5 Big Questions Gamers Have to Answer in 2018
2017 was a pretty good year for video games and a pretty crappy year for a lot of other things. But while games can be a fun escape from the insane realities of, well, those other things, there are some soul-searching questions we all need to ask ourselves if we're going to keep enjoying them in 2018.
Will The Switch Bring Back Simple, Fun Consoles?
The Nintendo Switch is now the fastest-selling console in history, and one of its most underappreciated features is the fact that you can easily plug it in, insert a game, and start playing.
If you don't understand why that's valuable, let's say you've held off on getting a new Xbox or PlayStation, but you've finally decided to pull the trigger because you really want to play Dragon Masturbator 2018. So you head to Best Buy, where the clerk says, "Do you want an Xbox One, Xbox One S, or Xbox One X?" What's the difference, you ask? Well, the Xbox One is an older machine that plays Xbox One games, while the S and X are newer but also play One games in some vaguely defined better way that may or may not be worth the extra cost. Future games might take advantage of the stronger hardware, but maybe they won't! No one knows! If you're undecided, there's also the option of a PlayStation 4, PlayStation 4 Slim, or PlayStation 4 Pro. The latter supports whatever the fuck Ultra HD Blu-Ray is.
Let's say you decide on some form of Xbox. Back home, you get it set up and hooked up to your WiFi network, and you sign up for a free Xbox Live account. Then you'd better have something else to do, because your new console has to download years of system updates. When that's done, you put DM18 in and install data to the hard drive that you'll later have to delete to make room for other games. Then the game starts downloading all of its massive patches, because it shipped with huge flaws, like the infinite ejaculation bug. Sometime next week, you're finally ready to play, but first you might as well unlock the free set of in-game Master-Chief-themed sounds that came with the special edition you sprung for, since all you have to do is laboriously type in an 84-character code. Then it's time to hop online and download some custom dragons!
Oh, but for that, you need to upgrade your free Xbox Live account to a paid account, and also register a uSemen account, which is maintained separately by the developer through an app on your console desktop. And you have to be connected to both at all times, even if you're only masturbating dragons in single-player. Better hope your internet connection never has an outage! $560, a paid yearly subscription, and two dozen hours of your life later, and you're finally ready to jerk off some wyverns! Except for the VR-exclusive content.
All of that complete lack of convenience represents the growing disconnect between what console creators think consumers want and what they actually seem to want. Do you want a PlayStation 4 Pro, plus a PlayStation VR headset and a new 4K TV to take advantage of all the Pro's features? Prepare to drop two grand. Do you just want to play a damn game, regardless of your K count? You're not in Sony and Microsoft's current target market. They're racing to advertise and sell the most powerful and expensive machines possible at a time when everyone's talking about how they're having trouble paying rent. And then they justify the cost by touting extra features of dubious value. How many people are navigating the baffling and hideous labyrinth that is the Xbox One's user interface so they can make a Skype call?
Hardcore gamers and tech geeks with money to burn love this stuff, and that's fine. Someone has to make the hardware breakthroughs. But people who know what Dolby Atmos audio is and get excited about buying the third incarnation of the same Xbox to take advantage of it are in the minority, if Nintendo's success with "Hey, plug this in and you can play Mario" is any indication. I'm not demanding a return to the simplicity of the Atari 2600, but at what point are we going to draw the line on paying big money to justify features that most people don't need? I guess we'll find out whenever the PlayStation 5 is announced.
Will We Keep Buying Games Filled With Intrusive Microtransactions?
Call Of Duty: WWII is a game that wants you to take a serious look at the Holocaust before hopping online to tell the person you shot in the nuts that you're going to bone their mom. And like many modern games, it also employs randomized "loot boxes" -- packages of cosmetic unlockables, experience boosts, and other bonuses that you can slowly earn or quickly buy (without knowing exactly what you'll get). So it doesn't improve the gritty realism when you're hanging around the Normandy beachfront and a giant box falls from the sky to inform everyone that you've unlocked the ability to decorate your pistol with the goddamn Statue of Liberty.
Call Of Duty: America Single-Handedly Wins World War II Again's setup was mocked, but that mockery did not prevent it from becoming the best-selling game of 2017. Activision, the publisher, made $3.6 billion from "in-game content" in 2016. That their newest approach involves rewarding you for watching random people open their loot boxes like a nerd voyeur is not a coincidence. As Polygon pointed out, it's all about keeping you engaged. Seeing people play virtual slot machines while the game screams "heroic!" and "epic!" is a constant nagging reminder that you too might unlock an epic new reward if you keep playing and heroically spend money.
Call Of Duty: We're So Sorry About That Weird One Starring Evil Jon Snow In Space was not the only 2017 game to explore new ways to wring money out of their customers. Middle-earth: Shadow Of War features a tedious end-game grind that you can fast-forward by buying loot boxes, and also tried to make you pay for content that memorialized a deceased developer, which is like charging cover at a funeral. Forza 7's $20 "VIP Membership" was such a ripoff that the developers were forced to change it and give their players free cars (in the game), but they're still locking once-standard race modes behind loot boxes. Destiny 2 forced players to spend money if they wanted to change their armor color, used a paid expansion to lock players out of base game content, and misled players about how easy it would be to earn free stuff.
Worst of all was Star Wars Battlefront II, which inspired a fan revolt rivaling the fervor of most communist revolutions. Initially, characters like Darth Vader (the guy that might as well be the logo for the franchise) remained locked behind either 40 hours of grinding or lucre, even if you had already dropped 80 bucks on the game's deluxe edition. The developers stripped out the worst of their "pay to win" features in the face of complaints, but reviewers pointed out that the game remained a tedious grind-fest that forced you to say goodbye to the rest of your schedule if you wanted to get anywhere with it. Naturally, it still sold millions of copies.
In fact, the top three best-selling games of 2017 all featured microtransaction scandals. Microtransactions aren't inherently evil -- blockbuster games are getting increasingly expensive to make, and letting hardcore fans pay to make their gun shoot rainbows is a better solution than adding 20 bucks to the base price. But microtransactions have evolved from a necessary annoyance into an open evil, and our response has been to shake our fists, grump on social media, then buy the games anyway. We can't keep having it both ways. If gamers truly want aggressive microtransactions to stop, they need to vote with their wallets. Otherwise, don't be surprised if 2019's Call Of Duty: WWIV makes you drop five bucks in the middle of a match so you'll be allowed to reload.
Can We Actually Reward Original Ideas?
It's not a coincidence that every game with a microtransaction controversy was a sequel in a massive franchise -- those same gargantuan budgets force developers to stick with the tried-and-true brands (go down the list of 2017's best-selling games, and it's not until #8 that you find an original story). And it's right about here that a chorus of gamers will shout that innovation is alive and well over on the indie game scene. Just look at 2017 indie hits like Cuphead, which sold over two million copies!
Sure, let's look at it. Most of the game was made by two brothers over seven years, and all they had to do to make it happen was, uh, quit their jobs, remortgage their homes, and work brutally long hours. How many aspiring game developers do you think are out there who remortgaged their homes and didn't sell two million copies of their passion project?
It's not like that's an isolated case. Seemingly every indie hit has a harrowing story behind it. One of the creators of Night In The Woods said that the workload almost killed him. He wasn't being figurative. Jason Roberts' Gorogoa began development in 2011, when Roberts quit his job. He ran out of money in 2013, got a boost from an indie development fund, then blew through that too. He finally released Gorogoa in late 2017. Seven years to make a game you can complete in under an hour. And those are the successes. An average indie game is lucky to make $20,000.
It's slightly beyond the scope of this article to determine how to completely redesign the economy to better support the arts, but let's not pretend that gaming's current business model rewards innovation. In Hollywood, creators who want decent budgets without involving superheroes found a home in prestige TV, and the streaming model has made that work. Gaming needs that -- a marketplace in which creators can get funding for riskier projects without having to sell both kidneys or pray their Kickstarter goes viral.
Will Someone Try To Clean Up The Dark Underbelly Of Streaming?
Your 12-year-old child / niece / adopted crime-fighting ward watching their favorite YouTuber play Minecraft is the new Saturday morning cartoon binge. College students watching someone tear up Dark Souls on Twitch is the new lonely masturbation, I think, based on my own academic career. Twitch gets 100 million monthly viewers, so there are a lot of people not masturbating right now. Think about it.
If you don't get the appeal, I'm sorry to inform you that you're old. I am too, but I do get the appeal, because I'm a cool old person. Twitch and YouTube have made gaming social again, and not in the sense where someone in the opposite hemisphere can call you a cocksucking cheater until you're deaf. It's about just ... hanging out. And if particularly engaging streamers can make a living wage doing it, great! That's the fantasy our parents yelled at us for having when we were 13.
But this is also a world in which working 12-16 hours a day, seven days a week for fear of losing viewers and subscribers can be the minimum. There are stories that sound like plot pitches for Black Mirror episodes. One streamer found herself in physical pain from streaming so much Just Dance. Another used Twitch to pay for his college tuition, but couldn't take a break when his grandfather's death was announced to him in the middle of a stream. Another streamer developed diabetes from their work habits. And, oh yeah, someone died in the middle of their 24-hour stream.
There's also the issue of streaming influencing the gaming economy in sketchy ways. Warner Bros. got in trouble with the FTC for paying influential gamers to promote Shadow Of War Profiteering without disclosing the campaign, and Microsoft failed to disclose that they were paying YouTubers to talk up the Xbox One in a campaign the FTC called "false and misleading." Twitch says their streams help boost game sales, but some games have the opposite problem. That Dragon, Cancer -- a fun, lighthearted romp through a family's naked grief at losing their five-year-old son -- was critically acclaimed but failed to turn a profit, as millions of people just watched someone play the game instead of buying it for themselves. There's a weird line between observing and stealing that hasn't been hammered out yet.
Lots of streamers have healthy and interesting careers, but it's still a medium that's too new to have a robust set of standards and ethics ... which means the rules are being written on the fly by inexperienced adults and actual children. It's in this murky world that PewDiePie, the multimillionaire with 59 million subscribers and 16 billion views, got in trouble for both failing to disclose sponsorship and for using racial slurs and anti-Semitic jokes mere months after he acknowledged that he was wrong for making gay jokes. That stuff made headlines even on sites old people read. At some point, they're going to decide these streamers are corrupting the minds of a generation. What happens then?
Have We Crossed A Line With Realistic Violence? Is There A Line?
As someone who has killed enough fictional people to (de)populate several countries, I don't have an inherent problem with video game violence. I've only once tried to emulate what I saw in a game, and my post-Tropico attempt to overthrow a Latin American government barely even got off the ground. But I have been playing games long enough to see the technology evolve from "shooting a vaguely human-shaped blob makes them grunt and fall over" to "shooting a photorealistic human makes the camera lovingly zoom in as the bullet pierces their neck and their attempted scream is only a sad gurgle while their blood catches the light of the sun," and the two engender very different reactions.
It's not just me. Critics noted that 2015's Rise Of The Tomb Raider wanted to show a smarter, more nuanced Lara Croft who was haunted by PTSD, but also wanted to show her graphically stabbing dozens of dudes in the neck in glorious HD with no hesitation. It's like if a filmmaker tried to mash up Full Metal Jacket and The Expendables 2. More recently, the trailer for The Last Of Us 2 was called out for making grimdark torture the selling point. And Wolfenstein II: The Game Twitter Thinks Single-Handedly Solved Neo-Nazis alternates between asking us to be sickened by violence and making us cheer for a brutal-but-hilarious rampage through a parade of caricatures.
No, I'm not asking for censorship (if something in today's society is going to motivate a generation of children to go on a violent rampage, it's probably not video games). What I worry about is stagnation. Game mechanics are still built around violence, and if your enemies aren't zombies, cartoon Nazis, or robot dinosaurs like in Horizon Zero Dawn (a game that probably would have sold better if its title was Cyborg Stegosaurus Explosion), you have to go to ridiculous lengths to justify 20 straight hours of slaughter. That's why franchises like The Walking Dead, Fallout and The Last Of Us are set in grim post-apocalyptic worlds where 99 percent of the people you encounter are brutal, borderline-feral humans -- it's so you have an excuse to kill them.
But that is depressingly limiting when it comes to what kind of stories you can tell. ("So is it zombies this time? Or have the humans gone mad due to some kind of mind control? Or both?") I like mindlessly chainsawing evil aliens in half as much as the next man who's secretly still 14, but at some point, you long for that to be the exception, not the rule. It's 2018, and video games have been mainstream for going on half a century now. We have to turn the corner on this at some point, don't we?
Mark is on Twitter and has a brand new book.
The newest Pokemon games are still very much worth playing, don't @ us.
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