The holiday season of 2013 is upon us and with it comes the respective launches of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Considered long-overdue by some, these consoles are being rolled out on a market that’s radically different from that of their predecessors. While there’s always been fragmentation and competition among platform holders, the variety of business models, hardware and means of delivering gaming content is truly staggering these days. In light of this, it’s quite understandable that some people would question the future of dedicated gaming hardware and the games that such hardware has traditionally been host to. Indeed, even the platform holders themselves are looking into ways of making new business models, like free-to-play, work on their platforms, just as they have slowly embraced digital distribution methods for traditional pay-to-play software, as well as various degrees of indie game development. It’s been a bumpy ride, and some companies like Nintendo are (as always) stubbornly refusing to get with the program, just as they refused to make HD games along with everyone else and are only just now starting to pay off the debt they’ve incurred by doing so.
The writing’s on the wall. Gaming is bigger than ever, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to carve out a long-term niche, let alone stick to a business and product development model that thrived when there were around 4-5 different (but essentially similar) platforms on the market. And it’s not as easy as just moving to some version of free-to-play either. Just as with any new market, this one is getting saturated. Just check out this article; it’s getting to the point where it’s more expensive to acquire players than it’s worth. This, of course, doesn’t mean the death of free-to-play, it just means that the glory days of essentially free money are over, and that developers and publishers have to start making their organizations as flexible, small and most importantly low-risk as possible, to ensure the best return on investment. As far as the gaming content is concerned, it means pulling out the same tricks that we’ve seen in the console and PC games businesses; less edgy games, more sequels, more expansion packs and DLC, more reusing of content, less variety and more overall appealing to the lowest common denominator. If you already thought that free-to-play games were formulaic, you’ve not seen anything yet.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the industry, more change is brewing. This is a different kind of change, a type of change that’s more about demographics and attitudes than business models and distribution platforms. It’s been coming for a long time, but I never remember it being quite as loud and in-your-face as it’s been in 2013. I’m talking about the increasingly strident and unapologetic demands of minority groups like women, LGBT persons and ethnic minorities to be taken seriously, and be fully included in the games industry. It’s impossible to overstate how impressed I am by these people that so courageously assault the white boys’ club that is the games scene, and it makes me happy to see that it’s paying off. Where a few years ago it was controversial to voice your disapproval of rape jokes or racial slurs, these days the groans of disapproval are becoming deafening, and even the developers and publishers have to pay due respect to issues that they could earlier simply shrug off. It’s so cool to be alive to see the old “hey, don’t read too much into it, it’s only games” excuse no longer work, for instance.
If you’ve not seen this video, do yourself a favour and watch it – and the whole series.
Good times, right? Well, not really – not for everybody. Because wouldn’t you believe it, there is resistance to be found here, as is predictably the case whenever something changes. There will always be people who, rightly or wrongly, expect to lose their privileges when these kinds of changes happen, and they will try to slow down said changes as much as they possibly can. And obviously the people who are whining and bitching the most about the changes on the market/business side of things, as well as the demographic/social side of things, is the privileged, predominantly white male who self-identifies as a hardcore gamer.
Now, I’m not completely devoid of sympathy for at least some of the complaints raised. I am myself white and male. I grew up playing the most hardcore of the hardcore games, and there’s a special place in my heart for large, varied, epic and indeed unapologetically experimental games. Of course I dislike the fact that I’m seeing less variety, conceptual and otherwise, among the AAA high-production value games that have so long defined me as a gamer. Yes, the indie games do help, but they are invariably – indeed necessarily – aesthetically compromised in one way or another. So sure, I kind of get that if you’re invested in playing certain types of games, and are finding yourself having less and less to choose from in that space, that’ll leave a bitter taste in your mouth. What I have a hard time sympathizing with, is the solipsistic, immature and ultimately counter-productive lashing out against the tendencies toward inclusiveness in the industry.
Personally, I think that inviting more LGBT people, as well as ethnic minorities and women, is an intrinsically good thing. Both from a purely moral point of view, and also because of how much more interesting it’s bound to make the games we play. But since most, if not all, the people who are resisting this development are immature boys with a slightly autistic streak I will begrudgingly accept making an appeal to their sense of utility. Listen up idiots: if you want to see more “hardcore” type games, it is in your best interest to get as many people as you possibly can to want to play those games.
The thing is that the industry will invariably do what the market wants it to do. Everyone’s money is as good as everyone else’s, for better or worse. And like it or not, the changes I’ve mentioned so far in this post are all connected. You know that scene in the World of Warcraft episode of South Park where the character Butters logs on to the game and Cartman, predictably, bashes him for simply having chosen the same character model as himself? And then Butters mutters how he prefers to play “Hello Kitty Island Adventure”? Well, there’s more wisdom in that scene than you might recognize. It’s not that Butters necessarily wants to play that other, more “casual” game because of its subject matter or its mechanics or whatever (in fact, before Cartman chastises him he seems positively overjoyed to be playing WoW with his friends). The thing is that online games – and almost all games these days are online and/or social in some way – are holistic experiences, where the community around the games matter just as much as the games themselves. Now, imagine how many people have left games that they did or would’ve enjoyed from a mechanical and/or thematic point of view, just because the community’s reception and/or the game’s portrayal of them resulted in an experience that, on the whole, was negative. Don’t believe me? Just ask Riot games what consequences toxic communities have on their player base and thus their bottom line. Or by all means, look outside the games industry for more on the psychology of online communities.
Look, our industry is not going to stop changing. Indeed, even if you take my advice for purely utilitarian reasons, and work to include people who are different from you into your gaming communities, there will still be some changes that come with that. You’ll have to accept that the damsel-in-distress trope is going to happen less often. You’re going to see more women and minorities as main characters in the games that you like. You’ll find stories that are more nuanced than “ooh, bad guys, kill them”. I struggle to see how anyone can think that these would in any way be bad things, but I’m sure there are a few people out there who think just that. Well, believe me when I say that you’ll still have more than enough to choose from, I’m sure. And at the end of the day, this has to be an acceptable price to pay for the continuation of the types of gaming experiences you’re used to. I mean, how invested are you really in Hideo Kojima getting away with designing half-naked women called “Quiet” (SERIOUSLY! QUIET!)? Would games like Metal Gear really suffer from having to live up to its pretences for once? If you think that, then you are too stupid and ignorant to be helped, and you’ve probably gone “TL;DR” already.
The key takeaway should be this: we all have the power to nudge the changes happening to our beloved games medium in whatever direction we want. And counter-intuitive though it may seem, the best way of ensuring the continued strength of some aspects of said medium is to accelerate the changing of other aspects of it. Like it or not, whitey, you may have to open your door to the women, minorities and LGBT folks whom you don’t really care for, because if you don’t then somebody else will – and you will have missed your shot.
But take heart. Once they are in your living room, sitting in your couch and playing shooter games with you, you’ll be too focused on the screen to really care who’s holding your extra controllers (in part because these people are just as good as you at games, and will beat your ass if you don’t take them seriously). Sure, you’ll probably be grinding your teeth, and sure, people will give you the evil eye when you use words like “rape” and “nigger” carelessly… but one day you might just wake up finding that you don’t need those words any more, because they hurt the feelings of the people who are now your clan mates and without whom you would never have made the season 13 leaderboards. You might also find that these people, much more than the douchebags you used to play with, are more accepting of your failings and inadequacies than you could’ve hoped for. Soon enough, one of them might even hold your angry, entitled white hand. Wouldn’t that be something?
Speculation aside, there’s one thing that I’d put money on: the absolute worst thing you can do as a fan of traditionally hardcore gaming experiences is to be reactionary, hostile and uncompromising. That’ll only serve to split the user base up into smaller, more or less homogeneous islands, with your own island quickly becoming less and less attractive to content producers, simply because of the rising costs of developing your preferred kinds of games and the relatively sluggish growth in the number of people prepared to pay for them. I for one would hate to see that happen, because I like these kinds of games too, and I want to continue developing them.
Ultimately though, I and the rest of the development community have no choice but to go where the audience is, because we have bills to pay. And “casual”, “gay” “black” and “female” money pays those bills just as well as “hardcore”, “straight”, “white” and “male” money does. You’d do well to remember this while you’re unpacking your shiny new console this holiday season. After all, neither of us would want it to be the last time.