Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Future of Gaming


It is entirely possible that I have spent more time playing video games than any other activity.  This may, or may not, be a bad thing.  However this does give me a wee bit of experience and knowledge into world of gaming.  What gives me more knowledge is having studied and read about the subject.  Many years ago when I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life I took online classes for breaking into the video game industry.  I didn’t stay with it but I picked up some interesting knowledge.  So I feel that I have a decent wealth of experience to post about where the industry is going as well as where it could be going.

Before I delve into the future I want to talk about the past, as I find it important to know where things were so we can see where they are going.  I want to talk about the industry but also about my history with gaming.  So I’ll give a short biased view of gaming history tinted with personal experience.

Video gaming for me started in the mid eighties when I was introduced to the NES (the Nintendo entertainment system or Famicon in Japan).  This did not immediately overtake my life as it has done for so many children.  I was still very active and relied on imagination for entertainment.  The older I became the more and more time I spent with a controller in hand.  Video games were developed with slightly different intentions then.  Some of you may be familiar with the term Nintendo hard.  The reason for this term was there were simply awful soul crushingly hard games out there that just took great pleasure in destroying any and all ego you might have.  Battletoads is a great example of this.  I intend on getting past that speeder bike level one day.  But for young Ben that was the bane of my existence.  It was fun double dragon like game with cartoony violence almost in the vein of Tex Avery slapstick.  Then the third level came around and the speeder bike ruined everything.  I still think about that level every once and a while.  The worst however was Rygar.   Hours and hours learning the pattern and levels.  Slowly crawling through the level maps and defeating the bosses.  Then the last level you had to defeat all the bosses again one after another.  Then the final boss.  Who would hit me five time for every one hit I dished out.  It was infuriating.  Yet I came back for more.  Not all Nintendo games were this hard but enough were.  Part of the reason for this was padding.  They wanted the game to last more than five minutes.  They amped up the difficulty not just to make it challenging but to lengthen game time.  This was done through grinding in RPG’s.  You had to fight monsters over and over to level up enough to get to the next area and not be squashed.  I remember playing Dragon Warrrior (really Dragon Quest) and grinding with Chimeras and slimes for hours.  Also that’s the first time I ever read the word herb and because I didn’t know any better thought it actually pronounced the British way with the ‘h’ not silent.

A quick list of some of the exceeding evil games that gave more suffering than enjoyment:
  • Battletoads (this game has ruined childhoods)
  • Rygar
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (fuck you underwater electric level)
  • Mike Tyson’s Punch Out
  • Castlevania (I picked it up not long ago and got passed the medusa head area that always killed me but I still keep getting mercilessly slaughtered time and again)
  • Ghost’s n’ goblins
  • I would include Contra, it appeared on numerous hardest lists but I knew the code so it wasn’t so bad
  • Any Mega Man game
  • Out of This World (you are immediately chased by a monster you can’t kill)

I’d include more but I can’t remember all of them and thinking back on these games I remember truly how much time was spent on them.  And I replayed games quite often finding out all the little eccentricities and easter eggs.  This was substantially harder before the proliferation of the internet.

I’m glad that the ‘Nintendo hard’ practice is mostly over (save for a few games like Demon’s Souls).  I like some challenge in my games.  I loved the last console Castlevania.  It was hard, often frustrating but not unfair.  I go back to some of older these games however and I want to rip my hair out.  They taught me patience and persistence but did nothing for my blood pressure or temper.  Now we’ve gone in the whole other direction.  There’s barely any penalty for death in many video games.  RPG’s still hold onto the grinding a bit too much (see Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy) but they have evolved a bit.  I always loved RPG’s.  Looking back at some of the games I played I wondered how I thought the story lines so engaging.  They were pretty awful but I was glued to the set.  There is a primal connection to you avatar.  It’s strong connection.  You act out through them.  Your button push is translated through them.  So their actions are yours.  The story affecting them in turn affects you.  It’s a deeper relationship than you might have empathy wise with a character in a book or film.

This deep connection is part of the reason why video games are so addicting.  Another reason is they are intentionally built that way.  Stat progression is built in, item management, constant gathering and fetch quests.  Loot, loot and more loot.  Look at Borderlands 2, the whole game is predicated on constantly upgrading equipment.

Once the console wars started 'Nintendo hard' began to peel away.  It started a wee bit before this as Nintendo had such dominance in the market they were as afraid of keeping kids hooked anymore.  They had years of constant consumer behavior and addictive behaviors stored up.  The first console wars were pretty awesome.  My cousins had Sega Genesis which then seemed amazing compared to my 8 bit console.  Thinking in bits seems absolutely ridiculous now.  The thing about having two consoles is this gave developers a bit of room.  You had these strict guidelines and approval necessary to be a Nintendo game.  The Nintendo Seal of Approval was a big deal.  There were a few cartridges made without them but that didn’t happen much and not with permission.  SO the Super Nintendo came out and it was awesome.  Things like Mortal Kombat were now possible.  Or Donkey Kong Country.  These were serious graphical upgrades.  The face of gaming was changing.  Mario was being challenged, legitimately by a cooler mascot in Sonic with a bunch more attitude.  Sonic embodied the nineties considerably more.  He was, in a sense, a foreboding of the extreme era in some ways.  By extreme era I mean the bullshit marketers latched onto.  The X games being a good example and every television commercial in the nineties that was way too loud being a bad example.  Video games were growing up with the audience.  We weren’t kids anymore.  We were teenagers or getting closer to being teenagers.  I am part of the generation that first fully embraced video games.  Most of the things right and most of the things wrong with video games can be laid at the feet of my generation.  Now I think games while still appealing to us are primarily aimed at the younger generation but I’ll get to that later.

So games and systems started getting more adult.  Gamers started growing savvier.  Computer games at the time were only getting bigger with the expanding influence of the internet.  Without the net MMO’s or RTS games wouldn’t be around.  I never got into computer gaming that much having been so attached to console gaming.  I did play a few classic adventure games (like Grim Fandango and the Monkey Island series) but I never jumped on the warcraft, starcraft, unreal bandwagon.  I would however when I was older get a bit sucked into a few MMO’s.

Before I move on I figure I met explain why gaming is important to me.  Besides the fact that I’ve been doing it so long and I rather do love it gaming has been rather important for a number of reasons.  Everyone, at one point, has been picked on as a child.  It’s what happens.  I was picked on quite a bit being a shy person with learning disabilities.  I was unable to understand why I was made fun as I always thought of myself as normal.  I just went around after awhile as thinking myself unlucky or, even worse, not worth being liked.  This changed obviously.  Mostly through hard work and growing up.  I don’t think I truly felt comfortable with myself until part way through high school.  I didn’t like being me.  This was awful.  Now I love being me and I’m happy for all the things I’ve experienced.  It keeps me humble and reminds of all the things I should and shouldn’t do.  Video games brought me great entertainment and companionship during this hard time.  I found games that brought me to fantastic places, letting me forget the chaos and unhappiness of school.  But gaming was insular and alone.  It was a solitary habit.  I think that’s part for the reason I never got that into computer gaming until much later.  I had no want to relate to other people.  I did want to have friends but my social anxiety held me away from working at it.  It was safe behind the controller.  There was always another life, another continue.  You could always restart fresh if you wanted.  There was comfort in that.

After Super Nintendo was Nintendo 64.  I remember knowing a guy who had s mall game store that dealt with imports. I was able to borrow the system and play Mario64 in Japanese a while before it the states.  It was jarring and unreal.  I stared in wonder.  I really could not believe that they did it.  Now they make games for portable devices that look far better than anything from that generation.  Nintendo 64 was also a wee bit of a disappointment in some senses.  There was nothing to play at launch beside Mario and Pilotwings.  I refused to buy Pilotwings.  Eventually Shadow of the Empire came out (in the days before Star Wars was still cool for me) and I had at least two games to play.  Having been used to Nintendo Hard I beat Mario so thoroughly there were no easter eggs or spoilers left.  Then there was the Gamecube.

Nintendo finally moved away from the cartridge.  They were going to make cd drive gaming system but flaked out on the deal.  This was great for industry as Nintendo backed out on Sony.  Sony reacted by making the Playstation.  The Playstation made history with games like Final Fantasy Seven and Silent Hill.  This competition was great.  Sadly the Dreamcast from Sega didn’t fair that well even though it was years ahead of its time.  Don’t believe me?  It had internet connectivity and screens inside the controllers over  decade ago.  Plus it had one of the best JRPG’s Skies of Arcadia before the genre started getting out of hand.  The game still holds up and it had an air of fun unseen in manner other games especially in RPG department where games take themselves a bit too seriously and spending more time dealing with convoluted storylines, emo characters not fitting or twenty minute long cut scenes that look nice but happen more often than combat than actually being fun.

Not only did Nintendo move away from the cartridge they went to mini cd’s.  I actually thought it was cool.  The system wasn’t bad but the tide’s had shifted.  With the xbox and playstation 2 a lot of games didn’t hit the system or hit much later.  Exclusive games were the bane of any diehard console fanboy or girl.  For me it was bit more uncommon to see people with multiple systems.  Now I see it quite regularly.  But then again I have a job now, I’m sure that has a quite a bit to do with it.  Gone were the days of Nintendominance.  Yes, I am proud of making up that word and no you can’t use it.  Okay, you can use but only with a credit to me.

But let me back track and talk about the evolution of multiplayer.  Multiplayer used to suck.  It was wait your turn for the other guy to die and then play.  That’s why people hated Luigi.  Not because he was green but because he was consolation, he was less than, he was always second.  It’s hard to get rid of that stigma.  But eventually there was more multiplayer that didn’t suck.  Contra for one.  Double Dragon for another.  But it was always just two people.  Unless you were at the arcade then it could be four and that was fucking awesome at the time.  I do think arcades have a chance to make a comeback if they do it right.  Dave and Buster’s was awful the last time I went.  No game interested me even remotely.  But perhaps having been to awesome arcades in part of the heyday it’s hard to compare.  Multiplayer’s first big change after co-op was the fighting game.  With a demographic of mostly young boys competition is natural.  Fighting game gave the opportunity for any kid to annihilate others.  This smirking vengeance is very attractive to a young man.  The biggest change to multiplayer was Goldeneye.  This game changed everything.  This revolutionized first person shooters on the console.  It’s affects can still be measured today.  Now multiplayer has gone in very different directions.  There are games now sold exclusively as multiplayer only or engineered mostly for multiplayer use.  All the modern shooty kill various enemy soldier games are based on the simple premise that twelve year old boys enjoy shooting other people and shouting racial epithets.  This is why I don’t play online much.  I played Halo 3 online for about two days.  That was enough.  I don’t play too much online.  I do however love co-op online.  It frees up my screen and I get to play with people I don’t get to see as often.  I bought a game specifically so I could play with someone out of state.  But as online gaming becomes more prevalent local multiplayer is often fading which saddens me.  I spent countless hours playing Conker’s Bad Fur Day multiplayer on the 64 with my college roommates.  Or the various Smash Brothers tournaments.  I played so much of that game I got overexposed and had to stop playing for months.

As I grew older my wants from video game shifted.   I moved away from Nintendo fanboyism.  I remember saving up for month to buy and xbox360 over six years ago.  The graphics the first time I saw them were amazing.  It boggled my mind how much the industry improved.  I looked up on wiki the changes made to computing power.  It rather impressive.  The NES (which wiki list as third generation) was 8 bits and had 2kb of ram and a processor of 1.79 Mhz.  The Super Nintendo doubled those stats – 16 bits, 125 Kib ram and 3.58 Mhz processor.  There were some expansions next and various in between consoles but the next big system was the 64.  It had 64 bits, 4 megs of memory and a processor of 93.75 Mhz (that’s 52 times as much as the original NES).  The Gamecube again stepped up the exponentional growth. It had 24 megs memory and a processor at 485 Mhz.  The Wii, Nintendo’s next console was far belwo average for specs for it’s generation with 729 Mhz processor.  Its successor the Wii U is roughly on par with the previous generation.  Xbox 360 and PS3 were both around 3.2 Ghz for processing and 512 mb or memory.  The power and performance of the hardware has increased dramatically.  Handhelds are almost as good as previous generations.

After I was done with college and moved back home for a time while I figured out what the hell to do with my life I started dabbling in online gaming.  I played MMO’s.  This was not my best decision.  MMO’s are known to be soul sucking time wasters.  I am known at times to get over invested in new shiny things.  This coupled for a shooting star effect.  I burned myself out on these things.  I haven’t looked back.  Except for the little bit I played with the last Star Wars MMO by BioWare.  It wasn’t terrible but it was fast and sparsely populated.  It was shiny, pretty, reasonably polished but easy and repetitive.

Now that I have my big boy job and I spend anywhere between four to ten hours at the dojo plus time working out my gaming time is cut down significantly.  I’m ok with that. For really good games I’ll make time.  Otherwise I’m ok with not gaming for months at a time.  I do miss it during those times but I’ve got things to do.  It’s way adult gamers are, or at least the moderately mature ones.

So what next?  My money is on a few things.  Indy developers will undoubtedly take on a bigger role, casual gaming will continue to grow, how we interact with systems will change entirely and the computer may rise like a phoenix.  Indy games had the fortune of things like steam and then later Xbox Live to let them get the word out.  The internet made this happen.  Small teams, by small I mean two people perhaps, can make great games that hundreds of thousands of people play (examples being Castle Crashers, Braid, and Super Meat Boy).  These games can be unique and really push the envelope.  They can fixate on the vision of the lead designer.  Games in this venue have so much room to explore and go new places.

And there are a lot new places being explored.  For every military shooter game that explores the same premise, the same plot, and the same game play another five games come out that at least try to be different.  Some are god awful miserable piles of code that seem to be created for only the malevolent purpose of fooling people intp thinking that games really are be awful and you shouldn’t enjoy them.  What’s exciting is there innovation in AAA titles.  Yes, uncharted is essentially the male version of tomb raider (or the reinvention of Indiana Jones in modern day) but the game series was phenomenal and pushed boundaries.  It had a good story, solid game play but most importantly it was fun.  It may of at time be frustrating but it was always fun.  It had the right formula.  Often time developers will crank up difficulty as the game progresses and bad games will have this incline be very noticeable instead of climbing bit by bit; going from light softball pitch easy to ‘holy fuck, why did I die seventeen times?’.  But it’s been proven you don’t need to make big expensive shiny games to be a success.  They just have to be fun.  So all manner of genres are going to be flushed out.  The line between big games and small game sis going to blur, soon it will just be price point, you’ll have the $60, $50, $40, $30 $20, and under games all selling and doing well.

The way we play is already changing.  Nintendo took a big gamble with the Wii that paid off.  Now they are gambling again with the Wii U.  With the tablet like controller there is the ability to do quite a bit.  Although it does remind me of linking my game boy to the Gamecube to play Crystal Chronicles mutliplayer.  Controllers I think will be around for a long time but full motion capture is only going to get better.  Expect to see the company push even more.  Hopefully the games will get better.  I will admit I do enjoy some of the dance games.  Which may be headed for the same fad status as rhythm games.  Rhythm games screwed themselves by flooding the market.  People got aggravated and voted with their wallets.  Plus there are only so many peripherals we can take.

I do think computer gaming will come back.  I do think developers are going to come back to the platform.  It’s foolish not the program for the computer first.  You can always port from there.  It’s much harder to work the other way around and give the computer gamers what they want.  Look at Skyrim on one of the console and then on the computer and tell me which is a better choices.  Crabs with monocles and top hats should eb enough of a reason.  The modding communities are fantastic and graphical improvement, and run speed always tend s be better on a decent PC.

Casual gaming, which I avoid, is catching on big time.  Tablets and Smart Phone will outsell traditional PC’s.  It happening.  It’s the new dynamic.  Computer glasses are next with onscreen overlays. They may interact with the environment or they may not.  But gaming will be important on all the platforms.  While the games won’t be the next important step they will be where a shit ton of money will be made and more developers will have jobs.  Look at Angry Birds; simple concept, truckloads of players.  I generally dislike freemium, Facebook games and most mobile games but millions of other don’t hold that opinion.

All I know is that gaming is only going to get better and I’ll be there, controller in hand, waiting for the next great game.

Ben

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