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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Time Problems

When I was younger, I was heavily addicted to video games. From the first time I played the original NES, I was hooked for life. There's no way to possibly explain the hours I spent on games like Zelda (though I thought Link was pretty poor), or the original Mario Brothers. Every time a new generation of system came out, I would pester my parents until they would get it for me, and then would spend literally hundreds of hours playing - beating games, perfecting techniques. There used to be an arcade called Boardwalk where you could pay $10 (or $20, I don't remember) and get unlimited play - my parents would drop my brother and I off, and we would just play for eight hours. It got to the point where I could beat people at Killer Instinct with my eyes closed. Literally.

Then there were the friday nights in middle school where we'd go to my friend Curt's house and play network Doom (he had multiple phone lines and computers - remember modems?) until the sun started to come up. Doom gave way to Starcraft. Starcraft gave way to other games. But at the center of it all were the games. We used to play Secret of Mana (Or Secret of Evermore) while eating pizza and drinking Dr. Pepper. Goldeneye and Starfox, when the N64 came out, got competitive to the point where Snedaker once punched me in the head because I kept following him around in SF and shit-talking while I shot him.

My point is: between the time when I was five and twenty-one, it would not be at all an overstatement to say that I played twenty-thousand hours of games, spread over the NES, SNES, Sega, N64, Playstation, PS2, Xbox, Gamecube, Gameboy SP and PC. I even had SegaCD and Sega 32X. Remember Sewer Shark? Well, I do. C&C Music Factory? Yup.

So understand that, when I say the following, I speak from experience: no game created in the past three years has been as good as any Squaresoft game from 1993 until 1997. Don't give me that GTA bullshit, either. There hasn't been a game since the release of the PS2 that is better than ChronoTrigger. There have been decent games - KOTOR and KOTOR:II, Fable, Halo and Halo 2, FFVII and Xenogears. Even WoW/EQ/etc... have their own niche. But none of them can touch any of the classics, despite having the classics to model themselves on.

I'm sure other people have gone on at length about this elsewhere on the internet, but the pointed decline in the quality of video games, despite massive market expansion and the proliferation of technologies that would seem to make game development easier, is something that seems curious. The following is an incomplete list of the reasons why:

1. Graphics
The worst thing that ever happened to computer games was the invention of the technology that allowed complex, realistic graphics to be rendered quickly. Immediately, people began churning out games that relied solely on looking good and having no content. The theory at the time was, people were just capitalizing on the graphics capabilities, and that eventually, as people adjusted to the graphic majesty, content would follow. The problem became that the increased time it took to develop a graphically advanced game, coupled with the accelerating advancement of graphic-processing technology meant that computer games became a never-ending stream of pretty games. Once video game manufacturers realized that they didn't need to create rich, intelligent storylines, and could focus on releasing a blizzard of bad, pretty games, the whole thing was sort of over. And nowadays, to compete with the major developers, you need graphic superiority - smaller firms are basically precluded from working for a long time on one game that can challenge the supremacy of larger companies. Graphics don't increase the enjoyability of a game - and in fact, murdering the replayability of games is economically advantageous, since it requires players to purchase more games in a shorter period of time.

2. Reality TV
Hear me out.

At some point, network TV realized that they could fire scriptwriters and save tens of thousands of dollars developing new shows. The shows would be short-lived and probably crash and burn, but their profitability would be high due to the low overhead. They dubbed these shows, "Reality TV." Turn on a TV nowadays, and you're likely to find some show about some person's real life - no matter how boring or stupid. Once Hogan Knows Best went into its second season, it was officially time to question this trend. But because so many people watch TV out of a lack of better options, these shows are going to continue to dominate the airwaves.

Likewise, computer game developers realized that creating a story and a script wasn't as profitable as developing a mapped out virtual area and, instead of having a prescripted narrative, they could just let a bunch of people write IN VERY BIG TEXT and compete for stronger and more ornate avatars - not to beat a final boss, or beat the game, but rather for its own sake. Thus was the MMORPG born. I know that I'm in the minority on this, and given the popularity of World of Warcraft and Everquest, I'll probably draw some fire for this - but MMORPGs are stupid as hell and basically a way for game companies to avoid creating anything innovative.

Personally, if I want to interact with other people, I'll go play frisbee or go do something equally social. If I want to get the hell away from other people, especially the types who populate these worlds like Nitrogen populates Earth's atmosphere, then I play games. For me, they're an escape. It's like someone selling you a book that's more expensive than a normal novel, and as an extra bonus, you get to write it, too!

The problem isn't the existance of these games. The problem is that they've supplanted what used to be the best genre of video games. And that makes me sad.

3. Patching

This is pretty simple: the ability to distribute patches, especially to consoles, has made it such that developers don't bother debugging fully before releasing games. It's just shoddy business, and it's more annoying than endemic, but it's still the type of thing that's symptomatic of the new system of game development.

Anyway, I may continue this list another time. But for now I think that's enough for now.

cranked out at 10:15 PM | |

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