Too many games

March 7, 2011 // Published by Matthew Blackwell

One of the headline-grabbing quotes from the Game Developers' Conference this past week was Cliff Bleszinski's assertion that there is no longer a middle ground between bite-sized gaming experiences that one could find on a smart phone and "AAA," big-budget games that get released on the HD consoles. While this underlines the consistent and complete forgetfulness of Nintendo (who have essentially staked their claim on exactly the kind of game that Bleszinski has claimed is dead, and have come out on top of this gaming generation because of it), it also speaks to a more universal problem: the games industry simply puts out too many games.

Allow me to be selfish for a moment: I like to think I have a life. I spend a lot of time with friends, I have a full-time job as a high school English teacher, I enjoy many other types of entertainment outside of video games (in fact, in all honesty I probably enjoy films and especially TV shows nowadays far more than I enjoy a lot of video games that I play), I try to keep up with politics, I'm working on getting my bachelor of Arts, I have a girlfriend, an apartment to pay for, I do the website for the student newspaper, I write reviews for them as well, and on top of that, sometimes I just want to relax or take a nap.

I'm also committed to trying to discuss video games in a coherent way, and to play everything worth playing (or at least worth discussing) within a relatively short time frame after they get released. So having at least one massive game to play every week isn't really feasible. I'd love to be able to plow through Pokemon Black and White in a week, but that's not going to happen – especially when there's a backlog of games that I still haven't even touched and have had for weeks or months.

Games often have the narrative length and structure of television shows, but the release schedule of films. That's obviously an unhealthy marketplace that's been created. People aren't able to delve into these worlds and investigate them to the degree that they deserve, and if they are, then some other aspect of their lives are suffering as a result. If I'm going to be playing Skyrim later this year, it's going to mean putting my life on hold as well as every other game I own. And while I'm sure that Skyrim will reward that kind of commitment, I'm not sure that all games do.

That's perhaps the biggest fallacy with Bleszinski's argument, especially as it pertains to actual advice for other developers. He's basically calling out for every AAA release to be massive and all-encompassing, an experience that the gamer "marries" to. This maybe offers some semblance of value, but I've certainly had much more meaningful experiences with NES games that could be beaten in less than two hours than I have with most HD games that I've played thus far. Offering a concise experience that you can come back to again and again is looking much more desirable to me nowadays.

That's perhaps why I've spent far more time with Wii Sports Resort than I care to admit, or why I'm now on my second playthrough of Super Mario Galaxy 2. These are games that understand that not everything has to be a sweeping, grand world with limitless playtimes. Having experiences that actually have some consideration for the player's time should be what developers are looking to do, even if it means segmenting the gameplay or offering more freedom to save when the player needs to (that's ultimately what made games like Fallout: New Vegas approachable for me, even if it does allow you to "spam" the system).

Ultimately, though, there really are too many games. Gamers in the 80s and to a lesser extent the 90s were forced to buy maybe only a couple of games a year, mostly due to prohibitive cost, but also because the release of a new, important game was an actual event, not a continually marketed, never-ending "summer season" of video games. Developers too need time to refuel and to reconsider their intellectual properties, and the cycle of gaming development – as well as the aversion to risk and focus on the bottom line – has engendered a culture where if the games industry isn't growing, it's dying. That's the reality of the kind of ultracapitalism we deal with on an everyday basis, but it's sad to see it have such a dire effect on one of the things I love the most.

And from a retail perspective, this kind of release schedule is poisonous. People have no idea how to find the games that they should be playing, retail space is completely dominated by new releases and by marketing dollars, and even major games from only a few months earlier are nowhere to be found. That's not the case with Regina's independent game store, but walk into any EB Games, WalMart or Future Shop and see for yourself.

You might be saying that I'm contradicting myself here by saying that there are too many games and most people have no way to play them all, while simultaneously saying that most games that get released aren't really worth playing in the first place. That's true, to an extent. The problem is that the culture surrounding video games seems to decree that there are always games that people should be playing. I can't think of a single week of releases where I remember outlets universally agreeing that, yeah, maybe you should take a break this week. We're always having new games pushed on us as being worthwhile, and especially from my point of view, it's really important to break that concept, which naturally entails playing a lot of games.

I just want to bury my head in the sand and say that I'm taking a break from new releases, but I know that's not going to be possible. Ultimately, there are a lot of good games to look forward to as well, and my innate curiosity would make me regret missing out on something important. But I'm here to say to you, gamer, as well as you, fellow blogger, that it's OK to go a week without buying or playing a new game. Heck, if you buy like five games in a year that's fine too. Consumption is almost never its own reward.