Scott Steinberg: Video Games are Dead
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.