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AAAnnhilation: Is Gaming As We Know It Heading For Extinction?

"Remember the good old days, great games, 60 dollars, no fuss, we paid and then just played? Now they drown good games in their endless greed, if they haven't CoDified anything interesting out of existence before then."

"Remember the good old days, great games, 60 dollars, no fuss, they paid and we could just let them play? Now, if they're not stealing our games, they're giving all their money to a middleman for a 5 dollar discount."

We live in a particularly charged era of gaming enthusiasm. We've cast away the rattle and dummy with revolutionary fervour, preparing to take up arms to defend our rights as customers. No more shall we live in a state of contentment with the mediocre, with the overpriced, no longer shall our news websites be little more than paid advertisements for a corporate machine. In comment threads, we invoke EA much as we once invoked the Devil, the Hun; the blackest fiend our psyche can conjure up, a face to the worst excesses of what we fear. EA crucified Bullfrog, EA opened Pandora's Box, the demons microtransactions, DLC, redundancies and lack of innovation bursting from the seal and hanging heavy in the air evermore.

It should not be necessary for me to state that I doubt this style of characterization, this communal propaganda, these endless efforts in masturbatory demonization are very worthwhile.

That they give some great pleasure is obvious. That attacking something that seeming symbolizes in every way how something once considered "ours" can be blanched, processed, and commodified beyond all recognition gives some a sensation of great purpose is an essential theme of human society. That ultimately this leads to anything constructive is where I flippantly consider whether fulfilling the psychological desire of human beings to "other" their fellows can be considered constructive.

If you think that EA is cackling at every incremental effort to extract money from you, gleefully programming digital winged monkeys to assail the oh-so-noble kingdom of your wallet, you are dreadfully mistaken. Similarly I would be utterly foolish to pretend that they in any way are somehow martyrs in what has increasingly become the miserable divorce of two once-loving partners. I believe, and I fully qualify the following as almost entirely the speculative efforts of one overly imaginative young man [some dream of dragons and beautiful young harlots, I ponder of the psychology of suited businessmen and fellow neckbeards], that EA is as much participating in the vilification of the consumers it is increasingly sees as a necessary evil as most gamers are in demonizing them. I believe this attitude would be as common amongst publishers as it is amongst the hallowed virtual halls of the gaming community. It is a fundamentally human trope, an epic tragedy insofar in how it rusts the most fundamental wheels of society and a great personal irritation insofar in how it is so banal and common.

Where you may see the great evil of the past month or so of gaming as the disappointment of Aliens: Colonial Marines, a game that seems increasingly to have never been designed with the intent of being pleasurable, Gearbox may well see it as their flagellation following their savaging in the gaming press for releasing a game that never needed to be good in the first place. Gearbox may well have believed that the release of A:CM would be pleasing to gamers in and of itself, as it may have seemed the release of Duke Nukem: Forever would be good in and of itself. Not hard to buy an IP that would otherwise forever stay in cold storage to shunt a cookie-cutter game out the door; near DN:F's release date, it seemed that gamers regarded the thing as an artifact in and of itself. A piece of gaming history for 60 dollars; a bargain, no?

Where EA sees the greatest economic injustice of the modern industry as the predominance of preowned game sales, you may see it as the increasing prevalence of microtransactions.

Publishers loathe losing sales to piracy, gamers despise gambling away 60 dollars.

In the days of yore, the days of ours, our literal and not eternal psychological childhoods, it was all so simple, was it not? We had such a simple contract with our good friend Shigeru, with Nintendo's dream factory, a pledge with Sony, a pact with Sega.

We gave them our hard-earned cash and they gave us a great game.

Who broke this contract? Obviously we can point to games that came out during that era, even that were created by the most lauded of developers, even those that were part of franchises iconic both in gaming culture and in the purity and perfection of their design, that failed to truly achieve the latter half of this contract. Yet now these are often regarded as failed experiments, noble in aim if not in accomplishment.

Developers and publishers could argue that it has increasingly become a part of gaming culture to not only implicitly endorse but lionize those who refuse to pay for the experiences they give. The mere name "pirate" comes with connotations of outlaws, brigands, a devil-may-care bravado, charm and individualism; all this without even considering the fact that many gamers believe publishers should just "accept" piracy, or that piracy is not even immoral. But should gamers be tarred for the actions of a few, even if they implicitly support them?

At some point, the relationship broke down, and we ended up in the current quagmire. The environment lately feels reminiscent of Vietnam, of the collapse of a marriage full of bitter misery and frustrated hope, of the life of a starving artist who has not even talent to show for his suffering.

Increasingly we bray and bleat, furiously moralizing against publishers and developers, leaving no rhetorical device unsaid to express our violent hatred of those who have worked to bring us so much joy. Increasingly we have chosen to gorge ourself on the hand, loudly pronouncing the food inedible. The tone of this conversation, above all else, causes nothing within me but despondency. We wax lyrical about our precious 60 dollars, ignoring everything that developers do to bring us their games. Dishonored was a true vision last year, original, engrossing, perfectly designed; whipped and forced naked through the street for the crime of lacking "value for money". Increasingly I hear that developers have corrupted games by making them all about money; I wonder that this corruption does not indeed lie also within our heads.

There is, however, a truth to say that publishers have failed to adapt to the current needs of the market place. It is, sadly, an eternal and recursive truth; the very nature of the publishers prevents their innovation, their evolution. Those who win market share tend to be very capable at developing a business model perfect to exploiting the technique that brought them their initial bounty. Subsequently, they consolidate; they grow horizontally, hiring new employees in duplicate positions, aiming to produce more products similar to those that have already brought them success. Whether as a result of this increase in human density or due to the increase in financial risk, corporations democratize, in a way. They become more bureaucratic, they add a superfluity of checks and balances. They avoid with all costs new methods of earning capital because of the potential risk to the old; a misstep could cost much more than the initial outlay. Torpidity sets in and employees and management learn to innovate via iteration. They take their one theme and tease it out, much like peeling apart a scarf until it is one immensely long strand. And eventually, this lack of innovation causes them to take that strand and hang themselves with it.

Often it seems that gamers think there are people ultimately responsible for the decisions corporations make; this is foolish. The corporation does not know individuality; in fact, it fears and loathes it. Where it can bottle it to produce the initial flame it is glad to, but henceforth it stifles it by carefully interweaving its own structure so no one member can ever truly make any decision. Employees negate decisions made by their compatriots to avoid being considered responsible for a failure. The CEO and Board are responsible to shareholders, who know nothing but the bottom line. The shareholders themselves have no power to affect any real change at all; they can only direct the top to change the structure of the middle and the bottom. It is a model that serves its time well, but it rots quickly.

The question, however, is: Are corporations reliant on the current model rotting? A question for minds more informed to the current economics of the industry than mine, but I honestly doubt it. In fact, I feel that corporations are, in their process of iterative innovation, creating a business model that sees hardcore gamers as completely unnecessary. Though we may have purchasing power, it is comparatively insignificant to that a broader market can marshal. This is not to say that they do not WANT our business; rather, they have become utterly unwilling to expend anything in their efforts to gain it. Those they lose through embedding microtransactions, those they shed with online passes, those who throw up their hands in disgust at homogenization; they pale to the money they gain from new consumers increasingly willing to make new forms of outlay.

Narrative tends to have a fundamental structure, that of the Hero's Journey. A Call to Action. A Challenge. A Clash With the Villain [or some other avatar of conflict, be it internal or environmental]. Yet the film industry has layered on its own elements; comic sidekicks, a love interest, et cetera, ad nauseam, all wrapped up in a generic coating of the fantasy du jour, be it superheroes, adventure, sci-fi. Gaming has its own fundamental structure; development, movement towards a goal, increasing layers of complexity onto a single task. But increasingly, the industry has created a Frankenstein's Monster of a template to which all games conform; a mixture of shooter, RPG, and non-linear elements are all stitched on, then the necessary skin stretched over the skeleton of the thing.

Can we change this? If this comes to pass, will gaming still be worth it? To the first, I say no. AAA gaming by its nature now rejects the principles of auteur game development that many of us profess to desire; unique, pure creative works, untainted by considerations of the market. These experiments not only fail to maximise profit, but do not generate it on a substantial scale in the first place. But this is not the same as saying that auteur game development will disappear all together, but rather that it will, as indeed it already has, move to the PC, where the barrier to content production is significantly lower and both the audience and market more receptive.

To move temporarily to the personal, increasingly I have been frustrated with the direction of AAA gaming. Once I would have appreciated the sprawling nature of open-world adventure games like Far Cry 3 or Skyrim that have come to overwhelm the market, but now they tire and alienate me. Playing them feels like drowning my mind in a puddle. I look increasingly towards calculated and crafted experiences, not those that have been stitched and woven together from hundreds of minds.

As such, indie gaming is to me a godsend. Whilst there are still myriad worthwhile AAA gaming experiences, these will always exist as outliers. Even the most creatively sterile sectors produce something of worth on occasion, if they are broad enough. The industry increasingly will see hardcore gamers as subsidiary consumers, if they do not do so already. We require massive investments to please, from preview structures to specific types of game design to avoiding business practices either financially profitable or psychologically necessary, and to them we seem to have repaid them through causing economic failure, stealing from them and demonizing them.

The past generations may well have been a golden age for the amount of money invested in making the types of games believed to appeal to gamers. They have not, however, been a golden age for creativity, or a golden age for quality. These may well be yet to come. Many people seem to begrudge the publishers and developers, as they may well begrudge us; I do not. They have provided us with a service which unites us all with great passion. It is how that passion has come to be expressed that has come to be the depressingly obvious irony.
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About Calibanone of us since 12:14 AM on 03.26.2012