2021/04/06

Gaming Ground Zero

Gaming Ground Zero

In which author David V. Stewart takes the Cultural Ground Zero ball and advances it ten years down the field:

Maybe you’ve heard of cultural ground zero: 1997.


Now let’s talk games, because unlike other institutions of culture, the games industry kept on growing and innovating for another 10 years.

Then 2007 happened, and as far as the bigger publishers are concerned, games reached their peak and no more change or risk was required or even advisable. Gameplay seemed to stop changing almost entirely after 2007, and the extent to which it did change is usually in the negative, involving the watering-down of mechanics and general reduction of difficulty.


The stats bear David's theory out. Compare annual US box office receipts to yearly video game industry revenues:

US Box Office

Annual US Video Game Revenue

Throughout the late 90s and early aughts, the movie and video game industries were pretty much neck and neck in terms of revenue. That intra-entertainment industry competition stopped being a horse race in 2007, when gaming pulled decisively ahead - doubling Hollywood's take that year.

Don't think for a second that video games' passing of this benchmark escaped the suits in the corner offices. Attaining twice the moneymaking power of Hollywood marked vidya's graduation from a niche hobby to a serious business. They money men had found a new golden goose, and they stepped in to make sure it kept laying the exact same eggs forever.

And like David observed, it all happened in 2007.

What we're seeing the results of now is big game studios throwing pretty much every hit game franchise into the corporate IP death cycle milking phase. All major game IPs from Call of Duty to WoW are endlessly riding a loop from the milking to death to reboot phases.

And it's working. What was a $20 billion games industry at Gaming Ground Zero has grown by an order of magnitude.

Which goes to show once again that, "Get woke, go broke" is a cope. The more gamers complain about the declining quality and innovation in video games, the more money AAA studios rake in.

The same goes for Hollywood. People want their bread and circuses. They know the bread is adulterated with sawdust and the clowns hate them, but they don't care.

All is not lost, however. Consistent personal experience has shown that the main reason normies continue subsisting on thin corporate gruel is they simply aren't aware of any alternatives. In my own market of sci fi publishing, I've seen readers ditch the Wendigs, Scalzis and Kleins of oldpub for masters like Gibson, Howard, and Merritt the second you slap a pulp novel in their hands.

That's not even mentioning contemporary newpub authors like David himself

Gaining visibility, especially bereft of institutional support, has been a long row for indie creators to hoe. But signs are emerging that newpub is achieving significant market penetration.

Consider my Combat Frame XSeed: SS crowdfunder, which Indiegogo backers made my highest and fastest funded campaign yet.

If you missed the campaign's initial run, I've extended it a few more days. Crossing the $10K milestone will be a strong bellwether of indie sci fi's growth.

Help us reach our goal and expand into the card game and 3D printed miniatures arena.

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11 comments:

  1. Even before 2007 the stagnation was starting, but it hadn't hit critical mass yet. It's interesting to compare the Thief 1-2, Deus Ex and System Shock (98-00) to Thief: Deadly Shadows, Deus Ex: Invisible War and Bioshock (03-07). The latter games are by no means bad, the worst of them is Invisible War which is at worst average, but when compared to their predecessors there are several consistent themes:

    -Release across all consoles, even if this leads to worse gameplay (like the tiny rooms in Invisible War and Deadly Shadows).
    -Simplification of existing systems
    -A push towards "open world" design
    -Less polished and more forgiving balance

    It wasn't yet "mud" games, but you could see them from there.

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    1. The first HD generation was the one were I noticed things weren't quite right, but if you go back to the beloved 128 and 32 bit generations you can see a lot of the stagnation already starting.

      Just looking at RPGs which hit their peak in the mid-90s, you can see the slide begin when they went 3D and became "cinematic" at the expense of focus on exploration, secrets, and combat.

      I still remember when one of my favorite PS1 games, Brave Fencer Musashi, got a sequel for the PS2 that successfully sapped all the creativity, wonder, and adventure from the original, in order to replace it with flashy animu tropes and barebones combat system instead.

      If you take the transition from 2D to 3D out of the equation, you can see the decline in creativity on the industry, especially as younger devs were wiped out by mega publishers.

      Gamers also have the collective memory span of a goldfish. Still remembering when Prey was advertised as BIOSHOCK IN SPACE.

      Its an industry, like many others, that needs a hard cleansing.

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    2. Thanks for the important reminder. I still maintain that JRPGs succumbed to Cultural Ground Zero: 1997 along with comics and film.

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  2. IIRC the attach rate for the high-selling PS4 was abysmal. People were buying consoles, but nobody was buying games. It was like it was a force of habit.

    But the big pubs are still pumping out games people don't want to buy, so the decline is only continuing. Eventually people are just going to move over to indie gaming, at this rate.

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    1. We can hope, but the advent of myriad economic anomalies everybody swore blind could never happen recommends caution.

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  3. Gaming still has quite a lot of steam behind it, though looking at the Gaming Industrial Complex you wouldn't know it. Meanwhile middle market and small publishers are putting out quality content that will keep us going for years.

    The big danger is when those successful smaller studios get gobbled up by the Zombie Publishers, see Rare and Bioware for a good example. Even noteworthy ID software isn't doing that great.

    Beware big pub, they're a danger to creativity.

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    1. Anytime I hear an author lamenting that his publisher dropped him, my go-to response is "Good."

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  4. As I've been saying on the previous post, innovation in the gaming sphere nowadays is mostly only found in indie projects, which make up a significant chunk of what I've actually enjoyed in recent years (other than Paradox Interactive titles, which isn't quite indie anymore but certainly isn't mainstream). It's also worth noting that Nintendo (for all their sins) have done quite a bit by porting large numbers of indie games to the Switch. Just in the past 5 years the indie scene has produced:

    -Stardew Valley
    -Darkest Dungeon
    -Cuphead
    -Hollow Knight
    -Celeste
    -Into The Breach
    -Return of the Obra Dinn
    -Baba Is You
    -Outer Wilds (Not to be confused with The Outer *Worlds*, which is just another Obsidian RPG). Unlike the rest of this list I can personally vouch for this one's greatness - never before had I truly experienced a genuinely engaging environment-exploration mystery game. I imagine this is what playing Myst when it was new felt like.
    -Hades
    -Valheim

    And that's just scratching the surface and picking the ones that were within the reach of a quick Google Search. Imagine how many more lie beneath the water of that proverbial iceberg. I wonder if we'll look back in the future upon the times when we could genuinely expect multiple fantastic and varied types of indie game per year (heck, practically per month) as a Golden Age? Probably.

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  5. Paradox is hard core into the milking IP phase. They just keep remaking the same game with incremental adjustments in dlcs. Stellaris is probably the first really new game they made. But at least they are still making them competently and haven't hit the death spiral.

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  6. Ah yes, the standard high fidelity low agency story driven cinematic sepia tinted turd-person adventure game set in an open world with strong wahmen character where a mo-capped protagonist traipses about an empty map collecting meaningless collectibles while leveling up meaningless skills via poorly implemented gutted RPG elements including obligatory press-x to stealth mode. Wash, rinse, repeat ad nauseam

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    1. Times like this I'm glad that I happened to drift out of console gaming after PS2 generation (OK so I technically had a PS3, but it didn't get used much). Turns out I didn't miss much.

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