Disappointing may not cover it…
I remember the end of what some now call “Gen-6”.
I remember it with some fondness; Nintendo delivered The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess – evidence that it really could do a very grown up kind of Zelda game. And the PlayStation 2 was awash with games; like Okami and Shadow of the Colossus, which both took creative risks in art direction. At the end of the last generation there was a feeling of excitement, that we had been building to the crescendo – games like God Hand, whilst not superb successes, have gone down in history as classics. You had examples like Tomb Raider: Anniversary showing how much we had moved on; really, you could compare the eleven year gap between Tomb Raider and the remake Tomb Raider: Anniversary, and see the enormous changes that had taken place in how we played and how much better things had become. Then came unknown and under-promoted games like Haunting Ground, which still looks stunning even now – really, it’s an incredible achievement that Capcom should have been proud of taking, because it’s another cult classic. And then you had Final Fantasy XII – some people didn’t like it, but I swear, I think aside a wishy-washy plot at times, technically it was a stand-out that the series hasn’t bettered.
The end of the last generation was exciting. I barely knew what to play at times. Kingdom Hearts 2. Black. SoulCalibur 3. We Love Katamari, The Warriors and more besides. Not everything worked of course; but there was just a sense of wonder and joy. As gamers, it felt like we had arrived at the end; a celebration of diverse content and creative risks culminating not perhaps in always commercial success, but a greater sense of consumer goodwill that was very ready to carry into the next generation.
I wish I could say the same right now as we head into the eighth generation. But really… I’m not sure I can.
It’s hard to put your finger on it; so instead you need to look at how the industry has been behaving of late. The first port of call is Gearbox Software, for the abysmal disaster that was Aliens: Colonial Marines. Now, admittedly, bad games happen and we all know that the best intentions tend to lead to the worst results. It was a hateful game; truly the kind without artistic or creative merit, a game that seemed at odds with its own license as well as at odds with its own physicality and game engine. However, the most important part was that for years, we had been told about how much respect there was for the license and the franchise and their terribly lofty ideals, culminating in a demo, trailers and screenshots that frankly looked like someone had really got the whole point of the franchise. There was a real level of excitement; only to find out that, shock of horrors, that the game wasn’t anything resembling those trailers, demos and screenshots. It was darker, uglier, boxier and far less intelligent than we’d ever have been led to believe, with a plot that bordered dangerously on the edge of fanfiction.
And that happens. Bad licensed games are not unheard of; indeed, they’re more of a norm in the market. However, tied to the promotional material, people took some offence – offence which, sadly, the likes of Randy Pitchford were not able to take on board, blaming us for over-expecting, or defending their right to use “Promotional Material” to sell a product, even when it clearly doesn’t resemble the product you are selling (which, just to remind them, is illegal in both the USA and the UK under the term of False Advertising – why do you think the ads in the UK were pulled by the ASA?). Gearbox didn’t want to take responsibility for its failings, as many had done in the past. They weren’t wrong. We were. Somehow, the consumer – the fans – were the problem, we were an enemy. We had become the problem.
When you reach the point where your customers are a problem, then there’s obviously very little room to go back; it’s one which Gearbox will have to contend with in the coming years, a stigma that will remain attached to it. But of course, Gearbox is not alone in this. EA Games are another company that has blamed consumers for their problems; be it low sales of Dead Space 3 because we couldn’t tell them what we wanted (which is rubbish, we said after Dead Space 2 to go back to more like the first game!), or the increasing struggles with Origin and the recent failings of SimCity. Square-Enix also blamed its consumers for lower than expected sales of Tomb Raider 2013; even though the first month had seen 5.25 million sales of the game.
This cannot survive for long; not least the massive consumer backlash that came to instigate sweeping change with the XBox One. Consumers are clearly becoming fed up with being seen as “The Enemy”, and jumping through the myriad of hoops and holes that they set out for us to leap through like trained seals just to justify to them we’re not pirates (who, incidentally, don’t even have to jump through those hoops in the modern era!). Companies who continue to put the burden of proof onto the consumer, rather than accept their own participation in the creation of the title, will find themselves in a very dangerous position; some would even say they will become stigmatised, to the point of being thrown onto the fringes of the market, where they will never really make any money. It’s a desperately long and lonely road back up.
Of course, this isn’t the only problem.
Another issue is that the math just doesn’t add up in many cases; there’s a real sense that someone, somewhere, is fudging the numbers to justify alarming increases in both creative and advertising budgets. Now, some reckon that Sony will have spent $125-$150 million all told on The Last of Us, covering both the creation and the advertising budgets. This is interesting, as Tomb Raider may have spent twice that on its own creation; Tomb Raider is reported as having cost $200-$250 million, and that’s an ENORMOUS amount of money. Admittedly, it was released on multiple platforms. But if you do some basic mathematics, at $200 million and making a minimum of $15 on each game sold, they’d have needed to sell 13,333,333 copies in the first month to break even. Yes, they’d need to sell over thirteen MILLION copies in the first month, and truth be told, that’s just a fantasy. I don’t think any game has pulled that off. Less than 50 games have ever sold more than 10 million copies. Even if Square-Enix only expected 7 million sales in the first month, that would still have been a fantasy.
The reality was they got 5.25 million sales in the first month. An incredible amount (especially considering the game was crushingly short-lived). But not enough. There’s something rather disturbing about that, something that doesn’t feel quite right. At the end of the last generation, of course, such numbers weren’t even expected or imagined as achievable, even though the PlayStation 2 had sold over 100 million machines worldwide. There was an understanding that the machines success doesn’t always translate into software success, and that even a successful game cannot always be repeated with the same success; Manhunt 2 was perhaps stark evidence of this reality, even with more controversy it was nowhere near as successful as its predecessor.
With more money coming into the industry from a variety of new sources has deluded the market into somehow justifying the numbers, and making up hugely complex formulas and equations that, in reality, are completely meaningless and have no actual solution. The only way to make money in the market is sensible budgeting, good project management and quality, quality, quality. Quality speaks volumes. Which leads me into another problem.
Despite all the good games, it feels lately like more and more games aren’t even trying to be good. They feel shallow, soulless, even cynical in their conceit. Fuse was one of them; the original art style and concept was actually really interesting. The finished result, pulled back to be more “real” and “gritty”, felt like a pretender than a meaningful entry into the games market. Nintendo shoved out Super Luigi U and whilst it’s a lot of game for £18, I still can’t quite believe Nintendo are happy with the end result; something that feels like a halfway house between Super Mario Bros. and Super Meat Boy. Remember Me is a game where the concept couldn’t quite hold the game together, Resident Evil: Revelations just feels lazy and sloppy, not to mention games like Star Trek (awful), Dead Island: Riptide (another example that lightning doesn’t always strike twice, and that lessons not learned lead to harsher criticism), Tomb Raider (WAY too short and simple, even with the brutal padding).
And this is before you get to Aliens: Colonial Marines and Ride to Hell: Retribution. And Dark – a game I picked up recently that makes me feel like the industry really is just taking the piss right now.
There are still good examples, of course. The Last of Us feels like a fitting tribute to where we’ve ended up; it is ambitious and pushes the envelope really well. Zombi-U, in spite of being viewed as a commercial flop at 500,000 sales (which is 1/8th of Wii U owners, which is a damned good attach rate actually!), felt like a future you could get behind. There are great games; but there is so much fluff around, and so much of what we’re getting isn’t even remotely of an acceptable standard. They’re not creative endeavours, or experimental gambles and they sure as hell don’t give the impression we’ve advanced much in the last eight years.
You see, when the sixth generation ended, I was filled with hope. There were some amazing things happening; a real sense of excitement was almost physically manifest in the industry, that nothing was impossible or out of reach any longer. The future was bright, bold and HD. We were all filled with joy and anticipation for a whole new generation of games; and we’ve had some cracking games. But we’ve had an awful lot of trouble as well, and multiple failures that you just can’t feel like justifying beyond the fact that, “It seemed like a good idea at the time”. Taking what we’ve had the last year and extrapolating for the next generation, I am not actually filled with hope. I don’t think there’s much creativity left. I think there are serious problems and that they need to be addressed; companies need to work out why their budgets have ballooned so out of control in recent years, and whether reinventing the wheel is entirely worth it at times (Tomb Raider reportedly spent countless millions on new hair physics – it wasn’t worth it…).
If I were more pessimistic, I’d even say that based on the last portion of this generation, that the industry may indeed be heading for a crash. But it won’t be Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo who suffer – they don’t, and they never will. It will be the third-party market that collapses, and that will drive people towards console exclusivity deals that will stick like glue. And I can’t say that notion excites me much either. An industry effectively becoming ever more bloated and ever more unaware of its own increasing health problems is one that will die early; and there are a lot of jobs in the third-party industry. A collapse there isn’t going to be pleasant or pretty, and the clean-up could take the whole of the next generation.
But I’m not. I like hope. And I believe there is a chance for the industry to change; it changed into this, so surely it can change back. I think there have to be decisions taken at a very fundamental level; budgets need to be more carefully managed and excessive indulgences need to be considered more carefully. There needs to be a better mid-tier gaming scene between the low-budget independent world and the big-budget AAA market; games like Anarchy Reigns proved that this mid-range £20 market can be very forgiving of problems when the game is fun. It needs to stop blaming consumers for not buying their product; that’s not the consumers problem. If they’re not buying it, blaming them is only going to ensure less people buy it because hey, why bother? We’re ruining your life so we just won’t buy it more, which inevitably ruins things even more. It also needs to stop spending money on DRM, day-one DLC and any other piracy/second hand measures. Piracy is a dwindling problem that the industry has made too big a deal of, and used game sales are a symptom of a problem; tackling the underlying disease will solve that issue in a snap. If they can be bothered, of course.
I just find myself thinking more of the end of this generation, “Is this it?”. I know we’ve got some months to go, but I just don’t feel that sense of overwhelming potential, that the future is bright and bold and beautiful. Indeed, Ryse looked like a massive Quick Time Event fest, Dead Rising 3 has jettisoned any of the slapstick charm and bright, bold colour the series is so known for, the new Killzone looks like more of the same but with better backdrops, Assassin’s Creed 4 hung in the middle of its demo several times which is hardly an exciting prospect and Final Fantasy XV… I’m not sure what to say there. Except I saw lots of pretty visuals and not a drop of game, I just don’t get it either. Oh, and Mario Kart 8 – looks a bit too glossy for my liking right now.
You have to dig to find anything to get excited about. The Order: 1886 sounds fantastic, but really a big part of that is that it sounds and feels a lot like the classic Nightmare Creatures (which I will always think was and is a brilliant game!) and still, it’s very early days there yet. Secret Ponchos sounds like a colourful attempt to undermine Diablo 3 (which is ironic considering it’s a PS4 exclusive!). Outlast looks to be an exciting indie-scene horror game. Indeed, many of the really interesting things aren’t coming from the big publishing houses – they’re coming from underneath, the smaller developers and studios who are now digging their way through the poorly-constructed foundations the industry has laid the last few years. None of these smaller games look that much worse than their big-budget counterparts, but you can guarantee one thing; they will have cost significantly less to make.
Maybe that’s the light in the darkness. But it’s still going to be an extremely messy few years ahead; budgets won’t get smaller, they’ll inflate higher and higher until, inevitably, it reaches the limits of the atmosphere and things burn up. Perhaps it’s not about the big-name publishers and studios any longer. Maybe this is their fate, that they have grown too big too fast and now find themselves a target for nimbler, more agile predators. But it doesn’t make me feel any better; not when we’ve waited a long time for some of these games, only to be so crushingly disappointed at the end.
I said I didn’t think I’d look back at the last year or two of the Wii with much fondness. I think I can extrapolate from there and cover the whole market. Right now, there’s just a lifeless, soulless, heartless mess of crap out there. It feels almost calculated and cynical; indeed, one could say that it might be intentional, in order to get us to dump the old machines and rush into the new ones. And there’s a certain devious logic to that.
But the reality is that isn’t going to work. And however you slice it, the end of Gen7 is likely to be looked back on as a massive disappointment rather than a point of change. The roads seemed to be paved with gold, but no, it’s fools gold – reflective paint that simply glints a golden hue in the sunshine.
Perhaps the industry may one day ask, “What went wrong?” – but I don’t think they even realise yet what a hash of things they have made right now.
It’s only when they realise that they’ll spend the money and effort needed to pull us back on track…