Here’s a question; why is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild a more exciting prospect as a game than, say, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim?
I mean, they’re not entirely dissimilar. I think we all know this by now so I’m not exactly blowing minds here by pointing out the similarities, and yes it’s fair to say Skyrim is still popular. But there’s a thing happening; apathy has grown in, and whilst opinions have remained relatively strong about Breath of the Wild – Skyrim on Switch is getting one word flung about with reckless and carefree abandon. “Why?”
This isn’t anything to do with Skyrim as a game – hell, Doom 2016 and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus will have been out a while before they make their way to the Switch. But it’s more notable in the case of Skyrim because Skyrim has been –everywhere-. We’ve had two PC releases, one on PS3 and XBox 360 (though we don’t really talk about the PS3 version anymore) and also one each on the PS4 and XBox One. And now the Switch is getting it too. Skyrim isn’t particularly “old” – it was launched in 2012, so it’s only been five years. I’d point out the grotesque darksome emo remake of Shadow of the Colossus here but that just makes me sad. Everything Sony is doing right now makes me sad. Sony’s presence on my worst list this year will make me sad. And Shadow of the Colossus is twelve years old and already HAD an HD Remaster. Which was good as was the original.
The issue here is “apathy”, apathy which is self-inflicted by over-exposure.
It’s the same story that hit Resident Evil 4. It’s a good game – very good, in fact. Knowingly wry and witty, well paced with enough self-awareness to be able to get away with knowing in-jokes and self-referential putdowns. On any objective standpoint, Resident Evil 4 should have aged remarkably well – but it hasn’t. Why? Because Resident Evil 4 has been everywhere too. It got Gamecube and PS2 versions, PS3 and XBox 360 versions, Wii versions, PS4 and XBox One releases, several PC releases because the original release was truly and astoundingly awful, and it’s even had a smartphone version – oh, and it got released on some region-specific console platforms that no-one really gives a toss about. It’s not that Resident Evil 4 is bad – it’s just we’re so goddamn BORED of it now, and each successive re-release seems to be effectively doing worse.
And of course, we can go for the king of this; Guitar Hero. When this series was at its height, Activision released ten of these games at full price… in a single year. That led into tons of peripherals and knock-off peripherals and pretenders like Rock Band and DJ Hero. You couldn’t swing a cat without hitting at least one example of the music genre in video games. And then… it bottomed out. Sales collapsed, peripherals stopped selling and yes, saturation plays its part – everyone who was interested probably had several of the damn games and the peripherals to go with them. But so too was apathy – these games just became part of the furniture for the industry, and people stopped noticing or caring about them.
This apathy can linger too – Activision tried to reboot Guitar Hero… I say “tried”, reports are it did very badly. The market conditions aren’t really the same as they were in Gen-7, it’s true, but in a sense people just got bored of it and didn’t see the need to go back to a trend that had already been ridden into the ground once before – and relatively recently, in 2011, just before Gen-8 hit.
I say this because “loot crates” won’t die… they’ll fester.
There’s a reason Loot Crates are the hot topic; it’s not that games are expensive – hell, FIFA makes just shy of a billion dollars each year for EA and that likely doesn’t include the extra they pay to FIFA for the branding. But there’s a reason these things are in games like FIFA 18, Overwatch, Shadow of War and their ilk; it’s because they are guaranteed to sell, and sell millions of copies. And every person who buys the hot new game is potentially a “whale” you can bleed dry like an old-timey Japanese fisherman and wow that got dark, sorry.
This isn’t about poverty – this is business, and by putting these things in guaranteed big-sellers, you expand the market for loot crates and microtransactions. In essence, they’re being smuggled in via branded games that people are familiar with.
Gamers like myself are a niche field – we’re vocal, but ineffectual for the most part. Our job is to act as the filter down; we like something, we’re the peer group that’s supposed to convince others to join in on our fun, which is why games like Dark Souls did great sales-wise and games like Street Fighter 5 sold like a bottled fart in a wind tunnel. But the good news is that, in time, this works both ways – we can also convince people NOT to buy games, ergo Street Fighter 5 (though we didn’t have to try too hard there).
This takes time. Saturation and apathy grow, like the Rot in the Painted World. What begins as a noble endeavour corrupts and distorts and eventually, the whole thing needs to be burned to the ground in order for new life to grow and develop without the fear of the Old Rot coming back for an encore. This was notable with the Art Genre; when it collapsed, oh boy it collapsed and let’s not forget that when it did… it took down THQ in 2013. When it collapsed, it took down a massive publishing force in the industry that had been well-established since 1989, and was even well respected for the most part. Hell, we even got another reminder this week with the death of the Kinect – another example of this, people stopped caring and Microsoft invariably had to kill what was once envisioned as a critical part of the XBox One infrastructure.
Our frustration with loot crates wasn’t going to have an immediate effect for a good reason – who ever bloody listened to their parents when they said, “Don’t do that!”?
I sure as hell didn’t, and when it invariably didn’t go according to plan as a kid, the weary response – from my grandparents who acted as my de-facto parents – was, “See, I told you so…”. The point is, people as a whole are generally not very good at listening to advice – be that good or bad. In some cases this is a good thing, and in some cases it is tooth-grindingly frustrating.
My point is – like so many things, people need to be exposed to this. They need to see it for what it is, and sadly in some cases this is going to mean them jumping in and realising how gated and grindy and exploitative some of these things are. And yes, in time, we’re going to see a repeat of the App Store Crisis, where kids spend outrageous amounts of their parents money on in-game purchases because they’re so ingrained into these premium products – which their parents already spent a hefty chunk of cash on – that publishers and developers forget the lessons of the past because of course they’re going to. If they haven’t learned, then they are doomed to repeat those same mistakes.
And in time, slowly and by degrees, this is what will kill loot crates. It won’t be shouty gamers who didn’t see the point – it will be the wider consumer market who will start thinking, “Damn, every $60 game I buy with a $60 season pass now costs me $60 in microtransactions just to get anywhere…”. They have to experience this. They have to go through it. They have to see it, feel it, feel our frustration for themselves. They have to grow as angry as us, then grow as apathetic as us, and then the tide goes out on an industry which has become so accustomed to spending huge amounts of money on things that bring in that money that when the tide goes out, we expose them for what they are in all their… dangly glory because of course they forgot to put trunks on and why the hell did I just go there?
Of course, we’ve seen this so many times; the Nintendo Wii was a great example. How about Sony’s hubris when they launched the PlayStation 3, assuming people would work “two jobs” just so they could afford an expensive premium console – and yes, it’s a mistake both Sony and Microsoft are making again but as I said, lessons not learned, mistakes made again and so on. We’ve seen this kill franchises dead – Gearbox can’t understand why no-one seems to like Borderlands anymore (funny, I recall a thing called Colonial Marines that might have made you look bad and is a thing you still have never actually apologised for – funny, I could be wildly wrong here but I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is where your problem started…), Earthworm Jim died a death, Alone in the Dark (which once upon a time used to be really bloody good), Medal of Honor… the list is long and varied and it’s fair to say that if the industry had the capacity to learn from other peoples mistakes… we wouldn’t be in this position to begin with.
My message is simple; patience on this front. Yes, it will get worse. And yes, big publishers will make a mockery of their big games. But look at the counter-culture that is rising to resist it; middle-tier, middle-market games are thriving again, particularly on the Switch. Modest hardware at a decent price with a unique gimmick that makes sense that plays games you might actually be in danger of giving a toss about. The good news is, with no actual unified online yet – Nintendo can’t be as exposed to this egregious crap as other platforms. Yet again, Nintendo dodging a bullet Neo-style when in reality they tripped over their shoelaces. Seriously, how many fingers does Nintendo’s lucky monkey paw have at this point?
An industry will rise to meet the demand for different. And the wider audience, in time, will simply realise that they’re being taken for a ride and then the whole thing, like so many crazes and trends of the past (DDR, Tamagotchi and the like), will fall apart and usually when that happens one company will be obliterated in the collapse. Sadly, I think on current trends and reports that company will be Capcom…
We know this Loot Crate trend is bad. And it is bad. But we also pointed out smartphone in-game purchases were bad. We said having a music genre with almost two-dozen peripherals was a stupid idea. We said Zynga was a horrible company. In time, we are proven right.
But people need exposure in order to build resentment, and then apathy (see: Meghan Trainor). And as we gamers know, thanks to Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, “Apathy Is Death”.
We’ve given our warnings. If these pig publishers cannot take heed of them, they sow the seeds of their own destruction.
And the harvest will be all the sweeter, because you’ll know how your parents felt when they said “I told you so.”