September 20, 2005
One of the banes of the modern "information age" is that one can easily find oneself reading someone else's misguided and obviously illogical view of important matters. When this happens to me, I don't think too hard about it. If they disagree with me, they must be stupid.
This is especially true in the area of gaming. I have only recently become morbidly obsessed with games, and as such I represent what the long term gamer hates most: the guy who likes mostly Halo and Madden. Where others see a depressing lack of innovation and risk-taking, I see a stunning series of games that have fabulous production values and excellently refined gameplay. To me, the current generation of console is the peak of the industry. It is the ultimate fruition of what so many people have been working so hard for so long to achieve: a gaming industry that is solidly in the mainstream with broad appeal across populations with diverse interests.
For example, I was in a convenience store in the middle of nowhere in Ohio this weekend. In the store, the cop turns to the cashier and said, "I find that Madden is easier to play if you have a mobile quarterback like Michael Vick." This isn't surprising. According to the NPD, Madden 06 did $100M of business in August, outselling the second biggest titles on the PS2 and Xbox by a factor of ten. This is the power of the mainstream.
To long time gamers, this mainstreaming represents a loss of their special subculture. All geek subcultures depend on maintaining a sort of elitism that separates the members of the club from clueless newbies. There are special handshakes to be learned, and obscure points of fact and protocol to be adhered to. When the culture becomes mainstream, these walls of elitism come down and the barbarians rush in. This causes much consternation. We saw it when AOL joined USENET. We saw it when Netscape allowed anyone with a modem and a mouse to start interacting with the Internet at large. And we are seeing it with games. More than anything, this generation of game console has brought the mainstream into contact with the fanboy. And so, the fanboy lashes out, and his wrath comes in many forms:
Games are too easy
One common hard core complaint is that games have become too easy. Unlimited continues, checkpoints, or, heaven forbid, allowing the player to save anywhere all makes games stupid and pointless because "there is no challenge." Here is a classic case of taking a mechanism (the game over screen) which was mostly designed to abuse you (make you spend more money) and turning it into a feature (oooh, the game is challenging and so satisfying). All things considered, I'd rather play a game that doesn't abuse me. Those tend to be more fun which is what we are all after here.
One of the best games I've played this year is Lego Star Wars. It's a fabulous game to play in short snippets, especially with children who have a short attention span. The production values are top notch and the dialog is better than that in any of the recent Star Wars films. But, the thing that makes the game great is this: no penalty for death. When your character "dies", he just falls apart into little lego pieces and then is instantly resurrected in the same spot, ready to go on. You lose some time and money, but that hardly matters. You quickly get back to the meat of the game, which is whacking Lego blocks with a light saber.
In fact, the only parts of the game that aren't fun are the pod races, where losing means you do the whole lap again. This is tedious and boring.
The lesson? Easy games are fun, when well designed. Of course, all the reviews for this game dissed it for the precise reason that it is great: the fact that it isn't all that hard. This is because people are stupid.
Games are all dumbed down
This complaint is the distant cousin of the "games are too easy" whining. The notion is that by streamlining gameplay that is pointless and tedious busywork, game designers are pandering to the clueless n00b masses and making a game less "deep" or less "realistic" when really they are making the game more fun. Targets of this complaint tend to be improved inventory mangement systems, refined combat systems that eliminate useless and complicated "depth" and "strategy", the removal of stupid puzzles (especially jumping puzzles) that are just filler, and most of all, streamlined character development systems that keep track of the stats for you rather than making you use Excel to do it.
You hear a lot about games being "dumbed down" for the console. The idea, I guess, is that a 900Mhz machine with 64MB of memory doesn't have enough raw power to play a sophisticated game. So, for example, a game like Knights of the Old Republic on the Xbox is really just the retarded little brother of a real game like Baldur's Gate 2 where you spend almost as much time dragging little weapons sprites from one character's bag to another than you do actually playing the game. All this because Bioware "dumbed the game down" by not making you worry about inventory slots. Why would anyone complain about the removal of such repetitive tedium when it adds so little to the game? Because people are stupid.
Games are all the same
The complaint here is that all games are just rehashes of the same four genres and the same 18 franchises that have been in production since most 18 to 34 year olds were in diapers. People like to complain about Madden a lot when this subject comes up. For some reason, they never also complain about Zelda or Mario Kart or Final Fantasy, all of which have been around almost as long, and whose recent incarnations have had about the same level of evolution in gameplay as Madden.
I think the truth here is that people like playing the same game over and over again with slightly different content, and game producers would have to be retarded not to take advantage of this.
At this point, as I am wont to do, I am going to pick on Zelda. I am going to pretend that I got to play a super sekrit early build of the next Zelda and I will describe to you what the game is like:
Apparently, a great darkness threatens the world, and a single hero must go on an epic journey to collect the pieces of a great magic artifact. These pieces are spread throughout the land in dungeons of various configurations. The hero will be able to wield a sword, and a boomerang, and a grappling hook (although the controls for the grappling hook will suck) and some other special items that I'm not allowed to describe, but which you will control using the X button and the triggers. There will also be fabulous key puzzles and various collection mini-quests, and a super-creative boss at the end of each dungeon that can only be defeated by a special item that you find in the dungeon.
Sound familiar? So I ask, why does Zelda get credit for innovation and not Madden? Because people are stupid.
The Next Generation All Sucks
Here we get complaints on several fronts. The main one is that the next-gen consoles are all just refinements of the current generation, with nothing really new to bring to the table except more compute power. I think this is true. I also think it's true that most of the hype around the new consoles has been pointless and boring. Each of the big three are playing their obvious strategies to their obvious strengths.
Sony is using shiny demos and the promise of the same huge first and third party game library to encourage people to ignore Microsoft. Microsoft is trying to use an early launch, a strong online service, and technical specs that are comparable to Sony to make people forget that the PS3 will have more playable games out of the box than will likely ever ship for the 360. Both companies hope that their new hardware will bring forth some briliiant new franchise: the next Halo or Grand Theft Auto, at which point they get to sit back and print money.
Nintendo, is, of course different. Nintendo is creating a TV remote control with a gyro in it and then declaiming that it will open up new vistas in innovative gameplay. In particular, it will let you play Zelda in a whole new way! But, that's probably unfair. The truth is that the controller is a natural strategy for Nintendo. First, it opens up the possibility that the next great new thing could come down the line for the Revolution. Second, it allows Nintendo to yet again turn the crank on Mario Party Kart Racing 89, this time with sword combat, and make a profit in the mean time. So, kudos to Nintendo for being different. But, let's not overstate what is going on here. Nintendo is not some beacon of goodness and light shining out into a dark land ruled by Sony and Microsoft. Nintendo does not have any great insight into the psyche of the game playing public. Nintendo is simply playing to their strengths rather than their weaknesses.
Ultimately I think all the kvetching over the next-gen hype machine seems misguided to me. Of course there won't be anything new on launch day. Launch day has never been the right time to buy a new console anyway. The right time to buy a console is 3 or 4 years after launch when the game library is mature. As a pure hardware play, consoles simply are not that interesting. The interesting jumps forward usually come in the software, when some brilliant developer figures out how to put together an experience that no one even considered possible. So until that happens, just sit back and play all those games you haven't finished yet. Buying a new box for no reason on launch day and then complaining that it's just more of the same is just stupid.Posted by psu at September 20, 2005 08:26 PM | Bookmark This
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