The Captains of Industry

For some honest gaming journalists, this year’s E3 was pretty disappointing. The games industry has never been in such flux, yet the showings at one of the biggest industry shows of the year were very samey – lots of ultraviolence, lots of cutscenes and not a lot in terms of innovation. It seems that in general the games world is in the doldrums.

In a way, it might just be everyone recovering from the storm of recent activity. Late 2011 and early 2012 brought an amazing cavalcade of big-ticket games: Skyrim, Saints Row 3, Battlefield 3, Call of Duty++, Batman: Arkham City, Star Wars the Old Republic, and Mass Effect 3 in a few short months, and Portal 2, LA Noire and Rage a little bit prior. The indie scene had a few big hits (Limbo, Bastion and Terraria). And now? It’s a little quiet.

Of course, EA are still keeping their death grip on retail and with the other hand trying to backhand Steam. If they had another two hands, it’d perhaps use one to try and save the allegedly drowning Star Wars The Old Republic, and the other to reassure everyone that everything is going according to plan. Nintendo are releasing the Wii U soon to perhaps corner the next generation console market (with a probably underpowered, slightly niche-y Wii upgrade). Microsoft and Sony are being coy about their next systems and not really addressing the threats from mobile gaming, cloud-based gaming and things like Steam Big Picture Mode. Even with places like Game going out of business, the big guys seem as keen as ever to play towards bricks-and-mortar retail.

Valve are putting their money on the table with regards to hardcore gaming with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and DOTA 2, with nothing announced for anyone not deeply addicted to those games (and nothing new announced at all at E3). They seem to be diversifying into wearable computing, but to what end (and with whom), no-one’s quite sure. Updates have slowed with Team Fortress 2 (despite the Steam Workshop going ticketyboo) and seemingly almost stopped with Left 4 Dead 2.

Blizzard seem to be resting on their laurels. These laurels are made out of MOUNTAINS OF MONEY made from Diablo 3 and their ol’ faithful World of Warcraft. WoW will get an expansion soon (Mists of Panderia), but as far as I can tell, there’s no huge buzz for it (apart from the usual fans). The Starcraft series doesn’t seem to be getting much love. I think the next thing on their schedule might be more expansion packs, or maybe a teaser of “Titan”.

On the other side of the tracks, there’s always hope that the indie scene might invigorate gaming. Kickstarter has certainly kicked the pants of many an industry analyst. Multi-million dollar projects have been funded. And now… the chirping of crickets. Projects like the Double Fine Adventure were funded so well and so enthusiastically that they won’t be allowed to fail. A lot of adventure games have seen a revival via Kickstarter, but no-one has mentioned any new approaches to the old issues that contributed to the adventure games’ demise all those years ago. Will we get a fresh look on an old genre (Telltale Games have been trying to), or just a trip down Nostalgia Lane?

Another interesting effect is everyone’s nascent games are jumping onto Kickstarter and hoping for similar funding successes. But the Kickstarter site (and model) doesn’t lend well to a rush on this market. They intentionally limit the exposure of projects on the site and expect everyone to do their own marketing. Which is fair enough, but means they have to add their voice to the already loud marketplace dominated by triple A publishers. Also in the background, people are warily anticipating the First Big No-Show – a game that raises a lot of money and then disappears into the ether, or delivers a massive dud. Crowd-funding is a great industry shake-up, but may find trouble with its own footing as well.

The big name indies – which is a bit of an oxymoron, I know – have been a bit quiet. The recent Humble Indie Bundle has done extraordinarily well, but not with anything that is particularly new to the public. Minecraft development has slowed to a crawl, despite a team dedicated to it. Notch himself is working very slowly on 0x10C which has won the hearts and minds of github people, but it appears it’ll be a long time before it hits the hands of gamers. Chris Hecker has been handing out paid beta access to SpyParty at a very slow trickle. Which is probably the smart thing to do to scale things up appropriately and hammer out bugs, but there’s only so long you can be on everyone’s “Most Anticipated” list before it goes a bit sour (Half Life Episode 3 anyone?)

And to almost come full circle, Jonathan Blow has been very public recently. He’s been very angry about E3, and shown a bit of disdain for the games industry and its stagnation, whilst banging the drum for games to be an artform, but people don’t seem to have a good grip on what he means by it. Meanwhile his The Witness has been progressing slowly and steadily, but for his sake, I hope it’s gonna blow our art socks off.

So what now? I’m hoping this is a gear-change, the industry preparing to drive into newish territory. Computing power is steadily increasing across the board. Trade shows like E3 are losing their appeal, and hence, their importance. There are more markets and platforms to try out more ideas on, and it’s becoming cheaper and more easy to try to get the funding to do so. Programming a game means you can make anything you want. Anything. Hopefully it’s just a matter of time until we escape this current drudgery of military shooters and soul-less free-to-play mechanics.