I've been looking back at some gaming magazines from the last 15 years, and after spending some time reflecting on them and the current state of the industry, I’m left with a bad taste in my mouth. Initially I was extremely happy to read through the magazines, aside from enjoying the opportunity to go back and look at how so many iconic titles were viewed through fresh eyes, I was able to look at the optimism so many had for the future of the industry. It is a shame the world that was envisioned is such a far cry from what it has grown into.
For a moment, put yourself in the perspective those people roughly 10 to 15 years ago; everyone was still on the consoles that were made almost just for playing games. People that owned the console weren't buying it because it could stream movies or browse the internet, they were there to play the games before anything else was even a consideration. This was the time when online console gaming was in its infancy, and in order to get more people to buy their games developers like Ubisoft were releasing new levels for Splinter Cell, Microsoft gave MechAssault new modes and mechs, and even Counterstrike was getting new maps and mods. These weren't put up for sale, they were handed out for free.
Publishers recognized that without the devout fans, they’d fall off the face of the earth. It was their job to ensure that games were released on time and complete. They also had to make sure they brought us content that would keep us coming back to the game and the franchise. That hasn't changed a great deal because it is still their job to do all these things and do them well. It would seem they are not doing their jobs as currently we see that publishers ship incomplete titles with the intention of having it patched after release. As a perfect example of this kind of quality control failure, it is not uncommon to see a patch on release day. As far as extra content is concerned, almost nothing is given away to users as a means of encouraging continued play or loyalty, instead we had to come up with a new term to describe how people were being nickle and dimed. Nearly everything has micro transactions now; I suppose that sounds better in board meetings or emails to your investors. The fact remains that content which either used to be included in the finished product, or was dispensed as a promotional offering, is now nickle and dimed out of the consumer base.
Console game makers could have looked to the example that many PC developers have given over the years and released expansion packs. They could have shipped a large amount of content for a lower asking price than that of the full game. Rather than that the market has been offered DLC in place of expansions. At its best bring DLC brings episodic content that gives slightly more than what was there, and at worst its content already on the disc that remains locked until you pay the ransom. Often, in order to obtain all of the downloadable content, the money spent is more than cost of the game upon it’s day of release.
We even have some smaller changes in the industry that have altered the way in which we play the games. I didn't quite realize that the last generation of gaming affected things so profoundly because it was implemented in a rather interesting and almost subversive fashion. I’m speaking in reference to achievements and trophies, as they have had both positive and negative impact on the way we play games. In the best case scenario, it gave us reasons to go back and play the game again and do things we hadn't done before. In the worst case scenario we spend time doing things we don’t enjoy just to get the Pavlovian response we have become accustomed to; every time the bell rings you feel just a little bit accomplished. I've even seen people say they won’t go back and replay a game that they enjoyed because they have all the achievements in it, and they want to “finish” another game in place of the one they wanted to play. The biggest realization of this subconscious alteration was when I recently went back to play older, highly regarded titles that I had never played before. Shortly after starting the game I had made a mistake, and my initial reaction was to restart the section because it might prevent me from earning an achievement. At this point I consciously recognized the absurdity of that thought, and then began enjoying the game for what it was. I stopped feeling like I was supposed to accomplish some arbitrary goal and started having fun again. It was a very liberating experience to play games without any other goal in mind than my own personal enjoyment of the title.
In addition to all of this is one of the other small but, slightly saddening losses that accompanied achievements: the omission of cheat codes. There was a time frame of roughly 20 years where cheat codes would offer extra fun or even hidden content in games. While I understand that developers didn't want users to obtain achievements while using cheat codes, losing them as a whole is rather displeasing.
At this point, I am inclined to believe that the size of the industry and number those marketed too has gotten too large for its own good. What was once a few companies trying to please the dedicated fan base, has turned into several corporations attempting to vie for the attention and subsequently the dollar of the lowest common denominator. When you design your product to appeal to the lowest common denominator, you are left with a basic, soulless experience appealing almost exclusively to half-wits and buffoons. When those people make up the bulk of the audience, you see gaming begin to go down the same roads that movies, television, and other forms of media have taken. The thought provoking involved narrative is replaced with a hand holding spoon-fed experience.
All things considered, my belief is that we have left the apex of the console gaming industry behind. I do not believe this out of a feeling of nostalgia, however I say this because when the console industry was at its peak, I spent my time almost completely as a PC gamer. With all this in mind, it is no reason not to strive to take things to a new plateau that, if we are lucky, could be better than anything we have accomplished thus far. I say “we” because It is something that requires work from everyone, not solely the people making the games, not only the people publishing the games, but also the people buying the games. You vote with your money, please vote wisely. A big part of that is making sure you don’t buy a game till it is actually complete. I know sometimes it is hard to avoid that day one purchase when you have been patiently waiting for years, but things will only get worse if we let it continue as it has been.
We can fix these problems if we stop, act discerningly, and patiently.