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Scott Steinberg: Video Games are Dead

Could this really be the end of interactive entertainment?

Ask any family who's ever dealt with addiction: When a friend is ailing, collapsing under the weight of their own dependencies, only two courses of action exist. Either you sit down, shut up and let nature take its terrifying course, or pause, take a deep breath and do what duty demands... step in and stage an intervention. And speaking as a player, parent, professional, fan and longtime ardent admirer of this medium so many cherish and adore, let's not kid ourselves. To put it bluntly - the time has come to take the game industry aside and show it some tough love.

But let's start with a reality check. Despite the gloom which seems to permeate inside circles as job losses mount, one studio after another implodes and retail sales flatline, we aren't beyond hope entirely. Nor, as so many sensational headlines would suggest - "EA Loses a Billion," "Recession-Proof Gaming Industry Falters," even the doozy of a corker above (please excuse my flair for the dramatic) - is Armageddon truly nigh. Rather, games as we know them are simply in a transition period, evolving away from traditional approaches such as retail distribution and Hollywood production models at a terrifying pace. After years of unsustainable business practices including 20-30 million USD budgets, three-year development cycles and 100+ man teams, it's true that the field is undergoing a painful metamorphosis. But more importantly, the overall gaming ecosystem is also simultaneously expanding at a record clip and growing in respect for those who matter most - us, today's players. What's more, we're quickly seeing real magic as the field emerges triumphant from its cocoon, as does the butterfly from the humble caterpillar's chrysalis.

You see, once upon a time, the future belonged to a select few. Specifically, those with the resources, manpower and muscle to create and package increasingly complex titles, then market and distribute product into the world's largest retailers. Likewise, back in the day, the audience for interactive entertainment was much smaller and limited in scope, with both hardcore enthusiasts and everyday shoppers narrower in their preferred range and tastes. However, with the sudden explosion of gaming platforms, and titles in all categories - indie, casual, mobile, massively multiplayer, free-to-play, social network, etc. - so too has the industry gained in size, stature, and sophistication. Moreover, like our ancestors, who were initially raised on a humble diet of meat and vegetables, yet later gained a hunger for spices and exotic viands, our palate and appetite for interactive entertainment has accordingly grown a hundredfold. Therefore it's no surprise that the extent of the buffet table has similarly expanded in order to accommodate these changing predispositions. To wit, whereas simple, one-dimensional amusements such Frogger and Space Invaders, Doom or Tomb Raider previously satisfied, we now demand a Flower, Fez or BioShock for every gloriously empty bite of Gears of War 2 or Madden NFL 10 (which helps explain why playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare feels like little more than the equivalent of gloriously carbo-loading).

Along with these changes, which are producing more astute and demanding fans, we're also welcoming non-traditional audiences (e.g. women and seniors) back to the fold. Originally lost as the Atari 2600 and arcade era's shortcomings gave way in the mid-'80s to decades of growingly intricate and esoteric titles designed by nerdy, white twenty-something males for the same demographic, they're finally making their influence felt. Enter the explosion of simple, intuitive diversions such as Brain Age and Bejeweled Twist, and resurgent demand for systems like the Wii and Nintendo DS, which continue to broaden the category's appeal. Let's not insult anyone's intelligence, though - titles like Your Shape and Women's Murder Club are merely the tip of the iceberg. Just as not all girls enjoy futzing around with Barbie and playing dress-up, or octogenarians fancy that a 5PM dinner and evening crossword puzzle is the bee's knees, nor will all games continue to play to these stereotypes. Gaze into the crystal ball five years hence, and the breadth of titles available for all ages, interests, and backgrounds will be just as diverse as what you'd see at the local bookstore or (assuming any still exist then) video rental outlet. Mentally, we're just waiting for publishers - who enjoy greater sales and heightened profits by designing games with the widest possible appeal, hence their omnipresent desire to play to the lowest common denominator - to catch up.

Along the same lines, in an age of constantly buzzing BlackBerry handsets and an endless barrage of 24/7 tweets, our lifestyles have also changed considerably. Even today's teens can scant afford (as us old fogies previously did back in the day) to invest endless hours in their favorite fantasy dungeon crawler, combing dripping corridors for every last ounce of phat loot. Across the board for grown adults, working professionals and even the most ardent joystick-waggling fans, it's time we woke up to the fact that gaming habits have transformed. It's the direct reason you're seeing a meteoric boom in bite-sized, instantly gratifying titles for mobile handsets such as the iPhone, as well as social networks like Facebook and Bebo. Nowadays, people want more satisfying experiences in smaller bursts, the option to interact with friends and family (many of whom we no longer see for more than six seconds daily) and amusements that travel everywhere they do. In other words, game makers are suddenly waking up to the fact that they need to create experiences that conform to our daily routine - not vice versa.

Similarly, with budgets and playing habits as varied as any given individual, we're also seeing a general public that demands products at a greater range of price points and value propositions than ever before. Paying hundreds of dollars for a console that sits in front of your TV or set of plastic instruments and then another 60 USD a shot for supporting software is all well and good for some. But as pro bono titles such as Free Realms, MapleStory or Who Has the Biggest Brain (played 500 million times, or five times more than YouTube's most popular video) illustrate, there's also life beyond so-called "AAA" epics. One need only look at the burgeoning growth of digital distribution services on both PC (Steam, Impulse, GamersGate, etc.) and console (i.e. Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and WiiWare) to prove the phenomenon's not just a flash in the pan either. Simply put, game enthusiasts require a wider range of choice from today's free market. And while traditional publishing houses - bound to aging business models, given their sheer scale and overheads - sink like sailors trapped in the Titanic, thousands of small studios and enterprising individuals are all to happy to fill in the gaps. Between a sudden flood of high-quality offerings for every platform and at any imaginable cost, and the speed at which information regarding low-quality products travels on the Internet, well... Let's just say a continued dependency on shifting piles of 60 USD DVDs or Blu-ray discs by the truckload seems a surefire way to hasten one's demise.

Also worth noting: The rise of widespread broadband access is quickly giving way to a new breed of software creator. In particular, one who looks much the same as the amateur hackers and bedroom coders synonymous with gaming's primordial dawn. Thanks to titles which champion user-generated content (e.g. Spore and LittleBigPlanet); widespread availability of user-friendly tools like Warcraft III's World Editor and Microsoft's Kodu development platform; and the internet's availability as a ready-made distribution platform, the garage days are officially back. Now, even a single keyboard jock sitting alone at home can create the next interactive sensation, and both connect and communicate with a huge base of fans worldwide. Armed with a means of survival courtesy of direct online sales and ready-made distribution vehicles like GamePro Labs or Xbox Live Community Games, indies can finally thrive. Unconstrained by corporate mandates, itchy shareholders and micromanaging bosses, visionaries like Jason Rohrer (Passage, Between) and Jonathan Blow (Braid) are already pushing creative boundaries further than they've previously gone. And, naturally, fleshing out the overall gaming landscape by filling in the virtual blanks, providing pioneering new types of play styles and even genres where none existed before.

Other sweeping trends are gaining in stature as well. For example, games morphing from one-shot products into ongoing services instead, as evidenced by the rise of MMOs like zOMG! and World of Warcraft. Let's not discount the possible disappearance of the gamepad either, per the announcement of motion-sensing controllers like Sony's new PS3 wand and Project Natal. Check portals such as Shockwave, Kongregate and AddictingGames, and you can't help but be struck by the thousands of Flash (free, internet browser-ready) games readily available too, with dozens more being added every day. And all this comes before we've even touched on emerging phenomena such as microtransactions; downloadable on-demand content expansions (DLC); episodic game installments; serious games; titles which creators can update and iterate upon based on buyer feedback in real-time; and cloud computing services like OnLive and Gaikai that promise to stream high-end games right to your TV or desktop.

Add it all up and what you get isn't an industry in its death throes. Rather, one that's experiencing a veritable renaissance, and splintering in so many promising directions and at such a pace that even us 30-year veterans can barely keep up. It isn't interactive entertainment which is croaking per se - just the traditional definition of "video games" as we've previously come to know them. And, of course, the present business practices championed by traditional big box retail publishers, whose hits-driven model (wherein, as a rule of thumb, one smash success typically pays for ten crushing failures) has begun to fail in an age of educated consumption and ballooning financial bets. Which, to come full circle, is why it's time we finally grew a pair, and drew a line in the sand. Because for the old guard, the mandate is simple: Change or die. No longer can publishers afford to stick their head in the sand and stay hooked on the old ways of doing business, trying to effectively dictate terms to the game buying public or employ clever marketing to pull the wool over aficionados' eyes. The proverbial cat's out of the bag, and power is now in the hands of players, who've got more places to turn than ever before when the urge to while away at the keyboard or joystick strikes.

All hyperbole aside (see, I told you I had a flair for the dramatic), let's be honest: As evidenced by the recent resurrection of Space Ace and Monkey Island (including unexpected iPhone ports of both no less), no game or genre ever really dies. (Nor platforms, given the existence of niche markets and software emulators... or, while we're at it, the N-Gage's Jason Vorhees'-like unwillingness to give up the ghost). Along the same lines, we'll never see the complete abandonment of so-called "AAA," or cinema-grade blockbuster experiences either. After all, to make a poor analogy, we all enjoy a big, dumb summer action film every now and then as much as a quirky independent flick. Instead, what's likelier to happen in coming months is greater industry consolidation, as towering publishers and studios with considerable cash reserves gobble up smaller players, learn from these concerns, and gain in stature when the market rebounds. (A safe assumption: In the meantime, they'll focus more on "surefire" bets like sequels and licensed titles than unproven options such as original properties, seen as a greater risk). Either way, what you won't see reflected in those shrinking NPD numbers everyone so loves harping upon lately is the amount of cash, or goodwill, quickly flowing into the coffers of newer, more innovative gaming concerns via countless previously unexplored avenues.

Blame luck, serendipity, or just a good old-fashioned recession. But what we're witnessing here is a stunning confluence of events that continue to reshape the face of gaming as we know it. And history, my friends, is being made as we speak. The big question: Will giants like Electronic Arts, THQ, Activision and Ubisoft adapt with the times and break their dependence on the same boom and bust cycle the industry's been prey to for so long, or continue to raise the stakes still higher in hopes of gaining victory by being the last man standing? Only time will tell.

Going forward in the coming weeks, I sincerely look forward to joining you as we take a closer peek at the news and events that will help define the modern era of gaming as it enters its latest phase of existence. Because fate itself is quickly hitting the reset button on one of the world's most treasured pastimes, and with it literally anyone's game at this point, well... Like many of you, I can't wait to find out what happens when we reboot.

Video game expert and TV/radio host Scott Steinberg is the author of Get Rich Playing Games and the creator of game industry documentary series Players Only. A celebrated gadget guru and technology expert, he frequently appears as a technology and video game analyst on broadcast networks like ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and CNN, and has contributed to 400+ outlets from The New York Times to Playboy and Rolling Stone. For more of his insights, visit www.scottsteinberg.com.