It was November, and America’s retail stores beckoned, singing a siren song of next generation’s gaming goodness. As the masses queued outside major electronics retailers like Soviet peasants waiting for their bread and vodka, rumors flew of shenanigans afoot. Microsoft was creating the shortage just to boost their hype. Best Buy was advertising consoles and selling only bundles. An Elkton, Maryland Wal-Mart became Thunderdome as crazed shoppers battled in the aisles, and all of it just for a gaming console. As the holiday shopping season gets another day older and the American consumer goes deeper into debt, it’s clear that the world, at least our world, has changed. When they’re fighting in the aisles at Wal-Mart because of bombardments on television, magazines, MTV and the Internet, gaming has finally arrived as a major cultural force for everyone, not just for a diverse gaggle of enthusiasts.
The launch of the 360 marks the end of an era. Parents waiting to take heads in pursuit of the Hot New Christmas Toy weren’t the only one’s suffering winter’s icy kiss. A significant chunk of the people in line outside America’s retail stores wanted the consoles entirely for themselves – or for eBay – and not so Little Jimmy would have the Best Christmas Ever. What was once the treasured item for eager kids on Christmas morning, and the occasional nostalgic adult, is now the must-have item for everyone. It was once a geek status symbol. Now, an Xbox 360 is something the Wal- Mart-going hordes of Middle America will riot for, the ultimate cultural icon in a society that worships entertainment.
Moving beyond the Wal-Mart Thunderdome means an adolescent gaming industry is going to have to grow up. Thousands of non-gamer barbarians pouring through the walls with wireless controllers in hand will force a Renaissance of creativity in a moribund industry chasing sequels and the Next Halo dream. Thousands of educated adults, which are what economists call “market forces,” aren’t going to buy games calibrated and aimed at the currently coveted “Males, 13 to 25” demographic. All it’s going to take to cause a violent, shattering earthquake in the industry is one game, and that game is coming sooner than we dare to dream.
When someone dares to challenge the game-jock mindset – which states that games have to be cool to gamers and their gamer buddies – and makes a Katamari Damacy for the non-geeks buying the 360, they will never have to work again. The people fighting in the aisles for the latest consoles aren’t just geeks. They are the dread casual gamers. Or they’re parents who grew up with the NES and won’t mind the sprouts grooving out to the latest Mario offering, while they spend hundreds of dollars downloading old-school Nintendo games on their Revolution. They are, in other words, The Adults. Your mom just came into the gaming party, picked up a PBR tall-boy, and started shaking her ass on the dance floor. And she called every single one of her friends.
If they haven’t bought one yet, they will. The cultural penetration is only going to increase, especially when youth-worshipping Boomers turn their eyes to the latest toys of their kids. Fortunately, the tools for hitting this new audience are already in place, they’re just being used incorrectly. As it stands, developers are using Swiss Army knives as simple hammers. Half-Life 2 shipped with a groundbreaking physics engine, and after years of development, the most interesting thing anyone could find to do with it was create really advanced crate puzzles – which we’ve seen for years – and gimmick gravity guns. They spent five years developing a little red Corvette, and now they take it out on the interstate and drive 55 with both hands on the wheel.
Open up your mind for a little bit and possibilities emerge. Imagine the Half-Life 2 engine used with a Lumines model to create a gorgeous casual-oriented puzzle game with to-die-for physics and a triple-A budget because the millions of people that make Bejeweled a hit will play games like that. Imagine MMOGs built around actual social fare and interaction rather than spending 60 hours killing the same monster over and over again, because parents can’t schedule their lives around spending 10 hours in a dark cave hoping for a rare drop. How about games where “cooperative play” doesn’t mean “two crosshairs on the screen so you can both gun down the hordes of aliens,” but it means you have to, you know, cooperate and work together to make something happen? When someone realizes the third dimension is a (forgive me) new direction of its own, instead of just being where you bunny hop to avoid incoming fire, we might even see crazy zero-G sports games. It’s a whole new gaming world.
It’s not going to happen overnight, but the invisible hand of capitalism doesn’t care if your game-jock friends laugh at you for developing a game the regular Joes going Russell Crowe for a 360 will play. Someone’s going to look at all those adults with adult salaries buying 360s, run the numbers and realize that adult salaries equal hats made of money. The vanguard of the mainstream is upon us. The hordes are just over the horizon, bringing with them vast changes to our shared gaming culture, and possibly a new golden age of creativity. Onward.
Millionaire playboy Shannon Drake lives a life on the run surrounded by Japanese schoolgirls and video games. He also writes about anime and games for WarCry.