This week on Cold Take, Sebastian explains how a new age of video games and gaming in general is upon us — but in the end, there will be no replacement for developing quality games.
A New Age of Gaming Is Upon Us – Transcript
I’m a pessimistic optimist. Things are always gonna get better, but they gotta get worse first. And whatever doesn’t kill ya, makes for a nice payday in court.
I smell a change in the tides of the video game industry. For many reasons. The days of chasing higher end graphics and better hardware are dwindling. The size of the social media megaphone has become too big for developers to ignore or misconstrue. Anyone can get their hands on developer tools nowadays meaning hundreds of video games pour in with no rhyme or reason as to what will catch on for now or forever. The metaphorical Age of Discovery has run out for the Triple-A giants as they wage war in the courts to secure their established borders from the encroachment of their rivals. There’s a glow across the horizon. The sun is dawning or the sun is setting–or something’s on fire. It’s kinda hard to tell from this distance. Either or I’m excited for what’s on the way.
See, video games have always required a minimum computational competence before you can even begin the creative process. Other hobbies are a little different. I can quit my job, buy paint at a discount store, and start my failing career as an artist right now. I may not be any good, but I can be creative immediately. There’s a little more to consider when gambling on a video game career. There is a money gap and a technology gap you need to overcome before you can even consider the creativity gap. Before there were game designers, there were only computer programmers. But as the industry continues to grow, the technology becomes more affordable and the information becomes more accessible. You don’t have to drop out of university during your final year in programming to create games anymore. You can drop out of high school right now and make games on Roblox. It’s the democratization of the creation tools that opens up the field of play, and with better competition comes better quality. As the race for better graphics slows to a crawl, the creatively advanced but technologically challenged can set sail from literally anywhere and not feel behind the times as soon as their games release. Brilliant minds can shine like they used to back before brilliant businessmen took over.
Cause more often than not, these beautiful minds are the new trend setters. A multitude of the highest rated games on steam are indies like Stardew, Terraria, and Phasmo, and they keep springing up faster than algorithms can keep up. If the delay of the gear score infested Suicide Squad game has shown us anything it’s that design by committee and algorithms start to get stale after rehashing the same designs too many times too soon when trying to play safe and maximize broad appeal. Pizza night used to be special because it wasn’t every day. But now, with so many releases insisting pizza night is every night, we’re starting to see the slices are looking a little funny. Half of this pizza is half of yesterday’s pizza. Data-assisted design principles aren’t as reliable anymore. We have to eyeball and take risks in the field of design again. Every game developer, indie to triple-a, has to be on the lookout for that something new. That something fresh that’ll keep the wind in the sails.
Cause try as they might, neither the committees nor the algorithms can predict such games as Pizza Tower or Vampire Survivors, the bullet heaven auto-shooter extraordinaire that swept the nation in 2022 and completely possessed every developer with unraveling the low-budget high engagement euphoria formula. I have played dozens of Vampire Survivors variants across PC and mobile. Vampire Survivors, but now they’re capybaras. Vampire Survivors, but now they’re Catholic. Everybody wants a piece of this game, but it’s too late cause we’re all sick of this game now.
The game itself represents the inevitable indie success that other developers will emulate for practice or for profit, but the trends come and go way too fast now. It’s almost foolhardy to try and swap designing lanes at the pace trends come and go currently, so it’s best to start off with a unique idea from the get go. I used to stand up for Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Halo. They all felt very different from one another, but then they started copying each other and themselves. Then they all started feeling the same eventually. And then BOOM! Something different again. Something fresh. Something Apex Legends riding in on the battle royale wave of Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds until we’re sick of those too in a much shorter time frame than what we were used to. Unfortunately, there are innocent bystanders like the very unique Spellbreak, but there was no room for it at the battle royale table because it came out too late…by two years. Within two years doors opened, got over saturated, and closed for the genre. That’s extraordinary.
Back to Apex Legends, or more importantly their publisher, who happens to be EA. Yea, that EA. The loot box slinging, microtransaction peddling, anti-consumer, awarded Worst Company in America 2012 EA. Before the recipient of the Golden Poo award made a name for itself as the bane of video games, EA sent out cultural meteors hurling towards earth with the likes of Mirror’s Edge, NFL and NBA Street, Need For Speed Underground, Battlefield, The Sims, and so forth. Are they better now? I can’t say for sure, but what I can say is vocal consumers are now equipped, through virtual town halls like Twitter and YouTube, with a big enough stick to reach the higher ups that drove EA’s image into the ground and swat at some of the corporate greed and poke for more accountability. The fans can help steer the ship in a way they couldn’t before.
Before, we relied on developers and community managers to represent the best interests of gamers who were overruled by the corporate c-suite trying to convince the public that what we really wanted– what we really really wanted– was new and innovative ways to give them more money. Well the public can speak for the public, and developers need to refocus on designing for the people once again. Maybe it’s too late for EA to rehabilitate into a cultural powerhouse–personally, I find it hard to forgive them for the NFL 2k shenanigans– but their recent track record, with the release of It Takes Two and Wild Hearts alongside the rerelease of Dead Space, has them aligning closer to neutral than predatorial. EA can’t afford to bleed during the release of their new Star Wars game. Not while the Quadruple-A sharks are swimming around in the waters.
There was peace for far too long among the big fish because they were too busy expanding into uncharted territories. Acquiring talent and studios to release more of their games more often. The console wars were possibly the heyday of healthy competition among the likes of Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, the latter choosing to mind their own business. Eventually, the flirtatious shoulder bumps turned into swinging elbows. All three stockpiled exclusives and acquired more and more talent as PCs and mobile phones became more accessible to the general gaming audience. The board has been distributed for this game of Risk. There is no more room to expand. There is only room for aggressive buyouts and Sony is doing their damndest to stop Microsoft from acquiring ActivisionBlizzard to the tune of 68 billion dollars after already amassing an impressive portfolio that swallowed up the likes of Bethesda.
Of course for all of Sony’s cries and screams in court to “think of the children” we can’t forget that it was them in 2014 who pushed for marketing exclusivity rights. It’s self-preservation, not altruism, that’s pushing the case in court but I’ll take an imperfect step to try and regulate the unchecked growth in gaming currently. After all, what is unchecked growth if not a cancer of sorts? This is where we are now: the heads of the industry turning on each other and whistling dixie in front of lawyers because their growth is starting to slow down.
Games like Marvel Snap, that scavenge the crumbs, the few remaining seconds you have left that fall between the couch cushions, give me hope, because that’s it. There is nothing left to take from the consumer. We only have so much money, so much time, and so much attention. There’s nowhere left to go for the gaming industry. They can’t lean on hardware advancements anymore, they’re fewer and farther between. Accessibility in the development space means more people are fighting for the consumers. Can’t just chase trends anymore, you have to come out with fresh energetic things like Hi-Fi Rush. The next big trend can come from anywhere and be gone just as fast. The virtual social landscape makes it more difficult to get away with corporate misrepresentation to appease suits. And the gaming super powers are going to end up stonewalling each other at every opportunity. Actually, there is one way to go. Back to the old ways. The only thing left is to go back to releasing quality games to be judged and purchased by discerning customers who are much more connected than ever before. Call me old-fashioned. Better yet, pour me one. Then you can call me whatever you like.