I got caught up in a discussion recently about the impending doom of the comic book industry. The crux of it was that by catering to a steadily aging fanbase with increasingly complex tastes, comic book publishers have made their product inaccessible to young readers. In other words, the comic industry’s current emphasis on dense mythology, meticulous continuity, and mature themes has essentially frozen out the next generation of customers. And without young fans, the industry is effectively living on borrowed time until the current generation either starts dying out or simply becomes too old to care any more.
Now, I’ve admittedly fallen out of touch with comic books over the years. And even the ones I do read I usually get in trade or in hardcover through my local library. I’m worried, however, that we are witnessing this same trend developing in another industry with which I’ve stayed much more in tune. Which brings me to this question: Is the video game industry living on borrowed time?
A quick search for Xbox One or PlayStation 4 games on amazon.com primarily yields titles rated “M for Mature”. The remainder of the results are dominated by complex sports games that, though rated “E”, are clearly intended for at least a teenaged audience.
Issues of mature – and resoundingly violent – content aside, one of the chief failings of the industry as it has tried to “grow up” with its fanbase is the increased emphasis on games that make such steep demands on players’ time that they practically have to become a lifestyle. There’s really no place for the “casual gamer” (a phrase usually uttered with a derisive sneer) in the current market. If I can’t devote multiple hours a day to my video games, then I must not be a gamer.
So where does this leave the average pre-schooler?
I mentioned in a recent post that I practically cut my teeth on an Atari joystick. I still have my 7800, which is backwards compatible with the full VCS/2600 library, and I still set it up and play it periodically (I also have a 2600 that I keep in bubble-wrap for nostalgia’s sake). The thing that made most Atari games so magical was their near-instant accessibility for anyone interested in playing. The controls were typically comprised of one stick and one button while the action was confined to one screen. The rules and the objectives were clear and often did not necessitate either reading the instructions or following any kind of on-screen guide. Anybody could play. A game might last mere moments for a novice or it could go on for hours for an expert, but either way it was fun.
Much the same can be said about games in the NES era. Although the D-pad and the extra buttons complicated things a little bit, most games could simply be picked up and played. More importantly, they could be enjoyed by almost anyone.
But where are these games today? Where are the games that you can simply dive into without looking and have a blast learning on the fly? Where are the games you can simply putter around with as a diversion in your spare time? Where are the games that truly anyone can play?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m ecstatic that there’s a market for adults like me who have grown up in a video game world. If every game that hit store shelves was aimed at children and teens, the twenty-and-thirty-somethings of the world would no doubt feel jilted and bitter, abandoned by the loves of our youth. At the same time, I’m left to wonder where my children are going to experience the same digital thrills that I did as child.
It’s no wonder that gamers – adults and children alike – are increasingly turning to mobile devices for their gaming fix. It’s about the only place left where we can go to find momentary diversions and brief escapes. It’s also about the only place where you can find games that even a child can play and enjoy. Is it any wonder that the Nintendo Wii dominated the last generation of video game consoles (to the tune of 9-digit install base)? Instead of fixating on high end graphics and sound capabilities, Nintendo chose to build a gaming experience around a user-friendly interface that anyone could pick up and enjoy.
So, to answer my own question, we will continue to turn to the iPad for our family gaming fix in the Alexander house. If my girls cut their own teeth on the current generation of consoles, it will most likely be with the WiiU. A quick scan of the WiiU library reveals a high percentage of titles rated “E”. And Nintendo’s venerable collection of intellectual properties is still resoundingly family friendly and as fun as it’s ever been. Then, once my daughters are “T for Teen” or “M for Mature” themselves, I’ll leave it up to them if they want to start concerning themselves with CPU’s, GPU’s, and frame rates…or if they still just want to enjoy some fleeting moments of escapist fun.
Assuming, of course, that there’s still an industry left.
As always, thanks for reading.