5 Things Every Game Company Gets Wrong About Gamers
Quick: Guess which one of these is the real LeBron James, and which is a state-of-the-art rendering as seen on the upcoming video game systems:
I don't know, either. But that was just one of the amazing new games shown at the annual E3 show this week, and while I loved much of what I saw (seriously), it left me a bit confused. See, I play games for the same reason you do: because killing is the only thing that makes the headaches go away. But the more I see, the more I think game companies don't understand us at all.
Every demonstration of the supposedly awesome new features of these upcoming games and systems made me feel like the first time I saw a New Yorker fold up a piece of pizza and eat it like a taco. There was that moment of self-doubt, like maybe I was the one who had been doing it wrong, before I snapped out of it and said, "No! You're the one who's crazy."
Because game companies seem to think ...
You Don't Actually Like to Play Your Games
I am a lazy asshole, but I am apparently a goddamned human dynamo by video game standards, simply by virtue of the fact that I'm still willing to move my thumbs, rather than sit back and watch the game play for me. Two of the games I was most eager to see -- Remedy's time-freezing game Quantum Break and the zombie genocide festival Dead Rising 3 -- both showed off utterly baffling "Don't worry, we'll play the game for you!" features.
For Quantum Break, I'll just quote what the presenter said during the unveiling:
"We set out to revolutionize entertainment, combining an explosive action game with a dramatic TV show, and blurring the lines between the mediums. The choices you make in the game create your personalized version of the TV show. And watching the show gives you insight that impacts the way you play the game."
I'm sorry, but that sounds like a pitch for a goddamned Sega CD game from 1994. And I don't think he's just describing it badly -- what they have shown of the game is in fact partly just live actors doing a low-budget TV show (one that you paid $60 for) ...
... and then when the cool stuff happens, it jarringly switches to video game graphics:
What the hell? Am I missing something here?
And then there was Dead Rising 3. If you're not familiar with the last game, the appeal is that it has none of the grit or angst that comes with zombie fiction these days -- it's you with (literally) thousands of zombies crowding around, and you slaughter them by the hundreds with makeshift weapons, such as the classic Two Chainsaws Duct Taped to a Freaking Boat Paddle.
But when they unveiled Dead Rising 3 at the Xbox One event, they showed the main character coming up on a zombie horde that, according to the presenter, is too big for him to handle ...
...and then they demonstrated how the player can solve that problem by pulling out his smartphone or Windows tablet in real life ...
... and, with a few taps using the SmartGlass app, call in an air strike that will simply blow up the zombies for him:
Just to be clear, for those of you who never played the first one -- I've killed larger zombie hordes than that with a bowie knife taped to a broom, while on my way to kill a much bigger horde. The entire point of this experience is the visceral, cathartic thrill of wiping these monsters out, by hand, one swing at a time, or by building an ingenious trap with some combination of propane tanks, nails, and dildos. Not by tapping the "kill zombies" icon on my iPad (which I don't have out when gaming anyway, but more on that in a moment).
Meanwhile, the all-new third-person hack-and-slash game Ryse: Son of Rome (also for the Xbox One) looked like another great hope for the "I just want to murder people" crowd, but even in the gameplay demo they showed on stage, it begins with a completely scripted "explosion knocks your character down" event that the player has no control over:
Then, when you finally get to murder some mofos, every few times you swing your sword, the game freezes to give you a button prompt:
And if you successfully push the button the game told you to push, you are rewarded with one final scripted event that your character stands back and ineffectually watches:
"It really is my job to just stay out of their way."
So to recap, it's "Push X to Win" followed by "Now Put Down Your Controller and Watch While Coolness Happens." If you're about to tell me that it's just a demo and the final game might look nothing like that, well, that's my point -- why would they try to impress us by making the game look less interactive than it actually is?
To cap the whole thing off, when they showed off the seemingly straightforward racing game Forza Motorsport 5, they boasted how they give you a "drivatar" and said, "While you're at work or at school, your drivatar races against the world. And when you log in again, you earn credits for your drivatar's work."
Well, shit, what does it need us for?
You Don't Care What the Games Actually Are
Sony's event showed off a game called The Order: 1886, a beautiful steampunk game that seems to be about shooting monsters with complicated guns. In typical fashion, they teased it with a trailer in which a bunch of old-timey dudes ride along in a horse-drawn carriage ...
... then jump out and start shooting at some shadowy threat with elaborate weapons that explode into dazzling arrays of sparks and fireballs.
Looks great, very cool atmosphere, setting, etc. And we have no goddamned idea what the product being sold is. What genre is this? Is it an FPS? An RPG? A third-person shooter? What is the thing that I will get to do if I buy that game?
They also showed Mad Max, with a trailer that literally told us nothing other than "It has Mad Max in it," which we actually knew from the title.
Here's what we do know: You won't get to do what those guys were doing in the trailer. That was a cutscene. If what you see there occurs in the game, then you'll be watching it, not playing it. And we definitely have no idea whether the actual gameplay will look like that, other than the fact that the final games never do (the trailer begins with the meaningless claim that the trailer was rendered "in-engine," which means nothing more than "This game's cutscenes might look like this").
In other words, the problem isn't that they're just keeping it vague -- it's that it's standard practice in the video game industry to sell upcoming titles with outright fucking lies. The wonderfully vibrant Sunset Overdrive for the Xbox One might look like this (in terms of graphics and overall feel), but the actual experience of playing it almost certainly won't:
If you're not familiar with how this works, at these early stages, game companies will put together an animation that sort of looks like what maybe the game will possibly be -- then they will lie and claim you're seeing the actual game. Sony got caught doing this with Killzone 2, and the makers of Halo 2 admitted years later that their debut trailer was not only fake, but utterly impossible on the hardware. The trailer for Metal Gear Solid 2 lied about who the main character was. And nobody cares -- it is a completely accepted level of bullshit that wouldn't be tolerated in any other industry outside of the herbal penis enlargement sector.
And that makes it hard to get excited about the new stuff like Final Fantasy XV ...
... when you have no idea what you're even looking at. Keep in mind, these videos often are not even running on the console at all, but on a more powerful computer. During the Xbox conference, they showed off how great Battlefield 4 looks on their system ...
... and then sharp-eyed fans noticed PC button prompts on the screen:
Note: The Xbox One, like life, does not have a backspace key.
In other words, every possible concept of truth in advertising goes right out the window -- they can literally show you a different, far superior product. This isn't like Ford playfully claiming that the new Mustang can ramp over a bear; it's like Ford advertising the Focus by showing you a Mustang.
At E3, they will then take these animated trailers and have the presenter stand up there with a non-working controller and pretend he's playing them so the audience thinks it's a near-final product (or in the case of Kinect games, have him nervously watch the screen and try to mimic the movements of the characters after they happen).
And all of this is what we're supposed to base our next-gen purchase decision on.
You Want to Use Your iPad While Playing Your Game Console
WARNING: I'm going to complain about a bunch of features that I realize are optional, which from experience means that many of you will answer, "Well, just don't use the optional feature, dumbass! That's what 'optional' means!" Man, I wish. In reality, game development is a zero sum process -- time and budget that was devoted to adding (for instance) social media features or Kinect controls is time and energy subtracted from something else. This is why games with multiplayer have shorter single player campaigns, and games built around co-op are a confused mess without it (see: Resident Evil 5).
So yes, it's worth noticing when game companies seem to be pouring resources into features that virtually no one asked for, like the aforementioned SmartGlass app, the software that lets you do extra stuff in your games using your phone or iPad (or in Sony's case, your PS Vita). Do other people have the urge to play this way now, juggling a game controller with an iPad, and getting Cheetos powder on both? Why? Because every time they demonstrate it, I just get more confused. Earlier they boasted how, when playing Madden football, you could use SmartGlass by stopping the game, putting down your controller, picking up your tablet, picking your plays from the playbook, then picking up your controller again. Or, you could play Halo and have people use your iPad to beg to join your multiplayer game.
Other games stream maps and shit to it, so if you watch videos of people actually using the thing, they always just have their iPad kind of propped up next to their TV to give them a smaller, much harder to see screen to stream the data that should be on the game's HUD.
But the awkwardness of it isn't even the most confusing part to me -- how many people can do this even if they want to? Don't get me wrong, I realize lots of people own iPads, but while I'm gaming on the 360, my wife is using ours to play some dollar app that, as far as I can tell, is just her hitting a cartoon man in the groin with a little sledgehammer for hours on end. That's why iPads exist -- so somebody has their own screen to fart around with because some other selfish asshole is tying up the television and going on and on about how he needs it because it's research for the article he's writing.
"I told you, it's paused here because the article is about sexism" (from Metal Gear Solid 5).
I guess you can use your smartphone, and most people have one of those, but even the SmartGlass promotional video makes that look like a cumbersome pain in the ass, with the two dudes playing their game having to take their eyes off the screen to look at whatever data is being streamed to their phone:
"You just crashed into the wall, drivatard."
Isn't the point of technology to make it simpler? That's why I don't have to carry a separate phone, camera, and MP3 player in my pocket anymore. Laptops were invented because people didn't like having to carry a separate computer and scrotum warmer. Why are you giving me a technology that requires more gadgets to do what I was already doing? I realize the answer is "To make you buy more gadgets," but that's a bad strategy -- the only people who will use that as an excuse to buy a second iPad are the ones who didn't need an excuse anyway, because they just like to buy things in order to distract themselves from the looming darkness of the grave.
Your Entire Home and Everything You Own Is Built Around Gaming
I don't want to come off like I'm picking on Microsoft here -- they're just in a bad news cycle where everything we hear about the new Xbox is terrible. But they in particular have this very strange picture of what the "average" gamer looks like. Because it's not just somebody who has a dedicated iPad they can use as a second Xbox controller, but a person who also has a huge room dedicated to gaming (the Kinect requires up to 10 feet of open floor space -- even a coffee table will block the signal).
"Finish up, guys, your father's Irish dance team is here."
For instance, the interesting-but-impractical IllumiRoom gadget works by rendering the rest of the room useless to non-players. In other words, they seem to be imagining the standard gamer as a young, upper-middle-class guy or girl who has a huge amount of floor space to dedicate to uninterrupted gaming -- a homeowner who either A) lives alone, B) has a spare room to turn into a gaming man cave, or C) imposes his gaming habits on everyone else in the household, their needs be damned.
Maybe I'm the one who's wrong? Because I picture the typical Xbox gamer as a college kid in a cramped dorm, or a teenager sitting on his bed with his Xbox propped up on his dresser, or a young city dweller in a cluttered apartment. To Microsoft, those are fringe cases, like Hammacher Schlemmer being shocked to find that there are people using their "handheld massagers" as vibrators.
"Sorry, I just don't see it."
Likewise, they seem to be confused by people being up in arms about some games requiring a 1.5 Mbps Internet connection to function in single player. The company line seems to be "We can't imagine that anyone who doesn't have Internet is somehow in the market for an Xbox One." But that's not the point -- the fastest DSL package to my home is 3.0 Mbps, which is more than enough unless someone else in the house is using Netflix, which chokes the connection to near zero. Again, the assumption is that everything in the house is dedicated to gaming, and only gaming.
Those hardcore "man cave" gamers exist, but there's not many of them. For example, there are 75 million Xbox 360s in the world, but only 46 million online accounts, and of those, only about half pay for the extra features of the "gold" account, which lets you do things like play multiplayer. So the "I can't live without all the bells and whistles" guy that Microsoft seems to think is typical appears to be a tiny group -- like 25 percent of current 360 owners, by my count.
But none of the above is as baffling as the lives lived by the people in the below PS4 promotional video, in which a 20-something kid lives in what appears to be an abandoned garage with no furniture, but with a PS4, a big TV, an incredibly fast Internet connection (look how fast he downloads several gigabytes of Killzone), and the ability to buy $60 games on impulse, because a friend mentioned it in passing:
Who the fuck are these people? They are evidence that the industry assumes ...
You Have a Shitload of Money
Let me rebut another bit of bullshit I see in every discussion about games being expensive: "If you're that poor, you shouldn't have a video game console in the first place!"
The easy answer to this is, of course, "fuck you," but the easy answer backed up with data is that the PlayStation 2 sold more than 150 million consoles, and the vast majority of them sold after they dropped the price to $150. If you think there are, or ever were, 150 million upper-middle-class console gamers in the world, you're out of your damned mind. Gaming can be a very cheap hobby if done right. You can, right now, get a used console for $50 or so, rent games for five bucks for a weekend, or pick them up used for $20. I knew a guy who didn't have damned cable TV but still had two game consoles -- it was just the best bang for the buck among his entertainment options.
That appears to be over.
They announced that the Xbox One would launch at $499. If you ever want to play with another human in person, you'll need a second controller, and they'll be $59.99. If you want two games to start out with, they're $59.99 each. A year of Xbox Live Gold is $59.99. So with sales tax, that's about $750 to get a kid started at Christmas with one of these.
But that's not all that shocking -- if you adjust for inflation, it's the middle of the pack as far as consoles go. But that's where all the other shit starts coming into play -- like Microsoft killing game rentals and lending, and your ability to play old Xbox 360 games on it. These are all of the little loopholes that let the lower class types get in on gaming. You know, like the type of people who can't afford the required Internet connection it takes to make an Xbox One work (but don't worry, there are only 100 million of those people in the USA).
Statistically, two of these people live in poverty.
Sony's system is $100 cheaper, but their previously free multiplayer service will be free no more. All of this is perfectly understandable -- modern games cost a ton of money to make (rumors swirled that BioShock: Infinite cost $100 million to make and just as much to promote). Video games aren't like TV, where the big-budget shows like LOST have always been offset by zero-budget reality shows that fill out the rest of the slate. Likewise, movie studios don't just make The Avengers -- they'll crank out a couple of special effects extravaganzas, and then the rest of the year is packed with cheap romantic comedies and found-footage horror films. Gaming isn't like that -- to have any chance at being a hit, every game has to be a big, sprawling ordeal -- they have to either spend big on graphics, or spend big on pro sports licenses.
Someone has to pay, and I'm not pretending these companies are under some obligation to make gaming affordable to the masses. This isn't freaking baby formula here.
But I'm sad because the makers of the next-gen systems (and yes, Microsoft most of all) seem to have made a conscious decision to turn console gaming into a luxury product, aimed only at the high-end enthusiasts. It's perfectly fine from a business point of view -- that 25 percent of hardcore gamers I mentioned earlier also probably spend more on gaming than the rest of the audience combined, so why not shrink the base to just the most lucrative customers? I can't argue with them -- it's a free market, they don't owe us anything. I just hate to think that had I been born to my not-very-rich family a few decades later than I was, I wouldn't have had so many of the shared experiences that defined my childhood.
"Stand back! If he sucks you in, he absorbs your powers!"
Gaming was for us, and now it's for them. Here's a video of somebody tickling a baby penguin:
David Wong has written a New York Times best-seller that is also one of the all time best-reviewed books on Amazon. Also, his movie about dong monsters starring Paul Giamatti IS AVAILABLE FOR DOWNLOAD NOW ON iTUNES, AMAZON INSTANT VIDEO, YouTube, and any other streaming service you can think of.
For more from David, check out 5 Reasons It's Still Not Cool to Admit You're a Gamer and 5 Things the Gaming Industry Will Never Fix and Why.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 4 Reasons to Be Angrier That the NSA Is Tapping Your Phone.
And stop by LinkSTORM to bang your game controller angrily.
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