Are Old Games Killing New Games – Parallels Between Gaming and Music

I recently came across this piece from musician/writer/historian Ted Gioia. The last time I read something by Gioia was his 2017 essay Music Criticism has Degenerated into Lifestyle Reporting, which I found to be both entertaining and painfully accurate (and which set off an entertaining firestorm of backlash from all the poptimist critics whom the piece targeted).

But this new post is a lot less inflammatory, and is arguably much more useful. The title says it all – “Old Music is Killing New Music.” The author makes several key points about the music industry, and what I find interesting is how every single one of them can also be applied to gaming.

Here’s the TL:DR for those who don’t want to read the original piece:

  • Metrics suggest that people are listening to old music more than new music (at least among the metrics that “matter”).
    • This includes younger generations who were never alive in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s (or maybe even the 90’s).
  • Record labels are more interested in spending truckloads of money to buy the back catalogs of legacy acts than on scouting, new technologies, or new artists.
  • There is lots of interesting new stuff being done outside of the major labels (or at least Gioia believes there is), but discovery is a huge problem. There’s simply too much of it, and no one is doing a great job of curation.
  • The major labels are so obsessed with playing it safe that (in Gioia’s opinion) it will ultimately be their undoing. He relates a time when he worked as a business consultant, using hard metrics to prove that innovation is key to long term success. Company boardrooms largely ignored the findings.
    • Would you be surprised if I told you that part of their justification was that “playing it safe leads to better short term gains”?

I cannot think of a single one of these bullet points that doesn’t apply to gaming:

  • A ton of Xbox360/PS3 games were remastered and re-released on Xbox One and PS4. This wouldn’t have happened unless there was a demand to play them. This is to say nothing of the contemporaneous deluge of retro re-releases, compilations, plug and play mini consoles, etc.
    • Fortnite is a game played largely by tweens, but it features character skins based on Sarah Connor, Terminator, Ellen Ripley, Predator, Snake Eyes, Ryu, and the Xenomorph from Alien. And if my ten year old nephew is any indication, kids his age think these characters are cool.
  • Large publishers have gone on acquisition sprees, and while some were done to acquire talent, others are very clearly attempts to capture back catalogs and existing IP’s.
  • There is a ton of cool stuff going on in the indie scene, but finding it is difficult unless you spend all of your gaming-related energy focusing on them.
  • Major publishers are obsessed with playing it safe, with most AAA games adopting the  “games as a service” approach. Or consider Activision, which has, at various times in its history, dedicated almost all of its internal resources to extreme sports games, music games, or Call of Duty, without stopping to think about what they’d do once these games fell out of favor (though we know from experience what happens – they shut down a bunch of studios and buy up some new ones).
You experienced the fire breathing dragon in Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls 3, but have you experienced it in Demon’s Souls Remastered?

I guess it’s not surprising to see all these similarities. Both industries are run by the kinds of corporate overlords that are mainly interested in squeezing every last drop of revenue out of their Intellectual Property and (*shudder*) human capital.

Some of the comments to Gioia’s post bring up some interesting counter-thoughts. One individual argues that the concept/trend of constantly listening to new music, rather than just enjoying the standards of old, is an aberration of the 20th and 21st centuries, and that the current trend towards familiar old works is a return to the norm. I don’t fully buy this line of thought, but there might be some merit to it. We arguably are seeing some of it in gaming, what with the constant influx of retro re-releases, and the continued reliance on sequels and existing IP’s.

Someone else pointed out that this is just part of a general trend toward a society that doesn’t value individual creativity and artistic endeavor. They clarify that it’s a bad time to be a musician, writer, photographer, etc. I agree with this in general, but it leads to a “chicken and egg” situation – good artistic works are harder to find because there’s no market for them, but is there no market for them because they can’t be found? This is a question no one ever seems to bring up.

Lastly, someone ponders whether the blame should be placed on the lack of good critics, who can point readers to the best new music and save them some time. This one resonates with me, because the same is true in gaming. Old videolamer spent a lot of time taking professional games journalists and reviewers to task, and the situation on that front has arguably only gotten worse.

Anyway, what do you think? Is the situation in gaming as bad as it is in music? Is there anything that can be done to get us out of this hole? To get your brain juices flowing, here are a few more observations from the comments to Gioia’s piece:

  • Is it a problem that we now have access to more stuff than ever before? To paraphrase one comment, “if a kid in the 60’s listened to big band music from the 30’s, even if they liked it, they may not find it easy to obtain more of it. That’s no longer true. Everything is available, and it’s all competing for our attention.”
  • Is part of the problem that nowadays entertainment is treated more as a product to consume than a moment to experience? When everyone is trying to churn through “content” just for the sake of churning through content, they’re going to start treating it as disposable. How could you possibly remember the names of individual artists and creators in this milieu?
  • Have we given up the idea of cultural consensus to algorithms? In other words, people don’t choose what becomes popular, but instead follow along with whatever social media algorithms determine should be popular.
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2 years ago

Good read and good insight. Thanks for writing.

As someone guilty of playing old games rather than new games (one collection I reviewed recently and discussion of another remaster in the works) – there are a few reasons I will play older games over newer games.

1 – Nostalgia (usually personal in my case) – replaying an old game I know I will enjoy.

2 – Price – remasters or remakes are usually substantially cheaper than newer games. Old-ish games (e.g. a 5 year old game on steam) are also going to be cheaper than newer games. When time is limited for my hobby, I’m going to find it harder to justify a $60 new game I’m not sure I will like than I used to

3 – Choice paralysis / lack of curation – I don’t pay as much attention to reviews as I used to, so I’m not as sure what I’m actually going to like. When I read a bunch of reviews or impressions, I just want to play everything which is frustrating and impractical. (e.g. Expeditions: Rome and Elden Ring sound fantastic, but I’ve spent 3 months playing Shin Megami Tensei 5 and I’m not quite done)

4 – Notability – sometimes I missed a game that gets remade and has notoriety already and play it over something that was released recently and opinion seems more split about. This has less impact on my than it used to but it did get me to play Planescape: Torment a few years ago (which was worthwhile)

I do feel like even in the last couple generation, “B” devs (or sometimes called A or AA devs) were getting squeezed. It’s probably imagined on my part, but I think the PS1/N64 generation might be the last one that was really decent for them. And AAA devs are usually making safer and safer games (whether open-world, battle royale, souls-like…). There’s the occasional indie breakout, which is good to see, but they’re typically not big enough to shake the industry – more like survive a few more iterations.

I bought the recent mega-bundle, and it has a bevy of creative-looking, interesting games but I’m honestly not sure how to curate that many games myself. There are likely hundreds of games I would enjoy there, and it’s depressing to think that many of the devs are likely taking financial risks that will not pan out because people like me are overwhelmed by choice (or would only buy their game in a bundle like this).

tl/dr; I see the problem, I’m part of the problem, I’m not sure how or whether we can fix it beyond trying to be a little better ourselves.

Last edited 2 years ago by chris
2 years ago

Thanks for the thoughtful response Chris.

You make a lot of good points about the appeal of playing older games. As you say, there is always lots of old stuff that is new to you, and time filters out the truly bad stuff. That’s important when you are squeezed for time or money.

I think you are on the mark about B/AA games going away. They’re not big enough for the major publishers to put a heavy focus on, and too big for most indies. They still exist, but not in nearly enough numbers.

The indie game curation problem reminds me of another anecdote that, conveniently, has to do with music. In the late 2000’s/early 2010’s, I remember trying to find good new music that went beyond the stuff being put out by major labels. Lots of music fans swore up and down that it was out there – you just had to look for it …

And boy were they correct that you had to look for it. Basically, they expected you to find and a follow a bunch of music blogs. The ones I found tended to post a lot. The amount of time it would take to go through the content of multiple music blogs, plus the time it would take to listen to all the music they posted about, would have left me with roughly zero time for any other hobbies or interests.

It wasn’t really curation, or at least it didn’t feel like it. It was more like enthusiasts who spend all their time on this one thing pointing me to every single record, artist, single, etc that they had even a passing interest in.

I feel like the situation is not dissimilar when it comes to indie game enthusiasts. Sometimes it seems like they suggest a ton of games, and while some of them look nice enough, they don’t like they’re something I can spend my precious time on. And I’m not sure what to do about that.

2 years ago

i have heard some pretty convincing arguments that the telecommunications act of 1996, by deregulating radio station ownership led to an overall homogenization of popular music. you could imagine that phenomenon leading people incline toward music other than pop vocals over trap beats to seek out other options and land on the various musical styles of previous decades.

on gaming, i do think the best parallel between this issues is on the curation/discoverability front. i wrote in one of our group articles that one of the ways i find games to play is by following specific development companies or individuals, but that doesnt really explain how to add new ones. mostly i just passively absorb news, reviews, top whatever lists, and impressions until something bubbles up that catches my interest. feels very unsystematic and random which in turn makes me feel like i am probably missing good stuff at the same time i am being unfair to up and coming games or developers. with the sheer volume of games released it is hard to have any real sense of what is out there, and other than assemblages of game of the year, which occasionally include something like inscryption or deaths door (neither of which i have found the time to play yet) i don’t have a solution. if there were reviewers out there i really felt aligned with my taste that would help, but even finding that person, if he or she exists, feels daunting. and as we mention millions of times on this very site, too many reviewers aim for some amount of objectivity which makes it even hard to calibrate whether someone might value what i do.

AA/B devs seem to have largely been replaced by indie devs, which seems to work out ok in the western world, but leaves us short on interesting, smaller japanese stuff, which sucks.

i play plenty of old games (i track it and it hovers around a third to 40% of my total gaming time) but from a strictly revenue perspective i dont think old games cannibalize new in any meaningful sense. sure, services like gog exist and plenty of remakes and remasters get released. and occasionally one of the platform holders deigns to make their back catalogue available to us as with the wii’s incredible virtual console or sony’s ps1 classics lineup, but those mostly appeal to weirdos like us. the vast majority of money (and likely time) spent on the hobby as a whole goes to newer stuff. it may not be all newer stuff i like, as games as a service eat the world, but it is very possible for new games to turn a profit in todays world.

Cunzy1 1
2 years ago

Interesting read. On the one hand I am glad that much of the retro gaming I am interested in is now more easily available than it ever was before. With the Switch in particular you can play through some early titles in some great series in a way that our thirteen year old self could barely believe is possible.

However, much like music, almost anything off the beaten track is still only playable through having physical media and old hardware that still runs it. Large swathes of PlayStation and PlayStation 2 titles I’m interest in are only available with significant investment in faffing around with PC stuff, which, I don’t have the time or hardware for. Not to mention anything that involved some kind of license.

Despite (awful) digital stores that groan under the weight of digital experiences to revisit on offer and every aspect of our lives steered (largely unsuccessfully in my opinion) by one algorithm or another, there’s still no replacement or equivalent for a physical store, arranged like a record store, with a knowledgeable ‘curator’ to help navigate you through it. I remember writing a lot when brick and mortar game stores went under here (in the UK) about how stores were digging their own grave by pushing this week’s titles and pretending that anything older, hardware, games, etc. just didn’t exist. It’s bad business and not thinking about customers who perhaps buy one or two games a year rather than every new thing out every week (if that kind of person even existed). The contrast when walking into Japanese specialist stores was so stark.

In the last ten years, I’d say gaming has improved by making many of the ‘classics’ available again but as you’ve written and as some of the other comments have pointed out, even if you’re knee-deep in gaming it can be hard to find THE GAMES to play if you’ve just acquired a new PS4, Switch or Xbox for example. The one exception is perhaps Mario Kart which keeps it’s retail price years on, still tops sales charts and even getting a new wave of add-on content despite no persistent coverage in games media, no extra marketing and a huge install base already.

2 years ago

To reply to Cunzy – I like everything you’ve said in your comment. I’ll also point out that you’ve hinted at a topic that anyone on the site could write a full post about – namely, one of the other problems with physical sales of older games is that speculation has caused the prices for most old games to skyrocket.

You can find some stores that sell retro games in a similar mold to a record store – I’ve found a few in my travels – but unlike a good used record store, there’s no way to walk out with even one game with the cash you happen to have in your wallet.

(Also, in all these retro stores I’ve frequented, none of the people working there had even a passing interest in talking to me and sharing their enthusiasm for retro games, which leads me to believe that they’re probably working there because it’s a job, not a passion. Which, fine, but it’s one more way in which we’re further away from the ideal)

((Also, as a counter example, my other main hobby is building model kits of giant robots. I found a local hobby store that sells them, and I’ve had conversations with other hobbyists multiple times while I was in the store. I’ve even run into an IT person at work, and a plumber who both built models (and whom I geeked out with). I never would have believed I’d have an easier time finding real life people to talk about plastic models with than videogames, but there you have it. It makes me pessimistically wonder how many people are into retro games because they love retro games, and how many people are into it for the sake of status and signaling))

Last edited 2 years ago by Christian
Cunzy1 1
2 years ago

To reply to the reply, I didn’t even dare to dream that such a shop would exist! Something about the economics of games doesn’t seem to stack up. And perhaps, as you mention in the post, this all tracks back to the games industry itself stuck in a rut and well past the point of respecting their own products. All new games have to be hundreds of hours long, free to play, available on every device, no intrusive ads, decent single player, better multiplayer, steady waves of extra content (ideally free)… and it’s lead to some insane race to the bottom with many games living or dying in launch week and out of the zeitgeist mere days later.

I dunno, I just feel like Steam libraries full of untouched games bought for fractions of fractions of the original price, general precarity across the games industry and boom bust business models certainly don’t help the health of the game industry but also keep games as a medium stuck in a cultural acceptance limbo. I may be overthinking it but gaming still feels like a dirty hobby (despite gaming filling stadiums and xxx hours of watched streams and $$$$ in sales etc.) and I’d love to see it legitimised.

2 years ago

There is something to be said about how, despite all the claims that “gaming makes more money than all these entertainment industries”, no one takes it as seriously within the popular culture. TV, Film, Music, even Sports are all considered more culturally acceptable to partake in, collect, etc

I too have wondered if a crash is imminent, but I’ve been thinking that for a long time, and it hasn’t yet happened.