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?