Thursday, May 24, 2012

Welcome to the future, where you are more important than you realise.

"Come gather 'round people, wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'".
- Bob Dylan

They really are. The marketplace in 2012 is nothing like the one in 2000. In fact, it is barely even like the one in 2010. The games industry is an ever-evolving chameleonic freak, which moves faster than your first poop at 6am following one of the more serious nights on the town. By which I do not mean that games are like kebabs, although they do tend to move through systems quite quickly.

But, let's cast our minds back to the last generation. The chances are you bought your games at a specialist retailer, maybe having read about them first in a print magazine, and you played them on a machine designed purely for the purpose. You probably didn't play online, and you certainly didn't get too many opportunities to connect with your friends whilst playing. Well, you might have shared text messages back and forth, and possibly even spoke with friends via the magic of MSN/AIM/ICQ or their ilk if you were of a particularly futuristic inclination.

What you didn't do, probably, is blog about it afterwards. You may have chatted in an online environment, possibly a forum of some sort. You could have argued with the review that was featured on your favourite website, or maybe even wrote into your print magazine of choice. But, you were limited in your options when it came to putting the world to rights when they didn't agree with you.

In a similar vein, there was a lot less in the way of options for actually buying games in the first place. You either went to the shops, or perhaps you were brave enough to trust this whole new-fangled "shopping online" idea that was clearly never going to catch on.

In 2012, that world seems somewhat quaint and old-fashioned, does it not? Can you imagine if we were to go back to it? Simply put, we never will. The world has evolved.

We no longer need to go and find the one shop on the High Street that knows what games are, or go into the other electronics stores and be overcharged. Games are available in supermarkets, in music stores, and when it comes to online they are literally everywhere. There are as many avenues to buy games in 2012 as there are atoms in the universe. For the first time ever, we can actually buy games directly on the machines on which we can play them, without needing to leave the house at all. (This was very much a dream in the last generation, incidentally.)

There are more machines to play games on, too. It is no longer just our PlayStation or whatever Nintendo have out. There are 4 distinct Nintendo machines, 4 different PlayStations, and the XBox 360. But, even more astonishingly, mobile phones are a genuine platform now, not to mention browser-based games and social platforms like Facebook. "Gamification" is a genuinely accepted term. There are more games on the market now than any human could ever hope to play in three lifetimes.

You know what hasn't evolved so much, though? The games press. The media. And, for large parts, the whole machinery that we refer to as The Games Industry. They are still quite stuck in pre-2010 ways of thinking, with huge sectors seemingly unable to move with the times. The map is much bigger than it once was, with new ways to cross it, but they still think that the old ways are the best ways, somewhat like back when you used to think that you would never get a mobile phone.

10 years ago, a game like Minecraft would never have seen the light of day. It only exists in the format it does now because people paid for it while it was still being developed. Take the concept to one of the big publishers, and they would almost certainly have insisted on the addition of aliens, guns, and big-titted women. They would have called it Miner 2049'r, marketed it exclusively to the teenage boys that bought the magazines, and been happy if it scraped a half a million sales at a £39.99 RRP. That is nothing like what happened, when the title was released onto XBox Live Arcade to the tune of over a million downloads on the first day. It made profit in an HOUR, at an RRP of 1600 MS points, or about £15 in real money. It is of course important to realise that well over a million people had already bought it on the PC, otherwise MS would have been in absolutely no hurry to put it on their service.

Games creation has been democratised. They are all over Kickstarter, and various other Alphafunding and Crowdsourcing initiatives. Chances are, if you have an idea for a game, then you don't need a publisher to pitch it to.

Games purchasing is slowly but surely going the same way. Digital distribution is a powerful tool, mainly because it allows for dynamic pricing. Right now, the Because We May promotion is taking place, where independent developers are sticking their middle fingers up at publishers and stores who refuse to move with the times. All they want is to be able to set their own prices when they want to. It is insanity to think that they shouldn't be allowed to. Do yourself a massive favour and check it out, basically every independent hit of the last couple of years is involved.

Games writing is being democratised, too. Everyone and their dog has a blog. The problem here is that the mainstream sites seem to think that they are still more special, and somehow superior to the common voice, but the simple truth is that they are not. Nope, YOU, dear reader, are as important to this industry as any named games journalist you could care to mention. Don't allow them to let you think otherwise, either. Your blog may be as tiny as mine, although the chances are you get more readers, but your voice is infinitely more important than the publishers want you to think it is. Metacritic actually dares to remove user reviews that it thinks are harmful. Well, no disrespect is meant here, but when 4,000 people give a game an average of 4.1 against 51 giving it an average of 89%, I think I know which group SHOULD carry the most weight.

ActiVision, as an example, have recently signed a contract with Bungie for their next IP. And the details that have been leaked are staggering. The deal is for 4 games, one every two years, with expansions in the interim years. If Bungie can pull off an average of 90% or above on, then they get a $2.5 million bonus. But, if the first game sells less than 5 million copies, then Acti can terminate the contract immediately.

WHY have Bungie signed into this? They are now beholden to two remnants of a bygone age. A publisher that they don't actually need, and a rating system that is increasingly irrelevant. Yes, paid journalists, I called you irrelevant. Your sites exist entirely on the publishers terms, these same publishers who are no longer needed. They play the tune, you dance, and you are scared to rock the boat. Whereas, little Nobby Bloggocks with his Wordpress magnum opus can say what he wants when he wants and there is not a damn thing the publishers can do about it. He isn't getting free copies and expenses paid trips to visit games in exactly the conditions the publishers want them to be displayed in, so when he has a complaint IT IS MORE VALID THAN YOURS.

Diablo III has revealed to us all the differing states of our worlds. Professional critics rate it high, customers who feel they have been treated badly rate it less high. But, which is the number that draws the headlines? Which is the number the advertising money will go to? Which is the one that decides who gets their bonuses? The journalists, who have been fluffed for months prior to the games release and are now just SO eager to please? Or the little guy who has genuine anger but is being told to stop crying about it because he is nothing but an entitled brat?

I have no doubt that one day Diablo III will indeed be a brilliant game. But that day isn't here yet. Somehow, though, the games press have given it a free pass, which is what they also did with Skyrim before it, and doubtless what they will also do again before the year is through. Games that are unfinished, full of bugs, that simply don't work; these are not games that deserve 9 and 10 reviews. At the other end of the scale are games like Resident Evil Operation Raccoon City, Ridge Racer Unbounded, and Dragon's Dogma. Games that divide the critics because, and this only ever becomes clear if you read multiple reviews, THEY DID NOT UNDERSTAND WHAT THEY WERE PLAYING.

Gentlemen, there is a clear message hidden beneath my anger. Your critics are out of touch. They sneer at you, proclaiming themselves more informed and more relevant. They don't even entertain some of that which you enjoy the most. Do you play anything on Facebook? You are scum, according to these self-aggrandising tossers, completely forgetting that in the current relationship it is actually you who hold the power. Stop clicking on every titbit they dripfeed to you, and they will once again have to start working for a living. We are in an age where the hype machine is now so well oiled that we have countdown clocks for trailers. We have bonus content locked away because you didn't pre-order at the right retailer. We have huge websites read by thousands where the reviewer has no clue what to do in a game that doesn't explicitly tell them every single thing.

And we also have the opportunity to cast it all behind us, and to reclaim the power we once held. More and more people are turning their back on traditional reviews, and instead basing their opinion upon the views of the collective. 90+ on Metacritic means nothing these days, it is no longer any kind of guarantee of success. And neither does a score in the 70's automatically mean a game is doomed to only sell a couple of months down the line when everyone drops the price because they bought too many copies in. Major websites seem to be playing a guessing game in which they are giving a score based purely on how well they think a game will sell. But the evidence is that people aren't actually reading reviews to make their decision. Nobody I know goes to one website and only one website as their news source.

The blogosphere is already a crowded area, but to be frank, there aren't enough people putting their opinion out there. The crowd has power. Your voice may not seem like much to you, but as part of a chorus it gains meaning. 10,000 people all saying "We don't like this game" means a lot more than 1 reviewer raving about it. Especially when those 10,000 paid for it and are playing it in real world conditions, rather than being plied with freebies and cooed over and told exactly what to do under the exact conditions that the publisher wants them to see it in. Faults can be more easily overlooked when they didn't set you back £30, and magic can be bypassed when you are working to a deadline.

So, don't allow them to dictate to you. Don't just take their word for it. DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE! Get your voice out there. Get loud. GET ANGRY! We are not the little people, and we are just as valid as the IGN's of this world. (Many would say more so!) We don't get the presents, we don't get the freebies, but we do get the power of veto with our wallets. If some dickhead decides, as frequently happens, that the game he is playing compares unfavourably to something else (even when it isn't meant to be anything like Game #1) and scores it down accordingly, then this is disingenuous. Conversely, scoring a game lower because it is too much like another game is also a mistake, because some people want the same gameplay in a slightly different setting.

Crap, this is turning into a thesis!

Short version! Read more. Talk more. Utilise the nature of Web 2.0. Things are changing, and the big boys need to adapt along with it or they will find themselves as small boys. The web is a great democratiser, a leveller, an equaliser.

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