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Gaming is Dead

There is something very wrong with gaming these days. The most downloaded free titles in mobile games cost some people hundreds of dollars. The best selling franchise triple-A titles are literally last years release with a few new guns, new maps, some spit-shine and a new title. No, really, the upcoming Call of Duty game comes with a re-mastered version of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. And most offensive of all, games are just plain getting worse, while profits for companies making these games are at record highs.

Now, I'll be the first to say it: there are more important things in life than games. Maybe I shouldn't be figuring out how to move my troops to objective Bravo without losing a whole platoon at once, maybe I should be painting a song or writing a portrait, but I don't care. Games are important to me. Games have allowed me to train myself in the art of vicarious problem abstraction and lateral thinking. The truth is that games are never going to be on top of a list of world problems, but games are important.

Mobile Games are a Joke

If I told you I built an Enterprise Resource Planning system where all you do is point and click where you want a building to go and BAM! workers are notified immediately and lawyers get to work making the legal side happen, and your new job is to sit back and wait as the magic of my software provides you a brand new expansion of your enterprise in 72 hours, you'd be surprised. You might think I'm crazy, but I'd have your interest.

Sadly, such a magical ERP does not exist in real life. That example is pretty much the central mechanic of the mobile game Clash of Clans. That's it. Click a thing. Workers start working. Wait 72 hours. I honestly wish that was a joke.

Sit and wait isn't a great mechanic. If the player is waiting, it should be short, strategically paced times to engage the player in fast decision making. Do I need to build a second bunker now, or can I wait 15 second until I have more marines for it? Am I going for a early air-superiority build, or should I double down on barracks?

And the game's designers know this a crappy mechanic. They have gone as far as to provide you a push-button mechanism to skip the waiting. All you have to do is start forking over real dollars for a free game. So, quick recap: a thoroughly annoying, game turd-ifying mechanic is added on purpose, simply to separate you from your hard earned dollars / pounds / euros / whatever.

Games Should not be Annoying on Purpose to Sell You Upgrades

I'm gonna use an analogy here that some people may find irrelevant, but I think is perfectly applicable: If you found yourself playing in an old-school arcade, maybe at a place like Denver's 1-UP, and you thought the game was fixed against you to get every single quarter it could squeeze out of you, you'd be angry. Some of you would simply stop and enjoy your night elsewhere, others would demand your money back, but the bottom line is that you wouldn't stand for it.

Freemium Breaks the Market.

Normally, a company offers a product, at some pre-defined price point, and consumers decide whether or not that product is worth that price. When you say you're giving it away, that eliminates this decision all together. Here's an interesting thought: you can watch people refuse cheap seafood at a fast-food place, simply because they're not sure of the source of the shrimp, or the freshness, or the quality. But if you stand in a supermarket with a little table and the same shrimp, giving them away, people sill come around for seconds and thirds, because free shrimp is the best flavor of shrimp.

And there's no secret; they aren't trying to sell you shrimp. They want you to take the shrimp with a small taste of cocktail sauce, so that they can sell you a bunch of overpriced cocktail sauce to go with all the free shrimp they are going to give you. Since the cost of the free thing is hidden in the upgrades, it's impossible for consumers to make a judgement call on how much the product is actually worth.

Now, I'm not going to spout the "Free means Free" rhetoric or anything like that. Frankly, if I find a free game I really enjoy, and I think it's great and worth some of my money, I will figure out a way to give the developer what I think it's worth. I've forked over $20 on free games before, because I decided that's what I was willing to pay for that game. Never on a mobile game, to date, but I think that's for a pretty obvious reason.

Mobile Games are Pretty Barebones.

Without getting into the technical problems of the mobile platform, there's pretty obvious reasons why WatchDogs didn't launch on iPad. The majority of mobile games are casual puzzle solving or light adventured games, which are maybe taking advantage of touchscreens, but could otherwise been right at home on GameBoy. Some of the better mobile games take advantage of the real money features of mobile: location-aware content, immediate user access since the device is always with the user, and the pervasiveness of the devices themselves.

Looking at the current generation catalog of mobile games, it's pretty clear why most of them use the freemium model: You couldn't get $5 for these games any other way. A lot of people tell us that mobile is the future of gaming, but I can't see how that's true when the last big deal game most people can remember is "Flappy Bird".

The Future of Mobile Games is Actually Retro Games.

Retro games provide a nostalgia fix, and frankly, they are usually perfect for what mobile gaming can support. Lots of gaming companies that produced some of the biggest Triple-A titles ever (Square-Enix for example) are now re-publishing those same games for mobile devices. If mobile devices ever catch up to consoles on a technical level, you can bet the new phones that year will ship with whatever god-awful regurgitation of Call of Duty just launched, but in the mean time, the best things you'll find on mobile are not free and cost almost as much as they did when they launched on GBA, PS Vita, or in some cases, GameGear.

So, for now there's nothing new happening in mobile games, and there won't be for quite a while. That probably won't matter anyway because there's not much happening in console games either.

If Games Won Awards for Recycling, Triple-As Would Win Gold

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare launched on November 3rd, 2014. Before the official launch, as is customary, the game was made available to a select few to review and write about so they could extoll the excellence of Activision's newest puppy. During this period of time, some enterprising xbox players figure out how to automatically boost themselves to maximum prestige and enhance their HUD to see players around corners and through walls. In short: Advanced Warfare was hacked before it officially launched.

Now, you could tell people that hackers are getting better and that hacking is inevitable. I could believe that, it's a fact. Unfortunately, that's not what happened here. The fact is that CoD: Modern Warfare 3 had come out long before Advanced Warfare and had been hacked the same way, literally. Advanced Warfare shared so much of Modern Warfare 3's code that hackers were able to deploy the same hacks against this brand-new unreleased game.

I work in software. Recycling on that level happens, but when someone hacks your software, you patch it, and you make sure that no-one uses the broken version. You walk to desks, send emails, and make phones calls until the total number of people running the compromised version is zero. You DO NOT allow development to continue, or a product launch to happen on top of that same terrible code.

That's a specific example of recycling, but it's absolutely rampant in the games industry. Recycling, as a problem, is rivaled only by plagiarism. How many different games are, at their core, Terraria, or Minecraft? Why is my Steam Queue filled with 50 different versions of "punch trees, make pick-axe, build world around you"? Don't get me wrong, Minecraft is and always has been a great game, and was a relatively original mechanic when it first launched. I say relatively, because Minecraft is effectively Legos without the mess and clutter, and stepping on pointy plastic pieces. Even I am pretty guilty of this one. The very first game I put into the public was Minesweeper, re-hashed with 3D rendering and gameplay.

To some people, the conventional wisdom of "nothing new under the sun" applies here, and I can't help bug agree. Still, there are simply so many things that could be done, I can't help but wonder why nobody is trying them.

Games are a Business

In fact, games have never NOT been a business. I can't fault a business for wanting to self-preserve and continue existing, for wanting to continue to provide jobs for people who work hard and are passionate about what they create, or even for wanting to increase their profits. That's free-market capitalism and I applaud the efforts of these companies in their success.

Where I take exception is being charged full-price for a game that offers no real value over last years edition. These blatantly copy-pasted games retailing for $60 feel like an affront to my sensibilities as a consumer. The reason this works is because the major focus of these games is no longer on the single-player experience, and has instead shifted to "social gaming". Nobody has to buy the new Call of Duty game, unless they want to play with their friends. No-one has to buy membership for Planetside 2 unless they want to be able to keep up with the other members in terms of level and ability.

In an effort to improve business, game publishers have effectively resorted to the same tactics employed by the fashion industry. You need to buy the new game to keep up with all your friends, even though you know, and they don't care, that this game has been produced with as little expense as possible to push profit margins. You need to spend money on that free game just to have something to show off, to acquire the status symbols associated with being "a good player".

In other words, they are helping you turn your gaming experience into an extension of your Facebook profile.

Games and Gambling are the Same

Nintendo started as a company that made playing cards. Sega made slot machines. The majority of lucrative games (software-based or otherwise) are not found in a living room: they're found on a casino floor. Now, I'm not about to stand on a soap box and claim that gambling is bad, and that it ruins lives, or breaks up families. I gamble, and I view it just like any other source of entertainment. The truth is that gambling can cause very real problems for some people because of how gambling works psychologically.

In fact, all games can cause very real problems for some people for the same reasons. Psychologically, games provide us with a short-cycle feedback loop of positive reinforcement. That's psychology speak for "games reward being good at the game". Now, there's nothing wrong with that. Positive reinforcement is a great way to train a dog, raise kids, or teach a machine to play Go. Reinforcement as a training concept is simply "how it's done". The problem comes from the length of the cycle, and which behaviors are rewarded.

In gambling, the reward comes from random chance1. The behavior never changes, but whether or not you are rewarded for that behavior is up to chance2. All you have to do is sit there and fork over your dollars, and eventually, you'll be rewarded.

If you examine the reward cycles of freemium games, you'll notice that they start by rewarding you simply for playing, then slowly start to take those rewards away, until they only reward you for buying. Also, the reward cycle is gradually slowed to trick you into thinking you are getting worse at the game, while your skill has most likely improved. The game has simply stopped giving you rewards as often. In effect, freemium games more actively reward being bad at the game.

This sort of "intermittent reinforcement" could be considered psychological abuse on a micro scale. For people susceptible to addiction problems, this can be extremely detrimental.

All games employ the reward cycle. This is what keeps games "fun". Without it, games become boring and stagnant. MMO developers employ staff specifically to measure and tweak the reward cycle constantly, simply to keep gamers engaged when they are tasked with retrieving 15 bear pelts for the 100th time. If you instead tweak the reward cycle to only reward buying, or simply staying in the game, you've taken away any real reason to play, and replaced it with a small dopamine drip.

As an aside, I've recently started to see games use negative reinforcement as a mechanic. This is both interesting as a concept, and terrifying as a form of entertainment. Play Darkest Dungeon, you'll see what I mean.

How All of this is Ruining Gaming

Put simply, the current state of the industry is making gaming less fun for most people, and simply making it more difficult to make quality games. With an industry so completely focused on turning a buck, ground-breaking, original games get less attention, and less opportunity to be made. Simultaneously, this has given rise to the indie game industry, which is bringing us better games, and sometimes at equal quality. Here's the rub: there'll never be an indie MMO, simply because MMOs run on flaming dump trucks full of cash. Indie games inherently have a smaller scale, simply because indie developers cannot afford high-burn game development like big studios can. Invariably, this leads to less-expensive, but perceivably less rich experiences. In other words, indie games tend to be $20 games that feel like they are worth $10. Again, not to slight any developers out there, I know you work hard on your games.

The very real issue here is that all the money it takes to develop large-scale, well-polished games is being diverted in to re-hashed effluvia, while, at the same time, the creativity and passion for new experiences it takes to make something truly revolutionary has no money to back it, and is often lost in the execution. This single dichotomy is where the real damage is being done.

If we could simply get Call of Duty scale money to back a game that brings a truly new experience to the table, we'd be going back to the glory days, where only the fun and original games made an impact. In an industry run purely on hype machines and ad buys, having the cash to create a presence in people's information space is really the only way to get a slice of the pie.

[1]: In a "fair game" in a casino, the odds for any specific wager or combination of wagers are ALWAYS to the house's advantage. Most of the time, this might be fractions of a percent of difference, but this adds up to the house always taking your money over time. For "crooked games", you're obviously not going to win.

[2]: To be clear, Poker is considered by most people to be a game of skill. While this is true when you play against other people, your hand is still chance-based, so the skill only comes into play when chance determines you have a hand worth playing.

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