extrapunc 3x3

So last week in Zero Punctuation, we explored a little bit of an important event in the history of video gaming, namely the 80’s crash brought on by, amongst other things, ET for the Atari 2600 being really shit. But there was one question from that video that I deliberately left open: do I think that the video game industry is heading for another crash?

Honestly, I kinda wish it was. I think I’ve said before that there is a lot of idiocy in the industry that only exists because of a lack of critical thought, and which would not be included if gaming was invented today. Feels like a lot of chaff would disappear all at once if we just burned the whole thing to the ground and started again, concentrating only on the core element of making fun things for people to pass the time with. Ultimately the 80’s crash was caused by the industry being unable to support the weight of shit it had piled up, and cleared the way for Nintendo to rise from the ashes. Nobody learned shit and the exact same events may yet take place.

But the industry is not what it was in the 80’s. For one thing, it’s far less centralized. Back then, there was a rather harsh and clearly defined limit as to what a home video game was. Consoles were about capable of rendering 16 colors and 12 pixels on screen at any one time and couldn’t cope with a control system more complicated than one joystick with a button. There is only a finite amount you can do with parameters like those. A creative industry demanded innovation where no more was possible. A few decent games were managed, then the market was flooded by rip-offs of those. The very concept of video games was tainted because this, in the popular view, was all that video games were.

But now? ‘Video gaming’ covers a wide spectrum serving a huge variety of demographics. First there’s platforms: consoles, PCs, tablets and mobiles. Then you can split each platform’s games between triple-A and indie. Then those can be split even further into a whole textbook’s worth of gameplay types, visual styles and story genres. Technology has reached the point now that there is virtually no limit to the worlds that video game creators can realize, and, most importantly, the on-screen game actually resembles the game being displayed on the fucking box cover art.

So a crash that brings the entire industry down is virtually impossible, since its roots have coiled into so many things. Hard to imagine loss of consumer faith in, say, triple-A action adventures also bringing down free-to-play mobile color matching games and indie RPGs. When you look at the individual factors that led to the 80’s crash, you can see that different facets of the industry are already doing the same things fairly blatantly. Triple-A publishers already spend way too much money on building too much anticipation for mediocre games, and dedicated indie and mobile platforms suffer from being flooded by too many derivative games by inexperienced developers. But they both seem to be muddling along.

You’ll often hear me bemoan that interesting indie games are ignored by the general public in favor of bland next-gen same-again hogging all the advertising space, but it seems that sectioning off aspects of the industry might be good for the general health. It’s like having an anti-virus program: you can always quarantine the dodgy parts.

extrapunc 3x3

Alright then, so we’ve established that the whole industry’s reached the point of no return, that games cover so many bases now that there is no brush large enough to tar it all with the mistakes of a few. So let’s get more specific. Do I think the triple-A console industry is heading for a crash? Again, I wouldn’t mind if it was, when the new console generation seems to exist for no reason except to continually and repeatedly remind everyone how much better PC gaming is, by cunningly turning consoles into things that are basically the same as PCs but vastly inferior.

But is it actually on the way to crash town? It’s certainly true that the costs of developing triple-A games are just getting silly, without any increase in the quality of the games to justify it (quite the opposite, really). And that development studios shutting down is turning into something of a routine. Which sends large numbers of newly unemployed developers out into the wild to form new startup game companies, just as the disgruntled employees who left Atari and the other big companies did back in the 80’s. A lot of them are going to be adding to the indie game gluts.

All of that, however, is dwelling on the individual details that the modern age has in common with the 80’s, which is like trying to predict the future from tea leaves. No, I think you need to forget about stuff like who’s spending the most money, and the pick-and-mix correlations between completely different events, and try to see the bigger picture. What, in the broadest possible terms, was the overall cause of the 80’s crash? It wasn’t ET, or Pacman, the over-hyped high-profile failures. It wasn’t the loss of publishing control, or the relative crappiness of Atari-era graphics. It was simply because people stopped buying the damn games.

After a period of immense profitability funded by the novelty value of video games as a concept, the industry got into some bad habits and shitty practices that killed the quality of the product to the point that consumers went “Oh, actually, these are shit now,” and profits dropped 97% in three years. I don’t know about you, but I find that inspiring. That’s almost like the history of some bizarre alternative universe governed by sensible rules like “games that are shit don’t sell so well”.

And I don’t say this from some nostalgia-blurred child-of-the-80’s standpoint (I don’t even remember the 80’s much because of all the drinking I do now), but I don’t think that could happen now. Publishers are going to keep making expensive garbage, but I think, these days, there’s always going to be someone who’ll buy it. Video games have far too many things going for them now, entirely separate from mere quality as a game. They’ve got spectacle. They’re a status symbol. They’ve got peer pressure working for them now they’re routinely advertised in public spaces. And maybe people are just too beaten down by the modern corporate system to take a stand when things get mediocre. As long as things stay bland and inoffensive, rather than crossing into the realms of offensively bad, then nothing will change.

I could be wrong. But it’s kind of up to all of you lot to prove that, isn’t it?

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