A plea to the videogame industry

“Behind Winston’s back the voice from the telescreen was still babbling away about pig-iron and the overfulfilment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan. The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.” – George Orwell, 1984

Between the wonderful posts on NeoGAF (here, here and here), Weekend Confirmed, 8-4 Play, The Final Bosman, Annoyed Gamer, Angry Joe, Jimquisition, Kotaku’s general coverage and Address the Sess enough has been said about the consumer rights aspect of Xbox One. With the Sony Twitter campaign taking off I feel another angle has, until now, been underrepresented: that of gamer welfare. Mainly, of everything that has been talked about and proposed by Microsoft in the past 6 days, how much of it directly benefits the gamer side of the gaming industry?

None of it.

It’s very easy to be selfish. The first reaction to anything is usually “how does that affect me?” I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I once had a student for private tutoring who was going through some difficulties at home and as a result couldn’t afford lessons anymore. While I was sympathetic to her plight my brain was already recalculating my weekly income going forward. I couldn’t help it.

I gave her free lessons after that. Calm down.

My point is that any given situation not only impacts us, but those around us, and in this of all years it’s time the videogame industry learned that lesson. Publishers constantly blame consumers for their failings. Selling 3.4 million copies of $100 million Tomb Raider in 3 weeks wasn’t good enough, not because pumping so much money into that franchise was an awful business decision, but because used games, piracy and whatever other scapegoat they care to name. Adam Orth, dear Sweet Billy, wondered why anyone would want to live in a place that doesn’t have high speed internet. SimCity. John Riccitello said gamers would come to love always-on DRM, blissfully ignorant to the millions of gamers worldwide who have no access to internet at all. Don Mattrick said that by being backwards compatible you’re truly backwards. He should say that to the parents who spend thousands on games only to find them rendered obsolete at the outset of each videogame generation. I believe the most popular game on Xbox 360 during its first year was Halo 2. Backwards, indeed. By Microsoft’s own admission 35 million gamers never took their Xbox 360 online. It’s all just so narrow-minded and self-serving.

But it’s about more than that. It’s not just about the Adam Orths and John Riccitellos. It’s not just about publishers, developers and the gaming press. It’s not just about Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft. The gaming industry is about gamers, and the gaming industry’s welfare is inexorably linked to the welfare of gamers. By attaching more and more anti-consumer features to gaming in the hopes that chasing the almighty dollar will somehow result in $100 million games breaking even (looking at you, Square-Enix), let alone turning a profit, that welfare is being placed under threat.

I’ve been a gamer all my life. My dad introduced it to me by way of the Amiga. His friends at work used to give him floppy discs with demos and the like to bring home to my brother and I. They probably still work. I almost didn’t become a gamer, though; the first game he brought home was The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space Mutants. Even three-year-old me knew that game was terrible. The next game was Drip. I thought I was being punished for something. He stumbled onto a winner when he brought home Lemmings, and I was sold (on gaming, not by my parents).

A core selection of games defines many of my favourite childhood memories. Friends – most of whom spoke to me initially because of games – came over after school to play co-op Streets of Rage 2. We spent weeks running away from card-waving referees and slide-tackling goalkeepers in FIFA ’97. Oh, 1997. What a beautiful year. Goldeneye and Mario Kart 64 took over our lives. We held tournaments after school. It was a simpler time. Then we found our home on PlayStation.

Even at that age we figured that if we were all playing the same games it made little sense for us (read: our parents) to buy each of us a copy. So a pact of sorts was made to keep something of a game rotation going. That way we all got to share stories and if anyone got stuck they could just pass along a memory card (hey, remember memory cards?). For example, I was the only one in school who could land the impossible jump in Spyro the Dragon. I must have done that shit a dozen times on a dozen different memory cards. But then I could never find the last dragon in Haunted Towers. It wasn’t until someone on GAF made a LTTP thread years back that I finally found out where he was. Its name was Copano.

Then there were Ape Escape, Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus and Tekken 3. Oh, Tekken 3. Remember that tree character? And Gon? Then we all moved on at the same time to Metal Gear Solid. Metal Gear?! That blew our fucking minds. Meryl’s codec was on the back of the box! Psycho Mantis could read our thoughts! Who didn’t almost break their controller during the torture scene? Then we replayed it…and replayed it…and replayed it. I can play the entire game now, a decade and a half later, in my head. How about Crash Team Racing? And Driver, with its insane tutorial (that I was again enlisted by my friends to complete)? We even passed around demos. I remember a few of us bought some PlayStation magazine, and it came with a demo of Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX. Each day after school we went home, played the shit out of that demo, and came in to school the next day with new high scores. Of a demo. We didn’t buy Dave Mirra; we bought Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 instead. Quick! – how do you unlock the secret areas in the school? How much time did you spend with your friends after school or over summer trying to find every secret area in the game? Or any game, for that matter? It was our childhood. I defy anyone who played Gran Turismo 3 to think of it now without playing Buck Rodgers in their head. While I did buy those games later, my initial exposure to them was largely because I could borrow them from my friends for a weekend.

Now imagine a world in which Microsoft and major publishers get their way. My dad would not have been able to bring those Amiga games home because they would have been tied to a pre-existing account. He would not have been able to rent games for my brother and I. I would not have been able to lend games to my friends, or finish parts of games for them. I never would have played Gran Turismo 3. We would not have been able to game at a friend’s house if they didn’t have an internet connection (granted, it was a different time, but the point still stands). Many of those childhood memories just wouldn’t exist and I don’t think it’s presumptuous to say that a lot of yours wouldn’t, either.

And while it’s all well and good for the core gamer to be upset by these anti-consumer policies, and they (we) have every right to be, there’s more to this than just “us”. Microsoft and major publishers are attempting to deprive the next generation of gamers the chance to create memories those of us who have been gaming our whole lives cherish so dearly. The group of kids with one copy of Madden between them or the family with 3 brothers sharing a copy of Call of Duty (although I hope they’re playing something better). Parents will have to consider where to buy games and, with this new activation fee, how much they’ll cost. They’ll have to worry about having a rock-solid high-speed internet connection. They’ll wonder what that always-on camera in their child’s bedroom is really doing.

None of this benefits gamers. Not always-on DRM or mandatory Kinect. Not a used games cartel or inability to share games with friends. Not online passes, social clubs, day-one DLC, exclusive pre-order content, forced multi-player or activation servers that will be down in 10 years’ time. These proposals would set such a frightening precedent for the rest of the industry that I’m not sure why anyone would want to be a gamer anymore. Such an industry deserves to fail.

This simply cannot be the way forward. Create unique, worthwhile experiences that’ll live long in the memory. Truly great games have a longevity and shelf-life that the Gears of Halo Duty Creed XXVIIIs of the world will never aspire to. Psychonauts, System Shock 2, Baldur’s Gate, Shadow of the Colossus and a myriad of other truly wonderful games still sell for a reason. We’ll still be buying Demon’s Souls in 2020. Chase that dollar instead.

But most of all, just let us play our games.


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