Sunday, July 26, 2009

Standing Out: In History And Amongst The Pack

We're almost into the month of August, which, in turn, means that in a couple of months we will be entering the holiday season rush of games that is now standard for the industry each year.

Every year we are inundated with releases, all of them vying for our attention through huge marketing budgets, pre-release hype and our own expectations. Every year we are overwhelmed with quality titles, making our decisions of what to play first extremely hard, something made worse by our general desire (whether we realise it or not) to keep up with everyone else. It's why we move onto the next big thing within moments of a game's release and it is also why we see a lot of games, even ones we enjoy immensely, fall out of our memories so quickly. This consistent quality -- the fact that the majority of the games released each year are actually fairly decent -- is surprising, but is also something for another post. Here's an example list of the games we will most likely all be playing come October/November later this year;

  • Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
  • Assassin's Creed 2
  • Brutal Legend
  • Halo: ODST
  • Forza 3
  • Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
  • Borderlands
  • Splinter Cell: Conviction
  • New Super Mario Bros. Wii
  • Scribblenauts
  • Saboteur
  • Rock Band: Beatles
  • Dragon Age: Origins

That's not including downloadable titles on the various online services nor any anticipated titles from 2010, some delayed from this year's bunch, some still a while off and likely to be in next year's holiday season. Now here's a list of games that a lot of us have played in the last couple of years;

  • Portal
  • BioShock
  • Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
  • Halo 3
  • Burnout Paradise
  • Grand Theft Auto IV
  • Braid
  • Metal Gear Solid IV
  • Uncharted: Drake's Fortune
  • LittleBigPlanet
  • Fallout 3
  • Fable II
  • Assassin's Creed
  • Mass Effect
  • Prince of Persia
  • Far Cry 2
  • Left 4 Dead

Combine the lists and you get a lot of games, leading to a massive amount of hours spent playing, exploring and writing about them. Depending on individual taste and even with intentionally leaving a few out, by the end of 2009 we will have played approximately 30 games in a short period of two-three years. Thirty games! That is just incredible and it's no wonder we drop games so suddenly in order to play the next big thing. If we don't, we will fall behind and be unable to participate in the overall conversation of the industry yet, ironically, it's inevitable that we will miss some of that discourse too. It's impossible for us to play everything we may want to, even if we own it, within such a short period of time and furthermore, it's inevitable that we must pass up on some titles as well, be it due to financial reasons or because we're unaware that we may enjoy a particular game. This focus on 'keeping up with the Joneses' that the gaming community at large relentlessly pursues is baffling and yet year in, year out we do it regardless of how silly it is. If we don't, then who is going to care about our opinion on Game A when everyone is playing Game J?

Alas, I've already covered the result I usually experience in these periods and don't plan on doing so again. Instead I want to remind you of the 'good old days', where certain games stand out to you among the rest, your perception defining their importance to you and your gaming history whilst also suggesting that everything else was relatively average.

I think it is fair to say that every gamer who has been playing games for a long time, will have certain games that stand out to them as defining reasons for why they play games today. Usually these games will also be regarded as favourites though this is not always the case. Reasons for why they stand out will, of course, vary and could include examples such as outside influences (people, culture, etc.) or just simply the amount of hours spent with a particular title. Financial capacity is also a defining factor with a lot of us playing these games over and over again due the fact we just couldn't afford anything else. I'd also argue that the majority of us found ourselves in this situation due to the simple fact that we were kids; we were growing up and it wasn't uncommon for our games to be purchased by our parents/family or to be received as presents for events like Christmas and our birthdays.

Think about it for a second: What are the games that stand out to you over the course of your gaming career? Certain titles stand out don't they? Now compare and contrast it with the current crop of games we are inundated with each year. Hardly any of them stand out, do they?

That's not to say that they don't or can't stand out. I would actually say that in the most recent years we've been blessed with titles that do stand out -- games worthy of our utmost praise and attention and, more importantly, games that are worth standing on the pedestal alongside our favourites from years gone by -- but generally speaking, most of them don't. There are many reasons for this but I think one of the main ones, and the point of this post, is that we are just far too busy dabbling in various titles or being distracted by the next big thing. While it's fun at the time, surely trying to mix 'n' match so much is actually hurting our gaming career and more importantly, our enjoyment of individual titles? When are we going to hit the point where we've played too much, get burned out because of it and then find the medium not interesting anymore? If and when that does happens, will that be the industry's fault or our own? I'm sure you will agree they are interesting questions to think about.

With all that said and done, some games do receive some serious attention -- some are discussed thoroughly and perhaps as a result, will stand out in our memories just like the classics we already love do now. Games like BioShock, Fallout 3 and Portal are all favourites, generally speaking, among the gaming community and I have no doubt in my mind there will be plenty more to come. I just hope games that are of the same quality of those three mentioned above in the future, don't end up flying under the radar because of this hasty mentality that everyone seems so intent on following. That would just be unfortunate and disappointing. Unfortunately for me, I can't help but shake the feeling that we've already allowed some titles to pass us by and when I think about that, I find that disappointing. Such is the industry though, I suppose.


Matthew Kaplan said...

You had me until:

"Now compare and contrast it with the current crop of games we are inundated with each year. Hardly any of them stand out, do they?"

And this is a point that you yourself go on to refute, offering examples of games that have stood out from the pack. Such is the nature of a growing industry; it will never go back to the "hallmark title" days when we were little and every season brought the usual blockbuster Mario or Sonic game and then some unexpected hits.

But we were always playing catch-up, I think. We just had more time to play. Games today are largely the same length as their forebears; if anything, they have become much easier and more readily digestible (and this is not necessarily a bad thing; case in point, Portal). As you note, there are simply more of them. Compounded with less time, that makes it a rat race to experience the "key" moments in gaming in a certain year.

I agree that this is problematic and can lead to even more diamonds in the rough than were present in gaming yesteryear, but hey, it's a problem I'll willingly take over a dearth of quality. I owned two Atari systems; I know what THAT feels like.

Steven O'Dell said...

Matthew, yeah I did end up contradicting myself a little didn't I? Totally didn't notice it until after you pointed it out so chalk it down to me posting at 4am or beyond (something I always seem to do...), or something.

I guess my point of the post was, back in the younger days of the medium (and, for a lot of us, our younger days as well), it seemed like when a title stood out it did so because it was just leagues ahead of anything else that it could be compared to. Whether it was the expected classics like a new Mario or something that came completely out of the blue, when something became a classic it everyone knew it.

Compare that to now and for the most part, nothing really stands out. If they do it's because they're decent for a month at best, but we soon forget about it because we so readily move onto the next big thing. Even the absolutely huge franchises out there suffered from this, with GTA IV being quickly forgotten as the year continued on and I believe this is, in part, because of how we're spoiled for quality these days. Obviously it will come down to circumstances but the general impression I've gotten is that because of that hasty mentality I mentioned in the post, we're just not taking notice of games long enough to gauge whether they are indeed classics or not. Hence my fear that we've allowed some to pass us by.

As you rightly say though, it's part of a growing industry. There's definitely more available titles out there now and as I mentioned in the post, a good portion of them are actually decent quality too. Dedicating the time to every single one of these titles is a big ask, especially when it is, arguably at least, more enjoyable to sample their different experiences instead of focusing on the one. Something I tried to mention in the post but probably failed to communicate successfully is also the fact that, at least in the VERY recent years we've been blessed with titles that do actually stand out as classics in a similar way to those of the past. I name-dropped some but there are definitely more out there, rendering the point I was trying to get at (unsuccessfully) rather moot.

The way things are going with all these delays and the like, however, it looks like 2009 might be a year that returns to being a line-up of games that don't really stand out amongst the rest of the pack. That is unless something ends up being a massive surprise like Left 4 Dead was last year. If that's the way it happens so be it, at least we know that what is still coming will be of some pretty damn high quality. :)

Daniel Primed said...

Hey Steven,

I think people need to step away from this pretense of the "in" crowd and their ability to play every game available from release. Enjoying games is ultimately about playing the titles that appeal to you, rather than the titles which conform to player consensus. Further, there is little point in rushing games to keep speed with this crowd.

On the article; your message tended sporadically swing back and forth between two opposing opinions which, I think made it a bit of a volatile read. Keeping working at it though.

Steven O'Dell said...

Daniel, yeah it wasn't my best post that's for sure. For whatever reason I failed to say what I wanted to and instead just went around in circles. Practise though, right?

Anyway I agree with you and I think people would be happier with their gaming if they did take a step back, but I wonder, is it entirely in their control? I mean, it sounds like it is because everyone is in control of their own actions and decisions, but at the same time these people may feel they have to follow the industry out of necessity. Whether it's the developers or the media reporting on the industry, they all move forward in a hasty manner so at times it feels like we MUST keep up otherwise the industry isn't worth our time and effort.

That's wrong and something that can be ignored, but it's such a grey area too that it's hard to gauge an approach to it. You and I might be able to step away from it and enjoy games at our leisure, but that might not mean that the masses can.