Heavier subjects, open consoles, complete games: PAR’s (hopeful) New Year’s resolutions
2012 was a momentous year in gaming history. We saw many trends we loved, and some we hated. 2012 is at its close though, and it's time to look to the future. We've compiled a list of our most loved and hated trends in gaming from the past year and made some New Year's resolutions; these are the bad habits we hope to see kicked, and the good deeds we want to see continue as we begin a new year.
This year flew by, and not just because we launched PAR and began this grand experiment. I've been looking back on the past year and trying to figure out what works and what doesn't when it comes to our coverage, and we'll be trying a few new things in 2013 while still keeping up the pace of our long form content on all aspects of the game industry. This has been an incredible learning process, and that's part of why I took the job: I wanted to try something different, and to see how far we could push the concept. The results have been incredibly gratifying. I want to thank everyone who has read, commented, and shared stories on Facebook or Twitter. I enjoy writing for you and the conversations we have in the comments. I also understand that I'm nearly always grumpy, so I'll try to keep that in check moving forward. 2012 was an amazing year when it came to games, and I think we're going to see even bigger changes as new hardware is announced and launched, PC gaming continues to be healthy, and more developers have found a larger audience for their work. I can't remember a year that was this diverse and interesting, and on top of it I welcomed a new addition to the family. I can't wait to see what 2013 brings, so let's take a look at some of the resolutions I'd love to see the industry adopt.
Better broadband in the United States
As more games are delivered online and more content is consumed through the Internet, the deathly state of the infrastructure of the United States is put in sharp relief with much of the rest of the First World. Most communities have little to no choice about their Internet provider, and we very rarely see the advertised speeds of our connections. Customer service is abysmal, and technicians show up late on service calls, or not at all. It can take days, if not a week or more, to get a new connection installed in a home. We need to begin seeing the Internet as a utility. Bloomberg ran a great, if depressing, story about the state of high-speed Internet in the United States. “The Internet has taken the place of the telephone as the world’s basic, general-purpose, two-way communication medium. All Americans need high-speed access, just as they need clean water, clean air and electricity. But they have allowed a naive belief in the power and beneficence of the free market to cloud their vision. As things stand, the U.S. has the worst of both worlds: no competition and no regulation,” the article stated. Outside of gaming and entertainment, better infrastructure and speeds could be an economic boon to the United States. Teleconferencing would be trivial. Information can spread faster. Telecommuting could become a reality for more of the work force. Prices could go down, and performance could go up. Google may disrupt the monopoly of the major companies with its upcoming fiber service, and that future can't come soon enough. Better Internet connections will do much to help gaming, and many other aspects of life in the United states.
Products and games that ship completed and ready to play
The launch of the Nintendo Wii U put this issue right in the spotlight. The system shipped without much in the way of features, and customers had to install a giant update to be able to use basic features. The process could take upwards of an hour, depending on your connection. People want to be able to play with their shiny new toys out of the box, and too often our first experience with electronics and games is a lengthy update, following by an installation, followed by ads for DLC, followed by a prompt to put in a code for the online pass, and it goes on and on and on. While I won't bore you with stories of my youth, and games that came on cartridges and simply worked, it's getting to the point where some games require you to spend significant time setting things up, updating the game or the system, and putting in codes before playing. DLC and expansions are announced before the game is released, so you're always acutely aware that you're only buying part of the whole with your $60. When every game wants to be a service, it's easy to long for developers who just want to sell us a finished game for a set price. Making a purchasing decision is stressful, but you should be able to sit back and enjoy your game once you've decided to spend that money. Instead we're shown things to buy, more content, or items to improve our score or add more content. The purchasing decisions are often non-stop, and this comes after you've jumped through all the hoops needed to play the games. I adore games like FTL: Faster Than Light where I give the developer my money, they give me the finished game, we shake hands, and part as friends. All too often games begin that handshake and then refuse to let go, while using their other hand to paw around for the wallet you thought you could put away.
Consoles should put games first, and are more developer friendly
I talked to Capcom's Brett Elston about the free release of Street Fighter X Mega Man. “It’s also much easier to release a free title on PC than on other platforms,” he said, explaining why it wasn't coming to a console. There has to be some value for Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo to let Capcom release the game for free, right? Or think about the updates coming to the Xbox Live Arcade version of Minecraft, and how special allowances were made for those patches and updates due to the game's success. Microsoft only bent the rules because Minecraft was a proven success on the PC. The game never would have happened on a console. Look at the dashboard of the Xbox 360. If you didn't know better, would you assume this was the UI of a gaming device? Have you tried searching for new games on the latest version of the PlayStation Network? Both Sony and Microsoft make it hard for gamers to find and discover new games. Instead we get ads, multimedia functions, and needlessly complicated digital storefronts. Read Jonathan Blow's criticism of Xbox Live Arcade's pricing policies. “If I go to Steam I can sell a game for $25, but if I go to Xbox Live Arcade I can’t,” Blow told the Penny Arcade Report. “In fact, the contract says I can’t control the price at all. That artificial channeling is sort of making their platform inhospitable for certain kinds of games.” The truth is that the consoles are a great place for Call of Duty and Halo, but they're becoming increasingly hostile to smaller and even medium-sized developers. That's why Steam is such a breath of fresh air: When you open the service you're greeted with nothing but games and a few programs related to gaming or content creation. You get sales charts and recommended content. You can browse Steam and look at new games and find sales and things to buy. It's a welcoming service that allows you to discover and buy content. No console can match it in terms of interface, pricing, or convenience. And it's going to hurt the consoles sooner rather than later. Some companies are moving in the right direction. The Ouya console promises to be a more open than standard systems. Nintendo is allowing smaller devs to set their price on the Wii U Eshop. But these are small steps, and hardly universal. “It’s not the games that are out there today, it’s the games that we… haven’t even thought of yet that are gonna end up being important,” Gabe Newell told the Report at the beginning of the year. “I would push them very hard to stop thinking of themselves as being a platform for everything that already exists and start betting on the inventiveness and the benefits that you would get by embracing a more open approach to the Internet and game delivery and game business models and things like that.” And what happens if the consoles continue to impose their own arbitrary rules on developers? “I think that you either embrace the new approaches or you go away,” Newell said.
From a personal perspective, 2012 was a tumultuous year with many highs and many lows. I moved from apartment to apartment no fewer than four times, broke up with my fiancée, and quit my part-time job to focus on games journalism. This was also the year I started writing for Penny Arcade Report, started a new - much healthier - relationship, and I love my new apartment. Video games have been there, either at the forefront or the sidelines, through it all. They've helped shape this year as much as any of the aforementioned events, and even helped me deal with some of the less pleasant memories. I'm an intensely emotional person, and I don't separate that from my gaming self. I also didn't separate that from my list of resolutions. My personal feelings have deeply affected how I view gaming. So what do I want to see in 2013?
More serious issues tackled
Papo & Yo is not the most technically-astounding game on the market, nor is it particularly long, complex, or challenging. Yet few games from 2012 stick out in my mind as prominently as that one, because it addressed a serious topic - an alcoholic's abuse of his son - in a serious manner. Halo 4, while not Oscar-worthy in its writing or acting, took some major steps in the development of Master Chief, so much so that in conversation with friends I now refer to him as John just as often as I call him by his naval rank. Spec Ops: The Line was a critical darling for its more realistic depiction of war and not-so-subtle condemnation of players enjoying mindless violence. Going back to said mindless violence of so many other shooters or action games now feels hollow, and I find myself more drawn to games like Tomb Raider than Crysis 3, despite the latter looking pretty damn rad. Games will struggle to adopt this trend of deeper characterization, as it's a relatively new concept for the medium and not everyone wants the drama. Sometimes you do just want to go blow up some aliens, and that's fine too. But I hope to see more games take themselves seriously. It is possible to have fun and experience contemplation at the same time.
One side-effect of the Kickstarter boom is that companies asking people for money had to - imagine this - justify why they were asking for said investment. Crazy, right? We've had developer diaries and behind-the-scenes featurettes for awhile now, but 2012 was a year where, more than ever, companies had to publicly defend themselves and their projects. The most successful Kickstarter projects regularly let those who donated know the status of the project and where exactly their money was going. Casey Hudson asked fans via Twitter to send in their ideas for the next Mass Effect. #1ReasonWhy took Twitter by storm, bringing sexism out of the dark and into the public's eye, where it couldn't be swept under the rug. Of course, not everything went smoothly. Valve had its hands full this year with the troublesome implementation of Steam Greenlight, the angry reaction to Towns, and the pulling of The War Z from the Steam store. BioWare found out firsthand what it's like to craft a narrative a little too compelling when the ending to Mass Effect 3 sparked a reaction from fans so intense that the Better Business Bureau was eventually involved. Still, when companies and developers feel more beholden to the gamer than the stockholder, we get some amazing results. Power to the people!
“E3 has become a spectacle with much style, no substance.” “The VGAs are aimed at the lowest common denominator of gaming intelligence.” “Call of Duty sucks, it's the same every year.” “Halo sucks, it's outdated.” “The console market is dead.” “The PC is dead.” “Everything is dead.” We hear these opinions all the time, and because they are opinions, they make for some really great, click-grabbing articles. People want to jump in and emphatically agree or vehemently disagree. So my question is, when did we stop just having fun? Isn't that what games are supposed to be about? Why are we so picky about what we will and won't taste test? There was a game at PAX Prime this year called Harold, and if you were at the show and didn't try it, I want you to kick yourself right now. The game is a cartoonish adventure about an athletically-challenged, geeky character running a footrace, guided and aided by a god-like hand. The cynic says, “Cartoon style? Yawn. Footrace? Boring. Geek? I'd rather be a badass super-soldier. Why would I play that?” Here's what I say: Because cartoons are funny and happy, because footraces aren't a common subject, because when aren't you a badass super-soldier? Just try the damn thing. In my demo it proved to be a fun and unique title. We have people who have grown up in dire straits that, thanks to the open-ness of modern game development, can tell a story about their life. We have women who will do whatever they can to get into game creation, even if people don't respect her career path. I never want to be the type of writer who sees someone trying to create something and says, “Pfft, not good enough for me.” I get excited for E3. I watch the VGAs. I'm not perfect and I can't take up every interview offer, but if you're involved in this hobby in any way, you have my respect. And if we disagree over a particular subject matter, I'm still happy and thankful you gave me the time to go over it with you. I'm very happy to be a gamer, and I'm tired of seeing people on all sides treat it like it's a chore. Be happy, and give things you normally wouldn't think about an honest chance.