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Life after the Video Game Crash

It's happened before. It will happen again.



Now, I don't want to be the type to say "I told you so." Let me instead just say that a couple of years back I made a prediction about the gaming industry and that my prediction is on the verge of coming true and that I now wish to emphasize the fact that I told you about it beforehand.

Who am I? I am the creator of a certain video game console. I don't want to toot my own horn, but let's just say that profits from this machine were four billion dollars higher than the Microsoft XBox.

My console consisted of a plastic milk crate with a kitten placed inside. The controller was a wooden rod that could be used to poke the kitten. I sold zero of these consoles, which cost me zero to manufacture. Therefore my profits were zero. The XBox, however, LOST four billion dollars. Click the red words if you don't believe me. I'll wait.

This here is a stack of one million dollars, in hundred dollar bills.



Now imagine four thousand of those stacks, and then imagine someone setting them on fire. That's what the XBox has done for Microsoft. If, after I tired of playing the only game available for my console (Cat Poker Tournament) I sat down and mailed a $20 bill to every single gamer in America, I would still be $2 billion ahead of the XBox.

Think about that, and think about how Sony plans to take a $400 to $500 loss on every single damned PS3 they sell for the first few years. Oh, I know they can make that money back on the games... if the consoles sell like hotcakes in a colony for hotcake addicts during a hotcake shortage. But only if.

I hereby predict that this will not happen. Luckily for me, it doesn't take a genius.

I'll now answer some of the most common objections about the Video Game Crash:

1. Why does the industry have to crash at all? The movie industry is still around over a century later, dumbass.

Let's say Sony and Nintendo and Microsoft came out tomorrow and announced they were cancelling their next-gen systems. I don't know why, maybe there's a plague or something. How long would you keep playing your current game machine? Forever? As long as good games were coming out for it?

History says otherwise. History says that you'd eventually get bored with the machine even if there wasn't a better one to replace it.

It sounds crazy, and it took everybody quite by surprise the first time the game industry crashed in the early 80's. Back then the Atari 2600 was king, it being the first really popular game console. They sold 25 million machines when suddenly, inexplicably, most people stopped playing games.

Nobody was more surprised than Atari, who in 1983 spent millions bringing their biggest title to market, a game based on the movie ET (at the time it the highest-grossing film in history). So they had the most popular film, in a game for the most popular system. What could go wrong? They stamped out seven million copies of the game, and then were shocked to find that about six million of them sat untouched on store shelves. Legend has it that the unsold games wound up buried in a landfill and that to this day, no plants will grow over that spot.


What Atari didn't realize was that by 1983 the vast majority of 2600's were sitting in closets, and in basements and in moldy cardboard boxes in the back of the garage. No other console became popular in its place, not for years.

Why? After all, we still watch TV sitcoms, and they've looked the same since color TV was invented. Kids still play basketball, more than a century after that sport was accidentally invented by a rural turkey farmer looking for a quick way to get dead birds into the round hole of the carcass chute. So what's different about video games?

The difference, is that most people are only playing games for the novelty of it.

Remember the first Roy-Orbison-wrapped-in-shrinkwrap erotic fiction story you read? Of course. Do you remember the 207th one? Only vaguely. Well, it's the same reason. Those stories really aren't that great. It was only interesting for the novelty, and the novelty wears off.

With the 2600, players realized that Hot Dog Maze was just Pac-Man with different colors. Soon the cool thing among video game fans was to sit around not playing video games. The industry collapsed.


Roy Orbison

Then the Next Big Thing came along, the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986. It was a radical departure from the blocky 2600, to the point that the experience was novel once again. Games had actual worlds to travel in, and you could save your games from one day to the next. Playing these games didn't just look different; they felt different. Space Invaders was a series of symbols on a screen you manipulated for a score, Legend of Zelda was an actual universe you could escape to.

And yet, even with the enormous number of games (Metroid delayed my discovering girls for a for a good 18 months), the gaming experience itself still couldn't keep our interest for more than a few years. Attention waned again, but this time new, fancier systems arrived just in time, offering a new and novel experience thanks to prettier graphics and character animation. And yet those systems (the Sega Genesis and later the SNES), as great as they were, eventually were retired to closets and attics and the sandy carpets of the Pakistani black market.

It was a bitter, dark cloud of Japanese expletives that wafted from the meeting rooms at Nintendo and Sega when they realized their industry effectively lived under a curse. Gaming was not an everlasting, deep well of joy for the audience. No, the only way to keep them playing was to distract them with novelty, to roll out a new machine every five years, spending half a billion dollars in development each time, moving from colored blocks to 2D figures to cartoonish 3D to realistic 3D.

Which brings us to today. We've now advanced from realistic 3D to slightly prettier 3D and... even slightlier prettier 3D with slightly better reflection effects and slightly better animated water ripples and - oh, look! This game has the most realistic fog yet!

See the problem?

What does an art form that relies on novelty do when it can no longer offer up anything novel? Think I'm crazy? Would you call Nintendo's Hiroshi Yamauchi crazy?

Okay, you would, but in between strapping kleenex boxes to his feet and wearing a giant raw squid as a hat, the 114 year-old console gaming guru spoke wisdom. And he believed gaming has hit the wall as far as graphics go.

You don't have to be a tech geek to get this. Check out the rather startling difference between the Atari 2600 title Jet Goblins Attack from 1980 and The Legend of Zelda just seven years later:


The yellow block in the first screen is Batman.

Now compare Goldeneye (1997) to Red Faction 2 (2004). Same seven-year span:


Some prettier flame effects, but it's hardly enough to be a new experience.

2. Don't you know the new consoles are 1,000 times more powerful than the current ones, you flaming volcano of idiocy?

Okay. Let's throw the XBox 360's Quake 4 into the mix:


The walls show rust and shadow better, and maybe blood sprays a little differently... but you don't have anywhere near the leap from the Atari's little blocky shapes to the NES's ability to actually display little human characters, or the jump from flat 2D SNES games to the wide-open 3D landscape of Mario 64. With each successful new generation there was a real difference, not just in how the game looked, but in the gaming experience itself.

The current generation was novel because it introduced the world to adult games. The Grand Theft Auto series carried the PS2, with the ability to abuse prostitutes in ways that Mario only did off-camera. You had cursing in the cutscenes, you had games a 28 year-old man felt cool playing for the very first time.

But now Sony is asking us to pay $600 for the PS3, a machine that really needs a $2,000 television to work, on the promise that it will "...be able to simulate cloth and fluid" like never before.

It's true, the PS3 launch games seem to be able to simulate some phat-ass cloth and fluid... but how much difference was there in the actual gaming experience? Gears of War for the 360 is beautiful to look at but nobody is claiming it's a truly different - or novel - experience than other shooters on the market; it's more a refinement of the genre than a reinvention of it. And history says in the world of gaming, that isn't enough.

The Nintendo Wii maybe has the right idea, introducing a controller that you flip around with your wrists instead of pushing buttons. Their thinking is you can engage gamers by translating their actual body movements into the game world. It looked like a primitive, gimmicky attempt on a cheap, underpowered machine... but that little bit of novelty has lead the Wii to dominate sales.


The line to see the Wii, from Digital World Tokyo

The problem is the next real leap forward in gaming, the next real difference in how we play games via sensory suits or neural inputs or whatever, is still too far away and too expensive. Back in the 90's they thought it would be VR headsets, but that technology turned out to be a headache-inducing fad, people's desire for tech novelty outweighed by their fear of being caught in an enormous electrical dorkhat.

3. Look, jackass, as long as there are fun games, the industry will be just fine.

Let's look at this supposed "fun" thing for a moment. As far as I can see, there are two kinds of video game enjoyment:

A. Soothing Hand-eye coordination - you get this from fast-twitch jumping games like Mario and puzzlers like Tetris. See the block, tap a button, repeat. These quick repetition tasks provide the same kind of Zen stress relief that you can get from knitting or making pornographic doodles on a scrap of paper.

B. Imaginative Immersion - this is from games that let you pretend you are somewhere else and living as someone else, preferably someone who doesn't spend all day in a cubicle. These are your role playing games, adventure games, the same escapist pleasure that we get from movies and page-turner novels and schizophrenia.

Now, you've probably noticed that new versions of Mario and Tetris do not spark midnight riots in Japan these days. That first kind of games, once the entire point of having a console, are a dying breed on the new systems. The reason is obvious; we're now knee-deep in handheld game machines that do those simple button-tapping games better (Nintendo's DS is set to dwarf all consoles in sales). Among a certain age group, portable gaming machines are as common as cell phones.

Those simpler games now seem like a waste of consoles' power, and why play them tethered to your TV when you can take a GBA with you to be played in your bedroom or on the toilet or the bus or in the waiting room of the nipple-piercing parlor?

So consoles are left to butter their bread with the latter, with the immersion-type games, with the Final Fantasies and Grand Theft Autos and F.E.A.R., games that put you in a movie, basically. The competition here, then, is Hollywood. When teens are in the mood for a mobster story, the game industry hopes you'll be in the mood to play The Godfather game rather than watch the movie. The problem is that people can watch the movie version over and over and over again, there is a human element to the story that lets a person enjoy it all over again, 20 years later. Games really don't give you that.


Reservoir Dogs, the shitty game


4. Well, now that consoles can display movie-quality graphics, video games will just become the new Hollywood. Gaming will be better than ever! Stop wasting my time, you talking red baboon ass.

Luke's X-Wing approaches the surface of the Death Star.

"Red Five, begin your attack run."

Luke swoops down into the trench. "It'll be just like Beggar's Canyon back ho-"

Turret laser bolts tear his X-Wing apart.

___________________________

Luke's X-Wing approaches the surface of the Death Star.

"Red Five, begin your attack run."

Luke swoops down into the trench. "It'll be just like Beggar's Canyon back home!"

Turret laser bolts miss by inches. He skims along the trench.

A Tie Fighter drops in behind him and blows his ship to ten thousand flaming pieces.

___________________________

Luke's X-Wing approaches the surface of the Death Star.

"Red Five, begin your attack run."

Luke swoops down into the trench. "It'll be just like Beggar's Canyon back home!"

Turret laser bolts miss by inches. He skims along the trench.

A Tie Fighter drops in behind him, shoots and misses. Luke approaches the exhaust shaft... fires a photon torpedo...

...and misses. The Death Star destroys the rebel base.

___________________________

Luke's X-Wing approaches the surface of the Death Star.

"Red Five, begin your attack run."

Luke swoops down into the trench. "It'll be just like Beggar's Canyon ba-"

Turret laser bolts tear his X-Wing apart.


___________________________

That's the exciting Star Wars finale, as played out on your home video game console. "It's just like living a movie! A plotless ten-hour movie edited by Michael Bay's retarded brother and running on a skipping DVD player!"

It's unfair to compare any movie game to a movie because films are relying on an art form (drama) with a thousand years of popularity under its belt. You put sympathetic humans on screen and tell a well-paced, exciting story and we escape into their adventure. But the director controls how the story unfolds, controls what you see and, if he knows what he's doing, delivers it to an audience based on a centuries-old formula designed to engage the emotions.

Games try to trump that with interactivity, letting you control the outcome. But the more control the gamer has, the more the pacing is ruined by brainless repetition (leaving the task to the gamer presents the possibility the gamer will fail 30 times in a row).

If they make the game tasks easier (as not to bring the story to a screeching halt), the gaming experience becomes much too short to justify the $50.00 $60.00 pricetag. And the more interactivity is taken away in favor of pacing and pre-rendered cinemas, the more they stop being video games.

Again, the novelty of getting to be Luke Skywalker has attracted gamers in droves. We were never really able to do that before. The experience of being able to stride down a hallway blowing up monsters with a rail gun was also new to a lot of you. But it comes to the same, doesn't it? The first time you play a level, the monster around the first corner is a surprise. After that, it's homework. It's memorizing, via pure repetition, bad guy placement and ammunition deposits and card keys. "Okay, kill the mutant behind the crate. Duck behind the dual doors. Wait for guard to walk out. Kill him, take his key. There's two Hellgoats in this next hall. Pick up the rockets..."

Is it any wonder that once we see the new, glossier FPS games that so few of us go back and play the old ones? What do the old ones have to offer once the experience has been memorized? And what do the new ones have to offer but new arrangements of hallways and glossier monsters and new stiffly-acted cut scenes that we'll watch exactly once before skipping past them?

Yes, I had a reflex drool response when I first saw the screens for the 360's Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter.


But each event in that game is still carefully scripted. Run up to the busted-out brick wall. Truck pulls up. Six enemy troops spill out. Shoot them. Run down the hallway... get killed. Start over. Run up to the busted-out brick wall again. Again wait for the truck to pull out. Kill the six enemy troops. Run down the hallway. Pick up the First Aid Kit...

Rinse. Repeat. Memorize.

Again, it's okay for a film to be scripted because you're in the hands of the director and charismatic actors who make you care about their situation. But other than the thrill of seeing what special effects a shiny new console can show off, what's the reward for playing a scripted game?

5. Who cares about single player? It's multiplayer that makes these games worth playing. The reward is getting good at the game and thrashing your opponents, you foppish wide-brimmed asshat.

That's true... for a small, hard-core minority of gamers.

How many people do you personally know who play console games online? I'm not talking about the people you met online. I'm asking how many of your actual real-life game-having friends actually go online with their little headset thing like in the commercials?

Right now about 10% of current-gen gamers are online. That's all. Analysts say that by the end of the next-gen games lifespan, in 2011, less than 25% of the consoles will be used online..

I'm going to share a secret with you; the average video gamer isn't big on fist-pumping competition with strangers. That's the territory of the jocks and the scholarship-clutching Future Businessmen of America members. Among gamers, the Halo 2 teabaggers and Madden fanatics who insist on playing against a dozen strangers online are a small, hard-core faction.

And yet, whole classes of games (specifically first-person shooters and fighting games) are more and more set up so that the single-player mode is nothing but a tutorial for the multiplayer. And I understand why; the industry sees a future where I pay $60 for a game and then pay another $20 a month to play it for the next two years. Look at the money Blizzard is making off World of Warcraft. Five million subscribers, at $15 a month.


Blizzard

The difference is that you can play WoW for days without ever interacting with another human; that's what the solo quests are for. It's online, but not necessarily multiplayer. You see, lots of us play video games as a way to alleviate the stress of dealing with people. If I have a bad day at the office and then go home and play Halo 3 online, I might run into the same type of asshole I just left at work. The same petty feuds and cliques.

Or even worse, I may get to where I have to practice a game, working to make my skills sharper and sharper so I can rub victory in the face of annoying teenagers I'll never meet, feeling the pressure to log more and more hours in the game so I don't embarrass myself in matches. I don't want to do that. I want to relax. I want to play.

I'm not alone. The numbers speak for themselves. If online play is what's going to save gaming, it won't save it in time for this generation.

6. But the gaming industry is still growing, dung-hoarding Turd Baron. You're saying everybody's going to suddenly stop playing?

I'm saying both Sony and Microsoft will wind up losing money on their consoles this time around. Look at the numbers; as of the writing of this article, the PS3 is a colossal failure and the 360 is barely ahead of the original XBox in sales. Nintendo is set to dominate, simply because their machine is the cheapest and therefore you don't have to want it very badly to buy it. I think the market, for the first time in 20 years, will shrink.

The first problem is HD (high-definition) TV. These televisions with four or five-digit price tags are still in only 25% of homes. It's $1,000 to get a very bad (or very small) HDTV, and up to $10,000 to get a really nice one.

If we play it on the cheap side and get a $2,000 HDTV, and then buy our $600 PS3 console and two games and an extra controller... we're $3,000 into our next-gen investment.

I know there are people willing to pay that. Their gleaming SUV's pass me on the highway every day. But think about this. The most popular console in history, the Sony PS2, has shipped 103 million units as of the writing of this article. Of those, 70 million were sold after Sony dropped the price to $199 in May of 2002.

Get the picture? They dropped the price because sales were falling. Sales were falling because there were only 30 million customers willing to pay $300 for a game console. And now they're asking us to make ten times the investment most of us wouldn't make the first time?

Hello? Am I the only one who sees this? This is exactly like the HDTV movement, people a decade ago predicting that by 2005 every home would have a $2,000 HDTV in the living room. Who are these jackasses who think the upper edge of the middle class is 100 million households strong?


My car

7. But all they have to do is find new markets. You already said they're making games for older gamers, and new gamers are being born every day.

There are two sides to that coin, though. Yes, there's a new generation of gaming kids out there. But the thing is, the original video game generation is growing old. I know, because I'm one of them, an Original Gamer. I owned Pong as a toddler, an Atari 2600 in grade school and an NES in 1987. I've logged hours on the Sega Genesis, the Atari Jaguar, the NEC Turbographx 16, the SNES, a Sega Saturn, a 3D0, a Sony Playstation, a Casio Fungiver 5000, a 4-bit Toyota Gamemobile... you get the idea.

But I'm 30 now, worried with mortgages and job stress and coffin shopping. My peers all have their own children, the household toy budget spent on the offspring, not the adults.

I know some of us still play games at 30, studies say about 25% of gamers are now over 35. But can you play games at 40 or 50 without looking like an intellectually-stunted manchild, there in your sweater vest, the control pad tangled in your long, gray, drool-soaked beard as the creeping hand of death stalks your every thought?

We Original Gamers, the hard core, bought every machine that came on the market for two decades. But for a whole lot of us OG's, the game consoles we own now will be the last we'll ever buy. There are millions of us, and it's just a matter of time.

And I mean it's literally a matter of time. I'll pop in a DVD because a movie only requires two hours from my busy schedule of work and home repairs and chasing kids off my lawn. Getting to the end of a video game, however, requires hours upon hours of play. Not because the story is hours long, mind you, but because getting through each scene requires practice and repetition and repetition and repetition, all in the hopes of seeing that exploding Death Star cutscene at the end.

A 10 year-old can come home from school in the afternoon and devote the rest of the day to the task of memorizing the exact sequence of finger twitches that will get him past the dark forces of the Empire. A college kid can do the same, often while high. Most employed and married adults cannot. If I'm right about this, the gaming industry is about to face its first real exodus of existing customers, a hard-core group they've relied upon for decades to snap up every new box on the shelf. We're leaving, because while we have grown up, gaming, in many ways, has not.

I know some of you Nintendo fans were screaming at your monitor in the last section, saying the $249 Nintendo Wii is the low-cost answer to the affordability problem. And its "pick up and play" games are ideal for casual gamers.

The problem is Nintendo is still so neglectful of hard-core gamers that it borders on hostility. It's hard to find a game that doesn't star a cartoon character, and the games that don't (like Red Steel) tend to be half-assed efforts based on the self-fulfilling prophesy that "true" gamers won't want to flail around with the Wiimote.



In Conclusion...

There's going to be a lot of money lost the next few years, a lot of articles written, a lot of panic, a lot of changes. Already the big guy at Sony has been fired over the PS3 fiasco, and Microsoft's games division has already lost another $1.5 billion.

We are in for some changes. And wherever the next generation goes from here, it will hopefully be different and innovative and based on something other than eye candy and the shock value of blood and guts and hookers. Hopefully it will allow for creativity from the players, and room for small, independent game makers to create content. Hopefully it will be something every working person can afford.

What will it look like? I for one am on record predicting that a massive expansion of the MMORPG market is on the horizon at some point, a new form of online play that relies less on competition and more on MySpace-style human interaction. But that's just me. As for what will fill the void in the mean time, well, no one thing has to fill it. Do you honestly think there are fewer entertainment options now than the last time gaming went out of style in 1983?

Top-Rated TV shows, 1983

From ClassicTVHits.com


I think we'll find something.


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