Thursday, April 8, 2021

Out of Credits

So many sequels

We go on a lot about Cultural Ground Zero here at Wasteland & Sky, and that is for a very good reason. You know it's real, even if you don't mention it out loud. There isn't an individual alive today who isn't perplexed at the absolute stagnation in art and entertainment or as to how nasty basic discourse has gotten. Those who grew up in the '70s, '80s and '90s, could wake up to a new idea every morning and meet strangers they had something in common with, but by the '00s all of that seemed to stop. Hence why we are trapped in a nostalgia vacuum for older decades that will end when the Millennials finally cease charge of the culture. We are at the end of nostalgia.

Old IPs are now milking farms for endless rehashes and distribution of new morals opposite the original intent. Companies never seem to fail anymore, and newer ones never get a foothold to grow to the size they could pre-Cultural Ground Zero. Billion dollar marketing campaigns advertise the same properties which fill every ad space, telling you to remember those old things differently than what they actually were. 

Both the '00s and the '10s are two of the most creatively stagnant decades, and it says a lot that there has never been a nostalgia movement for them when the current wave for the '80s and '90s has never really stopped since the latter decade ended. By all accounts we should have had '00s decade back in the '10s . . . but that never happened. It never will.

Back in the early '00s, the one industry that appeared to escape this limbo of endless corporate regurgitation was the video game industry, which is the last industry to achieve natural success without inflated advertising budgets or dumped money from outside sources to hide its glaring weaknesses and failures. While everything else appeared to flatline and die, only gaming soldiered onward. It's a bizarre case, but one eventually becoming clearer as it suffers from what everything else now does. Somehow it got a stay of execution by 10 years, unlike everything else. So, what happened?

I shouldn't have to emphasize on the history of the medium. It's all fairly standard for anyone younger than a Baby Boomer. The 1970s shaped and formed the basics of what a video game was. The 1980s' high energy was the creative flowering of the industry, leading to its massive worldwide growth. The 1990s perfected those old ideas with PC and console both hitting their zenith by the middle of the decade. By this point, video games had been in their high golden age for near a decade. The remainder of the 1990s was spent moving into 3D and transposing all they learned into this new space. Eventually this path lead to where we are now.

But the strangest part of all this that happened was that video games had survived Cultural Ground Zero and retained their popularity and quality when everything else had tanked. And again, it's the only industry to do this. Every other one shrank in the '00s to their current dead state.

No industry had a better 1998 than video games did

It speaks of a strange turn of events when 1998 lead to the death of so many industries, but is still frequently looked on as one of the best years in gaming. In fact, game sales increased following the massive popularity and launch of the PS2 at the start of the '00s. It then climbed, rising further every year, until 2007 . . . about exactly a decade after Cultural Ground Zero killed everything else dead. Then they began their decline. And the same things that killed those other industries are the same ones choking at video games right now.

The previous video game generation was the first to show absolutely no creative growth at all. No new genres or ideas. No new IPs that offered any sort of new gameplay opportunities. Unless, of course, you're Nintendo, but they can't and don't emphasize pwetty gwaphics, so they don't count. Nintendo, in many ways is the last flickering sparks of the golden age of the industry, so seeing how out of joint they are with what is currently going on is eye-opening. If you want to know why they are called down for "rehashing" while series like Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty, Uncharted, Halo, Far Cry, or Gears of War, continue on with 0 innovation for near two decades and still get glowing praise, the answer is quite simple. The charge is a weapon they can use to get rid of what they don't like while keeping what they do.

One objective look back at the Nintendo Wii, without the game journalist baggage will show you an innovate system that actually tried new things, had plenty of niche and creative ideas, and has a library that has aged far better than Sony's and Microsoft's efforts from the time. Those two companies are making the same games with the same controls on the same basic system. Nintendo's last three systems were wildly different from each other, attempting to actually create new gameplay experiences. Which is, what I might add, what every single video game system did before the PS2.

Yet you've been trained by the industry to prefer the approach that led to the current bankrupt state of the industry. If you're still mad at the Wii for "waggle" or "lack of HD" then you really are missing the point. It sold for a reason, and it wasn't because "normies" are dumb. Hard to justify that charge when you willingly bought the PS4. Keep mashing that X button during the cutscene, hiding behind chest-high walls, and aiming down your iron sights like you've been doing for near 20 years. That's truly fresh gameplay.

But that's beside the point. All of this false conflict is part of the problem, and it's been with us for over a decade now.

What happened? What allowed video games to continue rising but then also submit to the same flaws as every other industry did almost exactly a decade later? Was it witchcraft, sheer chance, or hard work? Very much not.

Like those other industries that are currently crashing, they got too big and aren't allowed to fail anymore. This leaves them in a perpetual creatively bankrupt state, unable to die or rise again. They got this way by letting their success get to their head, mostly from the limited success of the AAA big budget video game.

Once the writing was on the wall that video games were pulling in more money than the dying Hollywood system, that was the chance for the same investors, suits, and hacks, to jump on board and steer the industry in the "correct" direction. It's yet another poseur situation. Unfortunately, the video game industry was too naïve with an inferiority complex (which they still have, just look at any time Cliffy B or David Jaffe salivate over the most recent flash in the pan interchangeable movie game) and swallowed the lie that they had to be C-grade movies in order to survive.

Hence, the creatively bankrupt state the industry is in now. It's a result of all of the above.

As writer and musician David V. Stewart says:

"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.

"Of course, there were plenty of amazing games prior to 2007, and plenty after, but when it comes to innovation, all the big players seem to have lost it, and it’s indies that keep the flame of gaming alive. But in 2007 there were still great games made by AAA publishers – games that had great gameplay and amazing production and presentation."

And these large corps had the exact foothold they needed to get in the industry with HD. This is the root of the issue. If the history books don't say that HD development is what killed the old video game industry, then someone was either lying or not paying attention.

You see, HD development remains extremely costly to this day, requiring far more resources and funds than they did before. It requires teams of hundreds to create games that once only needed anything from one to a couple dozen. This bloated budgets and made every project a sink or swim endeavor. This is before you get into the absurd costs for advertising and middle management which cling to every game like uncooked gristle. You're looking at several million to make games that used to be made by small teams for a sliver of the budget. This is the elephant in the room no one wants to address. Games now cost far too much to make. Period.

It now costs several times the amount of money to make games that were not even as in-depth as the games that came out a generation earlier. This is an unavoidable truth that no one wants to talk about. You were already doomed to lesser experiences from the get-go, and it's all because of the pwetty gwaphics crowd that game journalists fostered.

And yes, you can blame this crowd for swallowing it whole. You can still find articles admonishing a smaller company like Nintendo for not jumping into HD and potentially killing their company for tech that wasn't even standard at the time their system was in production. Because it wasn't. The Wii is still hated, despite offering games that actually played different and new than ones that came before, offered shelter to niche publishers and developers who couldn't afford the new landscape, continued legacy IP while also created new ones, and still made heavy bank while doing it, pulling in far more profit than Microsoft or Sony did during the very same generation. If anything, it was the Wii that carried on what new consoles were supposed to do besides just offering pwettier gwaphics.

And yet the Wii is still looked down on as lesser while the HD twins are seen as the "true" gaming systems. All while everything the latter did is what is currently killing the industry with the same rehashed systems and software for well over a decade now. Somehow C-grade movie games became known as "core" experiences while 2D platformers and adventure games became known as "casual" during this period. This was the smartest that game journalists had ever been, successfully carrying water for an industry change that the industry didn't need.

Professional journalism for "core" gamers

How no one foresaw any of this leading to where we are now remains a mystery. The writing was on the wall way back then.

The elephant in the room, however, is that there is a body count created by the HD cult. This is another factor that aided in reshaping the entire medium. While we like to say how great the HD era was from a creative standpoint, the fact of the matter is that it was the truly creative that were destroyed during this exact time period.

To this date, the first HD generation (2005-2013) has killed the most developers and publishers in the history of the entire gaming industry. Yes, including the original crash. 

As a result of the move to gigantic budgets and sneering at the poor plebs who couldn't afford it, the middle market was obliterated. All that was left by the end of the '00s were the billion dollar top dogs making their movies and the cutesy no budget indie games making puzzle platformers. All of this happened in a single console generation, and no one has batted an eye over it. Any "creativity" you remember from this era was the last gasp of the sacrificial lambs to get the industry in the exact state it is in right now.

3D Realms - 2009
7 Studios (Activision) - 2011
Backbone Vancouver
BigBig (Sony) - 2012
Bizarre Creations (Activision) - 2010/2011
Black Rock (Disney) - 2011
Blitz Games - 2013
Blue Fang Games - 2011
Blue Tongue (THQ) - 2011
BottleRocket - 2009
Brash Entertainment - 2008
Budcat (Activision) - 2010
Castaway Entertainment - 2008
Cavia - 2010
Cheyenne Mountain - 2010
Cing - 2010
Clover Studios (Capcom) - 2007
Codemasters Guildford - 2011
Cohort Studios - 2011
Concrete Games - 2008
Deep Silver Vienna - 2010
DICE Canada - 2006
EA Chicago - 2007
EA Bright Light - 2011/2012
EA Japan - 2007
Eidos Manchester - 2009
Eidos Hungary - 2010
Ensemble Studios (Microsoft) - 2008
Factor 5 - 2009
FASA (Microsoft) - 2007
Fizz Factor - 2009
Flagship Studios - 2008
Flight Plan - 2010
Free Radical Design - 2009
Frozen North Productions - 2010
FuzzyEyes - 2009
Gamelab - 2009
Game Republic - 2011
GRIN - 2009
Helixe (THQ) - 2008
Hudson Soft - 2012
Humannature Studio (Nexon Vancouver) - 2009
Ignition London - 2010
Ignition Florida - 2010
Incognito Entertainment (Sony) - 2009
Indie Built (Take-Two) - 2006
Iron Lore - 2008
Juice Games (THQ) - 2011
Kaos Studios (THQ) - 2011
Killaware - 2011
Killspace Entertainment - 2011
KMM Brisbane - 2011
Krome Studios (operating on a skeleton crew) - 2010
Kuju Manila - 2009
Kuju Chemistry - 2009
Kush Games - 2008
Locomotive Games (THQ) - 2010
Luxoflux - 2010
Mass Media (THQ) - 2008
Monte Cristo - 2010
Monumental Games - 2012
Midway Austin - 2009
Midway Newcastle - 2009
MTV Games - 2011
Multiverse - 2012
Nautilus / Sacnoth - 2009
NetDevil - 2011
Ninja Studio - 2009
Outerlight - 2010
PAM Development (Take-Two) - 2008
Pandemic Australia (EA) - 2009
Pandemic LA (EA) - 2009
Paradigm Entertainment - 2008
Pi Studios - 2011
Pivotal Games (Take-Two) - 2008
Propaganda Games (Disney) - 2011
Pseudo Interactive - 2008
Rainbow Studios (THQ) - 2011
Realtime Worlds - 2010
Rebellion Derby - 2010
Red Octane - 2010
Rockstar Vancouver - 2012
Rockstar Vienna - 2007
Sandblast Games (THQ) - 2008
SEGA San Francisco - 2010
Shaba Games (Activision) - 2009
SOE Denver - 2011
SOE Seattle - 2011
SOE Tuscon - 2011
Sony Liverpool - 2012
Stormfront Studios - 2008
Straylight Studios - 2009
Team Bondi - 2011
The Code Monkeys - 2011
Titan Studios - 2009
THQ Studio Australia - 2009
THQ Digital Warrington - 2009
Transmission Games - 2009
Universomo (THQ) - 2009
Venom Games (Take Two) - 2008
Vicarious Visions California - 2007
Visceral Australia (EA) - 2011
Wolfpack Studios - 2006
Yuke's Company Of America - 2010
Zipper Interactive - 2012
Zoe Mode London - 2009

This doesn't count the studios bought up only to be used as resource fodder for fat AAA series like Call of Duty. Developers like Radical Entertainment and Raven Software, for all intents and purposes, don't exist anymore. Only their name does. They might as well be called Dev Team A and B.

And if you're counting, that is over 100 studios in a single generation. That isn't even all of them. Some of these companies had been around for decades, and it only took a single flop to kill them outright, when that wouldn't have happened in the golden age of the industry. That nobody noticed how dangerous a precedent this entire climate set is why we are in the situation we are in now.

Again, keep in mind that this was only over the course of ONE generation. Whereas a studio could survive a few bombs back in the day, with the new AAA obsession with graphics and bad cinema that these studios could not afford, and the now-bloated costed for making games, studios simply couldn't compete anymore. This is the real legacy of HD gaming. And as a result of this "core gaming" obsession, many non-AAA studios were outright murdered.

You'll even find a lot of coping in the above comments blaming used games, bad developers, or even piracy, oblivious to the fact that there has never been a slaughter of studios at this magnitude in the history of the industry. For some reason, core gamers really wanted their movie games and would do anything to get them. Unlike those pleb "casuals" who enjoyed genres that had been around since the industry started. They weren't serious gamers because they didn't care about graphics!

Do you see yet how backwards and inverted the industry got during this period? This all happened in ONE generation.

At the same time, internet connectivity was now standard in every console, even the Wii. What this allowed were two things to grow. Patches had now come to consoles and with the overstuffed size of HD games, were usually necessary to fix all sorts of bugs and glitches unable to be caught in testing. The other thing that became standard was the appearance of digital games. Now they could sell you horse armor and digital licenses to their product! By the end of the generation, these two things would define how things would be going forward.

As Mr. Stewart continues:

"2007 was within the first year of the 7th generation of gaming consoles, which includes the Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii. Even though these released earlier (and hence why I mention some launch titles above), most of the “big games” of that generation landed in 2007 or took off in 2007. The graphical fidelity leap was immense, more than any that followed, and just as large as between each of the 4th through 6th generation of consoles (SNES, ps1, ps2. These new “next gen” consoles released as physical media consoles, but were transformed over their lifetimes into (mostly) digital consoles.

"That’s a big shift. Games companies of course want to emphasize the digital game now, mostly because it directly attacks the used games market. You can’t resell or trade away a digital game. This generation saw the ubiquitous “Day 1 DLC” and day 1 patches of games, but most of these trends hadn’t caught on in 2007. For the most part, games shipped finished, just like on the PS2."

So now you have bloated, broken, unwieldy games designed by corporate mandate to follow a specific mudgenre formula to appeal to the widest demographic of people possible. This was oblivious to the fact that gaming was already a successful industry before this wannabe Hollywood system was invented. The things that built the industry, the ideas, the fun, the stability, the variety, and the creativity, were now a distant second in priority. They wanted the industry to be something very different than it once was.

At the same as this melting down of traditional genres, you no longer owned your games. Now you were buying licenses to play these glorified movies until your console broke. This worked great, because console makers, after a certain point, would no longer fix your system for you. AAA 1, Gamers 0. No more used market, and no more legacy titles.

The corporate drone mentality that gaming had fought off so well in the '80s and '90s had finally consumed the industry to thunderous applause. It had been saved from the casuals!

And it worked.

Until it didn't anymore.

As writer and editor Brian Niemeier writes:

"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."

In case you were wondering why gaming rehashes old properties and ideas as much as Hollywood rehashes '80s and '90s nostalgia, it is for the same exact reason. They are incapable of creating anything new out of the mudgenre hole they have dug themselves into.

Hence you will be seeing "subversions" of properties as recent as Mass Effect, Gears of War, or Uncharted, for the same reason you see unwanted reboots of the Powerpuff Girls, Ghostbusters, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They can't do anything else. This is the creative pit they have dug themselves into, and they expect you to give them money for doing nothing but flipping the same broken table over and over. This is the legacy of the HD generation of gaming.

Though you can pin the blame on events that happened much earlier that lead to this state. Nothing truly happens in a vacuum.

Looking back, seeing megacorps like Sony and Microsoft horn in on console gaming was probably the writing on the wall for the way things were. No company could compete, especially with these powerhouse companies that were willing to go into the red to carve out a large piece of the pie (which Microsoft has suffered for most of the run of its Xbox brand) that smaller companies simply couldn't do or compete with. Remember the phony "Hardcore Vs Casual" gaming that was foisted upon you during the HD gen? I referenced it above for a reason. There was no coincidence as to why this conflict popped up when it did. One was pushed by billion dollar corps to get you in the exact state you are in right now. And guess which side the game journos were on?

All of a sudden those who wanted  "new" things and desired companies to "innovate" were fine with rehashes and shallow movie-like experiences. Because it was the "correct" kind of rehash. And would you know it, the giant corps wanted it to.

Isn't that just a kick in the teeth?

Here are passages from an old look at the 2009 game New Super Mario Bros. Wii. This was a game the press really wanted to fail and were completely flummoxed when it ended up outselling every Call of Duty game that generation. This simply couldn't stand, not when Innovation™ was happening! A platformer from a 20 year genre is not good enough, not when we have FPS games that are shallower and offer less than similar games from 20 years ago. This is how absurd this console generation really was.

These quotes aren't the writer's full opinions, but if you noticed, all of them had to start their segments with the same negatives right off the bat.

A 2009 game housing outdated mechanics was just unacceptable!

Only one of these "rehashes" is okay with journos.

I eagerly look forward to the same sort of look when the next Uncharted game comes out. After all, 15+ years of an unchanging formula is not good enough. Surely we will get articles exactly like this when we get an exact repeat of the last crappy console generation!

But we won't. Because the way the industry is now is exactly the way they've always wanted it to be. This is why you never hear about cries of "innovation" from game journos anymore. They don't want it and they never wanted it. They just wanted the old ways to disappear and to have their industry treated like the big boys--a "real" industry like Hollywood or OldPub.

And they almost got their wish.

By the time Sega was shoved out of the console industry in 2001, the landscape had already shifted tremendously. Arcades were dying and as a result so was classic gaming, 2D was outright demonized, and here come these big corps offering hats of money to development studios to create exclusives for their systems with abnormally high failure rates. Game journos saw stars in their eyes--they were on the forefront of a revolution! This was as far back as the late '90s. You can find this mentality in a lot of gaming magazines and early internet sites.

Corporatization was already there. You just didn't notice it because you were distracted by the 3D graphics arms race and hating people who enjoyed new types of controllers and old genres. The distraction worked.

By the time everyone noticed what had happened, hundreds of companies were closed, dozens more merged to form undead monstrosities, and mudgenre product was being shoveled out at quick pace to fill store shelves. And for some reason we still hunger for even pwettier gwaphics and more expensive games despite this path proving to be a dead end from everything that is currently going on. At some point, this warped ideal of "progress" all it ever became about.

And that's why the entire industry is already on the decline, even if you don't see it.

None of the industry insiders that were screaming for innovation, actually wanted innovation. If they did they wouldn't be defending the current dying state of the industry to their dying breaths while writing articles informing everyone who will listen that their audience is dead. Meanwhile, they will continue to make excuses for the sad state of things, even as their industry is on the wane. You would do good to stop carrying water for them.

It would be difficult to maintain optimism if there weren't new middle market and independent studios coming up in the wake of this disaster of an industry. I've already mentioned New Blood Interactive in previous posts as a company deliberately going back to the roots of first person action adventure games and starting there. Games such as Dusk, Amid Evil, Fallen Aces, Faith, and Gloomwood, are all far more interesting and fresh looking than anything AAA is putting out.

There there are studios such as Top Hat Studios, who somehow almost always manage to gather controversy for simply publishing interesting looking games that still push a button or two. Nonetheless, they are providing new experiences AAA will not.

Then there are the smaller studios such as Prime Cut Games putting out games like Zealot, featuring a priest wandering forth to slay pagan demoniacs from the land. It's an action RPG of the sort that hasn't been standard in a long time. You can find just about anything from the smaller studios if you look deep enough.

By the same token, you can find lists of upcoming platformers, adventure games, RPGs, shootersaction adventure, horror, roguelites, and even building management sims. There is plenty of creativity left in the industry. It's just not in the mainstream AAA industry. You actually have to find it for yourself.

And that's probably the future, at least for now. Just as NewPub is overtaking OldPub and Hollywood is collapsing under its own rotund girth, so to will AAA cosign itself to the dustbin of failed 20th century industries that failed to uphold its charge of delivering the patron their goods.

Eventually, everything gets set right again. What that means for the future of these industries isn't clear, but at least we can see that terrible present isn't permanent.

Things change. Next time they will change for the better.

Nominated for SuperversiveSF's 2020 Book List! Seven interconnected stories that form a whole. Check out this magic-infused noir of action adventure today!


  1. Thanks for the history, especially since it helps me place myself in the broader context a bit more. Since I moved towards more casual gaming involvement after the mid-90s, and have been a Nintendo diehard with strong retro and niche leanings, this helps me see why I don't 'get' the complaints about the industry's past 15 years. :)

    1. Yes, it gets really odd once you hit the late '90s into the pretzel mess we're in now. I definitely don't blame anyone from steering clear. It's gotten pretty ridiculous.

  2. There's always that disconnect when you look back at this dearth of reading SF, or playing games thinking that you'd just moved on.

    And then you discover, no... It just got lame. It was Minecraft and the gaming streamers that brought me back into gaming.

    1. Yes, it isn't that things have changed but that the framing around it was shifted. Some are willing to accept that reframe, but others won't.

      We've mostly gotten to the point where a large chunk of people aren't willing to accept it any longer.

  3. Ghost of a Tale was a great indie stealth game made by a tiny team, on minimal budget, that was more fun than anything Sony has produced on a 100 million dollar budget. Razorfist's streaming (word-of-mouth) was how I heard of it, not ads on network television.

    1. I've heard good things about that one. It shows that the old genres aren't quite dead yet!

  4. There's also an epidemic (and I use the term consciously) of incompetence and uncreative workers inside the top companies (especially in the West). I refuse to call them AAA because that implies their games are top notch, and they're not.
    They couldn't make fun games even if they wanted to. I think this started to happen about at the same time.

    1. Yes, this is a mentality that has been fermenting for a long time. I'm working on a post that will attempt to track it down in the video game industry.

      It goes back far.

    2. The industry has had an inferiority complex compared to movies in particular since it started. As technology has improved, games have grown more hostile to fun and more fixated on "thematic depth".