Those who cannot learn from the past, as always, are doomed to repeat it. And repeat it they will…
Some years ago, the games industry was a lot more closed than it is today.
There was a reason for the controls that came to define Nintendo and Sega in the late 80’s and early 90’s – for a while, the market was indeed, quite open. Big rigs like the Amstrad CPC464, the Commodore 64 and some of the Atari computers had little control over the content that could be released on their system – in theory, anyone with access to tapes (which were cheap and readily available), a basic distribution chain and who had the knowledge to knock up a game could be a games developer. We rarely talk about those dark days because the quality of product on offer largely ranged from mediocre to god awful; and make no mistake, it wasn’t just the bedroom programmers taking advantage of magazines wanting content to put on tapes – the recent resurfacing and explanations of ET: The Video Game demonstrating that even games with huge budgets and experienced developers at the reins were often taking advantage of an extremely open market with little in the way of controls. You could release a broken product and in a good portion of cases, it was retailers who suffered as a result of the incompetence.
Sega and Nintendo came in largely as the market began to crash, and they succeeded in turning the video game market around in two key areas; one, they vetted releases. This was to verify they worked and were as described – so that a game that was bought by a consumer would work (although admittedly, not always the case that all games were good). The second was proprietary media formats – the much-maligned cartridge-based form of old. These required components from the companies in question – Sega and Nintendo – so that the pins would be read by the console. This for a long time killed off the enthusiast programmer – you needed education, sources and contacts in order to get your product to market. It was a closed system, but it helped us to forget the rampant pain of the past.
Fast-forward to today, and once more, the market opens up. As top-tier games become harder to make, taking more time and resources and costing many, many times more in finance than ever before, we’ve seen a dependence from all sides currently on the independent scene to help patch in the gaps that have come with a difficult transition. This has indeed allowed us access to many good, if not great, games. But – as in the bad old days – it turns out that this reliance on content from outside sources isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
Take The Letter – released not long ago on Nintendo’s Wii U. It’s not particularly well made, pretty, challenging or coherent. Yet in a desperate attempt to have content on the eShop, Nintendo has forgotten the lessons of the past that it was itself a huge part of correcting. It’s impossible to imagine any sane person at Nintendo HQ playing it and thinking, “Eh, this is alright I guess.” It’s one of a growing number of indie fumbles on Nintendo devices – and that said, Nintendo is not alone in this either. Sony, Microsoft – even Valve have left open the stable doors, and the horse is nowhere to be found.
I do happen to like some of the content that has come with this brave new frontier; Cave Story, for example, knocked around as a free game on the Internet for years before finding a home on the 3DS and Wii. I like Spelunky because it’s a simple concept executed perfectly. And I love that fanatical fans of the old dungeon-crawler genre hung around to make The Legend of Grimrock, with a sequel deep in development somewhere. It’s hard to imagine that without the freedom to get noticed on platforms of all types, these games would never have seen the success which they deserved. The thought of losing imaginative, solid developers like this by barring the doors and trying to keep the leeches out is a troubling one.
But with Valve’s Early Access, Sony’s reliance on indie content right now and Nintendo’s lack of quality control (never thought I’d say that with a straight face), some have taken full advantage of the situation. Worse, critics are suffering as a result – freedom of information is a key aspect of how we often helped police what was good and what was bad, but many are still trying to exert controls on any and all critical analysis of their product. TotalBiscuit a.k.a. The Cynical Brit has had two high-profile situations of this nature – with Day One: Garry’s Incident and Blood of the Werewolf being the subjects criticised. YouTube filters allow these people to actually flag content that they disapprove of, which can put peoples channels at risk of closure – TotalBiscuit did indeed get his videos back, as have others like Jim Sterling and PewDiePie, but the freedoms that come with being able to release content of this nature have few controls attached. Big developers rarely go so out of their way to block criticism – well, unless you’re Gearbox – but smaller developers rely on sales and basic interest. Freedom to bar criticism isn’t so much censorship as throwing around weight that isn’t well-deserved. Irresponsible people who are making the nature of the beast much harder to deal with than it should be.
The understanding of professionalism between developers, publishers and the console manufacturers was always a key part of the process; in recent years, the power has shifted and we’ve seen some proper stinkers from on high and from below as well. Getting a license to release games is no longer about vetting; it’s about business, and to hell with the actual quality of the content on offer. Last year, we saw the awful Aliens: Colonial Marines, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct and the unspeakable horrors of Ride to Hell: Retribution. This year has been no better – from the bland and broken The Amazing Spiderman 2 to the all-style-no-substance Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, the cynical cash-grab of Soul Calibur: Lost Swords and the… umm… Rambo: The Video Game (come on, we saw that one coming a mile off…). Released suddenly, hoping to sell through before people get on the bandwagons and burn the bridges down for good, the respect has been non-existent. Nintendo has arguably suffered worst from this, with third parties abandoning the company in their droves for a variety of reasons, most likely involving business links with other companies promising more freedom, but Sony too is about to walk into its own little third-party shitstorm with PS Now!, a rental streaming service where the publishers are setting the prices – and those prices are frankly ridiculous.
As for iOS and Android? Let’s not even get started there. We’d be here all week.
Control is a dirty word suddenly – freedom is the name of the game, the freedom to make what you want and sell it how, when and where you want it, setting your own prices and doing your own thing. This is a thrilling time for a lot of people who have wanted to get their break in the industry, and yet again, there are those taking advantage of that too. Publishers offering to distribute games, getting certain rights and then frankly pissing all over the hopes and dreams of those developers. Crowdfunding projects that are out of control, out of touch and increasingly making the whole artistry of the scene look god-awful. Attempts to put up some floodgates and filter the wheat from the chaff are met with derision; in equal measure to blaming Valve, Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft for not vetting the content first. It’s a lose-lose situation for all involved, because ultimately you’re the villain on each end, and there is no thanks for even trying to do the right thing; remember when Nintendo refunded money over the Batman: Arkham Origins DLC? I didn’t think so. You probably thought that was WB Interactive. How cute. How quaint. How wrong.
Some might mock me saying this, but we’re not at a dissimilar place where we were in the eighties now; there’s a tidal wave of content, from all tiers, and it’s overwhelming and far too much crap is getting through and making everything smell like rotten fish. We have PC’s and smartphones that can download almost anything we want; consoles are opening up to those who want to be on the system and trying to make it even easier to port, develop and release stuff through engine deals and frameworks. What’s worse, we still haven’t dealt with the legalities of broken software and whose rights trump whose – at a time when companies want to push us towards an increasingly digital future where we can’t even trade in our content, it’s amazing that in thirty years we’re still procrastinating in this situation. Hopefully Gearbox won’t shake itself loose of the class-action lawsuit it’s found itself in. It’s still very important we get a legal opinion on this.
And what will happen if it does all fall apart? Well, one can only surmise that some bright spark will remember that once upon a time, companies vetted games and used proprietary hardware in order to ensure control, and filter out any trash as best it can. The problem with a big bang is sometimes there’s a big contraction as well; a point where the space cannot be expanded any longer, and the bubble bursts or ruptures leaking everything everywhere. Nintendo is the one company you can’t believe is in this situation; it was there to take advantage of the old mess, and yet finds itself slap-bang in a similar mess thirty years later. Sony and Microsoft… well, they’ll learn. They’ll have to, just like Nintendo, or risk the inevitable prospect of destruction. And we’ll be right back to the bad old days; slow release schedules, no indie input, no variety, no choice… no freedom.
I don’t think it’s too late; until the thing does explode, there’s always a chance of turning things around. In a lot of ways, this wouldn’t even happen if the law wasn’t in such a grey spot; bad games are sold as is, and the customer has to take responsibility for the purchase because the game is ‘a service’, and the disc and packaging ‘the product’. But we don’t have the luxury of a good, solid set of legal guidelines drawn up to protect the customers from bad games and corrupt developers. I still very much hope that the Aliens: Colonial Marines class-action lawsuit is a step towards this. It’d be very healthy for all of us, because as much as we like to criticise the law, we adhere to it. There is no no-win situation; where a company is damned for stopping the release of a bad game, and damned for allowing its release as well. The law dictates. We follow.
It’s amazing that for all the amazing advances and openness that we enjoy now, that we’ve learned surprisingly little. Our laws are decades out of date in this arena. Companies are fighting a losing battle in the war for basic quality control. A lot of developers are shooting themselves very much in the foot by having such disrespect for the market, for consumers and those helping their games even take fruition. The problem isn’t so much the freedom; it’s that freedom without basic laws underpinning it all is called anarchy. Some of us watched this in the early part of the eighties. And some of us are now old enough to witness similar steps towards a similar situation. We have simply overdone it; too much, too fast, too few questions asked. We got dragged along for the ride, and it’s been a thrilling ride, but only now does it seem some people are asking the question, “Uhh, do the brakes on this thing actually work?” Simple answer? No.
And as horrid as a closed future sounds, in some ways it might be important – albeit temporarily – to shut the doors. Open-door policies are great but at some point, you’re going to have to realise that there are too many people squatting in your place and you can’t keep the place hygienically clean. Hosing down the walls, washing the sheets and cushions and scraping off that horrid stain in the loo (oh hey Colonial Marines!) can at least give a brief, if admittedly not perfect, illusion of change – because it will look different, smell different. From there, perhaps being a little more discerning about who comes in and the rules they have to abide by would be a good idea.
But the only way to fundamentally change this doomed cycle is to bring the law up to date and protect consumers from the awful business practices that have been allowed to run rampant for so long. Once consumers have some power to bite back, companies will change; right now, we’re money sacks to them and they just want our money. They don’t feel like they even have to earn it – some even feel entitled to it. If they are forced into a position where dodgy products have to be refunded and/or replaced – heck, even a world where they are told to improve the product at their own expense – well, they’ll think twice before squatting them out to market hoping to make some cash before people realise just how poopy it really is. It won’t financially work for them.
Until then, it really is the inmates running the asylum. And I give up trying to keep up with the shitty business practices going on. Seriously, don’t got time for that no more (intended order of words). If the industry and market is so incapable of learning, then really the inevitable crash is their own damned fault.
Let’s hope the law intervenes first, or that’s going to be one hell of a clean-up job…