The troubles and turmoil of the gaming industry seem never-ending. It is easy to be relentlessly negative about the state of an industry that seems at least to be entrenched in a cold war with its own customers and all too eager to tie price tags to a Saturn V rocket to reach new astronomical heights. Publishers and developers are quick to describe gamers as a bunch of whiny thugs all too eager to steal whatever digital morsel is sent down the pipe. In return, many gamers see the industry as a corrupt behemoth known for Draconian measures and an insatiable greed.
So, it might seem odd to think that we are actually in a Golden Age of videogames, but it’s true.
This generation of consoles, which was and still is seen by some as the overpriced doom of the medium, has turned out to be the most successful and most important since the transition to CD-Rom technology. In the very broadest sense, as the entire world seems to be spiraling into a global economic slowdown, the gaming industry is broadening its market, expanding its appeal, shucking the burden of decades as a media and moral villain and creating some of the most compelling experiences in three decades of interactive entertainment. In short, more people are playing better games now than ever before.
There are, with apologies to varying camps of brand loyalists, three highly successful consoles on the market, a historical first. That the market can even sustain three successful consoles is remarkable, and while there is plenty of argument to be had over who is in first place, or more compellingly second place, the semantics of that argument miss the point. Not only have the consoles been commercially successful, they have also become a launching pad for goals that console makers have long had, specifically becoming a center of entertainment in the home.
The new focus on downloadable content and casual gaming has, in many ways, dramatically expanded the reach and revenue of videogaming in a handful of years. Services such as Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network have laid a convincing groundwork for consoles to deliver lower priced gaming experiences as well as traditional entertainment media. It’s not hard to imagine consoles as being a home’s center of movie, television and music consumption, allowing gamers to transition smoothly between electronic media of all kinds.
But, as gamers we don’t measure our golden ages by how successfully hardware manufacturers integrate new technology. We measure the games, and in there we find perhaps the most compelling case for the argument. Allow me to offer as evidence a short and woefully incomplete accounting of the games of the past 24 months.
Super Mario Galaxy, Bioshock, God of War II, Portal, Braid, Call of Duty 4, Spore, Team Fortress 2, Grand Theft Auto IV, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Mass Effect, World of WarCraft: The Burning Crusade, Half Life 2: Episode 2, Metal Gear Solid 4, Gears of War, Halo 3, Crackdown, Oblivion, Sins of a Solar Empire, Forza 2 and Rock Band.
That’s not really including many handheld titles, XBLA or PSN games or even the increasing relevance of the iPhone and its related games. And, that’s to say nothing of upcoming titles such as Diablo III, Starcraft II, Fallout 3, Warhammer Online, Rock Band 2, The Force Unleashed, Little Big Planet, Gears of War 2, Left 4 Dead, World of WarCraft: Wrath of the Lich King and countless others.
The games industry seems poised to string together what, I think, is arguably the strongest three consecutive years of gaming since the mid 90s and possibly ever. This success flies in the face of the occasional malaise that too often characterizes both gamers and developers. Despite the certainty of only a year ago that the price and restrictiveness of gaming had become a serious barrier to entry, the 360, the PS3 and certainly the Wii have built strong foundations and are now churning out compelling releases.
But, I think the most important indication of a golden age reaches beyond the revenue and games canon. I think the real indications of a golden age are seen in places like the grandparent picking up a Wii Remote, my wife and friends playing Rock Band, the popularity of casual games, the fact that my PS3 is as much a DVD player and shop as it is a game player, services such as Steam and Stardock, the interoperability and compatibility of electronics that can access traditional gaming platforms. The innovation of the industry, of which there can always be more, isn’t isolated to games but extends now into fulfilling some of the long-held promises of hardware.
There are serious problems and issues still to be addressed in the industry, among them: the matters taken up by Brad Wardell’s Gamers Bill of Rights; a constant battle over the pervasiveness and effect of piracy; restrictive DRM and games that “phone home”; skyrocketing costs of development including manpower and equipment; the continued erosion of faith in the games media. But, for whatever reason, these problems have not interfered with the ability of the industry to evolve and thrive in a complicated marketplace, and hopefully haven’t infused gamers with such an overwhelming sense of ennui and entitlement that they aren’t able to recognize a renaissance when they’re smack in the middle of one.
Sean Sands is the founder of gamerswithjobs.com and a born again gaming optimist.