The Cost of Play

4 Oct

Today, Kotaku linked to a New York Times article by one of its own, or, rather, a debate between Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo and Yahoo‘s Chris Suellentrop on the fiscal future of gaming. A part of this discussion was the assertion that “it was possible that 2012 would be the worst year for retail video game software and hardware sales since 2005.”

This financial hit is brought to us in part because of the general economic downturn, and in part because of the popularity of handheld phone games, which are free or astonishingly cheap (Angry Birds, for instance). I would argue that part of it is the lack of a next-generation console for the last several years. The Xbox 360 is the oldest, followed by the Wii, then the PS3, and even the PS3 is several years old at this point. People aren’t buying new hardware because they already have the hardware. Software purchases have decreased in retail stores because many of the games are available for download online through Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, or Steam, and they’re sometimes cheaper to buy without the box. Games are also getting more longevity out of the added replay value of multiplayer modes and downloadable content.

Totilo also points out that many industry games and hardware releases in 2012 – with a few notable exceptions – have been uninspiring. The Kinect, for instance, is interesting, but amounts to, he says, “a watered-down repeat of the Wii phenomenon.” Similar problems have faced Blizzard’s Diablo III: “How very 2012 it was for the vaunted hit-maker Blizzard to release a game, Diablo III, that was 11 years in the making and then have to repeatedly apologize for its shortcomings.” Games haven’t done well because they haven’t been well-crafted. D3 in particular was buggy, poorly written, and demanded almost as much time downloading patches as it did playtime (at least for me, and I admittedly gave up in disgust partway through chapter two).

Suellentrop points out that gaming is an expensive hobby – consoles cost in excess of $250, new-release games cost $60, and DLC tacks on $5 and $10 at every available opportunity. And if you want to play with friends, everyone needs a copy, meaning a layout of quite a bit of capital – especially if you compare it to the equipment needed to play Risk or soccer. But one $60 game can keep a player entertained for 40 hours… the first playthrough (unless it’s Skyrim, in which case I’m at about 50 hours and nowhere near halfway through the main plot). I have friends who have logged more than 100 hours in a single game – which ultimately makes that game (hour-by-hour) cheaper than most movies, and more stimulating. [Note: I do have to love him for suggesting that a book costs less than $25, new, and can provide many hours of entertainment and reread value.]

What I find more interesting is Suellentrop’s argument that this isn’t a problem exclusive to the gaming industry: “The nation is facing nothing less than a fiction crisis.” In short, while some indie developers have done some interesting things in 2012, the nation as a whole is producing crap for fictional media – videogames included. Totilo says – with a caveat to BioWare game players (like me) – that “few people play video games for the story,” arguing that a failure in fiction doesn’t account for the widespread failure of the gaming industry.

But I find myself agreeing with Suellentrop. Sure, people don’t, as Totilo says, play Angry Birds “for the story,” but we’re not talking about Angry Birds. Yes, that game will occupy tens of thousands of people on the subway, but that’s just it. They’re bored and confined and will do whatever it takes to keep themselves from punching the person next to them on a subway car. I’ve been there. You’ll play solitaire to keep from going mad on a subway, and it has even less of a story than Angry Birds.

But if you had a good book, a game with a good story, you’d rather be playing that. What you do when you get home from that hellish subway trip is not play more Angry Birds – you want to watch something, read something, or play something with a story that has intrinsic meaning and value. And here is where we need leadership in the entertainment industry: literary, cinema, television, and gaming. We need innovators not only in mechanics and technology, but in story development. Twilight should not be the closest thing to popular quality literature produced in this decade. Please.