When I first moved to Raleigh in 1998 I was, for lack of a better term, a pretty standard 20-something American Consumer. I told myself “Hey, Raleigh can’t be bad, there’s a Burger King and a mall!” Growing up in the suburbs of Boston there wasn’t much to do as a teenager, hell, I wasn’t into sports and I didn’t drink or do drugs so it was pretty much school, videogames, and The Mall. Lather, rinse, repeat, and consume, and be a good little American Target Demographic.
This blog isn’t specifically about Raleigh, however, I’m going to use Raleigh and the local areas to make my point about my gaming industry fear and the trend that I’m seeing. I joked a while back that the future of shooters is going to be All Call of Duty, all the time, much like the famous scene in the old movie Demolition Man in which all restaurants are Taco Bell. (Capitalism is about many things, for example profit, giving the people what they think they want, and outspending The Other Guy in marketing. And hey, it’s free market, and people are going to vote with their dollars…right?)
As Raleigh evolved and Epic set up shop in the lovely neighboring suburb of Cary, NC, I found myself simply drinking the Kool Aid and going to the local chains. You know, the same ones that are pretty much everywhere. Chili’s. Olive Garden. Outback Steakhouse. A decent meal for a modest amount of money, and fuckin’ hey, unlimited salad and bread-sticks, amirite?
And then, in the early 2000’s, something started to happen on a national basis, and it started spilling over into our little neck of the woods. People started waking up to what they were eating, they started paying attention. Books like “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, “Salt Sugar Fat”, and documentaries like “Food Inc.” began to open people’s eyes to the fact that an industry driven by profit would do whatever it took to keep shareholders happy and the average American addicted to, well, Salt, Sugar, and Fat. Whole Foods realized this and began to explode nationwide. People began flocking to Farmers Markets, and the whole “Farm to Table” movement took over. Even in Raleigh, our “mini-Austin”, most indie restaurants list what local farms they acquired their ingredients from.
Why am I going on and on about food and capitalism and chains versus indie restaurants? Because I can see a similar thing happening in the video gaming space. My greatest fear right now is that in the triple A space, in the next 3-5 years, there are only going to be a handful of uber brands that are known entities. Just like in your average American town you get Taco Bell, Applebees, and all the other Same Exact Stuff, in gaming you’re going to see Assassin’s Creed 6, Call of Duty 9, Madden 2016, and Halo 6. And each progressive title is progressively going to take less risks than the previous one because of the sheer amount of development costs and marketing necessary to push these titles on an annual basis. (Shout out to Rockstar for NOT annualizing.) The fact that Watch Dogs even EXISTS as a new IP is a testament to some bold folks at Ubisoft on both the creative and business side having the tenacity and strength to push for something new, something fresh, something that should not exist in AAA.
When you go to most American suburbs (and many cities), you see the same restaurants, over and over because whomever “wins” is given the golden rubber stamp and then is able to spawn clones everywhere. I can see this happening in gaming right before our eyes, hell, even Activision’s marketing department knows it and they played into it this year with the “It’s Call of Duty Time!” ad campaign. (“Only in Battlefield” > “Call of Duty Time”, by the way.) I see an ad for a new Call of Duty and I have the exact same response whenever I see an ad for Applebees.
Sure, it’s there, it’s consistent, and it doesn’t really seem to take many risks. It can’t. When a franchise hits that level of success it runs into the classic sequel conundrum, the Innovator’s Dilemma. Change too much and you’ve “ruined” the franchise, change too little and you’re just a re-skin of the product. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, but as long as you make your minimum sold in, hey, time to annualize the product.
I don’t meant to slag AAA games, or the console business. There are thousands of developers who have worked themselves entirely too hard to bring these products to market. I’m merely calling out a trend that I’m seeing, a trend that’s easier to see now that I’m not in the thick of the console wars this time around.
This is why, as of late, I’m doing the majority of my gaming on PC and in mobile. There are risks being taken in this space that one seldom, if ever, sees in the disc based AAA market. These markets feel wild, unruly, a market where a mod like Day Z can take over, League of Legends can fill the Staples Center, or an experience like The Stanley Parable can happen. In mobile you see games that are high quality, free, and actual strategy titles that are cleaning up. The ecosystem is built for it, slightly gated by the likes of Valve or Apple, but less of a guarded wall than a console approval process. I want a space dogfighting simulation on my Oculus Rift.
I don’t want scripted sequences and quicktime events any more, because they yield only one Youtube video.
I do believe that the major console manufacturers do finally grasp the importance of indie games (Sony somewhat more than Microsoft) and things are starting to shift. The biggest challenge to having these unique experiences on the consoles will be the accessibility of these experiences and how visible they will be made to gamers. (Making them as cheaper digital downloads instead of $60 disc based experiences is one of the clear and obvious steps. I love to see more grassroots campaigns for unique games with lower budgets and more risk taken over bloated game and marketing budgets.)
At the end of the day I’m simply at the point in my gaming life cycle (as a lifelong GAMER) whereas I avoid the suburban chains and I seek out the locally owned unique eateries that will surprise me and provide a more pure experience over an extremely well laminated and produced menu that sells ad space between the pages.
(And yes, we’re getting both new consoles on launch day. I hear the controllers are pretty sweet.)