Games Will Never Be Mainstream
[Update] Too long for ya? Try this convenient summary and come back later.
“If we don’t break out of big buff guys with swords and guys in tights and space marines in armor, we’re going to get marginalized in the way comics have been in the United States. I hope we can break free of the content of comic books.”
That’s a bold statement, and a kick to the nuts to the comic industry, but a fair example. For most people, comics are not a regular purchase. They certainly don’t see mainstream acceptance and blockbuster profits. Even their dedicated convention has been steadily steamrolled for years by the higher-profile presence of films and games – many with no discernible ties to comics in the slightest. It’s sad to see a fade into relative obscurity for such a creative industry that managed to grow out of its roots as simple entertainment for young boys, endure suffocating self-regulation along the way to eventually come out on top, and even work a few of its most popular mascots into the public lexicon.
Wait a minute….. oh… uh-oh.
The games industry is facing the same challenges – from overcoming the original stigma of being mere toys for young boys right down to licking the boots of the film industry out of desperate desire to be relevant and popular – and could potentially walk away from the whole ordeal with nothing more than a few token words like “Mario” and “Atari” lingering in the social consciousness. Imagine a world where FarmVille-style games are all that’s left, hardcore games are seen as a passed fad, and the GameStops of the world are replaced by a handful of kitschy, family-run video game stores in strip malls across the country.
Couldn’t happen right? Well, $60 games aren’t going to last forever, and the industry has crashed before when consumers got confused by floods of products from Johnny-come-latelys, irritated by the declining quality of quick cash-ins, and too poor to blow the dough on full-price titles. Plus, these are just frickin’ games we’re talking about here – the world can certainly keep right on turning without EA, Activision, Nintendo, or Microsoft and Sony’s respective games divisions.
This is normally the part where the pro-games author invites the industry to pull itself up by its bootstraps, work hard, and turn this potential train wreck around. Not this article. After trying to defend all sorts of game-related issues, I’ve come to think the continued marginalization of games is inevitable.
Why can’t games ever be embraced by the public at large? Why can’t they be as popular as movies, music, books, or television? Well…
Games Are Rarely ABOUT Anything
Great movies and great novels always have some subtext to them – a deeper reason why you’re telling the story and why it’s worth listening to. This can range from the unambiguous life lessons of Aesop’s Fables, to a more subtle example of a particular issue, conflict, or belief. The Hurt Locker gives a sense of what modern war is like and some of the challenges and sacrifices today’s soldiers must face, but that’s the surface – the film is really a frame for a story about addiction. The main character can’t cope with the banality of suburban life, so he leaves behind his wife and kids for another adrenaline fix at the razor’s edge.
Modern Warfare 2 is a game about shooting people.
No, really. What’s the subtext? What’s the point of telling the story? Well, see, there’s some Russians, and they invade America, so you have to fight them back. Done. Plot twists occur, things happen and give reason to move the story along, but a deeper meaning, a moral, a message, a subtext, a reason the story is worth telling doesn’t exist. It’s all just a frame for the action.
You can apply this to just about any game you can think of. Starcraft – everything happens because Mensk is evil. Red Dead Redemption – Marston wants a new life, but he has to shoot everyone to get there. Mass Effect – Shepard gots to save the galaxy. That’s it. Events certainly happen, memorable moments occur, but the overall plot is as one-dimensional as the stereotypical comic story (evil villain is evil, has plan, hero stops him). While today’s games are certainly more elaborate, the plots are still no deeper than that of, say, Doom (Demons. Over there. Shoot ‘em.)
It’s the difference between Rambo: First Blood and Rambo Part II. Both films feature a ripped Stallone shooting an M60, but the first highlights the tragedy of a Vietnam vet without even a home to come home to, and the second is jingoistic anti-Soviet propaganda. The sequel has its place, and can be a fun diversion, but is hardly about something deeper. The movie even plays out like a typical video game plot – Rambo sneaks in, gets captured, meets the villain and his henchman, breaks free, regroups, fights back, and then goes through a series of increasing “boss fights” (Vietnamese general that killed the girl, buff henchman in the helicopter, big bad in a bigger helicopter). Metal Gear Solid, anyone?
If games want to be taken seriously as art or a worthwhile storytelling medium, there will have to be more games that aren’t simple diversions.
Some games get this. Braid, Bioshock, and recently Limbo all manage to be fun games that expertly handle a deeper subtext. They have a message. They make you think. They’re great examples of how the medium can handle style AND substance, and great examples of how video games can support powerful art.
Unfortunately, even if we have an entire legion of artistic games, that’s simply a positive step – not the conclusion. Games can be art and still never be mainstream because…
Games Are Interactive, Not Passive
One of the medium’s greatest strengths is also its crippling weakness. It doesn’t matter how mind-blowing your story is if you’re unable to play through the game to see it. The gameplay itself becomes a tremendous barrier to non-gamers, unfamiliar with the tropes, reflexes, and skills that the gamers these games are made for have honed over the years.
“Dumb down” the game and it may lose its edge, core gamers won’t accept it, or it may turn into a carnival of cutscenes – more “movie” than “interactive,” and lose the entire point of being a game.
But make a game with solid, established gameplay and you instantly cut down on your potential audience. What about the people that don’t want to dedicate 10-12 hours to a game when a 3-hour movie is already considered way too fucking long? What about the ones who have never touched a controller before, and are expected to pull off double jumps and headshots? Bioshock had an excellent story, but that was just a treat for people already used to playing an otherwise standard FPS. How can you expect a non-gamer – that is, someone interested in the story, but not the gameplay – to get past a few Spider Splicers, for example? Bastards are tough to hit for someone used to first person shooters.
Even if you get past typical stereotypes of games being shallow and focused on violence, games are the only medium where the gamer has to bring some active skill to complete the story. Roger Ebert can’t see games as art, because he doesn’t know how to play games. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. You can’t honestly expect everyone to be able to play and beat your game, or to even be interested in building up the skills required. Not everyone plays guitar. Not everyone can dance. Not everyone knows a second language. But everyone knows how to sit on their ass and watch a movie. That’s not a skill.
This will inevitably lead to a situation identical to comics – where gaming’s best and brightest stories will simply be turned into films, and those films will then gain acclaim and widespread acceptance. A lot more people watched Spider-Man than ever read a single issue of the comics. In the same way, movies will sweep in and take the credit while the source game stays comparatively niche.
Maybe some authors or game companies will be pleased as shit to cash out with a Hollywood blockbuster. But it’s hardly encouraging to see the game industry as a simple stepping stone to bigger and better things. How will that inspire a new generation of developers?
And just when you thought you haven’t divided your audience up enough…
Games Must Be Fun
Games have the unique ability to place you inside the situations they create. There’s a difference between watching Sam Fisher struggle with whether or not to murder his innocent pilot to protect his cover (early in Splinter Cell: Double Agent) and having to actually make that choice yourself. There’s a difference between watching desperate Russian soldiers charge at Stalingrad without a rifle (the film Enemy at the Gates), and scrambling to survive in the same situation yourself (the game Call of Duty). Games have a great capacity to affect you personally, to make you think, and to stay with you after you’ve put down the controller.
Would you have been so bummed about Aeris’ death if you hadn’t spent some 30 hours adventuring with her and seeing her innocent kindness over that time? Probably not. Affected, sure, but not in the same personal way.
However, most gamers don’t WANT to think, and consequences are annoying. Shooting the pilot in Double Agent lowers your standing with your government handlers. Losing Aeris means the loss of all her powers and skills you spent hours leveling. Running from cover to cover through a hail of bullets with nothing but an ammo clip in your hand… well, that one’s obvious. None of these situations are really that fun, and if you don’t care about the story, then they’re just fucking inconvenient. But many of the best stories require conflict, suffering, or loss. Good story writing even teaches that things need to go to shit by the end of the second act. Simply put, good stories aren’t always fun.
But do most gamers really want breezy, straightforward, not-necessarily artistic video games? Well… let’s look at the sales for last year.
Eight out of the top ten (not counting MW2 twice like this list does) games have no stories at all. The two that do (Halo: ODST and Modern Warfare 2) are more known and beloved for their multiplayer than their single-player story. In fact, the first time you see a game heralded for its story is Uncharted 2 down at #20. Then take a nap, because you won’t get to a Game of the Year for storytelling, Batman: Arkham Asylum, until #47.
Modern Warfare 2 saw astronomical sales, and its multiplayer is kicking Xbox Live’s ass from hell to breakfast. The Madden series rakes in big sales each year, as do most of the sports franchises. Are these games going to really benefit from having deeper meanings and profound stories? Does either’s audience give two steamin’ shits about their artistic content?
These are people who play games to have FUN, and have done so since they started playing games to begin with. These are the people who take games to be “GAMES” in the literal sense, and are perfectly content with throwing a long bomb into the waiting paws of a distant receiver, or plugging n00bs with bunny-hopped headshots in Halo‘s multiplayer. And not only is there absolutely nothing wrong with these games, or the audience that enjoys them, games primarily or exclusively concerned with just having fun consistently bring in sales that wipe the floor with any indie, artistic, meaningful, story-based gaming attempt.
As long as “games” carry a particular connotation, they’re going to have to try and serve two audiences. Take Bioshock‘s excellent themes and story and break its gameplay mechanics. No longer Game of the Year, right? (now it’s more like Alpha Protocol).
The more game-like you make a game, the more you alienate a potential new audience.
The more accessible you make a game, the more you alienate your existing, established buyers for theoretical new money (hi, Star Wars Galaxies!).
How can the industry grow in this situation? Can it at all?
Not only that, how can you change what the stereotype of a “game” is when…
Games’ Creativity Are Limited By Technology
If there’s one thing that gamers and non-gamers can agree on, it’s that games sure are repetitive. Niko probably kills a third of Liberty City by the time he’s wound through GTA IV‘s epic story, Mario’s never done more than hop and swim (and drive a race cart, but never in the same game), and Starcraft II‘s story-driven battles somehow always break down into the same routine of establishing a base and building a strike force to smash the opposing team.
The reason is completely understandable – all locations and all activities in a virtual world have to be created and refined, and each takes significant development time. Even with as much as Niko can do in Liberty City, he can’t pop into any building because the interior has to be created. He can’t go dancing because there’s no dancing mechanic or animations to go with it. He can’t leave Liberty City because that would roughly double the time needed to make the game.
Books are some of the richest creative works around, because they can create the most elaborate fantasies imaginable for nothing more than the cost of one author’s time. Movies take an army of professionals, but can hit 50-100 locations in productions measured in months because they don’t have to recreate reality from scratch. Games simply don’t have this luxury, and immediately have to look at ways to start cutting corners. In the movie GoldenEye, Brosnan’s Bond rode a motorcycle, flew planes, played baccarat, engaged in hand to hand combat, did some investigating, had witty conversations… you get the idea. Easy for a movie, hard for a game. So in Goldeneye 007, the player’s Bond shot lots and lots of guys. The game even changes most of the films scenes so Bond can shoot more guys, or shoot guys in a scene where no guys were shot in the film. Rare made an excellent shooting mechanic and rode that pony throughout the entire game.
Build a system, and then use that system to repeat its own content; swapping out locations, enemies, and objects as needed. It’s the simplest method of game design, and the only one that’s truly any kind of practical to do. That’s why you’re always going to see games be repetitive. They will never have the easy variety of books or movies, and because of that, they will always be somewhat-boring one-trick ponies.
Just look at it from a non-gamer’s point of view. The conversation might go something like this:
“You want me to pay you sixty American dollars to do nothing more than pretend to shoot clones of the same guys over and over again for ten to twenty hours?”
Followed promptly by:
“Go fuck yourself.”
Hey, it’s a fair point. Arcade shooting galleries offered the same thing for a dollar, and you usually got bored of it before your time was up.
But don’t you dare suggest that games should change from a 10-12 hour experience to being only as long as the story comfortably needs it to be (2-4), because then you’ll turn out with sales like Alan Wake. Established gamers simply won’t pay $60 for such a short experience, and there are too many ways (legal and illegal) that allow them to avoid paying and yet still enjoy the game.
Still not convinced? Here’s a fun challenge you can try at home. Turn the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies into the most amazing game ever devised. (I’ve made it easy for you and included zombies, ’cause those things sell like hotcakes). You have to stay as true to the book as possible and include all (or most) of the scenes and locations. You have to make it cutting edge and graphically amazing (or it won’t sell). It’s got to be interactive, so you can’t make it like a classic point-and-click adventure game (or it won’t sell). You have to make it in no more than two years and be cost-effective with your development (or it won’t get made). And it has to be accessible to people who have never touched a game before, while remaining just as much fun for the hardest of the hardcore gamer (glad there’s zombies in it now, aren’t you?). Oh, and it has to be at least 10 hours, can’t rely on repetitive content, and you’ll need to have at least two DLC packs already sketched out. Also, that DLC can’t be content removed from the regular game, and has to be on the expansive level of Borderlands‘ acclaimed General Knox DLC (or gamers will feel cheated and get Internet mad).
Don’t bother actually doing this, as it is, in fact, impossible.
But okay. Let’s say for the sake of argument that we can somehow get past ALL of these hurdles (no mean feat). Let’s say some brilliant developer creates a game that truly bridges the gap – it’s fun, tells a hell of a story, and it’s still accessible enough that truly anyone can play it (maybe or maybe not using the Kinect or Move). Hell, they make a whole series of games that proves to non-gamers that these are consistently possible. That’s it then, right? Utopia achieved; everyone is playing games now, right?
The Current Model Is Unsustainable
Ticket prices have gone up significantly, but movies still remain one of the cheapest forms of entertainment around. Part of that price is volume (more people go to movies than play games), and part of it goes back to a previous point – capturing reality is as simple as turning a camera on, while video games must hire teams of artists and animators to get even a rough approximation of the same thing. Yet gamers continue to demand more realism. If movie tickets cost $60, most people would tell Hollywood to blow.
Meanwhile, $60 per game is barely enough for game studios to get by these days (see DLC, one-time codes, anything to squeeze more money out of each individual title) and that can only get worse as time goes on. Technology may improve to make development easier, but it will never catch up with gamers’ demands to be cutting edge. One guy can make a serviceable 2D platformer these days (a stunning accomplishment), but it’s not going to burn up the charts like it would have in the early 90s. Bump mapped 3D realism or GTFO. Why would the future be any different? As the old tech and ways of making games get streamlined, they also get forgotten. Unreal Engine 3 will one day soon be the exclusive realm of the indie developer.
If the industry doesn’t collapse again, it’s going to have to reinvent itself at some point. Gamers want everything – massive, realistic worlds with incredible stories and hours upon hours of value – but they don’t want to pay much for it (see piracy and used sales). Studios want to maximize every single penny from each gamer, and aren’t afraid to punish their own legitimate consumers to get it. This kind of antagonistic situation between producer and consumer simply can’t last- especially not for a luxury, optional product. Something, somewhere is going to have to give – and surely before that mythical game developer solves the enigma of the perfect game.
So how about it? Are you convinced the games industry is totally fucked now? Maybe we should give up on this foolish desire to be mainstream (you know, by pretending Inception or Scott Pilgrim are video game movies) and just be happy with our niche little hobby. Stop trying to explain to politicians, your girlfriend, or the media why playing a game where you shoot people over and over is loads of fun, but still not harmful or desensitizing. Stop trying to explain why games are just games, except when they’re not just games, but then they really are just games.
Bottom line: the whole world doesn’t need to love games as much as you do. Hey, you may not be mainstream, but at least you’re not alone.
[Update] – I originally had this section in, but cut it because I felt this article was already getting too long. Based on feedback from a number of different sources, it seems like a primary argument is that games already are mainstream. So this section needs to go back in. Consider it optional extra credit reading. And this can now count as my doctorate thesis.
Gamer Culture Is Not As Big As You Think It Is
It may seem to you that everyone is gaming these days, but that really depends on who you surround yourself with. The internet’s most vocal and prominent denizens are naturally tech-savvy, and because of that, are likely no strangers to games. If you visit a bunch of gaming sites (you had to find this article somehow, no?), seek out a bunch of gamers to hang out with, etc, you’re going to feel surrounded by gamers. But the broader world is still fairly games-ignorant.
Is your boss a gamer? His boss? If you work for an indie game developer, maybe, but even if you work for a major games company (hi, Bobby Kotick!) the answer is probably no. Does the sales force play games? Marketing? Finance? Maybe. Probably not. When the NES and Genesis were around, most kids at school still didn’t play games regularly. Even in college, where a Playstation or N64 was always connected to a common TV, most people weren’t playing games.
You may be thinking that everyone you know plays games. Personally, out of all the people that I know from meeting face to face (i.e. not over the internet), about ten are gamers. I’m not just talking about members of an older generation that isn’t gaming; this includes people my age who still think gaming is a waste of time, or something for kids that they’ve given up long ago. They can talk the balls off a brass monkey about the upcoming football season, or that week’s episode of Lost/True Blood/Dexter/whatever, but bring up games and you get honest blank stares. Not because they play games, but games aren’t “cool” to talk about. Because they really don’t know what you’re referring to.
Here’s a totally unscientific video of a guy asking random people on the street about Final Fantasy‘s (one of gaming’s longest-running series) most popular mascot (the chocobo). It goes as you would expect. But maybe that’s just Cleveland though? Wark!
Ok, how about women gamers? What’s the rule about the internet? “Men are boys, women are men,” etc etc. Gamers make a tremendously stupid deal about girl gamers. Finding one is apparently as rare as a double rainbow. If they were around in regular numbers, it wouldn’t even register a thought. That’s almost exactly half the world’s population right there that apparently isn’t playing many games.
Let’s try some real-life situations. It’s date night with a girl you don’t know well. Do you take her to the movies, or somewhere to play games? You’re meeting a new group of people at some kind of social function. Would you feel more comfortable talking about books or movies before you bring up games? It’s Friday night – are you going to talk about your plans to see the new movie, or your plans to go home and play games all night? Being a “gamer” still carries a negative connotation in most situations.
Even if you personally aren’t, there are plenty of people who aren’t totally honest about their gaming habits. Even if you don’t lie about being a gamer, have you ever lied to someone about how much time you spend gaming? Why the shame? What’s to hide if it’s mainstream and totally accepted? But you’d never lie about games right? Fuck the haters! Well… would you admit in a job interview how many hours you play WoW? On a date that’s going well? Your convictions might change when it’s important!
How about this – who is the Roger Ebert of video game reviews? Who is an equivalently respected, published, cited authority on the subject? (I don’t know of one) When the mainstream media does a video game story, is it positive or sensationalist; treating video games as deviant, quirky, or a kid’s toy? I shouldn’t even need to link to examples for that one. Did you know that The Wall Street Journal does book and movie reviews for some incomprehensible reason, but not video games? In fact, while just about every major publication keeps a film or book critic around, you still have to go to a “game” website or magazine to get opinions on video games.
How about some numbers then? Statistics are easily cherry-picked and manipulated, but I’ll throw a few quick ones in here so it’s not just my personal experiences and rhetorical questions.
Modern Warfare 2 famously raked in the “the biggest launch in history across all forms of entertainment” with 4.7 million units sold in the US and UK the first 24 hours. That claim didn’t hold water. The Dark Knight pulled an estimated 9.2 million moviegoers in the U.S. alone. But hey, many of The Dark Knight‘s viewers were probably gamers too, so how about something where the audiences aren’t likely to overlap? Twilight: Eclipse drew in about 3.75 million viewers (assuming an $8 ticket) in ONE MIDNIGHT SHOWING. It would go on to bring in over 17.8 million eyeballs for that opening weekend (assuming the same ticket price). Remember, we’re not talking revenue here (games are far more expensive per unit), we’re talking tickets sold/units moved/eyes on the screen.
What about those Asian nations where people play games until they die from them? Like China, where there are a whole lot of people (1.3 billion). Game consoles are banned in China, but online games are not affected and have flourished accordingly. Still, estimates put only 68 million online gamers in China for 2009 (some of which, I’m assuming, are gold farmers). That’s not a lot by comparison.
69% of all Americans go to movies, according to Nielsen’s 2009 American Moviegoing report. (It’s not free, so no links for this one.) According to U.S. Census estimates for 2009 (305 million) that’s about 210 million moviegoers in 2009.
Television viewership has been steadily declining, but Nielsen still estimates 114.9 million TV-watching homes in the U.S. alone. That just counts homes, not multiple people living in them.
Exact statistics for books sold are apparently somewhere between difficult and impossible to get, but I can tell you that 2009 sales were somewhere between $13.5 and 26.6 billion dollars. And print’s dead, right? I mean, who do you know that still reads books?
The most successful game around, FarmVille boasts 63 million active users worldwide. That’s getting up there. But FarmVille‘s not a “real game,” right gamers? That’s something the secretary plays at work when the boss isn’t watching. It certainly hasn’t been proven to be a gateway to more hardcore titles, and very doubtful that many of those players come home to PS3s or Xbox360s.
The ESA finds that 64% of American households play games – a number which seems to put it directly against cinema attendance (though remember, that’s just theater attendance – the total cultural impact of movies also includes DVDs, TV rebroadcasts, online streaming; additional markets that the games industry doesn’t have). However, the ESA’s report doesn’t mention what they consider to be games, or how many hours are spent playing them. Aside from sales figures I’ve already referenced (showing a skew toward casual party/family games), the only real clue is the statistic of 42% of online game time being devoted to “Puzzle, Board Game, Game Show, Trivia, Card Games,” i.e. “casual games.” Which leads back to games being seen as simple diversions instead of frequently-consumed, respected, universally-enjoyed media.
You probably have a board game somewhere in your house or apartment. This means you’ve bought a board game. You’ve played a board game. You count as a statistic of board gaming households, but would you consider yourself a “board gamer?” If you’re like most people I know, you bust that board game out maybe once a year, but it hardly factors into your daily routine like movies, TV, or books do.
That’s why it’s hard to count casual gamers as proponents for, or examples of, mainstream gaming. Games for them are temporary diversions. Certainly not something they do often. Certainly not a lifestyle. Certainly not a passionate hobby.
Certainly not up there with established “mainstream” media.
Screenshots yoinked from Giant Bomb.