The Videogame industry seems to be caught in an interesting predicament, creatively speaking. Note that when I use the all-encompassing term "The Videogame Industry" I am in fact committing the unfortunately common sin of equating the entire breadth of human creativity in interactive media to its largest (or at least loudest) corner: The AAA sphere*. I won't misrepresent the medium like this again, but it's worth pointing out how easily we tend to see issues in the AAA sphere and extrapolate doom and gloom for the whole videogame industry, which is actually doing pretty darn great.
In fact, I think that gaming on the whole is the strongest it's ever been and is only going from strength to strength, even if 'AAA' gaming is in grave danger of losing its relevance. For all our grumbling about endless brown military shooters, Gaming has long been an artform where unfettered creativity and even surrealism has thrived, moreso now that the act of creating Games has itself been embraced by greater numbers of increasingly diverse people; people willing to both take the medium in risky new directions, and deliver focused and refined gameplay that isn't solely concerned with wrangling as many demographics as possible.
It isn't hard to see why we're seeing such an exciting influx of fresh perspectives: What with the growing accessibility of game development (Unity! Gamemaker! RPG maker! Twine! Etcetera!) and greater commercial viability of publisher-free distribution (Steam! GOG! Humble Bundles! Newgrounds! Your own-dang website! App-stores a’plenty!), the spectrum of different people and perspectives getting involved in making Games grows in turn.
And if the richness of an artform can be measured by the breadth of human experiences expressed through its artists, the fact that self-expression through Games is no longer primarily restricted or beholden to just Rich White Dudes is certain to make Games a far richer medium for all of us.
What's more: the gaming market (and marketing) has evolved to a point that this diversity and daring can be rewarding for small dev-teams at both a critical and commercial level. As the mainstream gaming audience has matured and more mechanical and thematic ground has been covered, Gamers (and the Gaming media that informs them) have begun to grow hungry for the kind of innovation and daring personal expression that leaves large publishers screeching and clutching their focus-tested data as they scuttle off into the night. The success of the likes of Minecraft, The Binding of Isaac, DayZ and Gone Home shows us that fresh ideas (and well-executed old ones) have begun to hold more weight than just flashy new graphics, and for a fair few years the indie and ‘zinester’ scenes of game creation have been able to do their thing, find their audience, and (crucially but tragically rare for artists across history) stay ‘fed’ and ‘alive’ doing it.
This is not to say that it’s all sunshine and roses for all independent and hobbyist game creators, financially or otherwise. One of the sad realities of the commercial side of pop-art is that the more uncompromising and personal artists are in their work, the smaller their potential audience (and revenue) tends to be. As is the case for artists in any medium, there are countless incredibly talented game-makers who aren't getting the attention and success they deserve. However, more so than any prior point in gaming's short history, the internet's tremendous ability to facilitate word-of-mouth marketing among 'niche' audiences puts that recognition well within reach. And that right there? That's something to be celebrated.
Of course, profitability needn't necessarily be a concern for the many people making games purely for the love of the artform and/or for the betterment of humankind. Just look at the hundreds of people who participate in game-jams such as Ludum Dare: submitting daring and unique games in all their unpolished glory for no more sinister motivation than the thrill of the challenge and the love of creation and the exploration of new territory within the medium. Humanity’s selfless dedication to the artform doesn't end at 48 hour whirlwind development cycles though, as many devs choose to invest major portions of their lives into developing and freely distributing games for the common good. Take Zoë Quinn & Patrick Lindsey's “Depression Quest" or Anna Anthropy's "Dys4ia", games that deftly use the meduim's strengths to express (and let players explore) the creators' deeply personal experiences of depression and hormone-replacement therapy, respectively. These and many other interactive experiences, which possess so much potential to spread awareness, understanding and empathy about the issues they deal with, are released to the public for free; an act that can only be described as a public service. Personally, the fact that games like Depression quest (which did more to help me understand and fight my depression than a lifetime of people telling me to just "make myself happy") are being made and given to humanity with such regularity gives me more hope than a thousand Dead Space sequels.
No one’s saying there isn’t room for improvement in the indie scene, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable that right now I feel more excited about Gaming and its future than I’ve ever been. Every day I’m hearing about, discovering and playing phenomenal titles that ten years ago would probably have been doomed to obscurity; and I find it hard to feel the same cynicism so many people seem to have about modern AAA gaming when there’s so much amazing stuff going on right outside that sphere. This is not to say that these concerns aren't valid when it comes to the shinier side of game development.
In fact, I think it’s time I addressed some of them. As much as my attention is focused on the little-fish, big-ideas wonder of indie-gaming right now, I feel there should always be a place in our medium for the big ‘ol blockbuster, and it’d be a terrible shame if AAA development crapped itself out of existence for good. Speaking of AAA’s craptacular current trajectory, let’s talk some of its bigger issues, shall we?
Now don’t worry, I'm not going to make any ridiculous sweeping statements decrying the quality of games from any single development paradigm, that'd be close-minded, presumptuous and obviously wrong. Many of my favourite games, old and new, are big-budget affairs, and their size, scope and polish are big part of why I like them.
While there’s certainly nothing inherently bad about big budgets, it’s hard to ignore how the handling of these budgets and publishers’ Sisyphean struggle for profitability keeps many AAA games from reaching their full potential. From a general consumer perspective, it’s clear to see that the mindless greed and incompetence of said publishers have tethered AAA gaming to a grotesque parade of unsustainable standards: one of ever growing budgets, less realistic sales expectations and talented development studios left broken and scattered in its wake. This parade, by the way, is being quite-rightly laughed-at by smaller devs achieving artistic and (relative) commercial success with tight budgets, realistic expectations and helluva lot more heart.
Indeed, while the humbler sections of the medium struggle and succeed in their quest to create new, exciting and meaningful experiences with the limited tools at their disposal (To The Moon, Thomas was Alone, Sword & Sworcery, Depression Quest, Dys4ia and so many more), the primary force for innovation driving the AAA sphere seems instead to be the major publishers' short-sighted crusade to find new ways to separate consumers from their money, no matter the cost. The cost being, of course, obscene amounts of money**, which is where it all falls down I suppose.
This isn’t news to you, though; the AAA industry’s downward spiral seems to be obvious to everyone except the publishers themselves, and the briefest look at any respectable gaming site’s news feed should be enough to clue one in on the fact that the wheels on the proverbial apple cart of AAA gaming are rotting and collapsing under the strain of publisher hubris. Many have speculated that we're headed for a total industry implosion akin to the infamous Atari-crash of the 1980s, but I don't tend to agree with this assessment; mostly because all the aforementioned exciting stuff outside AAA's cacophonous shit-show render it highly unlikely that public interest in videogames as a whole will ever drop to "ET: The game" levels. I do fear that the AAA sphere is hurtling towards some manner of reckoning though: possibly a point where many big publishers quite rightly realize trying to eke out impossibly huge audiences with even huger budgets just isn't worth it, but quite wrongly decide to jump ship entirely rather than actually come up with a sensible business plan. Time will tell I suppose.
With that said, when it comes to the depressing business-ey side of gaming, I’ll leave the bullshit-calling and solution-suggesting to the far-more-qualified likes of people like Jim Sterling and Shamus Young. I’d rather talk about issues concerning the games themselves, and I imagine many of you do too. So let’s get back to the matter at hand: a predicament that can’t be solved simply by having AAA publishers and developers coming to their senses, as it is as much an issue with how we as consumers define a game’s worth as it is a problematic trend in the games themselves.
This "predicament" is one of limitations, specifically the self-imposed standard length and pricing that the AAA development sphere has unanimously adopted, and which we as consumers have learned to expect (and even demand, when game length is concerned). Now I'm sure many of you are quite comfortable with the AAA development sphere as it is, in terms of the games themselves anyway, and your perspective is every bit as valuable as mine. I just think that when anything becomes anywhere near as ubiquitous as the $50-$60 price point and the 8-12 hour (or more) standard playtime in AAA games, it's vital to discuss why these norms are in place and whether it is truly in the medium's best interest that they be that way. I'm not saying anything necessarily HAS to change, I'm just discussing the potential for creative expression to be limited by the relative lack of wiggle room with standard length and pricing that publishers push and consumers expect. So pitchforks down, yeah?
[To be continued in Part 2 – How long, oh Game? Or: How developers should learn to stop worrying and love Good Pacing]
*While exact criteria for AAA gaming are kinda nebulous, I broadly define it here as the section of the industry that makes games with the biggest budgets, biggest pricetags (40-100 USD) and biggest marketing campaigns designed to capture the attention of the widest possible audience.
**Of course, profitability certainly doesn’t need to be a concern for the people who make games purely for the love of the artform and/or the betterment of humankind. Just look at the hundreds of people who participate in game-jams such as Ludum Dare: submitting daring and unique games in all their unpolished glory for no more sinister motivation than the thrill of the challenge and the love of making Games. Humanity’s selfless dedication to the artform doesn't end at 48 hour whirlwind development cycles though, as many devs choose to invest major portions of their lives into developing and freely distributing games for the common good. Take Zoë Quinn & Patrick Lindsey's “Depression Quest" or Anna Anthropy's "Dys4ia", games that deftly use the meduim's strengths to express (and let players explore) the creators' deeply personal experiences of depression and hormone-replacement therapy, respectively. These and many other interactive experiences, which possess so much potential to spread awareness, understanding and empathy about the issues they deal with, are released to the public for free; an act that can only be described as a public service. Personally, the fact that games like Depression quest (which did more to help me understand and fight my depression than a lifetime of people telling me to just "make myself happy") are being made and given to humanity with such regularity gives me more hope than a thousand Dead Space sequels,
**The mind boggles at how much money EA dumped into the massive marketing campaign trying in vain to get Battlefield 3 to sell as much as its Call of Duty counterparts, despite the actual Profit margins for the whole shebang taking a dive for the sake of having BIG NUMBERS on both sides of the proverbial ledger. Also spare a thought for nigh-universally despised “services” such as EA's Origin, Microsoft's Games for Windows Live and Ubisoft’s U-play, and just how much money these companies must have invested in developing these services only to end up with nothing but server expenses and new reasons for their customers to hate their guts. Now think about how many Passion Projects could have been greenlit with that money and weep.