Time isn’t on my Side (and I’m okay)

Former VL writer and Powerhead Games designman Matt recently posted a question on Twitter, to which I responded as succinctly as a I could.  All told, it’s an interesting topic, so I wanted to elaborate on it a bit more in a meatier blog post.
Matt’s initial question was the following:

With so many new games being released every single day, what does that do to a player’s appreciation for a single title?

I’m not exactly sure what, if anything, he is getting at with the question, but I know what it means to me.  My response was this:

honestly? It makes me appreciate that title more, if I’ve come to see most of those new games as “noise” in the release year.

This answer is the result of a major change in my gaming habits over the year.  In that time, I got a place of my own, got engaged, and started thinking about and planning for all sorts of “grown up” things.  I’m also keeping strict habits and keeping up on all those aggravating, but necessary, chores and errands which adult life demands of us.   All of this means that I’ve pretty much been left behind by the games industry.  I barely ever buy anything brand new; most of what I play now is months, if not years old, and bought for the cheap.  I’m spending no time with online multiplayer, and less time with plot-heavy single player games.  On the other hand, I spend a good chunk of time playing friendly co-op games (like Littlebigplanet) with my fiancé.  In short, I haven’t stopped caring about gaming, but I have stopped worrying about keeping pace.

This didn’t occur naturally. For a while, I resented the fact that I couldn’t devote as much time and money to gaming as I used to.  I tried in vain to fight against it, even as recently as March, when I made sure to scoop up a slew of niche RPGs that I haven’t played much of.  Soon after,  however, I came around and realized my situation was a blessing rather than a curse.

It probably happened when my fiancé and I started playing Sonic 2 and Kirby’s Epic Yarn together.  We looked forward to it night after night, stayed up later than we should to squeeze in just one more level, and experienced both triumph and bickering as we got through every trial.

When we were playing Kirby, I still had a stack of fresh games, all of which were languishing on the backlog.  Previously, this would have driven me nuts.  This time, I let them be.  I was spending time with good games, and sharing the experience with a friend (so to speak).  This is what I have wanted from games for so many years, and I was getting it.  I thought to myself, “Why in the world would I give that up?”

Because that’s exactly what I would be doing if I tried to focus my gaming energies on something else.  There was a mountain of evidence proving that I don’t finish RPGs, and don’t even like most of them.  Buying some of them was a waste of money, but trying to play (and beat) them would be a futile effort. Guaranteed.  As for the hotter, newer games coming out, I was reminded of current state of the industry.  Between marketing, preorder bonuses, and launch-inflated review scores, half of the buzz surrounding any new game is bullshit.  Absolute, utter bullshit.  Come back in six months, and half of gamers will sing an entirely different tune than they first did. Worrying about the new stuff is like gambling – I can’t be sure I’d have any fun, and the odds are stacked against me.

Realizing this, I decided that, for my purposes, most of those new games are noise.  Distractions trying to sucker me into laying down sixty bucks before I figure out I was swindled.  I want to support the industry,  but when I buy a game I end up not enjoying, out of some feelings of obligation, I’ve essentially made a charitable donation to a for-profit entity.  That’s just not in the cards when I’m thinking of starting a family.

My gaming time (and money) is more precious than ever before. I have to make the absolute most of it.  Increasingly, that means drowning out the noise and concentrating on games I know, for sure, will be worth it.  I imagine I’ll become even more particular as time goes on – future-me can’t give his wife and kids bad games.

In doing this, I come to really understand why these choice games entertain me. And it makes me appreciate them that much more.

I really like having that kind of relationship with a game. In a hobby filled with snark and pessimism. I’m not sure if I ever want to go back to the old ways.

7 thoughts on “Time isn’t on my Side (and I’m okay)”

  1. Great response, Christian, and thanks so much for responding in such a wonderful way! I’m honored, actually, that you felt so passionate about the question I proposed on Twitter. As well, I am going to try and follow this advice.

    The actual reason I proposed this question is similarly anecdotal. Having recently released ASYNC Corp., I’ve become somewhat disheartened by how many other releases on the iPhone there are, as well as how the majority of them are but a single dollar. This is the greatest time to be a mobile gamer, as there’s always something new to buy and at a super cheap price. So it wouldn’t be a surprise if you constantly bought more and more games, each and every day.

    But the problem I find is that most players end up spending only an hour or two playing each title, which is merely touching the surface of the game’s full experience and scale. To think that’s how most people interact with ASYNC Corp. upsets me greatly. A lot of subtle nuances of the design don’t show up until you’ve played the game for a reasonable amount of time. I’ve been playing the game, in one form or another, for over a year now, and I’m STILL learning new methods and techniques (you can make a 3×3 in some fairly unique ways).

    So how does one appreciate a game in that kind of environment? It’s what you said, you’re basically not appreciating it, because you’re already moving on to the next one, even as you play the current one. When I was young, I would rarely get a game. It would be a month or two before I got the next one, as I didn’t have a job and no game back then was only a dollar. No console game would EVER sell for a single dollar back then. So, because no new games would find their way into my system until a month or two later, I’d cherish greatly the one that was. Because of that those games became fond childhood memories, like Banjo-Kazooie, Goldeneye, and Super Mario Kart.

    I feel that most players now will never know that feeling, not when you can simply buy another game if you’re becoming slightly bored or stuck in the current one. As well, not a day goes by that someone on Twitter isn’t suggesting a new game to get on the iPhone, most likely because their buddy actually developed the game. As someone from the industry, you want to keep up with what’s going on, as would everyone else, but this causes that issue. But this is even worse, as it’s now being experienced by someone that creates the content. Decisions will be made based on their feelings, where they know most people won’t play their game for too long before going on to the next. They’re going to try and combat that at the expense of unique experiences that take some time to ferment. That I find to be really unfortunate. I’ve sort of asked myself, “Well, I got a good amount of people to play ASYNC at least once, what will get them to come back again?” I’ve already begun to think of designs that would do that, but is that right? What design would have been born if that wasn’t the problem? I’m sure a lot of people are jumping on the Zynga bandwagon for that very purpose, to create an unhealthy level of addiction to get them to keep playing the game. Games like Tap Pet Hotel and Tiny Tower are all games designed to get you to play more than once. Just search for “social games” and you’ll find the terms “engagement” and “re-engagement”, all directed at getting players to CONTINUE playing your games. This I find to be complete bullshit, as it turns games into this odd machine built for efficiency instead of personal and artistic expression.

    But this isn’t to say most games are bad either. There are, in fact, quite a few awesome games out there. But you won’t really understand why they’re awesome until you put the proper time into them, which requires restraint on your part and which is followed perfectly in your post. You probably saw specific things a designer or artist added to that game that made you smile or think, which wouldn’t have occurred if you were planning to play the next game already. That high level of immersion and appreciation just doesn’t exist for most players these days, and it’s the complete opposite when I was young. That appreciation is what made me go into the games industry to begin with, but now I find that it’s almost extinct, being slaughtered by the hand of another charming and addictive $1 app.

    There’s probably a whole lot more I could say, but I sort of need to formulate the ideas first. This topic is surprisingly deep:)

  2. It’s also not surprising that the most thoughtful game reviews are coming from you guys. The review for Glow Artisan, in particular, portrayed an experience no one seemed to have, yet was the kind of experience I was hoping most people WOULD have. You appreciated it on a much higher level, even though you didn’t love every aspect to it (which I completely understood as to why you didn’t).

  3. Christian! Welcome to the world of grown up gaming! A new frustration you’ll find (perhaps not but this is how it is in the UK) is that if you don’t snap up games within a couple of months of them being released they can be really hard to find from trustworthy retailers. A further frustration you’ll no doubt discover is that there are very few games that you can get the most out of in under 10 hours. Lastly, you’ll notice how with your new outlook on gaming, the games industry doesn’t work for you. They toil away under the illusion that the “core” gamer buys all games within two weeks of release and then that game will be forgotten by the games press and the major websites. Sad but true.

  4. Thanks for all the kind words. The issues you hit upon with the App Store go deep, but I agree with all you said. Just like with the “regular” industry, a lot of App Store games are built on fluff and hype. When people constantly tweet about the cool new thing they’re playing, chances are it doesn’t have the legs to carry it more than a few hours. But by then, those people have moved on to yet the next latest thing, so no one ever points out how ridiculous this behavior is.

    I don’t say the above to discourage you though! I think the praise for ASYNC Corp is built on stronger stuff, if for no other reason than because Glow Artisan’s strong reviews continued on long after it was originally released.

    But yeah, I think a lot of us had similar (or worse) situations when we were young, and had to cherish each game. Perhaps it is time to remind ourselves of that feeling again.

  5. Hey Cunzy,

    I’ve kinda of experienced some of those problems over the years, save for games going out of print. I know it WILL become a problem, however, and I’m prepared for it.

    I think.

  6. Well, I guess I’m kind of late to the party, but I just wanted to say that I really liked this thoughtful article. I can relate quite a bit as I’ve really desperately been wanting to catch up on my backlog, but it just seems so futile! After reading this, I want to try and just enjoy what I have, but I have a really bad habit of buying ‘x’ game when it’s on sale on Amazon if I even sort of think I might play it.
    I think the most ironic thing is that you’ve established this mindset of yours as you are moving into the “adult world”, while I, on the other hand, have steadily become more obsessed with video games and keeping up with the industry the last few years. Before I got a “real” job and got married two years ago, I was in school and was too focused on all of that to really even think about games much. But now that I have a job and can fund my hobby, it has become more than that…pretty much an obsession (maybe even an addiction?)
    Anyway, I don’t know how to conclude this comment properly. I just hope I can eventually come to terms with my inability to keep up with current games like you have. I think if I do it will ultimately make my life easier.

    P.S. I thought I’d mention that I discovered this site via the backloggery profile.

  7. Luke,

    Thanks for the comment (don’t worry about its timeliness).

    First off, I admire that you put your studies ahead of gaming. That’s something we’d all like to say, but you did it. Hats off to that.

    As to your buying habits, I know the feeling. I have to say that I probably wouldn’t have adjusted my gaming habits (both buying and playing) if my gaming budget was as large as it was a few years ago. That alone makes it tough to slow down. However, if you do feel like it is becoming an addiction, and you want to appreciate what you have , I can think of a couple other tips.

    – Do you spend a lot of time on gaming news and reviews sites? This was a big deal for me personally. Once I stopped reading these sites on a daily basis, things got “Better”, so to speak. I still usually know when new games are coming out, but by not reading about them every week, I keep a distance from the hype. The result is that I’m often interested in certain new releases, but I can’t get excited about something I don’t know much about.

    – I’ve been a gamefly subscriber for years, and it helps me a lot. Over the last two years, I loaded my gamefly queue with games I was genuinely interested in, but which I either couldn’t afford, or which I was still a little on the fence about. What I learned was that many of these games didn’t live up to my expectations, and knowing that I didn’t pay full price for them, I started to send some away without finishing them. This trend continued to the point where I’ll often mail a game back after just one or two sittings, if it really doesn’t grab me. This has taught me two lessons. First, I don’t actually like some of the games (and game genres) I thought I liked. Second, I began to understand what elements of gaming I enjoy, and which I can’t tolerate, and discovered that they’re different from a lot of the gamers I chatted with, both in real life and online. This helped me focus on a much smaller list of games which I was entirely confident I would enjoy. It has worked fairly well so far.

    – When buying games, always ask yourself how rare that game will be. If you know it will be on store shelves six months from now, try to hold off on getting it, and keep playing your current stack of games. In six months, you might be ready for the new one, or you might no longer care about it.

    – Try not to buy a game at release so that you can play it when it is new and hot (unless you are interested in multiplayer, in which case early adoption is crucial). More often than not, all the people chatting about the game at launch will sing a different tune about it in four months.

    – Sometimes the backlog only gets worse if we perceive completion as the end goal. There are many games which I never finished which I don’t consider being on my backlog. Even though they’re unfinished, I played them for thirty, maybe even forty hours. I feel like I got my money’s worth from those, regardless of how far I got towards finishing it.

    – Lastly, always stick with your gut, even if that means ignoring these tips.

    Good luck, and thanks for stopping by.

    (I’m going to go update my backloggery now, it has been stale for a long time).

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