Right Here, Right Now

I’ve never been known for my sunny disposition. Like many writers, I’m content to twirl my misery around my finger like a gold pocketwatch, irritating passersby with the glare. The notion of me cultivating a positive outlook is like the image of Donald Trump in the Oval Office: incredibly unlikely, mostly laughable — but maybe, just maybe, eerily, terrifyingly plausible.

And strangely enough, I’ve been finding myself looking on the bright side a lot more when it comes to gaming these days.

A line in one of Elysium’s articles, I think, is what inspired this newfound cheer. “I must admit,” he wrote, “there have been a number of times recently where I’ve thought, ‘Man, gamers sure do hate video games.’" It's baffling that gamers pounce with gleeful abandon on any slightest perceived offense from "the industry." As Sean implied, it's as if people think multinational corporations like Sony and Nintendo have entire business divisions explicitly devoted to intentionally pissing off consumers.

We’re all guilty of cynicism at times, and often that cynicism is well-earned. Witness the recent PSN debacle. But gaming, like politics, can easily devolve into a study in extremes. The fringe cases and blowhards get the column inches, and the success stories either get relegated to the back pages or drowned in hyperbole. The result is a picture of the medium that skews far too heavily toward the edges, especially the negative.

The thing is — and I know some of you may consider this heresy — there may have never been a better time than right now to be a gamer. The current gaming landscape is more varied, affordable, and accessible than ever before. As coach Marv Levy of my beloved Buffalo Bills used to say back in the glory days, “Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?”

Here are just some of the reasons I’d argue gamers are better off in 2011 than ever before.

It’s easier to be frugal. Let’s start with the elephant in the room: cost. While both console and PC gaming still require a significant investment, there are plenty of avenues for gaming on the cheap. On consoles, XBLA and PSN offer a wealth of outstanding titles at $15 or less. Steam’s holiday sales are notorious for offering tons of quality games at ridiculously low prices. Other digital distribution services are attempting to replicate Valve’s success, which means more options for consumers. While the used game market carries its own set of problems for the industry, it has created a more competitive atmosphere as publishers and retailers vie for coveted new-game sales. I haven’t bought a new game in over a year that didn’t come with some kind of Amazon credit or brick-and-mortar gift card. In addition to the filthy enablers here on the site, there are any number of deal-tracking sites to help gamers maximize their purchasing power. There’s also the rise of the free-to-play model and the $1.99 mobile game. Although they're often not equal to the scope of content offered in a traditional $60 disc, they have redefined how we think about “value” when it comes to gaming experiences. And since both mobile devices and PCs are multi-purpose, it’s easier for people who don’t want to make the investment in a console to jump into the arena. Especially because...

Mobile games don’t suck. Okay, some do. Okay, a lot do. But it’s difficult to ignore the many polished, enjoyable efforts on the iOS and Android platforms, especially now that it’s almost impossible to buy a new cellphone that isn’t a smartphone. Sick of Angry Birds at this point? Try Infinity Blade, 100 Rogues, Drop7, or any number of others. The market is massive and cheap. One thing that excites me about this space is the ability to choose between bite-size, 10-minute time-killers and engrossing multi-hour experiences, something the retail disc market doesn’t always offer. And with a price tag at $5 or less, there’s little risk involved.

Ease of digital distribution. At what point physical media entirely disappear remains to be seen, but it’s hard to argue we’re not heading that way. The success of services like Steam, GOG, XBLA, and the App Store has even prompted GameStop to dip its gigantic corporate toe into digital distribution. You can buy an absurd amount of storage for under $100, enough to rid your shelves of all those discs. As far back as last September, digital sales of PC games eclipsed physical sales. It’s not yet fully clear exactly how much digital distribution has grown the industry, but intuitively, it seems like a massive boon. It’s also worth noting the added value services like Steam and GOG bring in the form of optimizing games for immediate play, which reduces the need to futz around with configuration.

Lower barriers to entry. Just a decade ago, the idea of getting together to play a video game at a party would have been laughable. But with the mainstream popularity of the music game genre and the Wii, the image of the nerdy LAN party has been replaced by the post-pub Rock Band session or the family bowling championship at Grandma’s house. I don’t own or want a Wii myself, nor am I particularly interested by Kinect or Move, but I’m glad they have brought more people into gaming and helped reduce the stigma so long associated with being a “gamer.” My thoughts on Facebook games are significantly less favorable, but at least they’ve have forced developers (even those designing for PCs and consoles) to innovate new pricing models, social features and design strategies.

Instant connection. Okay, so PSN wet the bed and Nintendo still can’t get a clue. But I’d still argue it’s easier than it’s ever been to play online. Those of us who are LAN party veterans know what a pain it used to be for people without Computer Science degrees to set up online matches — if there was any online functionality at all. This console generation has taken advantage of widely-available broadband access not only to encourage developers to focus on refining and expanding multiplayer options, but also to make their online services an integral part of their product. Probably 50 percent of my 360’s usage is for Netflix as it is; this seems to square with the broader trend. While the manufacturers haven’t quite hit on the perfect recipe for other services yet, I can only imagine streaming media will continue to become a bigger selling point.

A thriving independent scene. The last few years have seen a renaissance in this space, with the Minecraft phenomenon leading the way. Some of 2010’s most lauded titles — Limbo, Super Meat Boy, Amnesia: The Dark Descent — put their AAA competitors to shame in terms of both originality and critical reception. They’ve proven you don’t need a team of 300 and a budget of $50 million to make a superior product. And the indie audience has ballooned as distribution has become easier: Just as iTunes has done for musicians, Xbox Live, Steam, and other services have given independent game developers global reach. And if you still like your games to be of blockbuster scope, there’s no shortage of those, either. It’s terrific to see the outstanding efforts of small studios rewarded as well.

More access to quality information and criticism. I’ll concede that the typical PR-journalist relationship still isn’t, uh, ideal. Accusations of payola scams and publisher pressure still flood forums everywhere, while Metacritic insidiously creeps ever closer to becoming the default metric for developer merit pay (or, worse, job security). Despite these hangups, I’m encouraged by the proliferation of thoughtful games discussion in recent years. Outlets like Gamasutra, The Escapist, and Kill Screen (full disclosure: I also write for the latter publication) provide a level of depth not found in other venues, while sites like Joystiq and Giant Bomb consistently deliver solid reporting. Gamers have more choice when it comes to news, criticism, and research than they have in the past. Whether you’re interested in the business angle, philosophical debate, literary-style criticism, or plain old previews and reviews, there’s an outlet for you. Not that you need to go anywhere besides GWJ, of course, but it’s nice to know you can.

Let’s be honest. There will never be a shortage of things to complain about when it comes to the game industry, and we all feel that pull of nostalgia from time to time. But even the most hardened cynic has to admit there’s a lot to like about the current gaming landscape. Like Marv said: Where else would you rather be?

Comments

I couldn't agree more - great article!

Stop complaining about the wealth of choice, internet! M0ar lolcats!

Someone had to do it..

Edit: Agreed for the most part. I have a few caveats, such as the death and decay of the space flight sim genre, and the end of a few beloved series on sad notes (Ultima, Wing Commander).

Still, the biggest issue I have as a gamer is that I don't have the same kind of time to devote to the hobby as an adult that I did as a child. That's not gaming's fault, it's mine.

Two things come to mind:

1) I think it's a bit much to characterize community responses as being to "the slightest perceived offense." Examples such as the recent Capcom tweet regarding the Mega Man cancellation (in which the fans' lack of passion was blamed for the cancellation) and the famous "exploitation" quote from Kotick come to mind; these are pretty dang close to actual offenses. Other examples might include the much-discussed strict DRM of EA, Ubi, et al, where adults can be forced to call the company and plead for the chance to use a product they legally bought.

2) Whether a majority of gamers would indeed call 2011-12 the best two years of all time I don't know, but I suspect that the vast majority would vote yes to "is it a great time?", and they would eagerly list many of the points here. I also think that most of us would call arguments over things like DRM or, say, the initial price of the 3DS minor issues in the hobby's big picture. You see a lot of discussion of those issues because disagreement produces more discussion and more energy (ask anyone publishing an article/book/etc. in any competitive field and they'll probably say the same--you aren't going to get much traction by agreeing and loving all the time); I doubt that we actually think those issues are the most important ones overall. The article seems like a bit of a strawman to me, because it's structured around refuting a claim most of its readers wouldn't make.

It’s easier to be frugal.

A thriving independent scene.

I think those two points sort of define me. I've come to a place where I'm not really much interested in AAA releases because they keeps feeling like been there, done that. Part of that is my experience as a gamer and part of that is just the game publishing trends within the big publishers.

But cheap access to a wide variety of games has been nothing but a boon for me.

Good points all around. Digital distribution of notable titles on XBL feels like a test-the-waters kind of thing, so I'm wondering if they'll every Day-and-Date their big releases.

I'd also say that we're in a pretty comfy spot in terms of the R&D/Release cycle for our consoles. The PS3 and 360 both received motion-based trinkets recently, and there's not too much rumbling about successor lines. As a result, gamers have access to a strong catalog of older games, along with a few upcoming Big Releases that cap off (Mass Effect 3) or continue (Modern Warfare 3) franchises. We don't have to worry about the next big thing.

Great article. As someone who's been in the hobby for a long, long time, this is indeed the best time to be a gamer. It doesn't mean that there aren't problems, but if you want to just play games, it has never been better.

Great article. All good points, but I want to add a few things.

Nostalgia is funny. There seems to be a tendency among gamers to treat the late 90s as a sort of "Golden Age" of video games, with some of the best games of all time coming out between 97 and 99, and I guess I'm no exception. However, people tend to only think of the good games. They don't think of the crap games, or the general hassle of getting games to work: CGA vs VGA graphics, the brand new tech of 3D poly based rendering, drivers, patches, LAN, online play over 56k dial up, etc.

Things aren't perfect now -- there are tons of things to criticize about the industry -- but the overall trend is way better, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that the industry is growing, with something like 50% of people playing games of some sort. Pretty much everyone reads, or listens to music, or watches movies, so I wouldn't argue that we've made until those numbers are much higher (like 90%), but I think that is just a matter of time.

It is easier and cheaper to play video games now, than it ever was before. Yes, there is a lot of crap out there, but that is largely because there is so much more available period.

There is always going to be a sense of disappointment with the industry. When marketing meets fandom, you get a compounding of high expectations. Cynicism is almost inevitable. From 1977...

Box art:

IMAGE(http://www.scottdecker.com/video_games/atari_2600_combat_box.jpg)

Actual games:

IMAGE(http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/e/e3/Combat-biplanes1.png)

IMAGE(http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/a/ac/Atari_combat2.png)

Great article. My only complaint stems from the Buffalo Bills love. While the rest of Buffalo-area will be hating on the Bills by game 4 of the regular season, I choose to point out the teams flaws early and often.

I'd like to note the lower barrier to develop as a key to the success of independent gaming. I'm especially glad that the MineCraft team came up with the beta-buy-in business model, hopefully that leads to even more games like Frozen Synapse.

S0LIDARITY wrote:
Great article. My only complaint stems from the Buffalo Bills love. While the rest of Buffalo-area will be hating on the Bills by game 4 of the regular season, I choose to point out the teams flaws early and often.

I'd like to note the lower barrier to develop as a key to the success of independent gaming. I'm especially glad that the MineCraft team came up with the beta-buy-in business model, hopefully that leads to even more games like Frozen Synapse.

Not the first to do this, just the biggest so far.

Also, keep faith in the Bills this year. If they keep bleeding talent and lose a bunch of games this year they might get that coveted #1 pick for next year (ie. the Andrew Luck pick).

@garion333,
Well, I'm glad the minecraft team brought that model to my attention. Out of curiosity, who used it first?

I don't want to wish that on Andrew Luck, he seems like a talented young gentleman.

S0LIDARITY wrote:
@garion333,
Well, I'm glad the minecraft team brought that model to my attention. Out of curiosity, who used it first?

To be honest, I don't know, but other indies before Minecraft used it. One game I can name offhand is Cortex Command, but there's others out there. Like I said, Minecraft just brought the model to a LOT more people.

Mount and Blade is the first one the comes to mind for the beta purchase.

Thanks for the comments, all!

Garden Ninja wrote:
They don't think of the crap games, or the general hassle of getting games to work: CGA vs VGA graphics, the brand new tech of 3D poly based rendering, drivers, patches, LAN, online play over 56k dial up, etc.

Oh man. Configuration is a skill I've almost completely lost. The other night I downloaded some mods for my Steam version of Quake II, and after spending a baffling half-hour digging through forums, I managed to successfully install and configure them. This stuff used to be cake. Now all it takes is unzipping a file into the right folder for me to feel like freakin' MacGyver.

Spaz wrote:
I'd also say that we're in a pretty comfy spot in terms of the R&D/Release cycle for our consoles. ... We don't have to worry about the next big thing.

Another great point. As Tanglebones noted above, the biggest problem for many of us now is finding time to play all the great games we've amassed. Part of that is a function of aging, sure, but I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say, "thank goodness there's not gonna be a new console this year." It's almost become a recurring bit on the podcast!

CptGlanton wrote:
The article seems like a bit of a strawman to me, because it's structured around refuting a claim most of its readers wouldn't make.

I see what you're saying, but this is why GWJ is such an oasis. I'd argue that this is one of the few gaming sites where this article could be perceived as a strawman. At other outlets, I've been lucky enough to avoid a lot of vitriol so far. But most of my colleagues haven't. Their slightest opinion or argument, no matter how benign, can evoke a firestorm of hate and personal attacks. I mention this because one common thread I see in those responses is a lack of perspective on what a great climate it is, overall, for consumers right now. (For developers, of course, it's a different story.) But I absolutely agree that the industry does not lack for offensive practices, particularly in how it chews up & spits out people who work so hard within it. That naturally trickles down to those who support it by buying & playing games.

S0LIDARITY wrote:
My only complaint stems from the Buffalo Bills love. While the rest of Buffalo-area will be hating on the Bills by game 4 of the regular season, I choose to point out the teams flaws early and often.

We used to go to the Bills Backers bar here in Boston every Sunday. Now we just save our money by getting drunk and weeping at home.

Scratched wrote:
Mount and Blade is the first one the comes to mind for the beta purchase.

Oh yeah. I bought that in 2006 for $7 or some such thing. Forgot about that.

I'd agree pretty much entirely.

I have the same fond memories of the late 90's that many do. Half-Life, Starcaft, Counter-Strike... and on from there. I played thousands of hours of those games.

But realistically... there's nothing about that time period that was better than now except that I was still a teenager and had loads more free time than I have now.

Just a decade ago, the idea of getting together to play a video game at a party would have been laughable.

You must have been hanging with a pretty lame crowd a decade ago.

IMAGE(http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/3/36/GoldenEye007box.jpg/256px-GoldenEye007box.jpg)

IMAGE(http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/7/7e/Mario_Kart_64box.png/250px-Mario_Kart_64box.png)

IMAGE(http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/b/b7/Halobox.jpg)

And that's without resorting to spending half a day jiggering with routers to get multiple PCs LAN'd together, which we were totally willing to do for another half a day of Unreal Tournament or Starcraft. (-:

hbi2k wrote:
And that's without resorting to spending half a day jiggering with routers to get multiple PCs LAN'd together, which we were totally willing to do for another half a day of Unreal Tournament or Starcraft. (-:

Setting up a LAN for some CS was no big deal—carting a 17" CRT to a friend's house though, that's something I'd never want to do again.

Eh. Ten years ago, I'd just go to the local LAN shop, book a room with premium PCs for a buck a PC an hour, and just party all day with Starcraft and CS. Even without commentators, SC was eminently a spectator sport - it was easily just as exciting to be kibitzing between the screens of two top players as it was to be playing against an opponent of similar skill.

In many ways, this was a prologue to South Korea's PC shop social scene, which dominates the social lives of so many of their youth today - like a bar, only with PCs instead of booze.

These days, I can get the same deal with more powerful computers or console, and a list of available games so long I can't see the entire list on a single 23 inch screen on 10 size font.

Gravey:

You'll never have to. LED LCD screens these days are so slim and light, it's barely more hassle to transport than a laptop. If you've got a small PC and a wireless desktop, it's a cinch to set up a LAN these days - the work of less than an hour. It helps a lot that Win7 allows easy networking using very user-friendly ethernet hardware setups.

LarryC wrote:
Gravey:

You'll never have to. LED LCD screens these days are so slim and light, it's barely more hassle to transport than a laptop. If you've got a small PC and a wireless desktop, it's a cinch to set up a LAN these days - the work of less than an hour. It helps a lot that Win7 allows easy networking using very user-friendly ethernet hardware setups.

For sure. Back in the last century though, lugging CRTs was the order of the day. Probably not all of us had high-speed then either, hence an impetus for having LAN parties. Later, when we did have LCDs, we just played online in our respective homes. It was still hanging out together, we maintained.

Shrug. Maybe, maybe not. I've played my share of games online and it just wasn't the same as going out to a LAN shop and playing with friends. I cannot stress enough how convenient it is to have LAN shops available where you can do this. A LAN party, regardless of how easy to do, requires assembling friends, hardware, and setup time as well as space. Going out to game is just the same as going out to do anything else. We could even change our minds and go bowling instead.

Playing games online - it doesn't have the social feel of having the people around you, even when you have mics and talk over Vent. It should, but it doesn't, for reasons I can't really understand.

What's especially nice is being able to shift from a multiplayer mass-PC experience like SC2 and then deciding the next hour to play a Tekken tournament in a secluded room with big screens. Or karaoke. The last year's market offerings have just been awesome on awesome.

I understand that there's now a NA bar somewhere that sports gaming equipment?