Unbranding The Sheep: Ben Franklin Kills Mike Newell In Cold Blood

It’s fair to say that, to the naked eye, the video game industry has never been stronger.

Between three regular consoles to play, all with their own online sevices that enable people to buy new and old games in their underwear without leaving the comfort of their own bedroom/living room/parents’ basement (as if we, as a people, needed LESS human interaction), two handheld consoles, a robust PC gaming market that handles both the hardcore freaks and the more casual, Popcap trained gamer, and add in the fact that every one of the above mentioned has great games almost literally overflowing from it, and there’s almost too much choice for the average gamer. The bins at local game stores are brimming with quality titles, from the newest games to the under $10 bargain bins, and if you can’t find something that suits your fancy – whatever it may be – then you simply do not like video games.

Due to all of this, the games industry has gone mainstream. What used to be something that was solely the realm of kids and basement dwellers is now accepted on a level with more contemporary movies and music. Instead of movies using video games as a way to extend a license, it’s gone the other way around, with mixed results (though the results are more favourable if someone goes back in time about 15 years and takes and throws Uwe Boll into a meat grinder), as companies grow, franchises become worldwide commodities, and just havng the right name on a box is enough to make multi millions of dollars. The video gaming industry has become just as high stakes as the rest of the entertainment sector, and due to this, the money is abundant.

The money is so abundant, as a matter of fact, that it’s virtually killing everything that make video games in themselves – as an entertainment medium and not a commodity – great. In fact, the parallels between now and 1983-1984 in terms of where the industry is going are startling.

I’m not the first person to think this; back in late 2005, a tech writer on The Inquirer by the name of Charlie Demerjian penned a piece arguing a good deal of the points that I’m about to argue. It hasn’t come to pass yet, and even back then I thought it was a little bit heavy on the doom-and-gloom, but looking now in 2008, I can start to see what he was talking about, and I’m not liking what I’m seeing.

First is the absolute glut of games. Unlike the Atari 2600 era, the games are a much higher quality now; what we consider “crap” now is at least semi-functional compared to some of the dreck that was served up back in those days. However, while the middle ground is much larger now than in the past, it also took out a lot of land on the “good” side of the fence as well. If someone makes a successful style of game, they can expect it to be copied and re-made and abused ad nauseum and without shame by the copier. Take God fo War’s core gameplay for instance, or more accurately, the core gameplay of Rygar: The Legendary Adventure for PS2. Rygar came out as the lauded sequel/spiritual successor of the old Rygar games, the most notable of which was the seminal NES game from 1988. It featured quick and power combos, leveling up by collecting orbs, weapon and combo upgrades, and camera issues. God of War essentially cut and pasted the gameplay out of Rygar, made the graphics better and improved the boss fights, but while Rygar got above average reviews, God of War and it’s marketing engine got multiple GOTY awards, has had every sequel since be built up more than the last, has been directly ripped off by games like Heavenly Sword, and I’d go as far as to say that it served as the inspiration of the recent changes in Dynasty Warriors’ gameplay. Speaking of Dynasty Warriors, between Spartan and Drakengard, Koei should be seeking royalties. And don’t get me started on the first person shooter genre, or the collective inbreeding that the sports genre does, where one good idea by one company gets shamelessly stolen by the other company, who also just had THEIR new idea stolen by the other company for THEIR game.

Staying somewhat on the subject of the games themselves, for the amount of games that are out there, their availability is curtailed more than it should be. For this, you can thank the effective monopoly Gamestop has over the game distribution market, and how it, combined with game distributors, actively shut out independent markets. Gamestop uses their stores as transparent advertising centres, to the point where in most stores you cannot even see the stock itself, because it’s covered by about 30 boxes of the same fucking game, and because of that, they get the best deals from the game companies, get to have the best sales on new stock, and in some cases, the companies won’t tell to anyone else other than the big boys, such as Gamestop, Best Buy, Walmart, etc.; the newest Chibi Robo game was only available at Walmart! Does anyone give enough of a shit about Chibi Robo to rush to Walmart to get it on release day? Furthermore, the days of catching a bargain in terms of selling or buying a game has been more or less eliminated due to the fact that Gamestop meticulously prices their games around the market, and since buying out EB Games, has even set the market price, to the point where any game with even a smidgen of rarity has it’s price jacked up to the point where no one sane would want it in the first place. Furthermore, as I pointed out almost two years ago, Gamestop knocks the trade-in price of their games down to ridiculously low levels, while jacking up the price of re-purchase to ridiculous levels; in most cases, a used game is only $5 less than a new game, but you can knock another 10% off with a $15 annual card purchase! In my world, we call that “vendor lock”, and though I am far from being a lawyer, I would like to think that if some antitrust types would stop trying to sodomize Microsoft every time they put out a new line of code, they’d have something to say about this shit.

Now, back to one of the good parts of the modern era, in that the hardware is just stupidly good nowadays. The NES used a MOS 6502, 8-bit processor in it’s system that clocked in at 1.79MHz. Nowadays, the Nintendo Wii clocks in with a 729MHz processor, 64MB of RAM, motion sensing technology and is fully backwards compatable with legacy hardware and software… and it’s the least powerful of the three modern systems! But all of the processing power of today’s systems requires a lot of people to program around it, and get the most out of it, just to be competitive in today’s market. That brings up the cost of doing business, and as Charlie stated in his 2005 article, one mistake could be the undoing of a company. It’s simply not feasible in today’s market to take a risk; the price for failure is a lot higher than the benefit of success, and now that the market is larger, it’s more about profit than ever before.

Profit is a good thing; it makes a Capitalistic economy go ’round, after all. But one of the pitfalls of a Capitalistic society is public ownership, and the majority of companies that are in this industry nowadays are publicly owned. That might be a good thing for the overall bottom line, and especially for short term profits once a company does decide to put that IPO out, but it plays havoc on the creative process. Ideas are fickle; for every good one, there’s about five that aren’t, and shareholders don’t like to hear the word “risk”; it could lessen the force of their investment. Imagine having to pitch one of two potential plans for a new game to a group of people that are shareholders in your company. These aren’t gamers; hell, they probably barely know what a video game is, except that dangit a lot of these kids nowadays seem to be violent after playing one of them. But hey, their investors said that your company was a good opportunity to “Buy Hot!”, so he got into it; for all he knows, he could be looking at video games, or toasters, he doesn’t care. What he does care about is the bottom line; this is the type of person you’re going to pitch the next major project of your company to. Now, do you pitch an idea for a new style of game that could create a niche in the industry, be loved by critics and hardcore gamers alike, but could get ignored by the large-scale casual gamers because they don’t want to spend money on something they aren’t familiar with? Or are you going to pitch a sequel for another recently successful product, with just enough improvements and chances to pass for innovation, knowing that even though it could turn off some of the core market, it is almost guaranteed to sell more simply because the name on the box is more recognizable? If you pitch option 1, you are either a fool, hate your job to the point where you’re trying to commit professional suicide, or have balls the size of Alpha Centauri. Even if you get approval for that more innovative game, good luck getting a budget that your developers can work with.

Notwithstanding all that, let’s just say you hit the jackpot: you create great games with great new ideas, market them effectively, and penetrate the market, building from hardcore gamers out until word of mouth and good reviews get the attention of the trough-feeding masses. Congratulations! You’re about to be offered a buyout by one of the big boys! Now, if you’re a privately owned company, this is easy enough to handle; you tell them to go forth and multiply. But if you’re one of those publicly owned companies, that offer for a buyout just became a Godfather offer; one you can’t refuse, and even if you try, the shareholders of your company are going to put you on a stake and cook S’Mores over your burning corpse. Nowhere is this more evident than what Electronic Arts is trying to do with Take Two. There’s enough going on there for it’s own article altogether, but the basic summation of the situation is that Electronic Arts wants Take Two, and thanks to the way public ownership works, they’re going to get them once they get more takeover-friendly executives onto Take Two’s board. Take Two will be bought, and with it, the entire sports gaming market will become a monopoly (remember, 2K Sports is a property of Take Two), and there’s little else Take Two – or us gamers – can do about it.

The one thing Take Two can do about it is to talk someone else into buying them out. That leaves companies like Activision, Sony, Sega Sammy and other large-scale corporations. Either way, the end result is the same; the big get bigger, the smaller companies disappear, and eventually, you’re left with a few behemoth companies sparring with each other, and a few tiny independent companies fighting for table scraps until they inevitably get bought out and indoctrinated into the punishing corporate structure of one of the larger companies. For every company like Valve, there are ten companies like Vivendi, Pandemic and Bungie who were absorbed into large corporations and turned into sequel pimps.

So we’ve already established that the entire industry is more or less controlled by a few extremely large corporations, but hey, even if some of the games are underwhelming, some of them are good, right? And some of them are truly awful, but we at least have people that are supposed to review those games, tell us what’s good and what’s not, and aren’t going to be swayed by these companies, right? Only in a Utopian world. As Charlie stated in his two and a half year old article, game reviews are more or less a joke, though I do think it’s better now than it was in the 80s, when the magazines of the time were nothing but 108 page advertising dockets and the publishers knew who paid them and took care of them. This created a false sense of security initially with consumers that eventually turned to scorn, as they went into “trust no one” mode. It took a long time for consumers to finally buy back into video games, and the magazines that covered them, and things have reverted back towards that side of the pendulum now, with companies being advertised on by the very same games they’re supposed to be “unbiased” about reviewing.

There’s one major difference between now and even when Charlie wrote his article, however: whereas back then, and in the 80s, it was a wink-wink relationship between publishers and game magazines/websites, now, it’s completely out in the open; with apologies to Lewis Black, they’re like two dogs stuck together and no one can get them apart. Nothing made this more obvious than the Jeff Gerstmann incident from this past December. The Editor in Chief at Gamespot wrote an article very critical of Kane and Lynch, which made Eidos threaten to pull advertising from cNet, which ultimately got Gerstmann fired for his article’s “tone” (read: he wasn’t full of rainbow cumshots), and no amount of back-pedalling, damage control or outright denials could help the situation; Gerstmann was out of a job, half of his crew went with him, and Gamespot has forever been compromised as a legitimate source of information. Did it affect the common gamer? Nope; Kane and Lynch sold like Haruhi Suzumiya fanart at a Lolicon convention, Eidos is smugly talking about a sequel to their shitty game, and in all of that, the review that caused the ruckus STILL scored a 6.5 on a ten point scale! Even we, an indie website with much higher overall standards, are not immune to this, as we have lost press contacts due to our reviews, one of which even got us – when we were just Inside Pulse – kicked off of Gamerankings.com. They had us by the balls, and to review any of their other games, we had to buy them ourselves.

To summarize, the money is so abundant in this industry that only the largest companies are able to stick around without getting eaten alive, which is slowly lowering the standards of the games themselves, which is causing a ripple effect down to the average gamer, who is going to get tired of playing the same game year after year, and doesn’t research whether they’re good or not because they either only look at the scores, or don’t even look at all because hey, it’s not like the reviews can be trusted, right? These are almost the exact circumstances that were in play when the market effectively killed itself in 1983, and if the market crashes again, I don’t think it will recover to this point again. Most of the ideas have been taken, and there’s not too many more places that the medium can be taken without delving into the realm of full-on virtual reality, so I believe that if it does go up in flames again, it will have already hit the absolute peak of relevance. I’m personally not excited to go back to being shunned for being a gamer, nor am I really excited to see the thousands upon thousands of American based technical jobs that would be eliminated should the industry purge itself, especially in a medium that doesn’t lend itself well to outsourcing to places like China and India.

This trend needs to be reversed. Sadly, the only thing we, as gamers, can hope for is for a few more Valves to spring up and slow the flow of mendacity.






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