The wondrous video games of the future were just unveiled at the E3 conference, the annual industry show where they demonstrate the next generation of software intended to keep us from going outside and committing crimes.
Now, like many people, I like to purchase video games and complain about them, to help myself forget that there are people in the world who don't have food. About a decade ago, I wrote a Gamer's Manifesto that was an epic list of things that drove me nuts about my favorite hobby (I'd link to it, but it got partially eaten by the server at some point), and now seems like a good time to do it again, since console gaming is slowly dying.
What, you didn't hear? Yeah, game makers are going bankrupt so fast, it's hard to keep track of them, Microsoft is losing money on the Xbox to the point where they're considering selling off their gaming division, and all three new consoles have failed in Japan, where everyone is playing games on their phones instead. It really does look like that is the future of gaming -- free mobile bullshit where you smash rows of candy and win by paying real money for power-ups (Candy Crush is raking in a million dollars a day with that racket).
Man, fuck that. I want games that can whisk me away to other worlds and inspire me with the kind of fantastic stories and characters that kept me from leaving my room for most of my childhood. But I'm losing faith, because of things like ...
#6. Games Where You Pay Money to Win
The industry calls them "microtransactions"; the term gamers use is "pay to win." At E3, we saw games like DriveClub for the PS4, which lets you pay real money for faster cars, as well as pay-for upgrades in Ubisoft's The Crew ...
... and you can just assume it with any game from EA -- they've promised that microtransactions will be in every single fucking game they make from now on. While they didn't explicitly say they'll be in Battlefield: Hardline, they've already come to Battlefield 4, so, you know, do the math.
If you've never run into them, here's how it works: Say you're immersed in a tense sci-fi adventure full of grotesque monsters eagerly waiting for you to blow them to pieces with a gun that shoots saw blades. You fight your way through a creepy derelict spaceship, as one does, and come upon a device that will let you upgrade your gun using some materials you've gathered. But then the machine reminds your character that if he'd prefer, he can simply pay for the upgrades with Microsoft Points. That is, with the player's real, actual money.
Welcome to Dead Space 3, asshole.
I don't know about you, but I'm real big on immersion in games. It's why I play, and it's what separates consoles from that simplistic iPhone bullshit -- they have the horsepower to bring worlds and characters to life, and to make us care what happens to them. All Candy Crush can make me feel is the frustration of failure or the momentary elation of moving on to the next level. So even if I was OK with getting nickel-and-dimed on a game I already paid $60 for, due to some kind of head trauma or something, I am not OK with getting yanked out of the story with a reminder that I can make all of these monsters bow to my will if only I hand over my real-world allowance.
I already know what some of you are saying, thanks to our cutting edge software that lets the editorial team access your computer's microphone at any time: "But Wong, you don't have to pay! It's just an option!"
Ah, see, but they have another trick up their sleeve (and I think I can hear your dog scratching to be let in). Here, get out your phone and play Candy Crush for an hour. I called that game the future of the medium just a few inches ago, and here's why: It's a "free" game that has earned more than $1.4 billion for its makers. Yep, it's going to wind up making more money than The Avengers did at the box office, and it cost almost nothing to create.
How are they raking in mountains of cash off a free game? Well, I wrote an article a few years ago about video game addiction and how game makers use techniques perfected by B.F. Skinner to get your brain hooked. Candy Crush, and the tens of thousands of games just like it, have boiled this addiction-based gameplay down to its simplest, most potent form. Levels are designed so that you breeze through five easy ones, then fall just one move short of your goal -- at which point you are prompted to buy a few extra moves for just one dollar. If you refuse, you have to start the level all over again, and if you fail it five times, you have to stop playing for half an hour ... unless you pay a few dollars. Or you can buy yourself some power-ups, for a few dollars more.
Now, I'm a more intelligent and savvy consumer than most of you, so I saw through this scam after only 190 levels. But the point is that the entire design of the game is intended to frustrate you into paying the money. It is a solid-gold economic model that is disrupting an industry where big-budget, immersive fantasies are driving their studios into bankruptcy.
And in the Future ...
Although this isn't exactly a feature that publishers tout in the E3 gameplay demos -- they've hinted that the new shooter from Bungie, Destiny, will have them, and we know that Forza Motorsport 5 on the Xbox One offers faster cars for real-world cash, so it seems safe to assume they'll be there in Forza Horizon 2 -- this train only goes one way.
And once these microtransactions are the norm in console games, they'll be designed around maximizing them. That's where the real money is -- Candy Crush has shown them the way. It's kind of the model casinos use, the only difference being the machine never pays out real money. You only win the right to keep playing and paying.
#5. Social Gaming Bullshit Instead of Real-Life Multiplayer on the Sofa
The Assassin's Creed franchise was once about a lone assassin murdering historical figures after listening to their boring conversations for an hour, but at E3, we saw that the upcoming Assassin's Creed: Unity is about you and three online strangers gang-murdering the targets:
That was the theme this year -- Fable: Legends turns the beloved RPG series into a multiplayer co-op adventure, and Far Cry 4 has the option for a friend to drop in and help you murder natives. All of the big new franchises are seemingly built entirely on social gaming with strangers (The Division, Destiny, Evolve). The Division's onstage demo even had the presenters sadly pretending to play with one another, complete with hilariously fake banter:
"But Wong, we all know you famously hate everyone and thus have no friends to play with -- why can't you just ignore that option?"
You can't. They won't let you. In Need for Speed: Rivals for the PS4, for example, you can't pause the game. If you get a phone call or want to stop for a few seconds to take a bite of your burrito, or if a burglar barges in and you need to dive screaming across the room to stab him in slow motion, the game plays on without you -- at which point an enemy driver will smash into you and kick you out to the menu screen, causing you to lose everything you had earned in the level.
The reason they took away the pause function in single player is because you can't pause a multiplayer game, and they want to remind you that you really should be playing multiplayer. It's the same reason it constantly reminds you that you should be logging in to your EA Origin account (completely separate from the PlayStation Network account you've already had to log in to, because having it all controlled on one network would just be insane). All so that strangers can come in and run your car off the road while you're trying to complete single player challenges. Fun!
So instead, I decide I want to pop in NBA 2K14 to play a nice pickup game of basketball on the sofa with my burglar while we wait for the ambulance. It immediately hangs on the intro screen, because it's trying to log in to the 2K servers and they can't handle the load. It's the exact same problem that made PC gamers furious at Diablo III and Sim City, now having quietly arrived on my console -- a machine I bought specifically because I hate messing with this kind of PC bullshit.
It's not that multiplayer games are becoming more popular -- all of the above games are primarily designed to be single player -- it's that they're trying to force social gaming elements into every game. Pop in Watch Dogs and you'll need to sign in to Uplay (Ubisoft's multiplayer network -- again, what would life be like if you didn't have to create a separate username and password for every fucking new game you buy?), and by default strangers will be able to come in and try to "hack" you in your single player game, until you go find the menu option to turn it off.
Look, I get it. Some people enjoy the company of strangers and don't actively avoid them as I do. I know why the PS4 has a "share" button on its controller and why I'm getting prompted to post my shit on Facebook on every menu screen -- the kids are all about social media these days, according to a sitcom I saw recently. Maybe it's just that my line of work has made me scared of random people on the Internet, because I get so many messages from strangers who think they're being stalked by demons.
But as I said above and will probably say again in this article, my love of video games is rooted in my desire to get immersed in a fantasy, and that immersion gets broken when some teenager interrupts my epic story to tell me he banged my mother so hard that it turned me gay. Or, you know, when server issues kick me out of the universe completely.
And in the Future ...
While seemingly every new game at E3 promised online co-op, you know what I didn't see once? Split screen. You know, so you and your real-life friends and family can play together on the sofa. Destiny doesn't have it, even though the game it's a pretty clear copy of (Borderlands) did. I mean, I guess the Wii U promises that sort of thing, such as the ability to inexplicably play as Ice-T in the new Smash Bros:
His entrance music is "Cop Killer."
But I guess I'm just an old man yelling at a cloud here, because for me, the new trend is "social" in all the wrong ways. My wife and I played through Borderlands 2 together, and I now wonder if I'll get to do something like that again, ever, in my life. There's no split-screen racing in that Need for Speed game -- that's apparently purely Mario Kart territory now. I guess people just ... don't play that way anymore? Laughing and drinking and getting pizza grease all over the controllers? Those Rock Band games that were all the rage a few years ago, that was the last gasp?
That's too bad. My favorite high school memories are of playing through games in my bedroom with all of my friend. I mean, not my favorite memories. I'm not a loser. My favorite memory is the time I won that, uh, sex tournament. No, really, I still have the trophy. At the top is a golden angel holding my boner.