It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…
— A Tale of Two Cities
The console video game industry, in my eyes, has never before so accurately fit such a quote. There have been a lot of advancements and positives for console gaming over the course of this console generation. Many games sport high-definition graphics and top-notch sound. Online play gives players the option to be social with friends all over the globe, if they so choose. There have been incredible experiences like seeing Rapture for the first time in BioShock or scaling Gaia in God of War III. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare redefined first-person shooters for a generation. The rapid rise of social media has put the industry and its fans closer together than ever before.
Gradually, though, this generation's negatives and general anti-consumer trends have wiped out a lot of of those positives for me. After playing video games for so long and being such a dedicated player, fan, writer, and pundit… I'm reaching my breaking point as a consumer. Why is this the "Generation of Disappointment" for me? I present you with just a few of my reasons:
Pay more, get less
The era of downloadable content has led to a feeling of getting less content at the time of initial sale than ever. This is a change from publishers cramming as much content as possible onto discs in order to offer the fullest experience. Things like costumes and extra characters that used to be unlocked either during gameplay or by cheats have become pawns for extra money. Other extras are ransomed through various retailer-specific pre-order deals. It can be argued that these things aren't "necessary" for the full experience, but defenders are missing the point: These arguably would have been part of the experience a generation ago. Just look at Capcom's DLC strategy for its fighting games. Extra costumes and characters were able to be unlocked before this console generation… but now? We have to pay for them if we want them.
Devaluation of single-player
For me, video games have always been an escape of sorts. Working in customer service jobs for as long as I have, playing games was one way to keep the outside world at bay while enjoying myself. If I wanted to play with other people, I'd invite friends over or maybe go elsewhere. There was a better balance between single-player gaming and multiplayer gaming, but that's been turned upside down in this console generation. You can't get away from multiplayer gaming now. Co-op this and deathmatch that. Why? That's easy: Online multiplayer means more copies sold because you need your friends to buy copies in order to play with them. Single-player games don't have as much alternate revenue potential, either. It's far easier to throw together a map pack than it is to build extra levels for solo games or add on to what's already there. A few games have bucked this trend, like BioShock 2 (with its Minerva's Den DLC) and Grand Theft Auto IV (with two complete extra episodes that use the assets of Liberty City as a backdrop), but these are exceptions—not standards. It's almost frowned upon to play games by yourself these days, and I strongly dislike being indirectly told by the industry that I'm "doing it wrong". Heck, even those sequels had multiplayer added despite their single-player lineage.
War on used games
For generations, consumers have had the chance to recoup some of the money spent on games by way of selling them or trading them in. Maybe the games were beaten and had little replay value. Maybe the players grew out of the gaming phase. Maybe consumers didn't have enough money to afford that new game or new console and wanted to curtail that cost a little bit. Before GameStop, people sold their games at tag sales, flea markets, pawn shops, independent game stores, and smaller chains like FuncoLand, Babbage's, and Electronics Boutique. Selling or trading in games was part of the console gaming economy. Now? It's tantamount to piracy if you ask certain people who work in the console gaming industry or any self-appointed member of the Industry Defense Force. The industry finally has the technology to go to war on used games, although the fact that no money goes back to the industry when used games are sold is nobody's fault but the industry's own. Now multiplayer gaming is behind pay walls for those who buy used and resale values are diminished. Some single-player content, like in Rage, will be locked unless you buy new. Instead of giving consumers reasons to buy new, it punishes those who look to save a bit of money and buy used. Online Passes also punish those who buy new, too. One-time use codes can mean no online if you bring the game to a buddy's house—or even use it in a second console in your own home. Perhaps the biggest blow is yet to come, as games transition from physical media to digital distribution. Soon, there won't be any resale value for games at all. You bought it, you beat it, you're stuck with it—erase it or keep it. All of this… because the industry was arguably short-sighted. All of this over the course of this console generation. That's a big disappointment right there.
Online or bust
While the last console generation introduced players to the advantages of online gaming, this generation has aggressively adopted online connectivity as a must-have. When it works, constant connectivity can be a service as patches can be distributed (although Day One patches make me scratch my head) and hardware updates can add (or subtract) features for a console. When it fails, though, the real problem with online gaming as Sony and Microsoft have dictated it to be shines through. When Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network goes down, so does the forced element of online multiplayer modes for so many games. With single-player modes in so many games over this console generation lasting around four hours, what happens when you beat that and the service isn't back yet… or if your internet service provider is having issues? You're out of luck, that's what happens. Some games even become worthless without online connectivity, like Final Fight: Double Impact for the PlayStation 3. These online services and internet service providers are not infallible, but there's not much recourse for players when they do break. You get a big, "Oh, well…" or "Stuff happens." That's comforting, isn't it? Not to me, it isn't. Instead, I go back to my PlayStation 2, which works even if my ISP doesn't. This is suddenly a strange concept.
Putting the cart before the horse
Trumpeting downloadable content before the release of the game that the content is for is a terrible trend. I still haven't heard a valid reason as to why this is an acceptable practice. Sure, DLC (in theory) can extend the replay value of a game and can be used as a tool to persuade consumers to keep a game instead of trading it in, but what's the point of telling everyone months before release what it is that they won't be getting for their fully-priced purchase? If these things didn't make it into the development schedule, I guess that's one thing… but sit on an announcement until release day. And DLC on release day? Awful. As a consumer, there's no reason for me to believe that content shouldn't have been on the disc to begin with.
No more manuals
One of my favorite rituals when buying a game used to be checking out the instruction manual. I could read about the gameplay modes, the characters, the basic storyline, and sometimes even get a few hints to get me started. There were times that I'd keep the manual close by when playing certain games. Fighting games have move lists, and it was easy to gloss over my character's moves in-between matches. Some other games have actions mapped to certain buttons or move combinations and it was easy to pause the game and glance at the manual for how to execute those actions. This generation has begun the extinction process for instruction manuals. The industry cites this move as an Earth-friendly one, but admits that there's a certain cost-cutting benefit to it. Meanwhile, consumers like myself see none of those benefits and are forced to quit out of our games to access the manual on-disc, then navigate the on-screen menus to find something that we could have found much easier if we had the manual in our hands to begin with. Games are still $60, by the way, so that cost-cutting is all for corporate gain while consumers lose. Again.
It WILL break
Before this console generation, I've never really had much concern about my consoles breaking or malfunctioning. My original PlayStation had an overheating problem back in '96 where full-motion video would skip; I eventually replaced it. Aside from that, I've never had a problem. This console generation gave me a malfunctioning Wii in 2008 (faulty video card popped random pixels onto my screen) and I'm waiting for my Xbox 360 to stop working. It's a near-certainty. This is a new (and unpleasant) experience, waiting for the inevitable like this. When my unit takes 5 minutes to bring up my Game Library or only displays my Achievement List when it feels like it, I worry. When my disc drive sounds like a C-5A cargo plane, I worry. When this console goes—and it will—that will make two faulty units in the span of three years. That's after only one failure in 18 years and over 10 different platforms. This is the console generation where we just expect to replace our hardware instead of being surprised when it happens.
Motion controls and 3D
I understand that motion controls allow for a new kind of interactivity when playing games. Heck, I like bowling when playing Wii Sports; it's as close to doing the real thing as I've experienced without a ball, shoes, and a trip to the local lanes. I also enjoy playing games while relaxing on my couch after a long day, but the industry apparently thinks that this isn't as cool anymore. I'm expected to now stand up and waggle away to burn calories and accomplish an on-screen action that used to be as easy as pressing a button. Who plays games that way anymore? Apparently, lots of people do, because the motion control kick that Microsoft and Sony are attempting to shove down our throats isn't quite the runaway success that they were hoping for. Of course, the lack of acceptance isn't stopping them for sticking with it and continuing to bombard us with dancing games, exercise simulations, and games with motion controls that don't need them in the first place. Motion controls are popular, basically, because the industry tells us that motion controls are popular… and not because it's reality. The same thing can be said for this ridiculous emphasis on 3D. Despite the fact that only a handful of consumers have (or can afford) 3D displays and despite the fact that 3D on the 3DS has been so coolly received, we're still getting bombarded with it. It's the future, apparently, whether we like it or not.
I understand that the industry is going to change and "evolve" whether I like it or not. I've been playing video games for well over three decades, and I've seen changes that I've liked and disliked. I adapted when arcade games jumped from one token to two or more tokens per play. I adapted as controllers became more complicated and button-heavy, from one joystick and one button to two sticks and ten buttons. I adapted to loading time when games went from cartridge media to discs. I've made peace with getting burned by purchases like the 3DO, 32X, and Dreamcast, and look back on them fondly rather than with anger or resentment.
Sadly, the confidence, trust, and faith that I used to have in the console gaming industry have all but vanished, and it's at least partially related to anti-consumer trend that's clearly been in effect for much of the last few years. The things that I've documented in this piece are just a few examples of what's bothered me, but I'm overreacting.
I complain too much.
I apparently don't understand how business works.
I have to adapt or get passed by.
I'm a pirate, or, at least, an accessory to legal piracy.
All I can hope for is that, with the dawn of a new console generation, more positive and fewer punitive changes will be in the offing. Perhaps we can resume a period of expansion and inclusion, like we saw when console gaming was at its peak and more people were swayed to it because it was affordable and offered unique and fun experiences. Perhaps we'll emerge from the "Generation of Disappointment" with lessons learned and a new vision.
I guess time will tell.
- Consoleation: All good things… - November 15, 2013
- Consoleation: The death of the College Football video game - September 27, 2013
- Consoleation: The war on used games—Xbox One, Consumers Zero - June 8, 2013