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July 20, 2014 | by  | in Features |
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Something Wicked This Way Comes

At the height of the Wii’s sales, Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi was the wealthiest man in Japan. The highest-grossing film of all time, Avatar, made US$232.2 million in its first weekend, while recently, Grand Theft Auto V made US$1 billion in the same time. That’s one million, ten times, in 72 hours. Hotcakes.

The most exciting development in consumerism right now, followed closely by mainstream solar power and autonomous cars, is video games. Undoubtedly.
I’d go so far to say that video games are the most relevant, flourishing and lucrative art form in contemporary media, with a short history that becomes more interesting and vibrant with every passing year.

This past decade has been abundant with game-changing content, both technically and artistically.  The internet, above all, has been the key driver of change in the gaming world, enabling ideas to bounce back and forth in a blur of collaboration, making everything become harder, better, faster, stronger.  It’s in the wake of computer programmers’ relentless building and tinkering that the lazy artists can paddle. Games are getting easier and cheaper for designers to make, and with that, professional-looking games that fall outside of the narrow archetype of the blockbusters are become more prevalent. It’s not as much of a blood-curdling financial risk and time commitment to make something that’s different from hyper-realistic, hyper-violent, mainstream games.

THE INDIE KIDS

This online scene has resulted in an independent-developer boom.
Typically, the indie scene has remained on PC, but has through the rise of downloadable games made its way to console. This can be seen through PlayStation’s ‘We <3 Devs’ campaign, where the architects of the PS4 worked closely with developers and programmers, independent and otherwise, to build a system so that the people actually creating the games had more control in creating the system that will run them. Lorne Lanning, co-founder of Oddworld Inhabitants (developers of PS1 classic Abe’s Oddysee), had this to say about it: “This is a system that’s going to allow innovation to happen faster and cheaper, which is a great, great thing. Innovative work needs to be delivered with less friction and a lower cost. . . there needs to be more room to take chances and fail at them but still survive. This system gets closer to that goal.” Games that have found critical acclaim on console include eerie horror platformer Limbo and uncoordinated adventure game Octodad: Dadliest Catch.

SHARING IS CARING

A good example of progress made through collaboration and sharing of technology can be seen with Frenchman and Rayman creator Michel Ancel, who recently opened up the ground-built UbiArt software, used in Rayman: Origins, to other developers. “If you look at the best artists at Disney for example. They create incredible books and artwork and share their processes. That whole medium has evolved on the basis of sharing ideas. But in games, we lock it all in a black box and keep it to ourselves. We need to be more open. I don’t believe that keeping the technology to yourself is interesting.” UbiArt allows 2D hand-drawn art to be layered easily into games. We’re already seeing a turnout of visually beautiful games from developers (within Ubisoft the wider mega-publisher) who’ve picked it up ranging in aesthetic, from watercolours ( Child of Light) to graphic-novel sketch ( Valiant Hearts).

DIY VIDEO GAMES

As the means to make video games becomes more streamlined for artists, we will no doubt approach an age where, like with film, you will be able to make them from home. You almost can currently, with the current trend of user-generated content, making your own games with the “Play, Create, Share” slogan of Little Big Planet (narrated by Stephen Fry; check it out) and Minecraft, to name popular examples. Media Molecule, the masterminds behind LBP, are hard at work creating a 3D modelling game utilising motion control, where you make your own in-game objects from scratch – or collage the creations of those with more skill – with what looks like a similar premise of play/create/share; a sort of YouTube of interactive worlds.

One of the most important impending advancements in gaming culture is cloud streaming, which allows you to stream games to other devices, as you would an online video. Sony Worldwide Studios President, Shuhei Yoshida, recently predicted that game consoles will soon be a thing of the past. “Speaking of the ultimate goal, we would like to deliver PlayStation games to all devices… considering various things like PC, TVs, Blu-ray players, smartphones and tablets. We hope to continue to expand not only to Sony devices, but even to devices other than Sony’s.” This movement breathes more fire into the idea of a culture shift. Suddenly, customers won’t have to spend $600 on a console, or more on a spruced-up computer, to gain exposure to high-end video games.

As more and more people become gamers, the very title of ‘gamer’ has come into debate. Mark Rubin, executive producer at Infinity Ward, creators of the Call of Duty franchise (the most popular and highest grossing first person shooter series of all time) said in an interview that those most heavily engaged with the franchise aren’t really ‘gamers’ at all, as they don’t play any titles that aren’t affiliated with the series. “It’s kind of a weird, ironic thing to say: they aren’t hardcore gamers, or even gamers, but they play Call of Duty every night.” This is quite a strict criterion for ‘gamer’, restricting it to simply those who immerse themselves in a variety of games, but really there isn’t just one type of gamer any more than there is one type of film-watcher or book-reader. The Nintendo Wii was a raging hit in old-folk’s homes, and the majority of people with smartphones dabble in gaming in some way or another. With cloud streaming, the massive ‘casual’ mobile game market will meet the current high-profile ‘gamer’ game industry, and the next video-game campaign plastered all over cities will be available to all who have access to broadband, not just those who’ve splashed out on a console specifically for games. It won’t be long before we see people playing PS4/Xbox One games on their iPods. Perhaps once virtual reality becomes affordable, we’ll all become helmeted drone creatures, streaming all of our game + computer + phone stuff onto Oculus Rifts like the guys from Daft Punk.

Cloud gaming also solves the problem of archiving old games. Typically, to make ye olde titles playable again, companies have to do a lot of tinkering to make them compatible with current-generation consoles. With the physical hardware gone, there would be no need, meaning we won’t have to keep our 1983 Nintendo to preserve these precious artifacts. Perhaps like the current projects attempting to digitise all literature, the same will come to pass for video games; it’s certainly a far shorter history to reclaim. For now, though, lag (or latency) issues stand in the way of cloud streaming becoming commonplace.

FILTHY, FILTHY MICROTRANSACTIONS

I’ve mentioned how phenomenally lucrative the video-game industry is. Amid this gold rush, the darker side of capitalisation rears its head in the form of microtransactions (one of a few parasitic strategies used to make games as lucrative as possible). The biggest blight on the industry right now, grim, desanctifying microtransactions pull content out of video games and drip-feed it to you at a price; turning the game from art into extortion. Examples of this include slowing down game progression to a frustrating pace, so that you are forced to spend a dollar or two on ‘optional’ extra resources to progress; alternatively, items such as costumes, characters or levels are taken out of the game and sold alongside in a similar fashion.  There can be some leniency on the latter in the interests of economics, but certainly not the former where the whole experience becomes focussed on psychological extortion. Some fat cats say that this is the future of gaming because it’s the strongest economic model. I say not so for anybody who cares about video games as an art form.

The video-game industry is very young, its genesis (arguably at around 1947 with the cathode ray tube amusement device, though more popularly at around Pong in 1972.) That’s about a 30-year lifespan, rivalling film’s approximate century. I believe cloud streaming will be a huge boost to the video game as an accessible art medium.
Video gaming is not a niche culture or a filthy habit, so long as, like anything, it isn’t binged on, and it deserves your attention beyond Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and Candy Crush. Look out for games, on Steam (massive, awesome online video-game store, notorious for bargains), your phone or even just in YouTube walkthroughs (note: Pewdiepie), and support the indie kids. Game developers are creating some incredible experiences and they are only going to get more incredible.
We are in a golden age of video games; be excited about it.

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