Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Gaming Past Stopping Progression

It's a new week and Turkey Day is almost upon us. While a number of the nerds I know will be busy with family, or watching the annual MST3K Turkey Marathon, Thanksgiving is also the time where a number of us are nostalgic. It reminds us of years past when we were children, and the excitement of Christmas looming around the corner. Will we get that N64 this year or the Sega Game Gear? It's a great time to break out the old systems and play some retro games.

But Mark Hill from The Atlantic says that nostalgia is ruining video games.

Now before us old gamers raise our voices in anger, and not our fists because we all probably have Nintendo elbow, let's give Hill a moment to back up his claim.

Hill's argument centers around the concept of nostalgia as a marketing tool. A number of PR and marketing groups utilize the sense of the past to help spur sales with a musician or a band's "Final Tour" (see Black Sabbath and Motley Crue). "This is your last chance to see this band, so go now" and "This is the best they have been since their debut!" It spurs people into action and gives them that moment to relive a time earlier in their life where things seemed simpler, happier.

With video games we relive this almost constantly because it's a medium with high immersion. How a gamer experiences a game is different from how someone watches a movie. While the emotional events are there, gamers are more likely to connect to the characters in the game, and creates more sentimental attachments. Which is why nostalgia factors hit an all-time high during the holidays - that's when most of us as kids got our games. (Why else do you think the Star Wars movie is releasing in December?)

Along this line of thinking, Hill argues that this sense of logging for the past is not allowing game developers to move forward with the medium. And I think he's right about this, to an extent. We're so focused on sequels, prequels, and reviving franchises that new games are having a tough time seeing the light of day. Even products like Life Is Strange, that are very forward thinking, also utilize nostalgia with the characters by giving the user the ability to mess with the timeline - going back to events and tweaking them to your advantage. I'm still not fully on board with Hill's analysis here, but the rest of his story has merit.

We're entering a weird age of gaming. For those of us who want change, there are just as many who want things to stay the same. Most of the content at E3 this year focused on sequels and re-releases. How many people went nuts over the FF7 remake? Very few companies provided new content, and if they did, they were overshadowed by sequels, sequels, and more sequels. And for good reason - people are buying up the past. Enough of us with disposable incomes are constantly asking developers to revamp old games, re-release them, or provide upgrades. We're willing to pay for all of it. The Shenmue Kickstarter is a perfect example of this. Heck I look at all of the Kickstarter projects that I've funded over the years (and there are only 4, mind you). All have been based off of old TV shows looking for a new season, or a second book.

And as a game developer, it's difficult to throw money at a project that's new and has no track record. Why should we spend 100 million on A game when B game sold so well and can guarantee us a return on investment? Given the consumer trend to buy sequels, developers are more likely to support winning franchises, not new games. Which is why we looked at Blizzard in awe when they initially announced Overwatch, a completely new title that takes a big step outside of the decades of World of Warcraft and Diablo games development. To throw so much funding at a new game is very risky.

On the plus, this has given rise to the indie scene. We're watching new, smaller developers grow and create exciting content that you can't find in mainstream media. It's exciting to be a part of that community and support new content. And I doubt that this dichotomy, established developers producing franchises while indie devs work on new games, is going to change any time soon. With that we're going to see the same ol' thing, the same stories, the same characters, and the same tropes.

I'm torn.

I enjoy retro games. I like the nostalgia because yes, it does bring me back to my childhood when things were simpler. I'm fully aware that I'm being marketed to in that manner, and that it does affect my purchasing decisions. Picking up a Mario game once in a while is fine. But it does make me yearn for new games. I want to see BioWare throw out a brand new, stand alone title, to kick off a new wave of Western RPG's. Or if Ubisoft would put down Assassin's Creed and create a new open-world, action title.

I want to see more businesses like Rockstar. Sure they have their go-to franchise of Grand Theft Auto, but they also have not been afraid to push out new products and test the waters with games like Bully, and L.A. Noire. Games that have a very high caliber of production, and they were willing to take a risk on them. We can have it both ways. But we gotta take the risks, and most big companies are not willing to make that bet.

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