The Ship is Sinking: A Potential Crash of the Video Game Industry

The oh so wonderful gaming industry (and media as whole) is sort of like a pseudo Lazarus. In regards to the history of its death and resurrection I won’t waste your time. It’s a subject that has been covered since well before I was born (that’s 25 years kiddos). But the awful Lazarus analogy still applies here, the industry we all love at one time died and was reborn into the multi-million dollar juggernaut it is now. So here’s the issue, let’s say the reason Lazarus died initially was that he tended to hangout underneath heavy objects at a piano factory. We all know how this plays out, Lazarus proceeds to get himself Wile E. Coyoted’ and gets resurrected. But, instead of learning from his mistake good ol’ Lazarus decides to hangout in the same spot just thirty years later. That is to say my friends, we are on the verge of yet another massive video game crash. This is something that has of course been “predicted” for a while now (and by that I mean the past four years or so). But it was always assumed to be in the nebulous future, never in the present. That said, the crash is no longer coming, it’s already here and its catalyst comes in the form of two very distinct varieties. First we have the lack of working and worthwhile titles coupled with a severe quality control problem. And second we have the over monetization of an already stupid expensive hobby, that is to say that consumers are being bled to death.

We are a total of two years into the next console generation with the PS4 and the Xbox One (not counting the WiiU, which technically is three years old at this point). In those two years we have seen only a handful of truly notable releases. The rest have been rehashed “HD Remasters” of games that had already been released a year or even a decade ago. Let’s go ahead and compare the first two years of releases of the last generation from a historical standpoint. In 2007 Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Bioshock, The Orange Box, and Uncharted, all critically acclaimed system sellers, were released. Let’s go back even further to 2001-2002, two years after the release of the PS2/GameCube/Xbox. Halo, GTA III, Super Smash Brothers Melee, Silent Hill 2, Metal Gear Solid 2, and Final Fantasy X all were introduced and released. Titles that are widely considered to be some of the greatest of all time. Gaming has always had a pattern of slow startup, with a huge payout a year or two later after developers learn the hardware. “But it’s not even fully two years yet, and E3 is in June! Plenty of time to come up with significant releases.” I hear you say. “Plus you just said that developers need time to learn the new system hardware”. And to that I offer you, dear reader, the following. That’s what they told us last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. In truth delays have constantly plagued the industry this generation. When those games are finally released they rarely live up to what was promised. A recent example of this is Silent Hills. Here is a game that had serious potential to be even mildly interesting and a guaranteed system seller, and it was cancelled due to petty infighting and corporate jockeying. Here was a game that the industry as a whole seriously needed, was canned instead. As a result there is very little promise in the future. Additionally, the games that have been released has been nothing short of a barely functioning buggy messes. Halo: The Master Chief Collection which was supposed to combine all four of the halo games together with a new multiplayer suite barely functioned at launch (and still doesn’t, six months later). Mortal Kombat X and Grand Theft Auto V, two of the most significant releases of this year (2015 for you future people), had features missing on the first day of their releases on the PC. Watch Dogs was filled with broken promises as was Assassin’s Creed: Unity. The issue is this, if we as consumers are to toss down an upwards of $60 on a game we would like for said game to actually work. And the industry just doesn’t deliver on that promise like it had in the past.

I am of course leaving out the obvious counter example to all this lack of games argument, which would be The PC and Indie game market. While it’s true that these two markets have kept things interesting for the past six or so years their influence is starting to wane (and by influence I mean the influx of “good” games, this applies to PC more than it does Indie games). Let’s take for example Steam Greenlight and Early Access (since I am an idiot elitist PC gamer) which has become a dumping ground for cheap quick titles that barely function. What was initially intended to be a way for indie developers to get some quick and easy visibility on PC’s biggest platform has done the exact opposite. The number of zombie or survival games or the combination of the two are everywhere. In fact many of the games that are on Early Access are simply just scams, stolen assets thrown together to make a quick buck. It mirrors the mobile game market which has little to no quality control (see Candy Crush anything or Flappy anything). Are there game that are worthwhile on the service? Of course, but they are few and far between with visibility that is almost nonexistent. I’m not asking someone to reinvent the wheel every time they release a new game. That would be stupid, and detrimental to the industry as a whole (hell, movies even have boxes that they check off). But what I am asking for is something with a little more care than what has been produced. To be fair there are still significant and interesting things being released on the indie game scene. There are titles like Lisa: The Painful RPG, Dreaming Mary, Hohokum, Spooky’s House of Jump Scares or multiplayer games such as Lethal League that create interesting experiences without breaking the bank (none of those games cost more than $15, and at least two are free). And as a result we as the consumer are ok with bugs that will be fixed later. But these indie game are not the norm, and it is depressing if not damaging to the industry as a whole.

Videogames are, like all other forms of media, in the business of making money. This is an aspect to art that I’m eventually ok with. Artists need to eat and live like normal people because they are, you know, people. But something has happened in the past decade or so in video games. And that wonderful little shift was the introduction and popularization of DLC (or Downloadable Content for you layman’s out there). DLC is a topic that has been covered to death, but it’s also something that has become more egregious as time goes on. Here’s the rundown on the major complaints about DLC and other monetized add-ons. More or less the initial cost for a game at launch usually hovers around $60 US (our friends over in Australia see almost twice that). Most major releases now come with Day One DLC, which means that there are either cosmetic changes or items that effect the gameplay (usually costing around $10 for a pack, with multiple packs of DLC we are at least $100 in at this point). During its introduction most of these cosmetic changes were just that, cosmetic. If you couldn’t afford to blow the extra $10 or more you were just fine, it didn’t prevent you from experiencing the game. Additionally, most DLC packs that cost more than $20 tended to expand upon the story of the game (a function that expansion packs served in the 90s to early 2000s on the PC). But that was almost a decade or so ago. Now we have devolved into pre-order packs or on the disk DLC with characters that were intended to expand on the games universe (*cough* Mass Effect 3 *cough*). Valve’s Steam platform just recently introduced (and quickly rescinded) the ability for community mods (think DLC only community created) that were once free to now be bought.  What is concerning is that there is no quality control amongst the modding community. If a mod didn’t work in the past things were still alright. The player just uninstalled the mod and moved on because it was, and always had been, free. With the advent of paid mods there even more potential for the consumer to be nickeled and dimed to death with a potential non-working product. As a result consumers are getting tired of it.

The video game industry as we know it is sick, and those who can fix it aren’t interested in doing so. As games become more and more expensive to produce companies are expecting more and more profit to be made. As a result consumers are constantly expected to pay more and more for what is quickly becoming an inferior product. I used to think that Indie games were the answer to fixing this problem, but as time goes on I begin to lose hope. Quality control is almost nonexistent on the platform and spending is out of control on many of these projects. I want to be wrong about this, but as far as I’m concerned the gaming industry has already hit the iceberg. Now the question now is, how fast will it sink?