Like many games industry journalists, writers, critics and egg-avatar commenters, I frequent Twitter a great deal. It’s clear that, regardless of whatever echo chamber you find yourself in, there has recently been a current of misery, cynicism and pessimism.
So I felt it necessary to expand my column from this month’s Develop magazine on the “Reasons to be Cheerful”, which you can read right here. Because, let’s face it, there’s only so much doom and gloom press that one can take before imploding in a puff of ennui.
Firstly, let’s have a little look back at this year. Sure there have been political shifts, worry at the decreasing sales of physical games and the small issue of what a game delivers compared to its promotional material. But there have also been some incredible stories that have come out of this year.
For example, many games finally came out of the development mire this year. Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian came out of a combined nineteen years of gaming purgatory. These are things that gaming relies on – the return of established franchises and the realisation of older creative visions. Development in some way shape or form is like any other entertainment medium in that a game in development can only learn from what has been produced before it, and without studios that dedicate themselves to their visions, for better or worse, then things will never progress.
And that’s a key point – we have progressed. It’s taken well over 20 years for virtual reality to come to consumers in a viable form, for an arguably consumer friendly budget and with enough quality to be enjoyed by all. But it is here. Now. On our heads and in our eyes. And, like the Nintendo Wii ten years ago, it’s enabled people to access gaming who aren’t gamers or are unfamiliar with a two analogue stick controller.
Even if you look away from games, it’s been an incredible year for some. Elon Musk’s Space-X landed a rocket in a vertical position and I cannot stress enough that until the April 8th 2016 and the Falcon 9’s successful landing, this was entirely science fiction. We may take it for granted but that is an incredible success of engineering and ingenuity that we can actually do what people have only dreamed of since the days of Jules Verne.
That kind of magic realised as reality can only help gaming. Even the struggles for national identities in an entirely globalised world will breed creativity. Indie developers, for example, have released some incredible games this year. There’s the pang of nostalgia and simplicity of life in the universally loved Stardew Valley, a game created by a one man team. There’s the beautifully realised difficulties between responsibility and ownership of one's own life in Firewatch from Campo Santo. There’s the massively successful living of childhood dreams in Pokemon Go, a game that (despite having to put a pound in the AR swear jar for mentioning it) gave access to gaming for entire generations of lapsed gamers.
Games take risks and take on new challenges. Even if they don’t exactly work there are things that are learned by all. We are in an age where we can learn so much from analytics and instant reporting (as discussed by Ubisoft’s Anne Blondel in this month’s Develop magazine), which gives us a huge advantage compared to the even five years ago.
And yes, the world might be in a bit of a traumatic place right now but it’s how we as humans respond to it that creates the best ideas. Be they art, writing, music, performance and even gaming now, there are ways to vocalise, realise and gamify experiences that can communicate to a wider world. These are positions that have begun to be challenged by many AAA developers and publishers as well as indie developers and that is only positive for our industry, creatively and critically.
The tools we use are now so user friendly, accessible and powerful that creating our art, our music, our graphics and our gameplay is easier than it has ever been. And that power is only limited by the experience and knowledge a user of these engines has, which is learned over time. Some of the games we’ve seen this year that have been created by experienced hands that know exactly what works, like Blizzard's Overwatch. We’ve seen first timers creative something utterly fun and manic like Ghost Town Games' Overcooked. We’ve seen old loves come back and unapologetically (and successfully) be what they always were in games like iD's Doom – fun.
The lines between what is and is not a ‘game’ have blurred so much now that to define it as a medium would be folly. Some part of gaming would invariably be missed out. The way that Remedy’s Quantum Break and Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4 encapsulate everything that movies and long-form television have done to make deep and involving visual experiences and turn them into interactive joys. Gaming is now so diverse that it can be anything and that's terrific in a world where restricted thinking in entertainment is all too familiar.
So why not look back on this year fondly and look forward to 2017? As the late great David Bowie said in 1997, “I don't know where I'm going from here, but I promise it won't be boring”. And it shouldn’t be. We have a brand new resolution boosting console coming in Xbox’s Project Scorpio, and the continuation of Sony's PS4 Pro. The accessibility and connectivity of internet and mobile data has diversified a market and opened up experiences beyond what we’ve previously known. How people consume entertainment has evolved massively and Nintendo are going to attempt to cater exactly to that in the Switch. All of this gives such a huge boost in possibilities.
Next year will be interesting politically and economically. But it will be incredibly positive for gaming as long as the industry maintains the momentum of this year in one all important area – progress.