Channel Zero #8: In Which Things Do Not Improve

by Rathe on Sunday, 26 June 2011

Not long ago I mentioned how TCFTD is basically a cave of technological neaderthals who whine about the sliding scale of increasingly-advanced technology versus quality-of-actual-game, sitting around waiting for either the next Elite Beat Agents to come out or for the iPhonosaurus to eat us in our homes, amid screams of 'uptight' and 'hipsters'. We made it pretty obvious that we are among those concerned that console gaming is getting worse, although it's something we've skirted around outright addressing. Like most elephants in TCFTD's room, he's a friendly enough guy, but it's time we had a talk.

The argument is always, frustratingly, summed up best by someone who isn't you, of course; and David Jaffe (God of War creator), makes a point that is forehead-slappingly obvious in retrospect. The Wii, which most of us saw before release as being the 'uniter' of videogames, was hopefully going to redress the balance between younger people who liked them and older people who saw them as kids' stuff, or impenetrable. In not very much time at all, that former group are now acting more like the 'older people', shouting about the 'casuals' who have ruined their entertainment (hell, I'm one of them). With the WiiU coming up, we are months away from boarding up the windows and erecting shelters stocked with copies of Mario 3 and Street Fighter Alpha; quizzing visitors at gunpoint as to what their favourite part of Final Fantasy IV was.

New Super Mario Bros. WiiU, WiiU, NSMB WiiU, Mii
Wait, never mind. It's got Mario. We're all good.

Of course, it is a very interesting phenomenon - that as technology gets better and better, the less it seems we want it to give us. The iPhone is a pretty common symbol of portable power nowadays, but due to the nature of what we use phones for - primarily social, communicative devices that we rarely consider as our primary outlet of entertainment - its gaming potential will never seriously cater for anything other than simple Angry Birds-esque distraction (at least, as far as sales charts indicate). That isn't a criticism; it's basically the same principles games like WarioWare work on - but I daresay that maybe just 10 years ago we'd have expected something with such punch for such a small machine to have a dozen buttons and give us an incredibly complex gaming experience on par with our home consoles.

Then again, it could be said that the limitations developers seem to be imposing on their devices with their gimmicks aren't being forced at the expense of creativity - because there isn't any creativity left. There's a reason it's always comforting to Nintendo fans to have a new Mario or Zelda announced every E3, just like it is for an Xbox fan to hear about a new Halo or Gears of War - because we know what to expect, and we know it will be good. Sure, there'll be a few new features, it'll look a bit better, and so on. Fundamentally, we will be getting more of the same. That is all we want. So we'll pay for it. So they make more. 

Skyward Sword, Wii Zelda, Combat
Don't get us wrong, this is going to be awesome. Just the same kind of awesome Twilight Princess was. And Wind Waker. And MM.

It seems past times were simpler. Each generation, the consoles doubled in bits, the games looked and sounded better, and it just seemed to be an ever-upward trend. It's hard to pinpoint exactly where that started wavering - the sequel argument notwithstanding; that's been with us since the arcade and NES days. So much of Wii output these days is basically GameCube-standard shovelware with noticeably less control and interaction through the remote. is that the direction the Kinect is going to go? "You are the controller", but to significantly less extent than you were with a real one, it would seem. Is the WiiU just going to be a Ninty iPad? It remains to be seen, but it is terrifying to think of gaming regressing as its technology progresses. How much longer are we going to strain less out of more?

Comments section is, as always, open...this is something I'd love to hear others opinions on.


Jaffe made a good point. The Wii was appealing to an audience that saw it as a neat toy and/or diversion. They weren't necessarily going to buy a lot of software for it, because they aren't necessarily the sort of people who buy entertainment software to begin with.

(Or would use the word "software".)

The problem that "hardcore" gamers face is that they're looking for more complexity and immersion in their entertainment, where the broader audience really isn't. They want games that tell stories, that have complex themes, and that do all the other borderline-tiresome things that come up with "games are art". The iPhone crowd just wants something that will divert them for a few minutes in line or on the bus.

It's not something that's just affected games. Music enthusiasts want something different than those who just want entertaining aural wallpaper. "Cineastes" want something different than those who are looking for some feather-light summer piffle to make them jump and/or laugh for two hours. Heavy readers (genre or otherwise) want something more than the people who just want something light to read at the beach.

The difference is that those industries have figured out how to serve both groups. Gaming hasn't. Why it hasn't is the real question. I suspect it has to do with locked-down nature of consoles, the economics of immersive 3D game design, and the stubborn refusal of the industry to give the same profile to game creators as is enjoyed by musicians, directors, authors, actors, and the like. But it's hard to say.

However that works, though, it needs to be solved, or else it's just going to be Angry Birds and FarmVilles all the way down.

by Craig B on 26 June 2011 at 20:11. #

Craig - thanks for your contribution. You've made some excellent points. Your film industry analogy has helped me see that there is now much greater chasm in gaming between those who are giving the companies the most money and those more discerning than ever before. It's horrible - and very easy - to boil game demographics down to 'us and them'.'Casuals' wasn't a phrase we heard much before 2005, as I remember.

Having said that, I do wonder if it is purely the industry at fault for not allowing creators the same profile as those enjoyed by musicians and directors. There is still a lot of social stigma attached to gaming as a medium, and ultimately someone has to be recognised by most in the field to become well known. I doubt most fans of 'Gears of War' know who Chris Bleszinski is, for example. That said, the industry does nothing to help them. Whether or not that's resisdual hesitation from the memory of Romero, who knows...

by Rathe on 26 June 2011 at 20:54. #

I agree that there's a stigma, but I do think it has a lot to do with the industry, yes. There's still somewhat of a stigma to comics, after all, but comics fans tend to have a pretty good sense of who's writing and drawing what, and there are definite "rockstar" creators in that medium.

(The example that most people point to when discussing this sort of thing is Hollywood's old studio system. As far as I know, though, nobody's really sat down and exactly mapped out the connections.)

The problem is that the publishers just don't seem to want "auteurs" to break out. They don't promote creators, and have a nasty tendency of taking well-known development houses, absorbing them, and renaming them after themselves. Nobody is going to care about an Activision Southwest or an EA Northeast or whatever, but they do care about individual development houses. A Blizzard or a Valve or an Infinity Ward or a Bungie can be a valuable brand in-and-of itself, and would lend itself naturally to the development of individual creators as "brands" of their own, like actors and directors and writers are. Yet those valuable brands are snuffed out over and over again, for no reason I can possibly gather.

The "casuals" label is relatively new, but I don't necessarily think the division is. PC gaming elitists definitely used to dismiss console players as children, and console games as toys, long before the Wii (or even the Playstation.) They sort of had a point, as PC games in the 1980s and 1990s really were far more involved and cerebral affairs than their console counterparts, but I think the general sentiment is the same.

Even with consoles, it hasn't been quite that straightforward. Even going back to the SNES and Genesis days, there were people griping and moaning that games were "too easy" compared to the generations previous. I remember reviews in VG&CE that took games to task for that sort of thing, and that was a long-ass time ago. There was griping about the people that the Playstation brought in, too, especially with how Sony bulled their way in and took over the industry. Maybe the label "casual" didn't exist, but the distrust of that group certainly did.

In any case, there's always going to be "us" and "them". Companies only have so much resources, and gamers are uncomfortably aware that the genres and brands they enjoy may disappear as a publisher (or developer!) goes after the bigger dollar somewhere else. I'm a gigantic Phantasy Star fan, for example, but I'm quite aware that Sega is very unlikely to make another PS RPG ever again, because there's more money in chasing after the Monster Hunter market using the Phantasy Star setting. PC FPS fans aren't exactly having a great time of it, either.

So the question is, again, whether or not companies can be found that are willing to support all the different markets, instead of just going after the biggest dollar. Maybe, maybe not. But considering everybody seems to be trying to follow the Activision model of a few monster "AAA" titles, I'm not terribly optimistic.

by Craig B on 27 June 2011 at 01:48. #

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