Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Signs and Omens

The games industry is going through some very big changes at the moment. I think things will be quite different in a couple of years and my evidence for this is kind of diverse and unrelated. It's almost the kind of nonsense that Dirk Gently talks about in those lovely books by Douglas Adams.

The first is the plight of Game. A chain-store selling the general public games. It's little more than a collection of shelves and a till. I'd always hoped that they'd have the sense to see what was coming as the Virgin Megastores, Zavvi's and HMV's struggled with the ditital distribution of music. Surely they knew that games were just another digital format and that they too needed a strategy to keep trading.
To be fair they did have a strategy, second hand games, exclusive content and ridiculous collector editions. Short term, short sighted ways to drain cash out of the industry and feast on the nerdy cash reserves of Mr. Gamer. What they should have done was provide better service, sell games more competitively, act as a friendly face of gaming offering enthusiastic advice and solid technical knowhow. Still that lesson has long since been ignored and soon games will have lost their most visible high street presence. I'm not sure it matters too much for the games industry. If there's business there then someone will fill that void. Just remember all the stores that appeared to fill the void that Woolworths left behind. Hey, maybe even some of the indy game stores might make a healthy return and provide the kind of service we've been missing for so many years?
But the overall lesson here is that it's hard to run a business selling big console games to console gamers. The frightening thing about that is that those gamers are an easy sell, when it comes to COD or Battlefield, Halo or FIFA. But that business can't sustain a chainstore. That's not a good sign for the console industry is it?

Now I'm going to talk about Peter Molyneaux. Lots has been said about this man, and I'm no expert. For the sake of my argument I'm going to focus on a potted history (that conveniently supports my arguements). Peter was instrumental in creating the God game genre. Not many people are genre creators. Peter build an innovative company and worked on home computers, finally settling with the PC as the sturdiest of platforms. At Bullfrogs peak the PC was the most powerful gaming platform, it was nimble and upgradable and simply attracted those designers who wanted to innovate and create. Then the cycle of hardware shortened to a fightening degree. It got tougher and tougher to keep up. And along side this, the console manufacturers had gotten their acto together. They were appealing to a wider audience, they offered stability in terms of a development environment, and they were so copetitive that they crammed high spec components in their boxes and shipped them out at a fraction of the cost of a good PC. About this time Peter left Bullfrog and started Lionhead with some fresh ideas and interesting projects. The PC side gradually faded out and Lionhead threw in with the new kid. It's been a good time but something has come to disrupt the endless cycle of console generations succeeding each other like feudal kings. Suddenly gaming has gone truly mainstream. Smartphones are powerful, convenient, easy to use and your Mum, Dad, little sister and cousins are playing and sometimes buying games. The change is as fundemental as the rise of console gaming and Peter has left Lionhead and started at a new company 22cans. You may doubt my analysis but you'd be foolish to doubt Peters intuition on these things.

I'm now going to briefly talk about Playstation Vita. I think this an important console, not because of it's lovely tech and it's gaming pedigree, but because of the general attitude towards it. Vita is a classic console sequel. It's bigger, it's more powerful, it's higher resolution, it's got a couple of quirky new features. It's everything you'd do if you knew your audience and you'd like them to upgrade. But something has changed. I'm not aware of the excitement. I do know 3 people that have bought them. And as far as consoles go, the lineup of launch software was varied and generally good quality even if there wasn't really a 'killer app'. So it's followed the classic new console formula to the letter. Ticked all the boxes and failed to fly off the shelves. I think the reason for that is the markets changed. Just as we all grew sick and tired of Big Brother to the point is actually went off air for a bit, it feels to me as if all the young gamers are bored of the console cycle. It's not cool and dangerous any-more. It's not about nightcubs, rebellious new media and violent games, it's become the establishment. The big news stories are about your email address being stolen, and signing into your account to download the license that let you play the game you bought. It's not not jumping into a car late at night and finding adventure it's more about queueing for tickets and finding that if something is fun you probably need to pay a bit extra for it.
Sometime in the next couple of years new consoles will be announced and will launch. I thin the Vita experience might just be the first symptom of a wider disease and what we will actually see is the last generation of home consoles.

Now how about some Raspberry Pi? Designed to bring home computing back home, to encourage a new generation to create and explore and take part in the world of games. An affordable dev kit to empower enthusiasts. To me this marks another sense of dissatisfaction with the current platforms and what they offer. It's trying to return gaming to creative rather than corporate people. It seems like agreat idea but it is disruptive and powerful. It's like all those books written by monks and locked away in monastries then suddenly the printing press is invented and normal people have access to literature. I might be overstating that a little but I hope you can see the similarities.

Big black boxes under your TV are an old mans vision of the future. What people want is something lighter, something with more promise. Despite the recession, people want to run towards the future not stick with something traditional and dogged. The best news is that there will be more games than ever before and more people making games. I'm sure the big games will stick around for quite some time but they will become a specialist niche rather than the dominant force. The new way of doing things will doubtless have it's own problems. I think there are enough warnings in the wind for the console manufacturers to adapt. I don't expect that they will, but there is still a chance for them to stay in the running. And if they don't then that might just leave enough of a gap for something new and exciting to fill the space, something like the next Raspberry Pi or a virtual platform like OnLive?

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