We live in a world where more people have played Medal of Honor: Warfighter than have played The Cat Lady. Hmm… when you put it down on a page it sadly seems all too obvious…
Mr. Yoshida’s comments on the single-minded desire for most gamers to prefer the golden showers of big-budget titles is something I find myself reflecting on often. Since truly discovering gaming as passion, I’ve challenged myself to try and play a little of everything, in the hopes that the appreciation I have for games that I already love will be deepened further, or that I’ll discover something wonderful I didn’t expect. So when I go over to a friend’s house and see a pile of Maddens, Call of Duties, and Assassin’s Creeds sitting sloppily next to his console, I can’t help but feel a tinge of sadness that there is so much they are missing out on. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy a good ol’ AAA game myself – I’m no prude – but how could they deny themselves the quiet, sad beauty of LIMBO? How could they not get sucked-in to the maddening challenge of Rogue Legacy? How could they resist the fecal-inducing terror of Amnesia: The Dark Descent?
But really, these questions are almost completely rhetorical. All I really have to do is go back to the early 2000s and examine my own behaviors as a gamer during that time. I was in college, part 1, and during that time, the only way you were getting in my PS2 was if you were Final Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto, or a DVD. It was the Dark Age for me as a gamer, ironic considering many consider the PS2 to have one of the greatest gaming libraries in the history of consoles. But I never played any of it, at least not until the PS2 was ultimately on its deathbed. So why was it that, for almost a decade, I only wanted the biggest games and paid no attention to any of the other games of the time? I boil it down the four c’s: comfort, convenience, casualness, and conditioning.
Human beings ultimately desire comfort. Yes, there are those who push themselves out of planes, but ideally when they hit the ground they’re going to go home and sit on their couch while they tell their Xbox to turn on. You could probably say that for most animals in general – comfort is necessary to provide cushioning between the rigors of survival. To live healthy, comfort must be a feature.
After a day of busting my ass (see: zoning out) in lectures, coming back to my dorm and devoting my all of my attention to Tommy Vercetti’s rampage or Tidus’ taint-shaking laugh was a comforting escape from the day’s rigors. And like me, I imagine most people after a busy day at work or school just would like to go home and rest on the couch as they allow their mind to turn off and play some big-budget action game they don’t have to think about much. Why go out of your way combing through a bunch of indie games you’ve never heard of when you’ve got the go-to dependables like Final Fantasy or Grand Theft Auto? These titles provide the comfort of previous familiarity, which also leads us right into the next c.
Familiarity not only feeds into comfort, it feeds into convenience as well. Playing a diversity of games is not always an easy task. There’s the time-constraint for one thing. Unless you’re either bankrolled already or a YouTube Let’s Player, finding the time to play everything possible is going to be done at the expense of time for something else, and that’s not even mentioning that you also have to take the time to look through all of the possible indie games that are out there which is – to say the least – staggering at this point, especially with the likes of Greenlight and Kickstarter making game publishing more accessible. That’s why the AAA gaming landscape is far more convenient for someone looking to access something quick and specific. There are many AAA games, but usually shoppers go for the biggest names of the biggest names. “I need to jump on something.” Bam, Mario. “I need an adventure.” Bam, Uncharted. “I need to shoot somebody.” Bam, Halo. “I need to explore my misogynistic tendencies.” Bam, Duke Nukem Forever. Ultimately, it was the same for me in the 2000s. I wanted an RPG; Final Fantasy. I wanted to rampage; Grand Theft Auto.
These convenient, go-to titles are sometimes all a gaming enthusiast needs, providing that quick-fix of entertainment. They are established games that even those completely unfamiliar with gaming will probably be at least familiar with the property on a name basis. So not only is it convenient for gamers looking for something quick, it’s also convenient for non-gamers looking for gifts for their gaming friends or relatives. It is true that the great game franchising slows down this convenience a bit – “Which Call of Duty game should I buy for Timmy? Let’s see… Modern Warfare, Modern Warfare 2, Modern Warfare 3, Call of Duty 3, Black Ops, World at War, Black Ops 2, Ghosts, nosebleed.” – but Timmy could get any one of those games and likely be at least marginally satisfied with the experience. I mean, it’s all the kid plays! Which leads to the next c.
The word “casual” has come to take on all kinds of negative connotations during the seventh generation of consoles. When I use the word, I use it in its most rudimentary sense – that of an action performed irregularly. When I was selling video games, I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they exclusively buy only two games a year: one being a big name sports game, the other being a big name shooter. That isn’t to say that these gamers aren’t deeply delving into the games they’ve purchased and are trying their best to master them. But one cannot deny that these infrequent explorations into what gaming offers as a whole demonstrate tendencies of a causal relationship with the medium. You certainly wouldn’t be given credence to calling yourself a hardcore movie buff if you exclusively watched Chris Farley films. I would call my experience with gaming in the 2000s a very casual affair, as my PS2 likely saw more action from film than from gaming.
The discussion of casualness is a touchy subject since the word’s meaning has become synonymous with hack budget games or family-friendly cash-ins festering in the seventh gen library. But casualness truly is a part of what makes AAA gaming so appealing. The big name games that fulfill those specific entertainment desires are always going to be swept up by the masses, as they’ll provide that entertainment to those who play two games a year as well as those who look for a variety of games. But if there is any reason for people exclusively playing AAA games, the last c should be the most telling.
Ever since competing businesses have been involved in gaming, gaming has been capital-creating arms race. Of course it’s capable of cripplingly beautiful creativity, but those who have funded our favorite pastime are often guilty of utilizing escalation as a means to differentiate their products from others, just like in about any other business. Bigger is better, so the biggest is the best! This philosophy has been crammed down our throats since we were young, impressionable gamers, and today that philosophy is being crammed down the throats of the new generation. One need only look to the cultural anxiety sparked by the emergence of the eighth generation of consoles, or read about Bobby Kotick saying Destiny is a 500 million dollar project. The gaming industry shows no signs of slowing down in this philosophy, keeping shoppers convinced that to get to the next gaming plateau there is no choice but to go bigger! Flashier! Graphicsy-er!
So, yah! What do you think the gaming public is going to do when you keep telling them that the only way to get the best is to buy the biggest games? Well, they’re probably going to keep buying the biggest games and ignore everything else! The industry has purposefully conditioned gamers to want the biggest, perhaps under the assumption that gamers are also conditioned to shell out as much as they can to access that big experience. Having grown up through the Bit Wars, my previous thoughts on gaming were very much in-tune with this philosophy. Final Fantasy X and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City seemed to me like the biggest experiences possible for their respective genres, so why try anything else until the next iteration of them comes along? They looked the best and played the best because they were, well, big games, and games were about getting bigger (see: better) experiences! Many others will follow this philosophy as well as it is crammed into their brains, saving up their dollars or waiting for Christmas to get their next round of AAA gaming euphoria.
It truly is delightful to see games like Outlast and Transistor being focal points in Sony’s branding establishment for the PS4. It shows a marked shift in previous business philosophies: that they feel confident that smaller-budgeted, more intimate experiences truly can stand toe-to-toe with their AAA counterparts. Hopefully, we can anticipate a future in which gaming becomes an even more adventurous landscape, with gamers becoming conditioned to feel that indie games are comforting, convenient, and also open to casual enjoyment.