The fact that the entire industry is spending more money, more time and, as many smaller publishers and developers are finding, risking more than ever before without any reward in growth is a stark contradiction in the midst of the breathless praise we are too often eager to heap on ourselves.
The success of the Wii is often placed on the so-called "casual" gamer, gamers who are new to gaming and/or not as discerning as the risibly-termed "core" gamer (the people, presumably, who are reading this article). But it seems this is a tune that has been repeated over and over again by every successive popular machine. One in three households in Japan were said to have an NES at the height of its success. The GameBoy, with its omnipresent Tetris, was said to appeal to businessmen and commuters because of its pick-up-and-playability. The original PlayStation led to the "post pub crowd" of gamers in Europe as trendy games like Wipeout made games hip business. The PlayStation 2 supposedly was a gaming Trojan horse, finding its way into millions of households with the benefit of its affordable DVD drive.
Yet if we were really picking up these customers as we should have been, where are they are now? If all of these consoles were truly opening up new markets and creating new gamers, why should the 360, with its diverse catalog of critically acclaimed games, struggle to overtake its much-troubled predecessor? Are those customers still stuck behind in the PlayStation 2 generation, content to play the trickle of games that we condescendingly bestow on them? Have they given up altogether - or worse, were they never there to begin with, and really did just use the PlayStation 2 for DVD playing and nothing more?
Perhaps it's the season talking that is making me depressed. A slew of Christmas blockbusters this year offers little more than sequels to games it seems I only just played - Gears of War 2, Resistance 2, Prince of Persia, Call of Duty: World at War, Animal Crossing: City Folk. The innovative titles that seemed to promise so much in summer have seen their stars fade much quicker than we might have been expected them to - Mirror's Edge, Little Big Planet, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts and yes, Wii Music.
Even Nintendo seems to be struggling for ideas, having captured my heart with the sparkly newness of the DS and the Wii in holiday seasons past. And while it's unreasonable to expect a Super Mario Galaxy every Christmas, it's telling that the game I'm most looking forward to unwrapping is Chrono Trigger, a relic from another generation.
Perhaps it's the recession sweeping across the globe like a chill wind. Recent problems at one-time heavy-hitters like Eidos and Midway point to the fact that mid-level publishers are struggling. Given the quality of their recent output it is unlikely that either of them will be mourned for long, it is worrying that fewer and fewer companies seem to be capable of finding ways of making money from this business, when by all rights the industry should be exploding.
It's called the law of diminishing returns. Beyond a certain point, more effort merely returns less and less output. It's what we see in games that are little more than HD remakes of titles that have gone before - only now they cost three times as much and take 100 people three years to produce, and if one fails it could take your whole company down with it. It's what we see in the industry over and over, or at least what we saw until the DS and Wii broke the mold - more and more power pumped in to technology, for less and less valid reasons. And that is certainly what Microsoft is seeing right now. Because, for all they have done to make the Xbox brand into a viable gaming platform, they have a right to expect more than they have gotten. For all we know, they may have done nothing more than to convince the same 25 million people to buy their console again.
Christian Ward works for a major publisher, and says bah humbug to the whole industry.