Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ending Up Back in the Arcade

Are we returning to a ridge of quarters sitting at the bottom of the screen?

Apologies if this seems a bit scattered. This is definitely thinking in progress, and I imagine working 70+ hours last week isn't helping either. But it's something I've been trying to understand and articulate for some time now; consider this the first foray.

Simply, I'm deeply skeptical of mobile and social games.

Often the future of gaming is presented as being dominated by this pair. But I can't help but feel that would basically be leading us back to the arcade, with all its weal and woe. In my youth, I had many good times at Jackson's Fun Stop arcade. But these times were meaningful because of the friends I played with and the stories we created. The games themselves were not terribly substantive. No offense to Mortal Kombat or Darkstalkers, but they could (and were) easily replaced by Primal Rage and that awesome six-player X-Men cabinet.

I look at the vast majority of iPhone and Facebook games, and I can't help but see basically the same thing. They're touted as the future so often, but in terms of almost all meaningful qualities, they're a step backward. They're largely shallow, they're amusing because they're played with others and they're all about collecting your quarters (or convincing you to click on ads and/or use real money to buy fake things).

I worry this reinforces the antiquated notion that games are diversions, things meant to provide quick amusement and pass time. As mentioned briefly when discussing the surprising sophistication of contemporary television, increasing complexity is the hallmark of sophisticated media. Max Injury and Bejeweled 2 are not that. I'm not sure they could move beyond just being "fun." (Indulgent self-referencing ends here, btw)

Now, I'm fine with games providing only amusement and social reward. I cannot enumerate the good times I've had with friends over Rock Band, Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart/Party, World of Warcraft, Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, Arkham Horror, etc. Some of my fondest gaming moments have really been about the people I was playing with.

But there is also my time with Planescape: Torment, Thief, Fallout, Far Cry 2, Little King's Story, and so forth. Experiences that would be unreproducible if shared with others or if consumed in small bursts on a tiny screen. And this is why I worry about mobile/social games "being the future." They're perfectly capable of producing amusing, shared experience. But the rich, deep, atmospheric one? I'm not so sure.

The vast majority of people don't engage with mobile content like they do other entertainment media. It's sporadic, low-attention engagement. The race-to-the-bottom pricing of the iTunes app store creates a perception of value (or lack thereof). Even the best iPhone game had to make their message a secret. I know less about interacting with social browser games, but I doubt they're that different.

Games of this nature facilitate meaningful interactions between people. But in and of themselves, they are not meaningful and do not create meaning. And that's why I cringe every time I hear "mobile/social games are the future!" As a Trojan horse, showing people that games are not just bombs and boobs? Sure. But are these platforms simultaneously the point of departure and final destination for new gamers? I sincerely hope not.

Games had to move out of the arcades to become something more than basal amusements. By asking us to put the arcades in our pockets, can we really expect the games to be different? I'm extremely curious about your opinions on this. Is there untapped potential here, or is it just Farmville, as far as the eye can see?

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Blogger Unknown said...

I have recently come to the opinion that games will primarily be about such diversion until there is some kind of demographic shift in those who make and play them. I've kind of given up on expecting amazing and deep expressions of the human condition in an interactive format. Maybe then I will be surprised when it actually occurs. Until then I'll just load up some Peggle.

October 6, 2009 at 9:21 AM  
Blogger Julian said...

I think the people prognosticating the domination of browser/mobile/social games at the expense of traditional AAA console/PC games are simply overreacting to current trends. YES, those types of games are trending up, but there hasn't been a precipitous drop in the quality or quantity of larger-scale games. Which means it's quite possible that both types of games can co-exist.

Maybe some new gamers only play Peggle and that Mafia game and stop there. Maybe your mom just plays Wii Fit and Brain Age. But mMaybe somebody gets hooked on Time Donkey, and then picks up Braid, and before you know it they're avidly following the latest action games. Maybe somebody plays Desktop Tower Defense or Field Runners, or Defense Grid, and decides they want to pick up Warcraft 3 to play the original, which in turn gets them hooked on hardcore strategy games. I think expecting all gamers to follow the same path to gaming is unreasonable, and some people just don't want a more in-depth experience. By the same token some people just watch summer action movies, soap operas, and HGTV. That doesn't mean that people aren't also making and enjoying deep and engrossing movies and TV shows.

I blame the trend chasing hype on people catering to shareholders. It's easier to get people excited about a concept to the point they want to give you money if you paint things in broad strokes. If you say things like "this is the future of gaming" to uninformed people enough times, they might actually start to believe you.

October 6, 2009 at 11:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Thanks for voicing my concerns. As you stated above, this is "something I've been trying to understand and articulate for some time now," but I feel you've put it quite well.

Part of these reason I've been hesitant to plumb the depths and kind of come to grips with my own feelings on mobile and social gaming has to do with this supposed "future" they're going to dominate. Since people are making PREDICTIONS, I keep expecting great new developments within, say, a decade. But the portable/group thing is kind of taking off right now, isn't it? And there's nothing (that I've seen) adding any real meat to the available experiences.

Freaks me out, quite frankly.

October 6, 2009 at 12:39 PM  
Blogger Jordan Magnuson said...

Nice post Nels, and I definitely agree with you. At the same time I fell with Julian like the whole mobile/social thing is pretty fadish at the moment, and I think there are enough--for lack of a better word--"core" gamers out there to sustain the market for other kinds of games.

October 6, 2009 at 6:51 PM  
Blogger WorldMaker said...

I think you may be somewhat antagonistic to social/casual games here (which I'm also not sure those two "genres" should necessarily be lumped together, but that's another argument).

They may not be "the future", but they certainly are a viable form, for now, and an interesting place to experiment, when the market is truly free.

On the other hand, I do decry that there is still too much of a lemming tendency in the games industry (but the same happens to a lesser extent in Hollywood and most other industries). I'm not afraid to say that Zynga and Playdom are the new Rocket Science. (The fact that these companies seem to make a bunch of money with their schlock is worrying, but we'll see what happens.) I also am not afraid to say that I see PopCap as no better than "all I want to make are franchises" Activision. (I started a personal boycott of PopCap games a few years ago, actually. Not that it matters, or that it affects their bottom line. I'm not even actively encouraging anyone else to join my boycott.)

I think there is room in the industry for all of it: the "core" games and the "casual" games and the "social" games. Variety is the spice of life, and it is good to see variety in the industry. The key is intelligently balancing it all, and backing off a little bit from money-grabbing market-following to more intelligently described production portfolios.

October 6, 2009 at 9:08 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Seth With the efforts of Nintendo and casual game companies, I think the game-playing demographic is broader and more diverse than ever before. Are we just not seeing the effects of this shift yet? Or does it need to progress further yet?

@Julian, Jordan I hope that's the case. I'm quite curious as to how much of that conversion takes place. Seems like there's a big research void that could be usefully filled.

@mashedmarket To be fair, it's unclear how much of this is just hype and investors throwing money at the wall, hoping something will stick. And as other folks have said, maybe peaceful coexistence is possible.

@WorldMaker Definitely. It's just with so much money going to the casual companies (Popcap scoring $22 million in funding earlier this week), I hope folks looking for funding to do more rich, meaningful things with games aren't finding that well dry. If there's an equilibrium to be found, awesome. I just don't want to see things move too far in one direction and not make their way back.

October 7, 2009 at 7:19 AM  

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