The State of Games

As I mentioned last week, late summer tends to be The Busy Season in long-lead media, since we’re working on our Christmas issues, which traditionally are larger. Ours contains our annual game awards and buyer’s guide. so I’ve been deep in the gaming world for a while now, looking at the whole range of mobile, video, and computer games and trying to find the little diamonds worth noting. This means that I face the same problem that any Catholic media critic faces: I’m exposed to a pretty steady stream of culture-rot. It doesn’t bother me, but it’s important to step back and look at just what’s being pumped into the culture by this important new medium.

Honestly, most of it isn’t that bad, as long as you look at things in context and understand that games are not just for kids. Once a game gets an M-Rating, it’s usually pretty safe to assume it has the same content as an R-rated movie, and usually a “hard” R, often well on its way to an NC-17. There is an “AO” (“Adults Only) rating beyond the M, but like the old X-rating, it’s never used because stores won’t carry the games. For more details, you can refer to my primers on understanding modern video games: “Videogames and the Family” and “Choosing the Rights Games For Your Kids.”

Not much has changed since I posted those a few months ago. There’s a tendency to push the content envelope, not always in a good way. This year, The Darkness II was one of the most obscene, excessive, and casually blasphemous things I’ve ever seen.  It was also brilliantly designed, well scripted, and even touching at moments. The Call of Duty series remains hugely popular among gamers both young old, but it’s become unnecessarily violent for a military shooter that was once teen-friendly. Games like Max Payne 3 show how extremely mature content can be handled in a creative way, but you just have to remember: not for kids. Parents need to get that through their heads. If you won’t sit your 14-year-old down in front of the latest Quentin Tarantino movie, then he shouldn’t be spending a whole lot of time on Modern Warfare 3.

In The Darkness II, you can kill enemies using a hell-spawned imp, who then urinates on his victims.

Parents need to keep in mind that this is a medium, just like TV and movies. It’s for everyone, with the same diversity of content. It’s the same as TV, which goes from Sesame Street to The Walking Dead, or film, which goes from Brave to Ingloureous Basterds.  The new generation of Gens-Ys and Millennials don’t see this as kids stuff. They were raised on games and often prefer them to television. TV, after all is, passive. Games are interactive.  (Except for Doctor Who, my teenage son doesn’t watch any TV at all: his entertainment is games.) Plus, the most popular games usually have a strong multiplayer element, meaning they’re social as well.

The creative aspect of gaming is still in it’s DW Griffith phase. We have yet to find our Orson Welles. But we will, and the format right now is populated by the same range of creative approaches that characterize movies: big studio projects for a mass audience, B-listers, small art house items, wholesome family entertainment, plucky independents, and weird and wonderful individual visions. It’s all out there, but like every other thing you let in your house, you need to be a discriminating consumer.

State of the Industry

Video and computer games are not in a happy place right now. Once thought to be recession-proof, the videogame industry has been rocked by plummeting sales over the past year. The numbers have been terrible since the beginning of the year, with sales off by about 25% from 2011. Compared to the same months in 2011, January 2012 saw a 37% drop, February: 24%, March: 26%, and so on, straight down the line.

When you add in aging hardware systems, aggressive competition from mobile platforms, a creativity deficit that’s causing developers to coast along on the successes of aging franchises, and a simple shortage of interesting titles, and you have bleak picture.

This will not be a permanent thing, but it’s pointless to blow sunshine at a point when the news is quite bleak. With the entire gaming landscape undergoing a radical shift into unknown territory, 2012 could best be characterizing as a lull between what was and what might be.

Here are some of the big issues of the last year.

Mobile

Apps are still going strong, and even gaining strength due to the ever-expanding installed base of mobile and tablet users. The big news has been the aggressive entry of big companies like EA into the microtransaction world of “free” mobile gaming, which is netting huge profits and causing a seismic shift in the way they do business.

Amazing Alex (iOS/Android) challenges you to solve increasingly complex puzzles by making Rube Goldberg devices

On the flipside, all of this seems to be accompanied by a bit of a creative lull from developers. Up until this year game-makers were hitting wildly innovative designs out of the park on a regular basis, with small, quirky, wonderful little games creating new forms of entertainment we’d never before imaged. Now mobile, too, has settled into a comfy niche of big franchises (Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Where’s the Water, Temple Run) and fremium games. We’re simply not seeing the same outpouring of creativity we did in the beginning, which is probably to be expected with a new format.

Mobile remains the most family-friendly platform for content, with very few games even rising to the equivalent of a “Teen” rating.  The most popular titles are puzzle-type games and social games. The puzzlers don’t have any content issues at all. As for the social game, just remember that it’s possible for kids to inadvertently connect to total strangers in some games. Most publishers limit the interactions so that no real problems arise, but it’s always a good idea to check out just what they’re doing. Draw Something is a cute little version of Pictionary, in which people draw clues to words. Unfortunately, some people (particularly in the PC version) must think every word can be guessed by drawing a giant penis. So … caveat emptor.

“Free” to Play

The mobile gaming world is thriving thanks to another new passion of the big publishers: free to play. Once thought to be the last stage in the life of online games no one wanted to pay for any more, free to play is being considered one possible savior of PC gaming. I covered this in more depth last week.

The Future of Consoles

All eyes are on Nintendo as they roll out their new Wii U, which we covered last month and which includes an innovative new tablet controller. Nintendo is getting most of the blame for the steep drop in game sales. Just like subprime mortgages and inflated real-estate prices created a housing bubble, so did the “Wii-effect” of drawing non-gamers into the gaming world create a “Wii bubble.” Wii scaled such heights that it had a longer way to fall, and when new and interesting titles started to slow, the resulting 50% sales drop dragged the entire industry down with it. Wii made a lot of new gamers, but they weren’t really in it for the long haul.

Nintendo’s new handheld also failed to build a strong US audience, proving that mobile handsets have permanently realigned the handheld gaming landscape, and not in Nintendo’s favor. Despite putting out a decent piece of hardware and some truly exceptional games, Nintendo just isn’t offering a compelling reason to own the 3DS.

Thus, everyone is holding their breath and waiting to see what the Wii U does. Can it repeat the success of the Wii? Since a rising tiding lifts all boats, the hope is that a Wii U success could kick off an industry-wide sales surge and set the stage for new consoles from Microsoft and Sony in the upcoming years. We should know by January.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • victor

    I’m not sure the Wii U will see it’s strongest sales this Christmas season, to be honest. As a Nintendo fanboy, I’m definitely pulling for the system but I think it’s going to take a few cycles for people to really “get” what it is (is it a peripheral for the existing Wii? Why do a need a tablet? Do I need to buy additional tablets?). I do expect that we’ll see some really amazing games on it, though, even by this Christmas: the new NintendoLand and WarioWare games for example.

    Since we don’t have a PS3 or Xbox and I can’t play games on a PC (it just doesn’t feel right), whenever I feel like I’m missing out by not playing the latest amazing talked-about game like “Spec Ops: The Line” (and I do love me some Bruce Boxleitner), I’ll go to Wikipedia and read the (often very detailed) plot summary for the game. Usually that’s enough to cure me of ever wanting to play it: “Really? You mean I *HAVE* to burn the civilians alive with white phosphorous? And this is considered fun?”

  • Harry

    Actually, reading about that game made me want to play it. The whole idea behind it is that all the bad things that happen in the game (the phosphorous incident is apparently unintentional), all the awful acts you commit, are your fault. Apparently at the end of the game you are told in no uncertain terms that if you had refused to go any further at the start of the game then you could have prevented everything that followed. That’s a very clever way of questioning the players drive to push through every level, killing every bad guy that pops up. Downright subversive, in fact- the player’s enjoyment of the violence in the game is questioned by the narrative. So the violence might actually be justified in that context.

  • Harry

    Could we please have more posts about games? For movies we’ve got Jeffrey Overstreet and Steven Greydanus, but for games we’ve got nothing apart from the occasional well meaning but misinformed parent.

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  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    I’ve done some here if you check the tags, and there’s more to come. I’m still, finding my pace for the blog. You can also find three years worth of my game coverage at National Catholic Register, and a few with Catholic News Service.

  • victor

    I was actually reading a pretty thoughtful article about that moment in Spec Ops (and the “No Russian” scene in MW2 — which I haven’t played) which kind of eviscerates (no pun intended) the civilian massacre moment in Spec Ops: basically, by removing any sort of choice from the player at that moment (for the sole shock value of the scene it seems), the game designer unintentionally undercuts what games are supposed to all be about (choice, automony, etc.).

    I do agree we need more Catholic Criticism of games. We also need more Catholic Critism of TV shows too, since that’s (not movies) where the real drama is these days. I was going to start a Catholic TV review site, but I just haven’t gotten around to it.

  • victor

    Autonomy, not automony. Another reason I don’t start that TV review sight. I can’t rite.

  • Ben Miltom

    A game that needs a great deal more attention and analysis is Dear Esther, by thechineseroom. Deeply beautiful, profound, and laced with theological undertones, and it’s intended to be played several times, as it subtly shifts each time, like a great novel or story. If you got chance to play it, Mr. McDonald, I’d love to hear your take on it.

  • Iris Celeste

    I have a game related question that is slightly on topic. I had been looking for a game for my 13 yr old nephew and after talking to parents with boys about the same age I got him Halo though I saw the M rating. He was very pleased with it, but his father has forbidden him from playing it. The people who recommended it said that out of that type of game, Halo is the least offensive and that they rather have their teen boys killing space aliens than people. They also told me that most teen age boys are playing it and my nephew has probably played it at a friend’s house. My question is, is my brother correct that my nephew should not play it or should I try to convince him to let the boy play it? Is it really that terrible? Does it have any redeeming qualities?

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Since you ask, I’ll do a post on it.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    I’m not sure which Halo it is, but most of them are on the low end of the “M” scale. It is, indeed, the least offensive. It’s not crude or cruel. It’s violent (that’s the point) but not graphic, and most violence is against aliens. Redeeming qualities? It’s good sci-fi: well told and artfully crated. Excellent music. But, really, it’s just about running around shootin’ stuff. And that’s okay.

    You should run all games through an ESRB search (www.esrb.com) and read the detailed descriptions, which don’t appear on the box. Here’s the description of Halo ODST, which is slightly more “gritty” than some of the others in the series: “This is a first-person shooter in which players engage in futuristic battles against invading aliens. Players use pistols, sniper rifles, machine guns, and rocket launchers to shoot and kill enemies during the constant and fast-paced battle. Firefights are highlighted by camera effects (e.g., blurring and screen shakes) and realistic sound effects, including screams of pain, gunfire, and explosions. Puffs of blood are emitted from injured aliens/humans, and blood is sometimes smeared on walls and on the ground. Some profanity (e.g., ‘bullsh*t,’ ‘a*shole,’ and ‘bastard’) can be heard in the dialogue and radio chatter.”

    If he wants to play online, he should turn off the chat functions. This is always the case.

  • robin

    I sympathize with you, Iris–as a grandmother, I am sometimes tempted to get my granddaughters gifts which their mom (my daughter) may or may not approve. Still, I think you’d be smarter to not cross your brother’s wishes over his son’s video games. If you talked to other parents, why didn’t you talk to your brother about prospective games? And now you’re looking for arguments to bolster the kid’s defiance? This is good for nobody. Return the game and get your nephew something that his dad doesn’t have a problem with.


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