Thursday, June 26, 2014

Are Video Games Going Full Circle?

My father, who's never touched a video game in his life as far as I know, helped me realize something regarding the video game industry and the state it is currently in. The reason for this post was an article I saw in a magazine regarding the massive interest people are having in Early Access, games that in essence are unfinished. Then there is also an interest in indie games big enough that Steam feel obliged to create something like Greenlight. We also have a sentimental wave going through the video gaming community allowing for a page like (that's good old games) thrive (as I assume they do, they sure seem to). To this is added an equally big interest in Kickstarting projects, aka throwing money at things that don't even exist yet and possibly never will. All this points at an increasing distrust in the big companies being capable of creating games that are going to be fun. Although the furious kickstarting has subsided a bit, it seems every other game I check out on Steam nowadays is Early Access. I'm personally not particularly keen on buying an unfinished game (although I have) but there is no denying that there is a big interest in these games, and in all honesty it looks like the more broken the game is the more people want to play it, how else can you explain why so many people have paid for a game that is still as broken as DayZ? There is something alluring about the concept and I have been trying to figure out what it is.

Back to my dad, who doesn't care for video games but has a huge interest in music instead. He told me a while ago that vinyls were back "in" and he was very happy about that since he had always preferred those anyway. But there was a time when vinyls were uncool and casettes were all the rage (remember those?! My entire childhood was all about casettes). That didn't last long though until cds were all the rage. And now I wonder if anyone still buys cds anymore, although they're still sold in stores for some odd reason. Nowadays you either get music on mp3 or if you're a connoisseur on a vinyl. There are systems even older than the vinyl, but there is something about the vinyl that eventhough it has its flaws (size and storage capacity) it still perfected some areas that true music lovers hold in high regard (sound quality I think). Sure with vinyls you get some raspiness, but I think that adds to the charm. (Then with a vinyl you get a nice big case, the slip and something substantial to hold and look at. You don't get that with an mp3 and you barely get that with a cd).

And they come in funny shapes -

But what has that got to do with the video game industry? I believe the video game industry has been around just about long enough now to start making its own cycle, just like the music storage industry. An old system has gotten a renewed life because people were bored or otherwise unsatisfied with the modern option.

Eventhough there were systems older than the NES, I think most people would agree that the 8bit era, and particularly the NES 8bit era got a lot of things right. Some people would maybe say that things were truly perfected in the SNES era, when 2d gaming was done absolutely right in terms of inventiveness and boldness. Or was it? At the time people were clearly not satisfied. The 3d revolution had to come and some games benefited from it and some games not so much. Few were the developers however who dared to stray from the 3d path, everyone seemed dazzled by it and many games were forced into it although they definitely should not have (I am looking at you poor Sonic). Fortunately 2d wasn't completely abandoned thanks to the Game Boy consoles and the success and incredible library of the Game Boy Advance show that many people still harbored a great interest in this type of games. The GBA was released in 2001 or just about when people would have started getting over the initial 3d hype. On the PC and stationary console market however, the quest for the best graphics and most frames continued.

Not like 16bit Mario to 64bit Mario -

Graphics has always mattered to the video game market, I'm not saying this is something new. All the way back in the 80's companies were talking about how many bits their consoles could produce or how fast their consoles were (I am looking at you SEGA). But after a while I got the feeling it started getting more important than good gameplay and when the ps3/xbox360 were released it felt like they talked more about how pretty their games were going to be rather than how fun they were (although that might be because "fun" is difficult to put down in simple numbers). I don't think I was the only one who looked at the new gen (now previous gen) thinking "yes there is better graphics, but not enough for me to be wowed anymore".

Before that the console gens had enough of a step up in graphics for us to be amazed and probably a bit blinded by the difference, allowing otherwise shitty games to make it into stardom (I'm not going to name any names because I am sure to step on some toes) - NES/MS to Snes/Mega Drive to N64/PS/Dreamcast to Gamecube/PS2 were still big leaps graphic wise. In the details there is a big difference between a ps2 and ps3 game I am sure, the amount of hair on the head/pebbles on the ground/leaves on the tree that you are able to show or the frame rate differs of course. But it's just not enough to cover bad game play or yet another sequel anymore.

Can we even see that many colours? -

People started to look elsewhere for what the big AAA titles lacked and indie developers suddenly found a huge following in their type of games (which sort of coincided with better game creating tools and better ways of disitributing for indie developers). Games that because of lack of funding often had to cut back on the expensive things like graphics. Instead they could offer something that was free and in fact desperately difficult to pay your way into - imagination and inventiveness. Gamers were even willing to pay up front for not-yet-created games just so they could get something else, something different or possibly something that reminded them of what they played many years ago. And they were willing to play these games before they were even finished just to get into it as fast as possible.

Eventhough Early Access might have started as a way for the small developers to get feedback on their games (Minecraft might have been one of the earliest and most popular examples of Early Access) I don't think that is the reason for its popularity today. To me Early Access is a way to get to play a game that is still in changing, where I might have one experience one day and get a new one the next. There is something attractive about a game in change and about being the pioneer who gets into the grit to sort out the issues. It turns into team work where I get to have fun and play a game all the while helping someone at the same time. And who didn't dream of getting to work as a game tester as a kid (I know I did)? It allows for a completely different kind of gaming, one that is somewhat similar to what mmorpgs offer with their patches that often change gameplay a lot. It seems like people enjoy the idea that what they have is not all there is but that there will be new things to learn and discover as time moves on. It is definitely one of the things I can see is fun about Early Access.

Something I've also seen on the rise are people who actually enjoy the Early Access games because they are broken. Games like Rust and DayZ seem to be so popular because of their unreliability and unpredictability and the whackiness that comes out of it. I honestly wonder if these games will retain their popularity once they are done - if nothing else people might feel like they've played the game enough at that point and we'll get the weird situation of a game being abandoned when it is finally finished. This is something that must be insanely difficult to try to replicate, as actual broken or otherwise horribly bad games like Ashes Cricket 2013 or Day One: Garry's Incident just seem to get a really bad reputation and then no one gets near them. Although maybe in those specific cases there is a difference between broken and unplayable games vs broken games released by nice game developers and broken games released by douche game developers. 

That looks painful -

In any case it seems like the playerbase wants to revert further and further back into gaming history. There doesn't seem to be much of a limit to how scaled down the graphics can be, just look at a game like Nidhogg or Minecraft, as long as the game play delivers. 2d, pixel or otherwise retrostyle graphics and now even broken games, linking back to trying to get your games to work or badly coded games from the AMIGA era and similar, are making a huge come back. Will it stop at this however? Or will the next big thing be everyone playing MUDs? Because that would be pretty cool.