Times are tough for gamers. We don’t have that many choices out there for games.

Think about it: all we have are the PC, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Ipad, Iphone, Android phone, and any other old system that you might have lying around.

Oh shit, I forgot to put the sarcasm tags around those last statements.

Games are everywhere, and we have more choices than ever. The real issue is whether or not we have the time or money to play the ones that we want. I’ll use myself as a case study here.

I’ve been gaming since our first Pong system showed up at the house, a gift from my dad’s boss. The box had switches on it, letting you select tennis, volleyball, or hockey (basically the more little sticks to make that square-ball thing bounce so quick you’d go insane), and the controllers were built into the actual unit. We couldn’t buy more games, and it wasn’t immersive enough to make us forget about all of our other toys sprinkled around the house (mostly Hot Wheels and Transformers, but I digress).

I can't believe that we spent so much time doing this

My first-paycheck-ever went towards buying a SNES (I seem to remember it took two paychecks to cover the cost), where I spent way too many hours playing and mastering Street Fighter II. In college, my obsession was the Playstation, playing Resident Evil, Tekken, and logging 99 hours, 59 minutes in FFVII (and then I continued playing it, breeding my gold chocobos and going after Ruby Weapon. That futhermucker…) After college, it was the sophistication of a Playstation 2, telling most everybody that it was for watching DVDs, even though my real friends knew it meant Grand Theft Auto III and FFX. As an adult, I could finally avoid choosing between consoles, having a decent gaming rig, a 360, a PS3, Ipad, and a Wii all at the same time.

I had finally arrived.

Nerd envy…

But the thirst for gaming is never sated, is it? There’s always something new on the horizon, something better, faster, shinier than the last iteration, and that constant improvement drives the gaming industry. It is necessary to a degree—if there was no innovation, we’d still be watching a square bounce back and forth between sticks on a screen—but without the time and money to feed that constant innovation, where does the financially and temporally-challenged gamer sit?

That’s where I find myself these days, and it’s a weird place to be. With a two-year-old running around the house, my own consultancy firm in its infancy, and a house that was built right after the first World War, let’s just say that I got shit to do. I find myself reading more about games than actually playing them, too, which inevitably causes self-hatred, but that’s getting a little too personal probably. What I’ve noticed is that while the amount of time that I have available to spend on games has gone down, but the quality of the core games has gone up (yes, yes—it might be a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side kind of thing, but still).

As the average gamer’s age has gone up, so has the average gamer’s list of average real-world responsibilities (on average). I talk to some of my gaming friends, sprinkled all over the country, and several have had to avoid this game or that one because they didn’t have the time to play it. My friend who got me into Warcraft couldn’t jump into SW:ToR because of his lack of time.

I wonder if Boba is still down there…

Now more and more, I find myself searching through the appstore, looking for a good free game or two—something that I can spend a few mindless minutes on after my work is done for the day, swiping away on the Ipad while a rerun plays on the television. I’ve gotten some good deals from the store, landing several decent games when discounted to 99¢ or lower, but there is something fundamentally different from a 99¢ game compared to the ones that I am used to.

True, I am a fan of epic stories. I loved almost all of the Final Fantasy games (even though as they approached 13, they started to feel more like guilty pleasures), the Bioware games (except for Dragon Age II), and the amount of time I sank into Warcraft was shocking (I didn’t know about the whole “/played” command until I had played the game for almost two years. When I saw the total, I let my subscription lapse…). But I was able to enjoy those games because I was able to sink huge chunks of time into them. I didn’t just pick up and play FFX, I sat in front of the television for hours on end, only getting up long enough to pee or chug cold coffee (Don’t judge. You know you’ve done it with a shitty game or two).

Now my gaming-stories are much simpler. I’ve soared over scientists with a jetpack, I’ve skied down a mountain, desperately trying to avoid an avalanche, I’ve recklessly raced in dune buggies and offroad trucks, I’ve played virtual pinball, and like nearly every other human being, I’ve hurled thousands of birds at pigs.

Stupid penguins. What I need is a futhermucking snowmobile.

But where is that epic story? That all-consuming experience that I desperately miss? I saw it for a minute in the original Infinity Blade, and it was hinted at in Dead Space for the Ipad, but I’m starting to suspect that the mobile market is flooded by F2P games inducing 99$ clicks instead of titles with real narrative immersion.

Maybe I’m too cynical about it all.

Or maybe I’m projecting my own changing relationship with games onto the industry at large. I’ve heard that there are great iOS games are out there, but because I’m too money-conscious these days, I’m hesitant to drop more than $5 on a game for the Ipad (more on that some other day), so maybe I’m missing the story because I’m not paying for one.

I’m still on the fence about whether or not immersive games are even possible without spending huge amounts of time on them. Should games focus on smaller chapters? In SW:ToR, your character’s first “chapter” ends around level 30 or so. That’s a lot of playing in and of itself. Ever read a Dan Brown or James Patterson novel? I’m convinced they wrote their books for people who read while sitting on the toilet after eating fiber. There’s like a hundred chapters in a 300-page book.

Maybe that’s what is being built into all of these smaller games… Trials Evolution can suck a minute of your life away just as easily as it can an hour (albeit a frustrating hour), but does it make you think about the characters? I know; it’s not supposed to, but I’m just saying. You’re addicted to the gameplay instead of being engrossed in it. Or is there a difference?

Perhaps there is a way to convey sprawling narrative for us temporally-challenged, thrifty, aging gamers, and maybe expecting narrative in super-small chunks is ridiculous. Hell, even sitcoms need 22 minutes to really draw you in…

If you know of some options that I don’t, let me know in the comments section; I think I still have $3 to spend in the appstore. And it’s burning a hole in my virtual pocket.

In the next part of this series, I’ll be looking at some of the factors that are affecting pricing for the constantly-evolving gaming marketplace.

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