I’m not a gamer. Well, I’m in to gaming, but not in the sense of those who obsessively invest a lot of time and money in consoles and games and unlocking every last gold coin, hidden mission and easter egg*.
The good old days?
As kids we had Amstrads, and then growing up had a number of consoles – we were a Nintendo family initially so had a NES (first sight of Duck Hunt!), SNES then N64, although usually way behind the curve.
I still remember being around the age of 14 – that Christmas I was getting the SNES edition bundled with StreetFighter 2. We bought it early in December and I knew where my mum had hidden it, so at any opportunity I would just look at it – not actually open it or play it – but just look at it. The excitement was unbearable and time seemed to stand gruellingly still as we eeked ever close to the big day – but when I finally got my hands on it on Christmas morning, I was like the proverbial pig in muck.
Towards the mid-90s, when there was a genuinely interesting battle between AMD and Intel for processing power, and the likes of nvidia were just getting to grips with what they could do with graphics cards, we had various PCs – we’re talking Pentium I style – but back then it was a viable gaming platform. The original top-down 2D Grand Theft Auto was a revelation.
Later, as I started to have money (and as a University student, more free time), I moved in to the Sony Playstation ecosphere with a PS2, PS3 and most recently a PS4.
Like most people, I still love a bit of Mario Kart. Every Playstation I’ve bought was for pretty much for the sole purpose of getting the latest Grand Theft Auto – and usually after I’ve lost interest in that, the console gets sold.
We still have a Wii, but that’s probably now a genuine fire risk if we did try and start it up given how much dust it must have gathered.
Who are today’s gamers?
A few years ago I was feeling nostalgic, found a copy of OpenEMU for my iMac, spent some time figuring out to configure a Wii control to act as a bluetooth game controller, and enjoyed a few hours of Final Fight and Streets Of Rage. More recently, I built a Raspberry Pi based RetroPie and enjoyed a few more hours of Final Fight and Streets Of Rage. That has, of course, long since started gathering dust.
Whenever I find myself playing some sort of game, I typically feel guilty that I’ve probably got something better to do with my time, unless it’s something I can fire up and play for a few minutes a few times a day whilst ‘engaged.’ The original Stick Cricket still ticks the boxes in this regard, despite being years old. But this probably borne out of a feeling of not getting value out of it – i.e. value out of the time I spend playing.
So it may very well be that I am not the target audience for games developers. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that the advent of the smartphone/tablet devices and their corresponding app stores, coupled with the advancement in accessible games development platforms such as Unity and Unreal, have made the potential to develop games to a hugely expanded audience – and thus build profitable businesses.
The success of games like Angry Birds, Candy Crush are well known – but even the ‘indie’ hits of Crossy Road, Flappy Bird, Doodlejump and so on, are unprecedented. From bedroom coders to full scale development houses, a great – or even just ‘new’ idea can achieve overnight success with (relatively) limited investment.
That’s not to say that effort and money isn’t required, and the bigger game houses surely invest huge sums in to games, but by no longer being constrained to well established platforms (a la Nintendo, Xbox, Playstation, etc.) the opportunity for success is greater than it has ever been since it unlocks access to the more general purpose gamer. The casual gamers.
The new era of gaming
So it may very well be that I actually am the target audience of this new age of gaming.
Moreover, I am now in the ‘moderately affluent’ bracket – such that if something delivers value to me, I don’t mind paying for it.
However, we appear to have entered a new era, where the monetisation of the games has taken over. With console gaming, you’d spend your money on the console (and usually not insignificant sums) and the game and maybe a few accessories but, generally speaking, once you’d paid your money, that was it for the expense and you could immerse yourself in the game with little in the way of interruption.
The act of sitting down in front of your console and television made gaming an event. This new era of gaming is pointed more towards the instant gratification – a quick hit of some sort – 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there… with the games developers hoping those short bursts build up over time. Leaderboards, game centres and social features add the competition angle… even the likes of Words With Friends is a great way of building repeat users.
In the early years of this new era, there was some major success – due mostly to the novelty of the games – but also in the fact that new approaches were being explored. A great example perhaps is Line Rider – an unbelievably simple, yet rewarding game – that did phenomenally well.
At the time, games were mostly very cheap and un-monetised, In the early days, few people would give much thought to forking out 79p on a game; and on the odd occasion the games were monetised, with rudimentary ad programs**, you didn’t mind suffering a few ads – as generally speaking, the monetisation was largely superfluous to playing some exciting new game.
Nowadays, whilst app prices may have increased they still remain low – still around the £1 mark which is cheap relative to a cup of coffee. But there is a new reluctance to pay for games. Most likely due to the massive growth – and thus abundance – of games available on the app stores. When there are thousands of games competing for position, those that actually cost money will be the first to lose out.
Thus, it is now common practice to release games – and hugely engineered games – for free, and relying on either ads or in-app purchases or ‘lite’ editions which you need to pay to unlock the full game – to generate revenue. Some games charge a premium and still achieve success – such as The Room – a beautifully engineered ‘escape-style’ puzzler well worth £3.99 even if the later ones have become too formulaic – but the success of these are relatively few and far between.
Where has it gone?
Which leads me to the ultimate subject of this diatribe – this new format of ‘pay-or-wait-to-play’ games.
I was recently on holiday which afforded me a few small luxuries such as a little time to expend on games. I did what I usually do pre-holiday – sat in the queue for the boat, I directed my iPad towards the iOS app store for a run-through of the top-rated charts of free games. I’ve got relatively non-specific tastes, but tend to opt for puzzle games or those that pique my interest in terms of the theme.
I stumbled upon Criminal Case – free to download, solve some cases – it sounded like good honest fun and I decided to give it a go. Upon initial look, I thought I’d uncovered a gem (it was only later that I discovered that I was by no means the first to find it!) and as I played more, the level of investment that must have gone in to it became hugely apparent. This was no small game. The premise is simple – you’re a detective, and you solve ‘cases’ by searching crime scenes, interrogating witnesses and joining up clues to ultimately make an arrest. It’s very playable… to begin with.
There are ultimately only a handful of types of challenge – review a scene and look for objects, spot the difference, unjumble a scene to find items, etc. – so it does become repetitive very quickly. You are guided through every challenge and essentially become a dumb servant – required only for your finger and ability to tap semi-structuredly around the screen. Nevertheless, the gameplay is reasonably fun, the various story lines, whilst in places hugely stereotypical or massively far-fetched, are sufficiently engaging to hold your attention. The more you play, the more you want to complete the mission, and the game developers have done their job of pulling you in.
For the first few days of my holiday I was hooked – at any available free moment I was playing it… kids are asleep? Play the game. Wife gone to bed? Stay up an extra hour and play the game. Awake early? Play the game.
However, you quickly reach the ‘play-wall’ – that is, you have run out of ‘energy’ to enable you to keep playing and you must either wait – or pay – to continue. Refill your energy? 6 hours or 99p. Wait for the ‘lab’ to return your results? 10 minutes to 3 hours.. or 99p.
And the further through a challenge you get, the more points you must acquire, by laboriously replaying every scene so as to get enough stars to complete specific parts of the game, so as to be able to continue.
You quickly determine which challenges give you the highest return on your investment of (time) and develop a strategy. Despite the fact that you can get around most of the ‘wait-walls’ – your energy refills over time so as with most games of this nature by fiddling the time settings on your device and e.g., flipping the date/time forward a day you can get back in the game immediately (thus avoiding the fee the developers desperately want you to pay) – it soon becomes incredibly tiresome.
Every single milestone of each plot requires a star – and the only way to achieve a star was to score points. And to score enough points to achieve a star, meant replaying a level multiple times. Even after you have completed a level you must yet acquire a further two stars just to unlock the next level.
And all this is before the incessant bids for my cash at every available juncture – do you want to buy new clothes for your character? Buy this scrap book to plot your achievements? Pay to accelerate this feature? Review your unlocked achievements? Recommend this to all your Facebook friends in return for some value-less booster? You only reached bronze on this level – play it again to reach Gold – and if you unlock Gold on every level you reach some new Zen master status?
Ironically, the only thing you couldn’t buy was stars – probably the only thing I would have conceivably considered paying for.
Since I wasn’t prepared to jailbreak my iPad to install a patch to unlock a treasure trove of infinite stars, I resigned myself to just playing the game; my interest all the while waining.
I’ve not done the maths, but were you to actually pay up for all the various purchases on offer, you could easily spend £200-£300 at a guess, against the average price of £40-£50 for a console game.
Where it went wrong
Each level in Criminal Case was probably in the order of 6 hours’ total effort to complete, where elapsed effort may be at least 24 hours, even with the time fiddling shenanigans. Initially I thought for a handful of levels this would be OK – by the end of my holiday week’s holiday I would have probably completed it – but one day I absent-mindedly zoomed out the map – and discovered the *50* odd levels that awaited me.
For a casual gamer like me, investing 20-30 days in this game was nonsensical. At which realisation, the game was simply abandoned; I was never going to complete it, so why bother continuing? It wasn’t that good. I’ve long since returned from holiday and not given the game a second thought. It will most likely sit on the iPad for a while until ultimately it gets deleted during the bi-annual purge of dusty apps taking up valuable disk space.
The developers have gained entirely zero money out of me – but I blame them (and the wider industry) for this. They’ve gone too far with the monetisation, with the social features, with the never-ending complexity of game structure so as to lose sight of the game itself.
What’s the future of gaming?
The growth of this industry fascinates me and I’m in awe of what people are now able to do with freely available and simple-to-use tools. People are now able to express themselves – to scratch long-held creative itches – in new ways that hitherto have been impossible without extensive study in computer science – and it’s remarkable. I’m moderately inclined to have a go at something myself.
But my huge fear is for the sustainability of it all. At what point does it eat itself? For some wannabe game makers, developing something in the spare time as a side hustle to a ‘real’ job, it would probably be enough to invest a few months’ time in something. If it achieves short-lived viral fame; in the top 10 charts for any amount of time is usually enough to produce something like a return on the investment; and if it goes nowhere, you’ve still got the accomplishment of having produced something.
But I genuinely fear for the companies – and the employees of those companies – that are built on this model. The gaming companies like the Zyngas of this world who employ hundreds of people built on the uncertain foundations of the odd viral hit.
In my mind, unless they’re able to essentially dial it back a bit, then I wonder to what extent they can really build loyal fan bases of genuinely committed and thus valuable customers. The appearance of the Classic NES is surely testament to this.
Whether there was a genuine lull in console gaming in recent years, I’m unsure, but the likes of the Nintendo Switch and the growth of AR/VR is surely leading a resurgence of the console gaming industry – and I can only imagine that this will be at the expense of the casual gamer market and the livelihoods of a lot of people could go with it.
* There are people who have built thriving communities out of deciphering some cryptic aspect of single games – take the Mount Chiliad Mystery for example. Sometimes I wish I had that sort of free time, I have a sort-of admiration for them; but it’s usually paired against a sense of ‘who cares!?’
** The irony of this post probably being chock full of Google ads is not lost on me.