In 2007 I looked at the plethora of amazing games, and came to the conclusion that the games industry was finally operating on all cylinders. After a less than stellar 2008, made all the dimmer by its proximity to the previous year — like trying to look at Mercury next to the morning sun — I decided that I was a fool to have thought so highly of a bunch of focus group hacks. Now, with 2009, I am trying to take a longer view, and the more I do the more encouraged I am.
Though, I find that my enthusiasm for gaming is tempered by the need for diversity, and the more time I spend away from the big name box stores and their menagerie of mediocrity, the better experience I have. This has been illustrated some what by my Horizons Broadening Project, but even that is the organized manifestation of a deeper sea change.
I join a growing population of gamers that don’t look for the best gaming experiences in the brick and mortar stores of strip malls, found tucked between the tanning salon and a Thai Buffet joint with food that will burn your soul. Instead now, I often can be found playing on digital platforms that can provide an environment harkening back to gaming days of old.
I think it might be hyperbole to say that gaming is enjoying a renaissance, and of course nobody walking around 16th century Florence said to his next door neighbor, “lovely renaissance we’re having, no?” But, as I think about the unique gaming experiences I’ve enjoyed over the past few years, I have to admit that there is an undercurrent of evolution.
For those not keeping track, the traditional gaming market is actually teetering on the edge of crisis. Ignore what NPD and other sales tracking agencies say about the current health of game sales; it ain’t about revenue. It’s about profit, and there are contracting forces pushing at the edge of gaming. Let me be the first to nod toward the way multi-billion dollar companies have bungled their way onto a console bubble, its straining surface tension ready to pop.
But, I say who cares. Game consoles and PCs may stick around as a platform to deliver a new mode of content, but the future may look back on first party and major third party dominance as anachronistic as the old city bosses of the 19th century.
Joined by an explosion of strong, if brief, games that play right in a web browser, and the now commonplace offerings available on platforms such as Steam, PSN and Xbox Live, games like Braid, World of Goo, Uno, Bejewled, Flower and Castle Crashers describe the primordial designs of a landscape that may become vast, fertile and wholly outside the traditional big-budget gaming arena.
No, these games aren’t precisely a threat to the old guard yet, but if you look at the rapid adoption from both casual and hardcore corners of the gaming populace in such a short time, one gets the feeling that a new world order may be afoot.
As it stands right now, one need never walk into a Gamestop or buy a game from a multi-billion dollar publisher again. The decision to invest in the static, mediocre or exploited is a voluntary one, and little sympathy should be wasted on the buyer so desperate that they will invest into whatever pabulum is advertised between Girls Gone Wild commercials on Spike TV.
I don’t necessarily imagine a future where big companies don’t invest millions of dollars into the corporate machine of game making, but I also don’t think the system as it currently functions can manage and maintain. The Activision and Electronic Arts of the world will certainly not abandon the schemes that have made them worth billions of dollars easily, but they will also see the high return on low investment that the new model offers, and already you see EA trying to move a high profile franchise like Battlefield into this new mode. Of course, they’ve bungled the operation entirely, but the point is not success but recognition.
In the long run, the story of this generation is not the delivery method, but how it has legitimized high quality, low cost gaming. As consumers we are beginning to think about our relationship with games in different and more sophisticated ways, and I think the coming generation will reflect the results of a tiny renaissance in a big way.