I have a problem: I don’t have enough time in the day.
I’m sure that many of you have the same problem, and it was different when I was younger. My to-do-list was smaller than the amount of time in the day, but as I’ve gotten older, and amassed responsibilities for raising a child who should know the difference between good words and bad words, I’ve noticed that gaming in excess has taken a backseat to gaming in moderation.
That wouldn’t be such a big deal if there were ten games released a year, but that is certainly not the case in the current world of games.
I’m a stats-guy. I don’t know what happened to me as a kid that caused my affinity for spreadsheets and data, but it is what it is. That said, finding the actual numbers of games released in a year yields a problematic silence of verifiable information. In 2012, major releases (and this doesn’t list smaller titles that should be included in this) accounted for more than 500 titles entering into the marketplace (source: HERE). Some of these titles (the GOTY version of Arkham City and Final Fantasy IV for iOS) are obviously re-issues, but since no one has done the leg work, I think it’s safe to assume that the number is quite large. When you add in indie titles on PC and mobile devices, the number could easily double. And that’s just for a single year.
Compounding the problem is that games don’t “go away” as quickly as before. Granted, I don’t have a classic NES sitting around, but it’s not that hard to get an emulator up and running. And with things like the Retron3 and other classic consoles, we now have an increased ability to go back and play the games that would normally have gathered dust on the shelf.
But so what, right? Who really cares that there are this many games out there? It’s not a real “problem” per se, but when you look at the amount of time in a day spent at work and at leisure, it’s pretty obvious that there are some games that you’ll just not be able to play.
Patient gamers, by their very nature, have embraced this problem head-on. If you’re not familiar with the reddit community of /r/patientgamers, go there now (or after you’ve given up on my ability to get to the point quickly). That is a group of lovely people who scour the dust-covered gems to discuss the games that were missed for some reason or another. For me, I started lurking there because I find it hard to spend $60 on a game. Why? It’s not because I don’t see the value in it. I have several games that I would’ve gotten that much value (and then some) from the purchase; instead, I have a hard time spending $60 on a game when I could spend $30 on several older games that are for all intents and purposes just as good as that one newer game. When you bring in bundles, Steam sales, and PS+, it gets even harder to spend a big chunk of money on that new, shiny game.
The ones that get the big bucks? Trusted IPs. GTA V made a billion dollars in its first week of release (to be fair, it made a billion dollars in 3 days and holds several Guinness World Records: SOURCE). What kind of movie would make that much money? Would GTA I have made that much money? I’d argue that it wouldn’t, as Rockstar had built trust in the intellectual property over years of quality game development, ensuring that the $60 price tag wasn’t a gamble. Call of Duty? It may not be my personal cup of tea, but the multiplayer community around that game has also ensured its devotion, enabling the insane numbers of sales each and every year that they release a new iteration.
As someone who fell in love with games on the Atari, I’ve noticed that the types of games I play have evolved alongside the industry. When deciding between Empire Strikes Back and Pac-Man, the decision made by my younger self came down to “Which game do I want to play?” That seems straightforward enough. Now, if I have time to play, the question comes down to “What type of game do I want to play?” I know it’s a subtle difference, but it’s a big difference if you think about it for a second… I then proceed through a vague checklist in my brain, weighing length of available time, access to resources (is my wife hogging the TV? Am I relegated to my Android? Can I plug in my headphones to my pc without fear of accidentally ignoring my son screaming that a monster is in fact coming to devour him?), and how my brain is functioning. If I get the right answers, I’m free to deep-dive into an epic narrative, utilizing choice and skill to change the fate of a digital story unfolding on my interface of choice.
Most of the time, I find myself having a few free minutes, so I choose pick-up-and-play games, doing another level of some game or replaying a certain map or whatnot. With that, I’ve been late-to-the-game on some of the more memorable moments in gaming over the last couple of years. Dishonored, Bioshock: Infinite, The Last of Us, and The Walking Dead take top honors in my own personal gaming hall of shame, as I avoided spoilers as long as possible, unable to complete the games in question in a timely manner.
Back in the day, that wouldn’t have mattered as much. If someone “spoilered” the ending of Pac-Man for me, that wouldn’t have done much, because the act of playing the game was the game itself. Now? Well if someone said that [SPOILER for FFX] Tidus was actually a dream, created by the unconscious of the dead in FFX, that might make the game a bit different (I think that was the ending; I’ll admit that it was a little convoluted to say the least) [/SPOILER].
What does the ending of Bioshock: Infinite do to the beginning of the game? Does it change how we play? Does it change the narrative impact? Does it change how we approach the choices in the early going? I think it does, and if nothing else, it changes the tension somewhat. When one of my bosses at work mentioned the Red Wedding in relation to The Game of Thrones, I spent the next couple of months listening the audiobook with heightened attention to any mention of the color red or to the mention of any wedding. And when a spoiler-respectful friend heard of this mention, he told me to never ever Google “red wedding.” What happened next? Well, I started to think that the red wedding would be when some character would turn into a giant werewolf and eat a wedding party (everyone said it was a game-changing moment). In the end, I was underwhelmed (but still surprised).
There’s something to be said about gaming on the edge of newness. That’s probably why both the PS4 and Xbox One sold a million units at the start of this holiday season. That’s impressive. Gamers like the idea of being the first to do something, be it first to fell a raid boss, first on the leader boards, or first to the screen of death. It goes back to our roots in the arcade, where the first on the list of high scores was the First Among All.
I can go out and pick up a two-year-old game, and without ever really trying, I can dissect where to go, when to level, and what to look out for, simply by scouring gaming guides online, created by gamers who mapped out the world first. But it changes the game to some degree. I won’t say it makes it worse, but it changes the nature of the game from pioneering to following the map, artistry to connecting-the-dots. And if I know who the last of us will be, what am I doing in the game? Can I try to make sure that everyone lives? Or is that a pointless endeavor?
And does it really matter?
The reason that spoilers irk so many people in passive forms of entertainment (read: everything but gaming, and even some forms of gaming) hinges on the inability to change the outcome. No matter what you do, Lost still ends the way it ends. Isn’t that where games have the upper hand?
Unfortunately, games should have this potential, but as we’ve crossed the threshold, boldly walking towards the Uncanny Valley, our swords/guns/fiery-fists in hand, we’ve also been converging on that point in the creative arts where our choices ultimately don’t mean shit. Does it really matter if Commander Shephard sleeps with the human? Does it matter if he/she forges alliances with brute force or peace? To a degree, no. We still have the ending that we have. There might be a few detours in the road, but they all head inexorably to the same place: Eden or something like that…
What is spoiled? The ending or the journey?
And while some argue that gameplay is the point in this debate that is missing, and I can agree to an extent, we’re still left with this complicated version of narrative in games that puts the patient gamer at a disadvantage. With time being a finite resource, and games nearing infinite levels (in relation to amount of time in a day), gamers have to pick and choose which battles to fight, and we have to watch from the sidelines as those with more time dictate the marketplace.
With the Electronic Software Association’s report on the age of gamers, we see that 80% of people over 50 play games, with almost half of them playing games daily. A conclusion from this would be that older gamers are going to be able to guide the direction of the industry, and to an extent, that’s true. But looking at the types of games that those surveyed played, we see that gaming is simply a newer medium for older games, meaning that pick-up-and-play games of various types are probably going to stick around. Then we’re left with a game of follow the leader, where the billion-dollar iterations guide a tremendous amount of the changing gaming landscape.
Don’t Slit Your Wrist Yet
The beautiful thing about all of this, though, is the unseen game-changer lurking in the shadows. True, Steam doesn’t release its numbers to the populace. Whether or not that’s a smart decision is up to someone else much smarter than me… If you look hard enough, though, you can see some smatterings of what patient gaming has done to impact the marketplace through the indie market.
In April of this year, Terrence Lee posted an article about Dustforce’s sales figures, and in it, one can see how the patient gamers’ pricing requirements can actually have an impact. Without going too in-depth about the awesomeness of the indie game market, it’s important to look at what happened when a group of coders sat down to make a game and use the tools at their disposal to get the game into people’s hands. Go read the article if you have the time (if you don’t, I’ll sum up here: using Humble Bundles and Steam sales, they were able to net almost $300K for their small team). Yes, dividing by 4 and spreading it over two years doesn’t equal that great of a salary (~$40/year), but by combining digital delivery, patient-gaming-prices, and developers who love what they do, it gives one a hopeful sense of the future.
So go ahead and spoil the endings of games. Just don’t tell me if John Snow dies. I can’t do anything about that. Yet.