I was just thinking earlier today that I haven’t written about video games on this blog in months. Although I’ve been out of the loop for a minute — and for good reasons — I haven’t even mentioned games in my last few posts. It isn’t because I haven’t been playing anything. I’ve got sore thumbs from some pretty cool titles that I’ve had the pleasure of playing until 3am. But, here’s the thing: video games are in this really weird place right now.
Honestly, today the video game industry isn’t very exciting. Looking back, there was a reason why games cut into Hollywood movie sales. Hollywood blockbusters became so financially bloated that it only made sense to make sequels, prequels, remakes and formulaic crap. Stereo surround sound, IMAX theaters and 3D glasses turned movies into theme park rides. Going to the theater started to feel like a hustle. The studios would sell you the promise of a great movie with a barrage of exciting trailers. You would mark your calendars, show up on opening weekend, spend money on food, tickets and parking then two hours later you’d walk out the theater feeling like someone robbed you.
So, people got bored and they turned to video games. But, now game budgets have become so inflated that they’ve decided to copy and paste their spiritual cousins. The result: endless military shooters, an embarrassing cache of white male protagonists, terrible stories, scantily clad women, hyper violence, sequels, formulaic games that feel like the last formulaic game and now – with the soon to be released Devil May Cry and Tomb Raider – prequels. Last week CEO and co-founder of Ubisoft, Yves Guillemot blamed the console manufacturers (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo) for the problem:
“We have been penalized by the lack of new consoles on the market. I understand the manufacturers don’t want them too often because it’s expensive, but it’s important for the entire industry to have new consoles because it helps creativity.”
I think it’s much bigger than that. It looks to me like the entire infrastructure is fucked from top to bottom. The budgets are so big that titles have to sell between $2-5 million copies to be considered a success by a publisher. Of course, this is terribly difficult to do when Gamestop is making $2.6 billion a year from used games sales. But, since games are so overhyped and overpriced what do you expect customers to do? This little tit for tat sounds like the plan of a wicked drug dealer. He sells his drugs as pure as possible at an affordable price, gets his customers hooked then slowly dilutes the product and slightly raises its price. Thus, the customers need more, buy more and spend more. Of course, the problem is that the actual drug makers and distributors (i.e., publishers and developers) have been cut off by the people tasked with pushing the drug (i.e., brick and mortar stores). The term FUBAR comes to mind when I try to wrap my mind around this.
Now, throw in the Metacritic controversy that if a game can’t land an 85 on the popular aggregate site it isn’t a success. Add a bunch of development houses that can’t find inspiration from anything that isn’t Star Wars, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Aliens, Norse mythology, Greek mythology, Michael Bay, Die Hard, Terminator, or a bunch of Marvel and DC comics and what you have is an industry that is eating itself from the inside out and has begun to produce an incredibly dull product. Sound bad? It’s getting worse. Video game sales just reported its seventh consecutive month of decline. E3, the biggest industry event of the year was heavily criticized for featuring games that were too familiar and too violent (I was personally bored to death).
And, recent interviews of developers, executives and analysts paint a picture of an industry that can’t agree on anything. GameStop president Tony Bartel, thinks his companies used games business is actually good for the industry (word?). While blaming the creative void on console manufacturers, Guillemot mistakingly believes that customers want to go out and buy a new console (we don’t). The omnipresent research analyst Michael Pachter compared the success of the excellent Max Payne 3 with the highly successful and awfully trite Call of Dutyseries with this disturbing quote:
“Call of Duty and Battlefield are competing, and they’re both on a two-year cycle. They will not go to a three-year cycle to make a better game. It’s Alan Wake and Max Payne that are multiple-year projects. If it takes Rockstar eight years to make a game that’s about as good as a Call of Duty, then I say props to Activision because they figured out the formula. And shame on Rockstar.” [IGN]
Want more? According to one SVP of Global Marketing at EA Games “new [games are] not for the faint of heart. But it’s incredibly important for the health of our category and our industry and our organization.” This type of rhetoric is not indicative of a healthy industry. Stating that, “We don’t really want to make new games but we have to” from one publisher could easily be rephrased to “we want to make new games but we can’t,” by another.
Although I’ve played some pretty good games this year — and I’m looking forward to a few games in August — for most of this year I’ve been pretty disappointed with present titles, future titles and most of the men and women responsible for them. This is why the last game article I wrote was about (here) a title released in 2010. It’s also worth noting that the more interesting game related article written recently (Tom Bissel’s musing on the modern shooter, Kate Cox’s rebuttal of Colin Moriarty’s raggedy essay on how political corrected-ness is ruining creativity and Kris Graft’s rip on E3) have been highly critical of the industry.
While I’ve been excited over a lot of the low budget PSN / Xbox Arcade games (more on that later) most of what the industry has to offer has not been keeping my attention. Here’s hoping that things change real soon and for my money I don’t think a change has anything to do with a new console. The current infrastructure of the video game business needs be dramatically shifted if we want to get back to playing the good stuff.