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 ...
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.
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.
Hey, did you see the impossibly badass trailer for Bloodborne, the atmospheric monster-killing game from the makers of Dark Souls?
Bet you'd like to play that, huh? Unless you intend to buy a PlayStation 4, too bad, fucker!
"Well," you say, "that's what you get for buying the wrong console, word farter!"
Stop. Back up. Why do you just accept a system where you're guaranteed to miss out on even the chance to buy most of the great games unless you drop $2,000 on four devices? How is that the best scenario for anyone? What other industry works this way? Shit, even most of the hardware manufacturers are losing money.
It's true that, for instance, there's no TV show that's on every network, other than that State of the Union show about a dystopian future where a room full of old men in suits applaud a smooth-talking guy droning on about freedom, but the hardware has always been universal. Every TV could access the same shows, and every DVD player could play every movie -- you never heard of Sony making it so that Spider-Man could only play on Sony Blu-ray players.
But the whole reason gamers get so worked up over "system wars" is because they know that no matter what choice they make, they're going to miss most of the great games that come out that console cycle. I picked a PlayStation 4 this time -- that means that so far I've missed Titanfall, Dead Rising 3, Super Mario 3D World, Mario Kart 8 ... all of which I would buy in a second if they didn't require another thousand dollars' worth of hardware investment.
Even multiplatform games are a mess -- you won't find Grand Theft Auto V on any Nintendo machines, and PC gamers will get it a year later than everyone else (if at all). It's too expensive to develop for every platform when they all have different architecture and capabilities, so it also hurts the people making the games, because they know they're going to be selling to a limited audience. Why are we still doing it this way?
And in the Future ...
As usual, the console makers spent E3 boasting loudly when a game is available "only" on their machine -- thus Sunset Overdrive is "only on the Xbox One":
Most of the multiplatform games have "exclusive" levels or characters that can only be played on one machine or another -- no one gets the full game due to these competitors fighting over market share.
But here's the big secret: The technology already exists to play any game on any device. Without getting technical, they invented a way to run the game off a more powerful remote machine and stream it to you using a device that costs pretty much nothing. Sony is rolling out its own version this summer to let you play old PlayStation games using nothing but your television and a controller -- that's right, no console required.
So the only thing between you and the ability to play every single game ever made, right on your TV, is a shitload of corporate lawyers being willing to sit down and make deals with one another to everyone's mutual benefit. I'm confident this will happen soon, because I am completely ignorant of how the market works (I avoided every business class in college out of the fear that they would turn me into a pod person).
Since most of the E3 demos are pre-rendered (that is, fake), they always depict the enemies doing something that is apparently impossible in even the most advanced video game: acting like actual human beings.
For example, The Last of Us was teased with an absolutely stunning gameplay video at E3 2012 -- and the crowd screamed its approval when this clip ended:
They weren't cheering for the graphics (which are good but not revolutionary) or the premise (zombie survival horror isn't exactly cutting edge). No, what stunned the crowd was the A.I. on display. The developers called it the Balance of Power system, and what it's doing in that clip up there is mind-boggling.
The human enemies are reacting like real people -- cooperating, changing strategy in real time based on what the player is doing and how the fight is going, and showing self-preservation (the last guy left in a battle runs for his life, then stages an ambush later). The enemies are being creative and giving the player encounters that won't be the same on any two playthroughs. This was huge -- video game enemies have been mindlessly rushing into our gunfire since, well, Space Invaders.
But in the final game, you get this:
Sony Computer Entertainment
Yep -- for the most part, it's the same "charge blindly at the player" A.I., with some minimal dodging here and there.
I'm not calling out that game to pick on it -- the fact that it's a great game is the point. I have no idea if the A.I. shown in the demo was faked for the trailer, or if they stripped it out at the last minute because they thought it would make the game too difficult. But for me, it isn't about difficulty, it's about immersion (there's that word again -- start a drinking game where you take a shot every time you see it). It's about populating the game world with people who act like people, to bring the fantasy to life. To create the living virtual worlds I dreamed of when I was that game-obsessed teenager, playing and replaying Final Fantasy III in my room while I polished my sex medals.
And in the Future ...
There was no shortage of games at E3 this year boasting of revolutionary A.I. There never is -- I remember hearing the same claims about Madden NFL '93. So, the makers of Alien: Isolation tell us the alien has no set patterns -- it thinks and detects and hunts, in ways that ensure you'll never get the same game twice:
I don't believe them. I no longer believe it's possible. But ... we'll see.
I got nervous any time a game at E3 promised dozens of hours of play time -- RPGs like The Witcher 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, or massively open world games like the stunning Batman: Arkham Knight:
I've played lots of those games, and I know how they stretch out their runtime. At some point, while you're playing, your game will become a different game. And probably a stupid one.
To get resources for upgrades in the Mass Effect universe, you have to switch to this incredibly tedious ore mining mini-game -- it's like they imported some free iPhone game into their sprawling sci-fi epic in order to stretch out the play time. Or maybe you have to play some little browser game to "hack" a door lock, from the classic "connect the pipes" in BioShock ...
... to the impossibly complex version seen in the last Deux Ex game:
As for the Grand Theft Auto games, they're basically just big mini-game collections at this point. The mission icons on the map are like a minefield -- you don't know if clicking on one will bring you a thrilling heist or fucking yoga:
But at least those are sort of optional and you can learn to avoid them. Not so for, say, the accursed asteroid shooting mini-game in Dead Space:
And that's leaving out things like the hunting that seems to turn up in every Ubisoft game now (the last Assassin's Creed games, Far Cry 3), because at least they're sort of using the same shooting mechanics we're using to mow down the humans. But still ... you say I need a bigger ammo pouch for my character, and the only way to come by one is by killing a wild animal and tanning its hide? I can't just take one off one of the 6,000 soldiers I'm going to kill that morning? See, I think you're just giving me busywork to make up for the fact that you didn't write enough story.
And in the Future ...
This is another feature that they don't like to show off during gameplay demos (though if the game features a skyscraper falling over, you can bet they'll show that shit), but we know this stuff will be in Fable: Legends ...
... which they've said will include "mini-games, pub games, and similar activities." And that's not a surprise, as these mini-games seem to plague GTA-style "open world" titles, and that genre is taking over (even when the open map adds nothing to the gameplay, as in the case of Arkham City and, I would argue, Infamous: Second Son). Watch Dogs isn't short on mini-games, for example. I guess it's a case where they feel pressured to add variety and volume to the game, but development resources force them to keep the side shit simplistic and/or boring.
So why does it bother me that they're putting other little games inside my big game? Because I don't consider something like Mass Effect to be a game -- not really. It's a story, an experience. We call them "games" because that's what they were back when it was all pinball and Pac-Man. But hasn't something like The Last of Us transcended that label? Isn't that what we were all striving for? I don't know. I guess I'm being silly. It's just a dumb thing you buy to kill time, who cares?
The reason E3 is like Christmas for gamers is that it's one point in time when games are nothing but possibilities -- it's all prepackaged previews and trailers that either hide the rough edges or blatantly lie about what the game is going to look like. But I can absolutely guarantee you that every single one of these games will ship with at least one feature that you loathe. Sometimes it's just the little things: Here's Battlefield 4, a cutting edge FPS game in which you can get shot to death by an enemy hiding behind on-screen text that obstructs your view:
I get that it's a small thing that got missed in play testing, even if it routinely ruins the game. But I swear that every single game ships with something exactly like that. Something that's just broken enough to disrupt the immersion.
For example, ever notice how games with audio logs pay no attention whatsoever to whether you can actually hear them? They'll literally set it up so that a noisy ambush is triggered the moment you hit "Play," drowning out the sound. In Borderlands 2, I think I missed half of Handsome Jack's hilarious dialogue because he insisted on uttering his witty lines while cluster grenades were exploding all around me.
And then there's the big stuff.
Take L.A. Noire, probably the most lovingly crafted piece of media I've seen in the last decade. Hey, laugh if you want, but where a period show like Mad Men might create six or seven sets to look like the 1960s, L.A. Noire freaking recreated every inch of 1940s Los Angeles, seemingly down to the molecule -- every street, every building, every landmark, every billboard. Oh, and then they got half the cast of Mad Men to do the voices and created an entirely new facial animation technology purely to help the character models convey emotions. All told, they spent five years and $50 million (that they'll admit to -- the studio went bankrupt making it), and it shows -- the game looked great, sounded great, and had a wonderful story and an absolutely immersive atmosphere.
But the gameplay was a series of nonsensical interrogations in which none of your choices mattered in any logical way -- you'd be interviewing a kindly old lady about a crime she witnessed, and choosing the "Express Doubt" option would cause your character to scream, "I know you killed him, you old whore! I will fuck you with the cock of justice!"*
Interspersed were some very tedious and clunky driving/fighting/shooting sequences, as if they worked really hard on half of the game, then had to rush through the rest a week before deadline. And that seems to be the norm. Great story, graphics, or gameplay: You usually only get one, and if a game pulls off two, we call it the Game of the Year. The games that have gotten all three right I can count on one hand (Arkham Asylum is one).
It's like this bizarre zero-sum game. The Mass Effect series had great story, atmosphere, and voice acting. It also had awful, stilted shooting, with awkward cover-based mechanics that caused you to automatically get sucked into waist-high walls if you got too close to them. The Grand Theft Auto games have great physics and voice actors, with horrible driving mechanics, worse shooting, and side missions that are pure tedium. BioShock: Infinite had amazing atmosphere, great art design, and voice work marred by repetitive combat and tedious item collection.
I could keep going -- check out the driving in any non-racing game, or the melee combat in any game that isn't entirely about melee combat, or the swimming mechanics in pretty much
It's the story of a man who travels to a wondrous city in the clouds so that he can spend hours sifting through the trash for spare change.
And hey, did you ever enter a dungeon and notice it's suspiciously similar to the last dungeon you were in (and the one before that) because the developers literally just copied and pasted it? BioWare all but apologized to fans for the copy/pasting in Dragon Age II, and Dead Space 3 just repeated the same few rooms and environments over and over for the duration of the game. I suppose it's for the same reason some games have us fight the same bosses over and over -- there's one that turns up in Final Fantasy XIII-2 five goddamned times.
I'm sure any game developer could school my ignorant ass about why it has to be this way -- deadlines, budgets, whatever. But that's my point -- this cutting of corners seems inherent to the medium. The way games are made requires them to half-ass entire sections and leave in frustrating mechanics that had to have come up during play testing.
And in the Future ...
Like I said, everything looks perfect in previews. So we can get giddy watching a trailer like this one for Battlefield: Hardline ...
... and tell ourselves that it won't launch with any of the glitchy bullshit that has plagued previous Battlefield games (although some people are in the beta now -- ask them how it's going). The reality is that it seems like half of the games I buy now have a "day one" patch -- meaning they discovered broken things in the game in time to have a patch ready for launch, but not in time to just fix the game itself. So who cares about these little issues as long as they can be patched later? Unless, you know, the publisher just doesn't feel like it.
David Wong is the Executive Editor of Cracked.com and the bestselling author of This Book is Full of Spiders. For more of his mildly controversial views on gaming, see 5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted. For his other bold predictions about the future, see 5 Manly Things That Are Going Away Forever.