We’re a couple of days away from this year’s E3, when the Captains of the Video Game Industry will issue forth with the usual ridiculous spectacle as the suits take the stage to tell us what we can expect in the coming year. Of course, the 2013 edition of E3 is different than the last eight because we’re going to be told more completely (?) what the “next generation” of console gaming is going to look like. Speaking as someone who has literally played video games for my entire life, for over 30 years- I could not give two flying, flipping f#$ks and a deep-bowel s&%t about what Don Mattrick or any of the other used car salesmen they’ll trot out on stage have to say.
Here’s why. I can already see based on the limited, willfully evasive and incomplete information from Sony and Microsoft what “next generation” is going to mean, and it alternately alienates and disgusts me. Sony has put a “games and gamers” first message out there, but already it appears that social connectivity and more-of-the-same are what they’re bringing to the table. Microsoft has apparently seen the writing on the wall that video games are no longer profitable and are instead casting their lot to claim some of the big advertising dollars that things like NFL content and cable TV partnerships will bring. Oh, and they’re also offering more-of-the-same- more Call of Duty, more Forza, more braindead and heartless AAA action-blockbusters like whatever that Irwin Allen by way of Michael Bay disaster game was supposed to be.
Beyond what appears to be a very slight uptick in graphics quality and all of this pie-in-the-sky talk about cloud computing rendering better lighting or whatever (more evidence that money is being spent in the wrong directions), it appears that the “next generation” is more about restricting how we play video games than it is about opening up new ways or new concepts to do so. With Microsoft’s reveal in particular, it seems that there is a “no” attached to almost everything. No backwards compatibility, no used games without undisclosed parameters, no ability to play completely offline, no old headsets or peripherals, no using the console without the always on and always vigilant Kinect waiting to reward you for bringing a Mountain Dew can or a Pizza Hut pizza into the room.
Everything new that you CAN do has nothing to do with games. There is all of this silly integration- with your phone, your TV, your ISP, your toaster oven. It’s almost like the Xbox One is a device designed to alleviate white whine and first-world problems- “I don’t want to have to use a remote control”, “I don’t want more than one cable coming out of my TV”. “I want a game console that also lets me have Skype calls so I don’t have to get my $500 iPhone out of my pocket”. I miss the days of buying a Nintendo Gamecube or a Sega Genesis and it did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING other than play games. It, and other consoles from previous generations, were purpose-built unitaskers that were not searching desperately for alternative revenue sources. Because they had a self-limited, contained, and realistic sense of SCOPE. They weren’t trying to “take over the living room”. Fuck you if you want to “take over my living room”. Just sell me a god damned video game machine, alright?
But the next generation isn’t about bettering video games or the video games medium. It’s about money. Since the last round of console releases, games suddenly became gigantic business- but they’ve also topped out, plateaued, and are in a precipice state where the entire industry could collapse under the weight of exaggerated expectations and unrealistic promises. That means that the coming generation is very much going to be more about finding new revenue sources to keep these juggernaut AAA franchises and astronomical console development budgets afloat- and to keep suits in jobs while appeasing the stakeholders and shareholders. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that we’ll see anything as quantum as Mario 64 or the first round of Playstation games that brought fully 3D polygon rendering to consoles. It’s going to be more of the same, but better monetized and offered to you as a service so that you can keep paying for it over time.
The groundwork for this is already laid. You put a brick down when you bought the horse armor or gave money to Valve for hats. You mortared it when you bought games on Steam that you will never actually own and can never resell, that gave the corporations reasonable understanding of your complicity to take away your right to sell that copy of Assassin’s Creed 4. When you bought map packs, skin packs, and preordered bonus DLC garbage- you told them this was all OK with you. And in the next generation, it’s going to get a whole lot worse as these hucksters scramble to make money in a business where single-purchase $60 games are not sustainable but development budgets continue to rise- all to meet some bullshit expectation that games should be more like movies.
I don’t want any of it. I don’t want umpteen refinements to the Xbox controller so that I can better control Call of Duty dog or adjust the wind blowing in Captain Price’s armhairs. Nor do I want a button to “share” videos. And for fuck’s sake, I don’t want to talk to the game console or wave ANYTHING in front of it. Any all TV functions can rot in hell, I don’t really watch TV. You’ve heard all of this before from countless others if you’ve read any video game forum or Web site in the past couple of weeks. It’s not a chorus, it’s the roar of a crowd that may actually be willing to stand up and say “no” to these sleazy hucksters that will grin and tell you that they’re selling you a “service” that they’ve created out of things that used to be free.
All is not without hope. The indie movement is in full flower, and Sony at least has made overtures to that world. I can’t stand Jonathan Blow, but that was quite a significant message that was sent by having him at the PS4 reveal. Nintendo has rolled out the welcome mat to indie developers, and aside from that they actually have wound up in an advantageous position to their competitors. They’re the only one of the big three that have come forward with a device that is clearly a video game TOY first and foremost and it offers some innovative and possibly groundbreaking features- if the damn thing would sell enough to make a case for itself to developers that could make the most out of it.
I think I’m in the same position as a lot of you reading this- I suddenly feel outside of video games, that I’m not the audience that these companies are courting anymore. But the irony is that I’m more interested in video games as a medium than ever before. Last night I took a look at The Swapper and Gunpoint, and both games seem tremendously promising, compelling, and fresh. Not to mention time spent with Monaco and Reus. None of these are AAA blockbusters, none of these are games that are designed to appeal to the broadest number of players. None of these depend on sales of nonsensical add-ons to be successful. These games feel rebellious and marginal, and I think that’s where I am with this next generation of video game consoles.
So I think that’s what I feel like “next generation” is going to be for me- a period of rebellion and gaming outside the bounds proscribed by the corporations that control this business and seek to change your behavior, your mentality, and your way of gaming to suit their financial needs. I may wind up buying a PS4, if the smaller, more independently-minded software is there as promised. No way in hell am I buying an Xbox One, I want neither a nattering nanny telling me “no” constantly nor a glorified cable box that’s trying to dominate my living room. I’m keeping the Wii U I bought on launch day even though it’s languishing- I believe there is real promise there, and we all know that Nintendo will release some top quality first party video games since that’s their priority over NFL programming and Skype. When we see what happens at E3, I have a feeling that more of you are going to have your battle lines drawn for this imminent next generation.