My last few weeks of gaming have been dominated by two downloadable games, Braid and Bionic Commando. While both playing each game and reading the discussions surrounding them, I came to a great personal revelation. Whenever I get into a state of severe crankiness, it isn’t because of the games I am playing. In fact, I like playing them quite a lot. My bouts of frustration and anger stem almost entirely from the gaming community.
Folks, games really are still good, even if there is a lot of crap to tread through. But the “industry” as a whole, from the companies to the press to the fans, is in a miserable state. Here are a few observations as to why this may be the case.
For one, we can argue all we want about whether games are art, or whether they are the pinnacle of entertainment. The one thing that no one can argue is that video games are software. Anyone who actually works with software knows that things can and will go wrong. Nothing is ever bug free, mistakes will be made. Even the biggest players out there (like Google) know this. All they can do is write it the best they can, and keep aggressive bug reports. When it comes to features, developers will do what they can with the time and budget they have, both of which are finite.
Most people in the software world realize these things, and during actual conversation about the quality of software they will keep this in mind. People like to hate on Internet Explorer simply because it is a Microsoft product, but there are others that notice that for years the browser omitted features that its competitors included. That’s much more of an objective analysis that doesn’t take much effort to reach.
This line of thinking is almost nonexistent in the gaming community. They are interested in the entertainment, and nothing else. I can’t blame them for this, but as they say, knowledge is power, and sadly the whiners and complainers in gaming fandom can have a lot of sway without a lot of knowledge, and that can be problematic. It is one thing to complain about massive and easy to reproduce bugs. But when a feature you wanted doesn’t get included, how do you know it was due to lazy developers? How do you know it was due to stupid developers? How much do you want to bet that they had an idea, and couldn’t work it out due to time and money constraints, or because the publisher was too afraid of doing anything risky?
There are a lot of factors that create the end product of a game, and with better knowledge, we can better assess how an end product came to be, and our critiques can be more like bug reports for future games. Instead, most complaints are the result of huge assumptions and a lack of perspective. When we play bad games, we should explain why we dislike them, but the amount of asinine words that come out of wannabe industry commentators is excessive and unproductive. In areas of software and entertainment, these folks are marginalized or ignored. In gaming, they reside at NeoGAF and can cause all sorts of trouble.
This leads to the next point. In other forms of entertainment (and even in software), you have experts that come from a variety of perspectives. Fresh young critics will have a lot of different ideas from those of the old hand who has been following the industry for decades. It creates a balance and allows a person to find the voices they trust. More importantly, those older critics are likely to have learned a lot in their time, which gives some more weight to their authority (which, as stated above, is what we want).
We don’t have anything like this in gaming. Granted, it is a young hobby, but whether due to the Great Crash or not, all the voices and people from its roots are gone. We have few, if any, bright critics who have seen the industry evolve from its pre Atari roots and we struggle to name leading members of development teams behind classic NES games. There are no long standing authorities, unless you mean long standing in a relative fashion.
We often see editors, writers and designers bow out of the scene. Thus we have a situation where the inmates run the asylum. A few years of writing can make you a senior editor, and the loudest community voices are often from some of the youngest gamers (which means that actual experience and veteran status mean nothing). There aren’t enough weathered voices to counteract all the bullshit.
There are a few possibilities as to why this is the case. Perhaps they grow tired of the bullshit, as seems to have happened with former EGM editor Dan Hsu. Maybe they find better opportunities in other industries. Maybe they grow out of it. All of these possibilities are bad for gaming, as it means that no matter how much money the industry makes, no matter how “mature” we claim it is, it still revolves around adolescent wants and behavior.
Finally, perhaps the saddest truth is that the gaming community is made up of a variety of nerds, geeks and dorks. These people have often been made fun of and marginalized. Being one of them, I know it is often due to unfair circumstances, but I also know it is because these subcultures are incredibly smug and self-righteous about their tastes and about themselves, perhaps as a counter to their troubles.
For example, I enjoy reading sports blogs. They mostly concern themselves with the team, the players, the outcomes of games, etc. There is plenty of armchair analysis, but it doesn’t overcome the attention given to actual facts and news. Every so often you might get a few paragraphs written about a fan meetup during a game. The bottom line is that sports fans’ passion come from a love of the team, not themselves.
However, at the recent Penny Arcade Expo, a sea of gamers made their Pip Boy puppets “rock out” to the song “The Final Countdown”, and the game blogs felt that we just had to see this. If you weren’t there, why the hell would you care about this? Because nerds are incredibly narcissistic, and are afraid to admit that their likes and actions are dangerously close to the stupid shit everyone else does. This kind of topic has no right hitting any radars on the gaming news ticker, but there it is. If only this kind of news was laughed into shame. This narcissism is also what leads to the rise of GAF-style communities, where the desire is not to contribute worthwhile discussion of games, but to help bolster delusions of being “inside of the industry”.
No wonder corporate greed and methods invaded so very quickly. Even as far back as the N64 days gaming was still something of a wild west. Goldeneye was made at Rare by a team of almost all rookies, with its multiplayer coded entirely by one man, Steve Ellis.
Two gens later, this kind of development would be impossible. No license would just be handed off to someone to do what they wished. There will be focus groups, development diaries, interviews with rockstar directors that promise that the game will remain true to some vision. The end product will be a patchwork of other ideas that don’t do said ideas any justice.
In a relatively short span of years, we went from Goldeneye, to Goldeneye: Rogue Agent, while some of guys behind Goldeneye itself are also responsible for something as blatantly paint-by-numbers and undercooked as Haze.
Things have changed, a lot. The corporate element of gaming has a firmer grip than ever before. It is bound to happen, but there is no real check to it, because the rest of the industry – community, press, etc – are all busy in a big perpetual circle jerk. Somewhere, in the middle of it all, are a few companies that still know and appreciate what makes a good game.
They do exist, they aren’t too hard to find, and they make gaming an absolute joy. You can try to focus on them and distance yourself from the ruckus, but good luck keeping tabs on the latest games and news. It is quite the Catch-22, and despite what you may think, we aren’t all Yossarians. We have all helped make this mess in one way or another. The best we can do is try to clean it up through thorough, accurate reviews, frank speech, and tough (but fair) questions. All in a professional matter. It won’t be easy, but just trying will help.
Remember, these are still video games. They didn’t lead to instant cool then, and they still don’t now.