warped perception of the games themselves. It is difficult for us to divorce the qualities of the overall game with the practices of the publishers who help create it, so it should not come as a surprise that people have begun to hold this generation in contempt.

My final theory as to why this nostalgia is so widespread is a very simple one. Because of the high risk/ high reward nature of the industry today, such as it is, games have become increasingly homogenized over time. It takes many more resources and significantly more time to make a AAA game now than it did in the past, we are all painfully aware of this fact. This means that where in the past, publishers could produce several different and diverse projects and were almost guaranteed to profit off their combined sales (some would flop, some would so well, yet they would generally balance each other out), it is a different story altogether for the modern industry. They have to be more risk-adverse in order to ensure that they mitigate losses and profit at the end of the day. Unfortunately, “risk-adversity” tends to lead to publishers wanting to copy the thing that is most successful, even if they do not fully understand it. In other words, where we saw diverse games in the past that could cater to different player tastes and demographics, we now see a shooter, another shooter, a shooter/RPG hybrid, and still another shooter. These are not just all shooters, but they are all shooters with the same “gritty realistic” tone and bland color palette consisting of fifty shades of gray. There is less balancing these games than there was in the past. While the indie scene and Kickstarter are certainly doing their part to mitigate this homogenization, they simply are not large enough to cause a significant impact. Besides, most people think about the AAA side of gaming when the gaming industry comes to mind.

Again, modern day gaming is by and large much better than gaming of previous generations. However, there is much that contributes to a perception of lower-quality than previous generations. Unfortunately, in any entertainment industry, especially one as expensive, culturally pervasive, and profitable as the gaming industry, perception is everything. If people start to think that games are sucking, they will just go find something else to spend their money on. The industry is not like food or gas. It is a frivolous expense that can be easily cut. The AAA industry will need to clean up its image and stop its unsustainable business practices if they wish to remain in the top dogs in gaming. It is a sad fact of life, but it is true and we all know it.


krellen said...

To the subset of the "gamer" population that doesn't want shooters, it's not just nostalgia talking. You pointed it out yourself: we no longer get anything made for us, when in the past we did (big budget titles, not cheap indies). Objectively, for us, games ARE worse now than they used to be.

newdarkcloud said...

Indeed. I understand that sentiment. That's a legitimate concern. The point I'm trying to make is the gaming as a whole is advancing. There will always be outliers, unfortunately. You and many of the fans of things you like were sadly left out. You have a right and responsibility to be upset about that (and to let people know their IS a market for those games).

Flailmorpho said...

Are we tired of shooters, or are we not used to all these first person games? We always had shooters but it just wasn't first person. there's 2 types of cameras, and first person happens to be the more popular one at the moment.

Thomas said...

Google sent me here? 7th in a search with 18 million results. Is your blog pretty popular?

newdarkcloud said...

I don't know about popular, but it's been gaining Steam. I started this blog in Feb and I already have 8K views.