For the Love of the Game

It’s an exciting time to be a gamer. Our passion has finally hit the mainstream, overtaking cinema in both popularity and, arguably, storytelling. We’re still enjoying the new ­car smell of two exciting new platforms, with untold new experiences waiting for us in the coming years.

However, I find myself retreating to the video­ games of yesteryear more and more frequently. While retro style games are absolutely dominating the indie scene and digital marketplace, they often leave me longing for those classics from the 80’s and 90’s that shaped me into the gamer I am today. I might dismiss it as pure nostalgia, and it wouldn’t be a completely baseless notion. No, this is not about sprites versus polygons, it’s about the change in economics, bonus content (value) and old fashioned discovery (exploration).

While the simple, boxed copy of a game is and will likely be a mainstay to some degree, gaming has given birth to the subscription based model most commonly seen in MMO’s, the micro-transactions more common in the mobile sector, and even some games that flirt with an A la carte model where you pay only for the content you like most.

Gaming’s tremendous presence as a mainstream medium of entertainment is at once validating, yet extremely disconcerting at times. Gaming has become a multi­billion dollar industry, attracting not only gamers, but also businessmen from all walks of life. It is important to recognize this as the boon is has been; without smart management, technology could never afford to advance, nor would many of our most beloved games have ever been funded. Not all advancements of the industry have been in the gamer’s best interest, however.

I look to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for comparison. Widely considered one of the
greatest games of all time, it touted some of the most beautiful sprite­work ever seen, a truly
memorable soundtrack, and perhaps most of all, an extraordinary amount of content. Not only did the game help to coin the term “Metroidvania” with its large castle, rife with opportunity and motivation for exploration, the developers took it a step further by including the famous “upside­ down Castle”, literally doubling the scope of the game. If that weren’t already noteworthy, it also included several additional robust, fully­ playable characters.

Yet Symphony of the Night was not alone in this; games with secret characters, hidden levels, or special powers were in no short supply. Mortal Kombat, an otherwise mediocre Fighting game, was practically founded upon its “secret unlockables”, starting with the infamous battle against Reptile, the now ­trademark Green Ninja of the series.

While the term “gamer” may mean something different to each person, I suspect many would
agree, if there were indeed a “Gaming Culture”, secret/unlockable content was a prominent part of it. I doubt a single boy has ever survived childhood without falling victim to some kind of video­ game­ related hoax. While everyone can enjoy a good prank, they were given a sense of credibility largely because the Gaming industry would often include crazy, over the top secrets in their games, completely without prompting. Speaking purely for myself, I was in high­school nearly ten years after the original Mega Man X came out, before discovering the fabled “Hadoken” fire­ball upgrade you could acquire in that game.

The Gaming industry, as a whole, is absolutely thriving, so why is it that these extras are so
scarce today? Well, there are many factors. More competition, higher development costs, shorter deadlines, all of these are accurate. But there is also another unfortunate, but very real reason; stripping content and selling it back to the player is far more profitable.

Of course, Gaming is indeed an industry, and all the passion in the world won’t fund a AAA title. As technology advances, so too does the cost of development. In an age where one poorly­ received game can end the careers of dozens, if not hundreds of individuals, developers and publishers alike have to tread carefully, and seek to make the most of their investment. As creators further monetize their projects, however, I worry that some of the solutions we’re seeing are having a detrimental impact on the industry as a whole.

Pay-­to-­win is a term that has been floating around for some time, borne from mobile gaming. For those who’ve yet to experience the new age of smartphone gaming, many games are extremely cheap, or even free, but sell power­ups as a separate purchase. This is a perfectly valid business model; there are many gamers today that have more money than time, and being unable to invest in a more traditional style of game, want to skip straight to “the good stuff”.

The issue I see creeping up, however, is that these microtransactions are beginning to creep into games of all forms, at the expense of included content. One of the most infamous example of this is the Celestial Steed, aka “Sparkle­pony”, in the popular MMO, World of Warcraft. A translucent horse, whose form was made up of a star constellation, shared its motif with only one other being in the game’s universe; a boss named Algalon. The general consensus is that this Celestial Steed was designed specifically as a rare ­drop from this boss, but was instead sold for real money, in a game that already charged a monthly subscription­ fee.

World of Warcraft, as well as virtually every other MMO on the market, have since wholeheartedly embraced microtransactions, but it hardly stops there. Dead Space 3 is another prime example, in which players could pay an additional fee to gain access to incredibly powerful weapons without having to earn them. Extra Costumes, once a staple for Action and Fighting games, have also become a rarity as an all ­included feature, instead sold at additional cost to the player.

It’s easy to take offense simply as a consumer; after all, it’s essentially costing you more to enjoy the same quality of game that was once an expectation of any boxed product. I would argue that the issue runs even deeper, though. In place of a culture that thrived on word of mouth regarding secrets that may or may not exist, we have a well­ oiled machine where the only “extras” included are those that simply can’t be broken ­down into a monetary value.

For those of us who grew in the 80’s and 90’s, that was where a lot of the “fun” in video games came from. They were the watercooler talk of gamers, where the dedicated player never knew what they might uncover by really combing through their favorite game. Today’s market is instead filled with one-­note games, with only the hope that maybe a DLC announcement that might surprise you.

More than anything, it feels like a shift in the relationship between player and creator. Where once we eagerly awaited how much content developers could cram into their game, it feels more as though both roles have been reduced to little more than “manufacturer and consumer”. The expectation has changed so radically, that the thought of playing a new release for years and finding a completely new, unlockable character seems quaint; almost juvenile.

With Gaming becoming more “business” than pleasure, I wonder where this path will lead. Many of today’s developers were inspired to seek careers in the industry largely because of the passion instilled by those older games. Will today’s youth harbor the same passion for Gaming when they’re older? Or will they, unable to enjoy the same fulfilling experiences we did, grow up to view video­games as a frivolous novelty?

Only time will tell, as they say.

About Jared Kane Corbett