Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What's the Next Fad in Gaming?

I began writing this on November 12, 2009, and has been sitting in my drafts folder ever since. I have gone through to update particular information, or added in "editor notes" to certain areas.


"Borderlands, I adore you. You're Diablo for a generation raised on first person shooters."

- Dude Huge Cliff Bleszinski

This quote has been digging in the back of my mind for a while now, and it's got me thinking: if first-person shooters are the games that are raising this generation, and 2D side scrolling adventure games - we'll just call them "2D" for this piece - was the genre of the 90's, then what do we have to look forward in the next generation?

When I say "next-gen," I don't mean the Wii 2, or the PS4, or the Xbox 1080. The "2D" games pretty much were the only thing we were playing up until Counter Strike, and that was just the PC guys. FPS games didn't really hit home with the entire fucking world until Halo showed up at our door steps in 2001 as an Xbox launch title (yes, there was Doom and Wolfenstein, but I'm talking on a grander scale). Since then, it's been run-gun-shoot-lather-repeat. The most recent - and most sought after entry in the genre - game came out recently, Black Ops. Breaking records here and there - 5.6 million copies sold in 24 hours (earning Activision $360 million Diablo-III-funds) and surpassing the $1 billion dollar mark just six weeks after it's release, which translates into $23.8 million dollars a fucking day (or just under 400,000 copies a day) - Black Ops shat all over the competition. Master Chief is just an echo in Alex Mason's wake of destruction. Sure, it's got it's controversy (airport, much?), but it's a damned fine FPS.

There have been so many FPS games, ranging between third-person shooters, military squad based shooters, survival-horror shooters, futurisitic shooters, first-person adventure, really fucking terrible other worldly shooters...the list can go on and on. Yes, FPS isn't necessarily hindered to a first-person shooter. However, many people do not understand the difference between an FPS and a TPS, or a third person shooter. Hell, some people didn't even know a genre existed. They don't even understand why it's "first" and "third," mainly the reference to literature story structure, which is where it actually comes from. So I guess this generation could be summed up in a general "shooters" genre, but, Dude Huge used the more specific FPS moniker to draw attention away from his own, TPS series, Gears of War.

Let's start in 1990, one year prior to the start of the near-decade long, oft-believed "Golden Age" of gaming. This decade - or decade within a decade - comprised of many of the greatest games ever created. Super Metroid, A Link to the Past, Final Fantasy VII, Battletoads, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Tekken, King of Fighters...I really could go on and on. Most of these games are purely two-dimensional. Most of these games have made their way into 3D, and a good chunk of them have evolved their genres. Zelda moved onto 3D with Ocarina of Time, which is regarded as the best game ever created. Final Fantasy keeps going forward further into picture-perfect 3D characters, environments and gameplay. Metroid basically created their own genre, the First Person Adventure, and kicked ass in it.

When I talk about fads in gaming, I compare them to any other fad you see. Fashion, music, whatever it is, fads do not halt immediately; it takes time for one fad to end and another to begin. That is why my chart below shows overlapping fads. The first fad ends in 1998, whereas the second fad starts up in 1995. There is a 3-year overlap of these two fads. When one fad starts, it takes time for people to be weened off of the first and onto the second. And when I say "people," I refer to gamers, consumers and developers alike.

As you can see, I've detailed the past 25 years of gaming releases, each their own visage and grouping. I must add this important note: This is only detailing major gaming releasing for each year. If I feel that there was another game that could define that year, as well as impacting the gaming industry and community itself, I listed it as well. System releases are bracketed, and Japanese releases have the † denotation, as stated in the image. And I do believe I've constructed a well thought-out list of games, and I can describe each game's impact in their own, however, I choose not to do so here, as it's not important; anyone with half a brain can determine why I chose a certain game. You will also take note of the different colored groupings I have to the side of the list. There are 3 major groupings: The 2D Side Scrollers, listed from 1985 throughout 1996, the Open World/First Person Shooters, between 1995 and still going strong, and the Motion Controllers, starting in 2006 and continuing, and finally, the Motion Controller/Casual Games listed between 2006 and beyond. You will also see I have listed the Golden Age of gaming, between 1991 and 1999...purely for a reference point, and nothing more. Yes, there are two fads that are vastly overlapping, but I will get to that later. But first...

First Fad • Arcade Cabinets
1979 - 1988 • 9 Years

My first point of interest, which, ironically, isn't even listed, is the original fad in gaming, the arcade cabinet. The exact dates of the arcade's "golden age" is an ongoing debate, but I like to place it between the late-70's to the mid-to-late-80's; it's really hard to narrow down a specific year for the beginning and end, as I wasn't alive, nor enjoyed, the arcade fad. I can't really say when in the 80's for the demise (although, the NES in 1985 can attest to this), the beginning is when color screens became a prominent feature in 1979. The downfall of arcade's - as said before - can be blamed on the NES, which launched, in the US, in 1985. Give a few years for people to grow more attached to not wanting to leave their house - and actually buying one - and you get 1988. This is where referencing the chart can begin.

Second Fad • 2D Side-Scrolling Adventure Games
1985 - 1998 • 13 Years

1985, the initial beginning to the 2D games, started with the love for our fat, Italian plumber, Mario. Super Mario Bros. is regarded, by far, as the game that reignited the world's frothing love for video games, all thanks to Shigeru Miyomoto. Any self-respecting gamer knows this name by heart, and possibly shows their admiration for this man in one way or another. After this, more and more games following the same "start left, jump, shoot, move right until end" started, until developers figured out a way to keep that "Wall of Death" from pushing your character into a bottomless pit and allowed them to move left.

"I'm not an ambiturner! I can't turn left!"
- Derek Zoolander

That quote fits perfectly, and even if you disagree, fuck you; it works.

Enter Metroid and The Legend of Zelda, two games that allowed the player to move left, right, up and down, traversing either through a planet or across a land. Zelda actually introduced a major feature for cartridge-based gaming...battery-saved game saves. Without that tiny, disc-shaped battery in a cartridge, your save files would all be for shit. These two games can be herald as forefathers of modern side-scrolling adventure games; your Shadow Complex wouldn't be here if it weren't for Metroid. This road of side-scrolling games continues all the way into the late 90's, where the last game I can say drove home the genre and continues to battle for the crown of genre supremacy would be, without a doubt, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Without your SotN, Castlevania as a series wouldn't be where it is today. Quick side note: if the series keeps going in the way of Order of Ecclesia, we're going to have problems (Note : 8/25 : and just as I predicted, Harmony of Despair was utter shit).

All throughout the 90's, we have innovation coming out every corner of the industry. This time period is considered the Golden Age of Gaming, simply because the games and franchises introduced in this age paved the way for modern gaming. With the introduction of 3D-based system architecture, realism in gaming can easily be achieved, and immersing the player in the game can be done much better. RPGs wouldn't be anywhere without Final Fantasy VII. First-Person Shooters give thanks daily to Half-Life. Open-World adventure games praise Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64.

http://c2.ac-images.myspacecdn.com/images02/83/l_2acad26715bc42079c9b0b7bbfd35cf1.jpgHowever, there is another way to look at this, this strain of games that play like their grandfathers from 15 years ago. Are developers too comfortable with certain genre's formulas that they don't want to stray too far off of the beaten path, possibly off-herding their consumers and alienating anyone with a slight interest? I guess you can say that this behavior can be linked to how modern story tellers, visual designers and artists are still stuck on the Victorian-era style of visualization. What I'm talking about here are the art styles used in the Victorian era - early to mid 1800's to roughly 1900 - where the difference between good and evil, dark and light, or anything used to describe the difference between two opposing forces on the exact ends of the spectrum, can be described as one would image today. The "good" side can be generalized as white, holy, endearing, soft, curvy, etc. The "evil" or "bad" side of things can be seen as dark, black, demonic, sharp, jagged, etc. The first thing I think of in gaming to reference evil is Kain from Final Fantasy IV.

Kain is the protagonist-turned-antagonist in Final Fantasy IV. This art style of dark and pointy will make anyone believe he is evil, simply from the way he looks (a mainstay style of artist Yoshitaka Amano). That's why a lot of people don't like Hot Topic kids, because all that black shit they wear (I used to wear it too; I still have my Tripp pants in my closet) gives the image that they are dark, depraved, or just fucked up.

This alliteration between Victorian art and game design has some sort of allure for developers; why fix something that isn't broken? If people keep buying it, why change the formula?

Third Fad • Open World / First Person Shooter
1995 - 20XX • 15 Years and Going

Starting the next fad, we must, yes, travel back in time a couple of years to find the beginning of this fad. I simply believe that the interest of many will be weened away from these two genres in favor of something else. They will still exist, much like our 2D games (Metroid: Other M and Shadow Complex are two great examples of this), but they won't be the defining genres of years to come, nor will games of these genres be flooding the holiday seasons like they have been. You'll still have your Halo's and your Call of Duty's, but developers will be more interested in something more, say Kinect and PlayStation Move?

Open World games started with the introduction of vastly more powerful hardware: the PSOne and the N64. Bitch about the indifferences the consoles had, but you cannot deny, this generation is what started these vast, open world games that were either First Person Shooters, or Adventure games and their never-ending branch-offs. Grand Theft Auto, Lara Croft, Ocarina of Time, Half-Life, The id Collection (my name for Doom, Wolfenstein and Quake)...these games were defining the era of gaming. All of these series are still running strong to this day (well, maybe not Quake, but still, it's at least jogging at a moderate pace), and are constant inspiration to developers today.

First-Person Shooters were something that grabbed the attention of everyone everywhere. With the focal point of the gamer being pushed forward from the protagonists eyes, you immediately registered yourself as that person. You became B.J. Blazkowicz. You were the Space Marine in Hell. You were Gordon Freeman. Doom is often heralded as the game that pushed first-person shooters into the mainstay - and mainstream - of video games and the entertainment industry as a whole. Doom's half-brother, Wolfenstein, was just as violent, but furthered id's name across PC gamers. Finally, Valve's breakthrough of Half-Life is considered one of the more important pieces of video game history of all time, right up there with Super Mario Bros. and Final Fantasy.

To this day, First Person Shooters are what are driving home consoles further and further into the masses, quite possibly thanks to the militaristic influence we've seen over the past 9 years since the World Trade Center attacks/hijackings/cover-ups and the US's presence in Afganistaniland. Halo and Call of Duty are the two biggest franchises of the past 10 years that you can't go 5 minutes without hearing someone talk about Master Chief or hitting their fifth Prestige. Open World games aren't as prevalent, however, they lay underneath a handful of other FPSes. FarCry is considered a game that blended these two genres into one, almost perfect game. It's multiple sequels and spin-offs can be heralded as "pieces of shit," but the original is where the magic was.

Most of these franchises have notable entries that have pushed their cause even further. Halo 2 pushed multiplayer to places one could only dream of: online. Grand Theft Auto IV created an ├╝ber-realistic, almost pixel-perfect recreation of New York City, and the ambient life that lived in that city was remarkable. Half-Life 2's on the whole is, for the lack of a better grouping of words, fucking amazing. With a heavy increasing interest in online multiplayer, mostly around FPSes, you can see where this frothing demand for more of the same comes from. The introduction of Xbox LIVE in 2002, it's overhaul in 2005, and it's mobile spread this year with the Windows Phone 7 series, online gaming isn't a fad: it's what is driving video games into a venue where it will live. Online gaming is holding hands with video games as an industry, walking it across the highway to the other side, where digital distribution is prominent. Halo and Xbox Live - two things introduced to us during this fad - can be thanked for foreshadowing video games inevitable future.

However, don't forget about new IP's that have become so remarkable, that no one sequel can do but one thing: drag down that franchise to the pits of Development Hell. I'm talking about two games in particular: ICO and Shadow of the Colossus. Team ICO are among the greatest minds of the past 10 years. I can't do enough ass-kissing to make these guys feel better about themselves. They know their games are among the greatest games of their current fad. However, as the entire point of this article is, fads don't last forever.

Fourth Fad • Motion/Casual Gaming
2006 - 20XX • 4 Years and Beyond

Just like I've been saying, fads don't die out - or crop up - instantly. It takes time. Despite this statement that I've been trying to drill home, this fad somehow started before it even began.

The Wii, when it was announced in the summer of 2005, caused such an uproar that many believed that Nintendo had gone insane. They thought that Iwata and Miyamoto had ate so much of Mario's mushrooms, their heads were so far in the clouds, they had no idea what they were doing. Considering that Nintendo supposedly means "Leave Luck to Heaven," I guess they found something with their heads in the clouds. The Wiimote is what revived not just gamers' interest in Nintendo as a company, but it brought video games further back into the mainstream light.

Released this year, both Kinect and PlayStation Move are Microsoft and Sony's respective entries into the motion gaming. Kinect doesn't use controllers, just a big ass camera that tracks your movements, and PlayStation Move replicates the Wiimote, however, is more accurate, but looks far, far worse that it's intended purpose. Giant dildo, or grandma's Bingo ink-blotter? Which ever way you look at it, motion gaming is here in full force. Nintendo started it, and Microsoft and Sony are just now getting into the game, 4 years after Nintendo started it.

With all kinds of crap - mainly multiplayer, happy-go-lucky, family orientated games or fitness games - coming out of the woodwork, there's only a few games that are shining through right now that are motion/waggle heavy. Resident Evil 4/5, Heavy Rain and No More Heroes are prime examples of waggle done right. However, people are finding other uses for motion gaming. Fitness games are seen as a scapegoat for developers to make them and consumers to buy them. I bought Wii Fit, yes. Have I used it beyond that? Hell no. I played it once, did some yoga, and said "fuck it". I have considered buying Your Shape from Ubisoft for Kinect. With these motion games, the motto behind them all is "Get Up and Play". It's a nice way to say "You've been gaming for 20 years. Get your fat ass up off the couch and move those Oprah-arms around to loose 100 pounds". Granted, my slanky white ass only weighs in around 150, so toning up would be an option. Do I want to pay $200 for a camera and the fitness game? No.

Motion gaming had blown up. Between the waggle-heavy Wii and PlayStation Move and the full-body interaction with the Kinect, with shaking your device like a Brittish nanny shaking a baby with your iDevice inbetween, this style has it's niche. And it's huge. Not just with consumers, but with publishers and developers alike. Despite it being heavily criticized for a lot of things - motions carried out on-screen don't necessarily represent the motion it took to cause that to happen, some sexually suggestive motions for non-adult games, too much waggle, not enough waggle, controls being unresponsive and some actions with the controller don't invoke their intended action - people just eat this shit up. Nintendo seems to be fully integrating it with their first-party games developed in house, especially with the introduction of MotionPlus so long ago, which enhanced the Wiimote's accuracy to a 1:1 ratio, fully mimicking your actions (which, sadly, it doesn't). The upcoming Zelda game, Skyward Sword, due out sometime in 2011, will use MotionPlus and Link's sword combat will, supposedly, be better grafted to the Wiimote.

Sadly, one company, who blindsided the fuck out of everyone, has completely revamped Sony and Nintendo's look at the mobile gaming market, and that's Apple. With the introduction of the iPhone and iPod touch, hackers galore tore the devices apart. With the hacking community, jailbreaking became a mainstay for the iDevices, and I can't use my iPhone without jailbreaking the firmware. With Installer first appearing (now replaced by Cydia), you removed the limitation of Apple-only/stock applications the iDevices came with, and you could install anything people made, and you yourself could make whatever you want and upload it to their servers, granted your repository was in good standing. Apple took one look at this, and a lightbulb went off in their head, creating the App Store. Here, Apple unleashed the flood gates of developer creativity, and the bite-sized casual games are flooding the industry, forcing the big players - Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony, EA, Activision, Ubisoft, etc. - to think how they do business.

Apple has sold, as of September, 45.2 million iPod touches alone, with 8 million iPhones and 4 million iPads since the iPhone's launch in 2007, averaging 14.25 million a year. That's fifty-seven million fucking iDevices. Can't read? Try some zeroes: 57,000,000. Nintendo has sold 135 million DSes since it's launch in 2004, coming in at 22.5 million a year on average. Apple is quickly catching up on Nintendo, who's device holds second place in most units sold, just behind the PS2 at 147 million. iDevices are more expensive, more versatile, more functional (and easily hacked) than the DS or PSP, yet Apple doesn't have a mascot; they don't need one. They have Angry Birds, for fuck's sake. Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Fruit Ninja...these are all definitions of "casual games," and they are destroying the gaming industry that we've grown to know: $300 systems that last for 5-8 years, $50-$60 games with various nick-knacks and accessories. Apple refreshes their product line once a year at $300-500 for the iPod touches alone, with the majority of games never crossing the double-digit price tag, people gobble this shit up like crack on free crack day. With the App Store and Cydia bringing you delicious, digital delectables, it's easy for anyone to download their bite-sized games. These are your casual games, and, right next to motion controls, this is what people want.

Who's to say how long the motion gaming fad will last. It seems that each fad increases it's duration by a handful of years. The first-person shooter craze is nearing it's 20th anniversary, and Apple is changing how we see our games. Smaller devices call for smaller games. Larger devices call for larger games. If 3D TVs come down in price, 3D might catch on. Not just in popping out at you (or away, in the 3DS's case), but bringing back in-home/on-couch multiplayer gaming. Virtual reality is always a possibility, as that's what the Kinect could be a precursor to. Add in motion/waggle gaming, and you'll get your virtual reality, just with the technical limitations that Time itself induces.

We've been exposed to a multitude of ways to enjoy our video games, and every so often, the big boys up top figure out new ways for us to do so. A fad doesn't have an average lifespan; it can last for a month, it can last for 20 years. It may be a while until people ween themselves off of motion gaming and onto the next big thing, but just take solace in this: it's just a fad.