I had a craving for game. Er, well, a genre of game. You know the feeling. One day you're browsing through your collection and you think, you know what would be great? A new game of X genre. In my case, the genre was stealth. I had the crave. I had to buy a stealth game.
A few days later I was shopping at Fred Meyer (basically a Wal-Mart, for those who don't live in the Northwest) and saw the perfect fit. Splinter Cell Chaos Theory, often considered the gem of the series, was on sale for the PC at $4.99. I bought it without the slightest hestiation, giddy that I had found the prefect game to satisfy my craving. I was even happier to find that the PC port is quite good. The graphics looked decent, the controls felt natural, and there were no obvious glitches or bugs.
BAM, baby, yea!
So I played. And for a time, it was good. I only played after the sun went down with the door closed and the lights off for the maximum feeling of immersion. I played the role of a brutal ninja, prefering to slowly and methodically dispatch enemies rather than attempting to ignore them. I felt like a total badass. In one instance I took out for opponents in a courtyard by distracting them with a sticky cam. When they went to investigate what it was, I took one of them hostage, shot the others, then squeezed info from the hostage before knifing him in the back. It was everything a stealth combat game should be.
Until I hit South Korea. One of the last levels of the game is set in Seoul. All went well until half-way through the level when, suddenly, I spotted this strange thing in the air. Curious, I approached it, shotgun raised. Suddenly it turned its light towards me. A moment later it opened fired. I responded, but to no effect. You can guess at the rest.
As I discovered, this little floating box of death was an experimental North Korean drone. It is invincible to gunfire, despite its small size and the fragile helicopter blades it uses to stay aloft. It shines its light in unpredictable patterns and can't be distracted by most normal methods. It has perfect aim and unlimited ammo. And I fucking hate the thing.
Splinter Cell should be about this. Not a fucking invincible UAV.
It represents the classic moment where a great video game suddenly, for some seemingly minor reason, loses the player. The UAV did not annoy me simply because I was having a hard time getting past it. It annoyed be because it seemed to negate everything the game was leading up to. Splinter Cell is generally not a game about randomness, nor a game about fighting machines. It is a game about sneaking around human enemies, enemies who are both intelligent and easily fooled. The machine was neither of those things. It felt like a betrayal of everything the game had meant to me and of a gaming experience which so far had been solid and obvious.
I got over it, but only buy throwing the game disc in my closet and slamming the door. So please, developers, I beg you. Don't let a gamer's love for your game die needlessly. Make sure that your game is consistant and that it sticks to what makes its gameplay good. Don't add enemies that don't fit in. Okay, developers? Thank you very much.[b]
At this time last year the economy seemed to have jumped off a cliff. Everything was in free-fall. Jobs were vanishing, homes weren't selling, and cars weren't moving. It was chaos, and it all lead up to the most disappointing holiday sales seasons in recent memory. Unless you were in the games industry. While everyone else was running for cover, the games industry continued to see strong growth. The theory behind the upswing was based off the same reasoning used to explain the traditional up-swing in box office and rental profits during economic downturns. People need entertainment in hard times and tend to look for that entertainment close to home. Video games, then, seem a perfect fit.
Well, it seems the games industry forgot to knock on wood. The last few months have seen year-over-year sales plummet massively. June sales with off 29%. To give a perspective for how massive that is, auto sales for briefly-bankrupt auto maker General Motors were down 33% from the previous June. That's right - the games industry just barely outperformed General Motors.
But it is one thing to simply state the problem. It is another thing entirely to understand it. To that lofty end, let's look at some popular theories as to why the industry's sales are melting away faster than a snowman in hell.
Theory #1) A lack of big-name titles has killed sales This one is being cited by just about everyone reporting the slump in video game sales. This is probably because NPD representatives themselves have stated that they believe some of the pain is coming from a lack of blockbuster titles. Last year saw the release of GTA IV and the latest Smash Bros. titles, both of which sold millions of copies in just a few months. This theory argues that the slump of sales is occurring because there have not been any similar super-high profile releases.
At the surface this explanation makes some sense, but I believe it is basically an excuse rather than a reason. If the industry is failing to create titles which command serious attention, then that is an obvious fault of the industry. Besides - the numbers don't pan out. GTA and Smash Bros. are big franchises, but we're not talking about a paltry drop. No franchise drives 29% of the industry. The fact that hardware sales are dropping more than game sales also indicates that the problem is more serious then a lack of a few franchises.
Theory #2) The prolonged console cycle is keeping consumers from spending It is no secret that the consoles we have now are likely the consoles we're going to have for at least the next few years. There could be a Wii HD out next year, and Microsoft may re-launch the 360 once Natal is done, but otherwise the future looks to be more of the same. The fact that hardware sales seems to be the biggest loser adds credibility to the idea that a lack of compelling hardware is resulting in a reduction of spending. It also makes "common sense" - if a product is out for a long period of time without a significant refresh or a drop in price, consumer interest will be lost. It is this common occurrence which drives all those wacky flavors of Mountain Dew you see on the shelves. Pepsi does not want consumers to forget about their products.
I think this theory is the most credible, and it is also the most disturbing theory for the industry because it means two things. One, it means that industry growth is dependent on the release of expensive hardware which costs millions of dollars to research and produce. Second, it means that the industry will have a hard time quickly rectifying the issue because no new console is to be released for the next few years. Price cuts can, of course, introduced. But price cuts reduce profitability. More than a few people are starting to wonder if Microsoft and Sony's loss-leader business strategy is sustainable in the long term, and being forced to reduce prices would do nothing to ward off that skepticism.
3) The market is over-saturated The last theory I'm going to cover here stems from a belief that the vast majority of games released are utter crap. It is a fairly common belief. Gamers, after all, are notorious whiners set off by the slightest problem.
But perhaps they're onto something. A quick browse of Metacritic seems to reaffirm the issue. Nintendo serves as the vanguard. With Nintendo's first-party titles hogging the attention, the third-party developers are left to pick over the scraps. The third-party developers know this, and so the majority of third-party games are scrap-worthy, The real risk which this possible over-saturation raises is the chance that new, casual gamers, brought in by the low prices of certain consoles and PC games during the period of growth, become confused and unhappy because chances are good that if they buy a game without consulting reviews before hand they're going to end up with something only slightly more pleasant than having a seagull shit on their head.
But the issue is not just due to a glut of bad games. The longevity of older titles is also becoming an issue. Good Old Games has banked on this trend by making an entire service devoted to selling older games, and they seem to be doing well. In addition, the lack of any new consoles means that games a few years old don't look significantly out of date. In fact, Crysis continues to be the game to beat (graphically) despite being released almost two years ago. Games like Civilizations 4 and Team Fortress 2 remain steady sellers despite being older titles. This means that new games are no longer competing only against other new games. They are also competing against games released two or three years before, something which has rarely happened in the games industry.
In Closing... These are not the only theories about why game sales are slumping. There are many others, including piracy, digital distribution, and sales of used games. I believe those theories are less compelling and so did not discuss them, but that doesn't mean there aren't a few decent points behind them.
Of course, all that matters now is the holiday season. Price cuts are sure to come, including cuts to the PS3 and the Xbox 360, and maybe even the Wii. These price cuts should stimulate sales. That said, the main-street economy has yet to recover, and game consoles and new games remain expensive. And while growth annual sales growth for the industry is possible, it would be foolhardy to think that a few percent of growth will be good for the games industry. The games industry's constant double-digit growth resulted in game publishers and developers who planned for such an environment. If the disappointing sales trend continues through the holidays, the results will be very, very messy.
If there is one thing which still baffles game designers, it is how to create a vibrant community. The inherit diversity of the players of any given game makes the creation of a long-lasting, useful community difficult. The hardcore want challenging matches. The casual want to be able to play without being stomped. The purists want nothing to change, but the critics think the game needs patched and re-balanced. The competitive players want more 1-on-1 maps, while those who play only with friends want another co-op campaign. And on, and on, and on.
Finding balance among the different types of players which make up the gaming community is obviously difficult, but what is most interesting about the issue is that it isn't about community at all. The problem is one between the game and each individual player. The disbandment of the community caused by a game that fails to keep players hooked (games of like World in Conflict and Warhammer Online are good, recent examples of communities which have withered to a fraction of their former selves) is simply an obvious side-effect of players choosing to spend their time and money elsewhere. The players are not staying for the community, nor are they leaving because of it.
This point is by itself disappointing. While games continue to make great advancements in graphics, sound, controls, and narrative, communities have been largely stagnant. In fact, they in some ways seem to have back-pedaled. Even a good chat room lobby isn't a feature included in many modern games. Dawn of War II is an excellent example, as it is in some ways even less supportive of the community then the original. The game was released with a terrible browser, poor voice support, no lobby chat, and no in-game way to share replays.
But should we be surprised? Community in games is a specific entity, and for it to grow and evolve it needs specific attention. Yet community in games has received very little attention from game developers in the last decade. The last big revolution for game communities was the discovery of team-based gameplay. MMOs promised a revolution, but instead developed into their own genre thanks largely to a lack of imagination in game mechanics. Currently we are seeing the implementation of more social gaming features, a process which has revolutionary promise of its own. Yet even social gaming has its flaws, the largest of which is that it provides no inherit reason for new players to meet. It is simply a means of reinforcing and streamlining existing connections.
The problem is that the games themselves fail to provide any reason for strangers to meet and coordinate. It was once thought that team-based gameplay would provide that catalyst, but it has now been over a decade since that concept became popular. It is fair to say that the team-based gameplay mechanic often fails to create a community, and the reason it fails is that even team-based games almost universally put a heavy weight on the skill of individual players. A good Halo 3 player, for example, will decimate an entire team of less skilled opponents no matter how well they coordinate their efforts. The skill of placing a trigger over an opponent's head still reigns supreme. This is also true in other genres. A team game of Dawn of War II is usually dominated by the players which are individually the most skilled. This phenomena has in fact become so entrenched that the 1vs1 ladders are usually considered the dominate measure of a player's worth in a real-time strategy game. I've yet to see a Starcraft tournament which focused on three-on-three play, for example.
There is an obvious reason for the failure of team-based gameplay to create communities. While it is possible to make team skill more important than individual skill, doing so often reduces the feeling of agency enjoyed by each player. That is rarely much fun. No one likes to lose a game because of reasons entirely beyond their control. Valve did a shockingly good job of balancing between team skill and individual skill in the creation of Team Fortress 2, and as a result it is one of the most popular multi-player games on the PC, but even it can become frustrating. It isn't fun to be instantly killed by a spy because no one on your team was spy-checking.
Of course, the problem being illustrated, one begins to wonder what could be the solution. I believe that the key is in more cooperative play. While Valve's Team Fortress 2 did an excellent job of creating community through team-based gameplay, the real masterstroke is Left 4 Dead. Left 4 Dead reduces the reliance on points as a means of judging one's worth, thus encouraging cooperation towards the ultimate goal of surviving the zombie hoard. It also reduces the number of players involved, making cooperation easier. Resources, like ammo and health, must be carefully coordinated across the team. Communication is a requirement for victory. And communication allows the chance for players to find they enjoying playing the game together.
An even better role-model, however, comes in the form of board games. Games like Settlers of Catan are excellent for bring together strangers ina way which is enjoyable and encourages ample communication. Playing Settlers of Catan requires that the players speak to each other about their position in the game, their strategy and goals, and their actions. In doing this it creates the opportunity for friendship to form. I have attended random board-gaming meets many times, and time and time again I have found that such games, which blend cooperation with opposition, make the experience of playing a game with strangers nearly as enjoyable as playing against friends. Playing board games which rely only on the players working against one another, however, usually result in frustration and ill-will.
Yet virtually no video games replicate this gameplay. They rely almost exclusively on adversarial play, where players or teams of players go head-to-head in an attempt to earn the most points. While a one-on-one or deathmatch provides a good judge of individual skill, it offers no opportunity for the creation of a community. The players, after all, are not playing the game together, but rather playing it against each other. They have no time to talk and no reason to share tips or strategies. It is every man for himself. This lack of community not only damages the overall experience of each player, but it also damages the commercial value of the game for the developer.
I hope that developers will focus more heavily on cooperative player in the future. I think that there is already some indication that the idea is catching on, at least in the FPS genre. But strategy games are shockingly devoid of cooperative play, and even some RPGs and MMOs are lacking. The addition of a strong cooperative element in games will help promote social interaction and in doing so make the game community stronger as a whole. So what do you say? Should we play a game together?