Now Is The Winter, Spring & Summer of Our Discontent
I always get nervous writing what can certainly seem like a pessimistic article about the *trumpet fanfare* State Of Gaming. For one thing, it’s apparently easy to make a flawed logical leap from the idea that things are in a kind of slump to "we are all doomed" in one or two easy moves. I shouldn’t have to point out the cavernous maw that exists between disappointing and certain to die a horrible, impending death, and yet to establish the scope of what I’m talking about I feel like it may be necessary here. Consider that maw to have been pointed at, identified and now clearly marked with a nice sign that says “You Shall Not Pass.”
That said, if I were to use one word to describe gaming in the first half of 2012, it would be “dissapointing.”
Understand, I do not use this word to describe my own feelings. I’m talking more about a pervasive malaise that has seemed to descend upon all aspects of the industry, the culture and the response to what gaming has offered us these first now seven months of the year. I look, and what I see in the traditional industry spaces is a sense of stagnation as the entire business seems to enter yet another year of holding its breath for “what’s next.”
It’s hard to argue that this has been a particularly great year for gaming so far, with several high-profile, long-awaited titles that managed to choke on their own bloated identities and expectations, along with layoffs and closures galore. I suppose that shouldn’t be a huge surprise in the wake of what have been arguably two of the best years in recent videogaming memory. You could argue that we were due for a year that so far feels like one, long, great, big sigh. And yet, here in the thick of it, I can’t help but think of any other word to describe the current mood of gaming except "disappointing."
I submit for your consideration virtually every game so far released this year that has a 3 as part of its name — incidentally, consider yourself on notice, Assassin's Creed 3. From a games perspective, this year is virtually defined by high-profile launches that have been anticipated for years and yet managed to leave fans frustrated and even, for lack of a better term, disenfranchised. There’s no need to rehash the Mass Effect 3 Incident, or the Diablo 3 Auction House Debacle, or even the matter of Oh, I Forgot Max Payne 3 Got Released This Year. These are well documented kerfuffles that could merge into the saddest wagon train of beaten horses conceived by man.
I can’t help but wonder, if the industry and gamers as a whole were in a different headspace, would we have seen the same results? Have we maybe been spoiled by, or even become exhausted with high profile sequels in an age where what we really seem to want is the big, new shiny? At a time where we were rapidly approach an E3 -- an E3 described by many as “disappointing” -- and hoping for some whisper of new consoles and the future of gaming, what we got was a seemingly tainted Blizzard release of Diablo meets Facebook monetization scheme? My point being, I’m not sure I can think of a worse year, a worse stretch of months to have released a major sequel.
And yet, it’s so easy to just target the classic AAA rehash and classically blame lack of innovation. Let’s go ahead and add that horse to our wretched stagecoach team.
The problem is the two games I think most define the exhaustion gamers seem to be feeling are not technically sequels, though it’s hard to argue that they don’t somehow feel like they are. First, there is Star Wars: The Old Republic. Yes, technically this game launched ten days before 2012, and as I recall there was mirthfulness and joy abound for those ten days. But by early January, that goodwill seemed to have turned on a dime and the uniqueness of the story-based MMO seemed to go from innovative to liability.
“Oh,” people seemed to say, “it’s boring traditional MMO combat with some talking Star-Warsy bits in between. Le sigh.” Then they collapsed into their leather chairs with a lonely fire burning nearby, put the back of their hand to their foreheads in a very swoony kind of way and just basked in the cold glow of ennui.
And, look. They weren’t wrong. This game wasn’t some reinvention of the genre. If nothing else it’s served as a neon warning sign that people are done paying a premium for the ability to run around a stagnant world occasionally pressing the numbers 1-9 until some pixels pretend to die.
For me, however, the game that epitomizes the year to date has to be Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Look, it’s far from a perfect game delivered by a far from perfectly managed company, but we’re not so far from a time in the industry where a game like this gets released, sells a million copies over 3 months (which it did) and everyone walks away with some money in their pocket feeling pretty good about things.
Instead, what happened was that everyone frowned because they didn’t sell 3 million copies, a bunch of people didn’t get any money at all, and the governor of a small state started shouting at the news about Curt Schilling. In short, things got real ugly, real quick. And all this in the wake of what, at its heart, was a pretty good game set in a pretty promising new universe. Yes, a lot can be said about the missteps that led to the fall of 38 Studios, but I also remember just after the game launched how this company was reaching out and interacting directly with fans to talk about how to make the game better. Whatever you may think of Schilling and some his politics, manner or business acumen, the guy sunk what sounds like everything he had into wanting to be a part of creating something he was passionate about in a game space he was passionate about.
I understand the anger that surrounded 38 Studios’ collapse. I understand the frustration, sadness and hurt feelings. I understand that the business model was flawed in the realities of today’s environment. I understand why the studio collapsed and I understand the awful impact it had on the employees of the company. Beyond everything else, it was just disappointing. Disappointing that a game that sells a million copies just can’t cut it. Disappointing the way the whole event unfolded. Disappointing that someone who seemed so enthusiastic about making games wasn’t actually able to execute.
I don’t really know what the final five months of the year hold. I look at the release list and I see pockets of areas worth getting excited about, but to be honest I don’t feel the same way I did going into fall 2011 and 2010. It’s fair to say that there is a bright spot in gaming within the indie scene, whose evangelists are likely, and from their perspective correctly even now constructing in their head the clearly phrased rebuttal that rejects the notion that there is anything but puppies and sunflowers on gaming’s landscape. And, as always, I believe you get out of the industry what you put into it. Those that make the effort to explore interesting independent titles, try new areas of gaming and most of all keep the whole thing in perspective will probably get the most out of the next few months.
But, ultimately this feels like an industry that needs to transition. It’s like when you’ve been working for too many months in a row, and the best thing you can do is put a week’s vacation on the calendar. Even if it’s three more months away, it’s something to focus some enthusiasm on. Something to look forward to. Frankly, I think until Microsoft and Sony commit to describing the next generation of gaming, it’s just going to feel like another month behind a too familiar desk.