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The Great Videogame Crash of ~2013?

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By Nelson Schneider - 02/18/12 at 03:05 PM CT

Videogame development has been in a state of flux for the past few years, moving from a niche business to a bank-busting industry seeking to find a home alongside the other forms of Big Media. Yet this incredible prosperity came with a lot of growing pains. This generation has seen more hardware failures than any other, this generation has seen publisher greed lead to crackdowns on used games and a variety of unethical sales techniques like Day-One DLC, games are released buggy and unfinished, nobody knows what to think about smartphones and their massive libraries of cheap & terrible games, and while more games are being released now than ever – especially from Western developers – there are few stand-out titles that are impressive now AND will withstand the test of time.

To me, the current videogame market closely resembles the one built-up by Atari (delenda est!) that lead to the Great Videogame Crash of 1983. Yes, I may have been 3 years old at the time and completely ignorant, but that’s what history is for. 20 years later, it looks like history is repeating itself.

There are too many platforms. Between three competing consoles, two competing smartphone OSes, and the fact that everyone wants to create a competitor for Steam on PC, it’s just overwhelming. Sure, there are a lot of multi-platform releases, but the most compelling games are, and always have been, the exclusives that platform-makers carefully groom to lure buyers their way. Those same multi-platform releases make each platform’s library of exclusives look incredibly anemic. It’s no wonder platform fanboys defend their choices to the death; nobody can afford or keep track of them all, especially for so few exclusives.

There is too much competition from devices that do more than play games. Old consoles competed against PCs. At the time, PCs were confusing and difficult to operate while consoles were as simple as inserting a cartridge and turning the thing on. Today’s consoles are competing against smartphones and tablets, the easiest-to-use multi-function devices ever built, yet the consoles themselves are becoming increasingly difficult to use and more PC-like. Even more challenging is the fact that these competing devices have incredibly cheap, instantly-accessible games that look like an incredible bargain when compared side-by-side with the $60 tag attached to retail games. Sure, smartphone/tablet games may be mostly crap, but the mass market doesn’t have the discerning taste of those who have gaming in their blood. Those who buy 60 $1 games instead of 1 $60 game could rightfully assume that videogames are nothing but cheap, disposable time-wasters to fiddle with on their devices during workday lulls.

The publishers are out of control. Instead of being happy to produce games and make reasonable profits, they expect everything to be a blockbuster. They don’t want to invest in any non-mainstream genre because they know it won’t sell as many copies as “Call of Duty.” And selling all those copies allows publishers to rake in even more profits through a steady drip of DLC, even going so far as to use this DLC as shackles to discourage gamers from buying their games used. Of course, all of these “innovations” are coming out of the West, whereas Japan, the Great Videogame Savior of 1985, has been stagnant, either ham-handedly adopting these evil Western customs or continuing to make PS2 games… on handhelds.

Indie is where all the innovation happens. In 1983, anyone who could make a crappy game did so. This flooded the market with horrible software. When Japan saved gaming in 1985, they did so partially by implementing a licensing system that only allowed certified “good” games to be published on their platforms. In the face of today’s publishers only expressing interest in guaranteed million-sellers, the Indie movement arose. While the Indie movement has been the primary source of innovation and actual fun in games today, it also treads dangerously close to the situation in 1983 that flooded the market with pure, unadulterated garbage. Just look at the library of Xbox Live Indie Games! Smartphone app stores aren’t far behind.

Both the hardware and software are disasters. Red Ring of Death! Yellow Light of Death! Disc Read Error! Patches galore! It seems like we can’t turn around this-gen without our hardware dying or our games being broken, buggy messes that require gigabytes of patch downloads to fix. This isn’t PC gaming; there is no reason for developers to have difficulty programming games for hardware that is all identical. This isn’t PC building; when we pay hundreds of dollars for shiny plastic boxes we can’t open or modify, we expect them to be at least as durable as the $20 DVD player we bought 10 years ago that still works.

To top-off all this gloom and doom, it has been reported that game sales are down 34% from last year. This drop could have happened because no noteworthy titles have been released so far in Q1 2012. This drop could be the natural result of Generation 7 coming to a close, as developers and gamers hold back enthusiasm for upcoming Generation 8 hardware. Or it could be that the bad behavior on behalf of the videogame industry mentioned above is leading us down the path to another crash. Even if there isn’t a crash, the changing face of hardware, the changing relationships between developers/publishers/users, and the continuing worldwide economic slump will ensure a shake-up at the very least.

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