Unrealistic Expectations

Hey there my fellow gamers, 49 GB here. It’s been a little while since we talked last; I’ve been taking things pretty easy and spending more time than usual on some of my other hobbies over the last month or so, but rest assured that I’ll always find my way back to writing about stupid shit one way or the other, especially now that I have a public platform to maintain and readers to engage with. I just recently finished up playing through Need for Speed: Most Wanted (the original one from 2005) and Demon Lord Reincarnation, a hardcore turn-based first-person dungeon crawler that I tried out because of how much I liked its artstyle and ended up really enjoying. My plan now is to finish playing through the original Hyperdimension Neptunia (which I’m emulating via RPCS3) and then sink my teeth into Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

So, I like to keep up with gaming news; it’s kind-of a curse honestly. For as much as I have a personal interest in the state of the video game industry that was born when I started watching AngryJoe and TotalBiscuit during my childhood and has persisted for many years into my adulthood, it’s hard not to be pessimistic about gaming as a whole when you’re constantly being reminded of how the industry’s climate has shifted so drastically towards profit at the expense of the things which comprise a genuinely good, complete game. This is not new; it has been going on and steadily snowballing for almost two decades. It’s not so much the fact that the video game industry is plagued by predatory monetization (among many other things) as it is the order of magnitude at which the industry at large—and, therefore, the games being released within it—has been affected by those monetization tactics which I can’t really help but be bothered by. Mobile games with terrible monetization practices have been around for as long as I can remember, but only somewhat recently are we seeing many of those same practices rear their ugly heads in games with 60 or 70 dollar price tags on them. I made brief mention during my review of the anime adaptation Arknights: Prelude to Dawn that the issue lies not in trying to get money from a customer. That’s only natural; developers don’t work for free, and big studios need income in order to exist at all. Many of the great video games of the past were motivated by financial gain, during the long since forgotten era of video game history where the best way to rake in cash was to make the best game you possibly could; development studios got their money, players got a good game, it was a real win-win situation really… good times. Unfortunately, the times have changed, and now the best way to make money is no longer to make the best possible game you can, but instead to design a game in a way that is intentionally poor in order to facilitate financial gain. That’s the real issue; otherwise good games being sabotaged, because a good gameplay experience in the game that you already paid for is now considered as being worthy of a premium, and a rewarding one in the game being billed to you as “free-to-play” depends on how much money you can reasonably invest in order to overcome its otherwise unreasonable demand that you invest a gross amount of your time.

Notice how I said “otherwise good games” a moment ago. In ages past when all of these things were largely confined to the mobile gaming/free-to-play gaming space and hadn’t quite hit the major triple A releases yet, nobody really cared that much. Why? Because it didn’t affect them; good games from major developers and publishers were still coming out and were still focused on appealing to the “core” gamer (a concept that has slowly fallen out of fashion alongside that of identifying oneself as a “gamer” at all, much to the industry’s detriment). But once major studios came to the realization that they could be making way more money than they were already simply by incorporating the very same tactics used by the mobile and free-to-play game studios they were ignoring (largely as a result of attempting to appeal to what at the time was their primary audience, the “core gamer”), everything shifted because that audience of core gamers were being actively shunned by major studios and publishers for the sake of appealing to and taking advantage of the broadest audience possible. This is where many high-profile video games, studios and publishers are today; games with solid foundations built by passionate developers that are being taken advantage of and getting butchered into mockeries of their original visions. It’s not about creativity or fun anymore, it’s about making something just enjoyable enough to get its hooks into someone who doesn’t know better—or someone who is willing to tolerate the treatment they’re given because of what they enjoy about a particular game—and then milking them for all they’re worth.

With that said, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still great games coming out today, and it doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had even in the games which have been tainted by these intentionally bad design choices. Games like those succeed because they are fun at their core, but insidiously gatekeep that fun behind paywalls using artificial progression systems while generally just trying to keep you in the perpetual state of “follow the carrot dangling on the stick”. But you know, some people actually enjoy gambling and gacha systems, so much so that it has become something of a subgenre of game unto its own. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing; if a game where gambling for real money as one of its major mechanics can succeed at fulfilling the niche of satisfying those who like gambling for progression in a game with a foundation that they enjoy, I don’t see any issue with that (at least assuming those participating aren’t required to pay an upfront fee for the privilege). Instead, the problem lies in both being dishonest, and with taking advantage of people. If your game is going to require that I either whip out my credit card or waste hundreds of hours of my time, please communicate this clearly to me, and don’t try to sell me on the false illusion that your game can be experienced completely free of charge. This issue pervades pretty much every single game within this particular “subgenre” that currently exists, in addition to those which incorporate similar mechanics despite having an upfront cost. Here’s an interesting little logic puzzle; if something in a game sold at a premium is being marketed to you as a “time-saver”, then what exactly has it been created to help you avoid? Playing the game, or skipping the necessarily boring parts of the game? If there’s a time-saver, there’s a time-waster.

Getting back to what I said before about there still being good game releases even today, it’s a bit sad really, because those fantastically good high-profile games don’t make nearly as much money as significantly worse high-profile games do. Elden Ring is a great example; annually, the micro-transactions from FIFA make more money alone than Elden Ring has made total over the course of its entire existence. This is where we stand; game sales don’t matter, because it’s not game sales that make money. A game launch comes and goes, but the micro-transaction platform the game was built to facilitate remains indefinitely. “Live service” games became popular for major studios to make because if a game can remain relevant while incorporating those monetization elements, it will remain profitable, and people will inevitably move on from a game that ends no matter how good it is. This is something that bothers me personally from a literary standpoint; I disagree fundamentally with the notion that a game has “more potential” to tell an interesting story because of its longevity and scope for much the same reason that I disagree with making a show that only starts “getting good” four seasons in and eventually goes out with a whimper instead of a bang; instead of creating a platform for what will eventually become good, just release something good! Don’t make me wait for you to finish it later! And that’s not even wading into the murky waters of games or other forms of media without a soul that just continue existing for the sake of monetary value of their associated IP and have nothing of any creative worth left to offer to anyone. There’s a right and a wrong way to approach this of course; Warframe was good when it came out and has continued to get consistently better, which is what “live service” games are supposed to facilitate. At the end of the day though, I deeply despise and reject this idea people have gotten into their heads now that video games aren’t supposed to end, and that a game is only good if you can keep playing it forever—false.

But I’ve been rambling for a while, and all of this was supposed to ultimately have a point, right? I don’t usually talk this much about video games; I’m an anime review guy, my interest lies primarily in literature. Well, a little while ago I was chilling and watching some videos when I saw news about IGN actually having a good take on something—crazy, right? Of course, anyone with basic knowledge of how these publications operate can probably guess that within them, there are bound to be at least a few individual journalists who actually care about what they’re doing and are passionate about the video game industry. The issue with companies like IGN is often one of inconsistency; if the words of the individual in each case are meant to always represent the publication as a whole, why do they so drastically contradict one another so often? We associate IGN with poor journalism because they present us with the work of poor journalists more often than they present us with the work of great journalists, and we’re biased towards assuming that anything IGN does will be bad as a result, but this is far from the first time that good people there have done things worthy of praise. That said, what exactly was the “excellent take” that IGN had this time? If you’ve been paying any attention to the video game industry recently, you’ll know that the much anticipated Baldur’s Gate 3 recently released to massive success, being praised far and wide as an example for other games both in and out of its genre to follow. It smacks of Elden Ring; a mainstream audience presented with a complete, expansive game that was built from the ground up to be fun by passionate developers whose primary goal is that of people enjoying their time rather than paying to save it. And much like Elden Ring, the game has seen criticism by other industry professionals, but not quite for the same reason that Elden Ring did. Instead of trying to claim that Baldur’s Gate 3 has a “poor user experience” in the same way some industry professionals did for Elden Ring (I recommend looking up “Elden Ring UX” on Google by the way if you want some comedy gold), instead there are industry professionals claiming that while Baldur’s Gate 3 is a good game, it sets an “unreasonably high standard” for other games. IGN’s excellent take, on the other hand, is that this is complete bullshit, and I agree completely—give some credit where it’s due and go watch their video on the topic (titled “Baldur’s Gate 3 is Causing Some Developers to Panic”) if you’re interested, it’s genuinely fantastic, hits the nail on the head and Destin Legarie is a great journalist!

The reason why I went on the massive rant at the beginning of this piece and something that I absolutely need you to understand about the video game industry in its entirety is that for all of the time we have spent watching all of this shit snowball, video game companies have had their sights set on lowering people’s expectations. The vast majority of people don’t care about any of these things anymore, they’re just accepted. Why? When exactly did we suddenly start settling for less, and letting development studios get away with being lazy? How did we reach the point where things like battle passes, loot boxes and incomplete video game releases became normal, even defended? Plain and simply, it’s because people have been conditioned to see them as being normal. A game that doesn’t work on launch day? Cut the developers some slack, the servers are obviously going to be down on launch! The game isn’t finished? Come on, they were on a tight deadline, give it another year and the game will be great! The battle pass? Loot boxes? Well, they’ve gotta make money to add more content to the game somehow, this isn’t a charity! This is the way in which people think now. We are living through a period of the video game industry in which an alarming number of consumers and so-called journalists are making excuses for developers as to why the quality of what they are presented with is good enough no matter how deeply flawed it is, an era in which those who demand better from the games they play are seen as being “entitled gamers”; because, you know, advocating for the consumer and demanding that the companies you’re shelling out your hard earned cash to actually respect that you’re the ones keeping them in business is entitlement. Why should they have to try harder in order to satisfy you, the player, with a complete game?

I have made it clear several times in the past that I advocate for the consumer first. Let me be even more clear; I don’t give a single fucking shit whether or not game development is hard, in much the same way I don’t give a shit whether or not making a show is hard. The end product you receive is the only thing that matters, because the difficulty of making something good does not justify charging people a premium for something bad. This is a topic I delved into extensively in my recent review of His and Her Circumstances, in which I expressed that despite that show’s extremely troubled production cycle, none of that internal strife could possibly justify the show being as disappointing as it was; ultimately, no amount of context changes anything about the show itself. It’s a classic example, but am I going to pay for and eat a raw, uncooked meal because being a chef is hard? You don’t have to be a chef to tell when food is bad, and you don’t have to be a video game developer to tell when a game is bad. No amount of excusing will change anything, because I as the consumer expect at the bare fucking minimum that I get a complete game when I’m expected to pay you for it, and I have zero intention of simply shutting my mouth and opening my wallet to blindly accept whatever you have to “give” me because it was oh-so-fucking hard for you to make; this is your job. You are a professional. What do you expect me to do, cry for you? If what you’re doing isn’t charity, me playing your game isn’t a favor either!

This particular topic inspired me to write something specifically because it transcends gaming and is applicable to my particular area of critique as well. If something is good enough to set a so-called “unreasonable expectation” for the shows following in its footsteps, how exactly are we defining what is and is not unreasonable? Is Re:Zero’s level of quality unreasonably difficult to match, for example? Should I not expect other shows to be nearly as entertaining, and instead consider Re:Zero as being a sole outlier that other animation studios shouldn’t be striving to emulate simply because of the effort that was required in order to create it? Does Mistborn set an “unreasonably high standard” for fantasy novels? The notion of that—that we should settle for less and accept mediocrity because it’s simply “too difficult” for others to try and compete with the best—is so unbelievably anti-consumer, anti-creativity and anti-fun that it hurts my soul, and it’s primarily driven specifically within the video game industry by tight deadlines set by those more concerned with releasing games and making money quickly than actually spending the time and exerting the effort necessary to make a game good enough to compete. What’s the point of taking 5 years to make, polish and perfect a badass video game if you can make an average one that will make you a shit-ton of money in a year, then make excuses to consumers about why it couldn’t have been better that they’ll eat right up?

With that being said, not every game is made with unlimited resources, and not every game needs unlimited resources in order to be good. Not every game needs to be the best game you’ve ever played, either, though I believe every game should strive to be the best it can possibly be given the circumstances. Is it not worth watching Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun because Love is War exists? No, of course not, because that’s ridiculous; both are excellent shows well worth your time. Neither video games, shows or novels can be judged in that kind-of reductive, binary way because all of them are unique experiences; it’s the reason why, for example, DOOM Eternal and the original DOOM released in 1993 are both worth playing despite DOOM Eternal being an objectively more polished, technologically advanced and modern game. It’s the reason why I’m playing through the original Hyperdimension Neptunia games in addition to their remakes, and the reason why I eventually plan to play through every single Fire Emblem game. Why limit yourself to only what’s newest, most popular and ostensibly “best”? I’ve personally found while playing through Hyperdimension Neptunia that I’m probably going to end up badly missing several elements of it I enjoy that aren’t present in the “better” remakes!

As a so-called “industry professional”, when I see you claim that the best-of-the-best is setting a dangerous precedent for you, it tells me that you don’t want to put in the work to meet that precedent. In the alternate universe where I am a video game critic, it tells me that the criticism I give you is worthless to you no matter how constructive I attempt to make it, because you have no intention of using any of it to improve upon your work. I am not a consultant specifically because I do not want to be emotionally invested in the creation process of the thing I am critiquing; that would make the critique less honest and less fair. All I can do is provide an opinion and feedback on the complete product you give me, meaning that my work is only valuable to you if you use it for the sake of either gaining perspective as to what made one of your games good or bad, or use it for the sake of learning what makes other games good or bad. If you can’t stop to take a look at why you’re stuck at the baseline while others are soaring past you, there’s no helping you; therefore, I can’t take pity on you because the simple fact remains that your job is hard because your laziness and complacency is making it harder than it needs to be (assuming the goal is to make something worthy of the consumer’s time and not to churn out generic, inoffensive nothingburger after generic inoffensive nothingburger). It is downright embarrassing for numerous gigantic video game developers and publishers that a studio—albeit large—with a tiny fraction of their workforce has put out a game good enough that they’re treating it like a fucking boogeyman, deathly afraid of the notion that they’ll have to put in effort in order to compete with it (Larian Studios are awesome by the way, they’ve put out banger after banger for a while and I would strongly recommend you also play Divinity: Original Sin 2 if you’re interested in Baldur’s Gate 3). But guess what? I’ve got good news! You probably won’t have to compete, since people will still keep playing your games anyways; if there’s anything Blizzard and EA have taught me, let it be that. If you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go crawl back into my secluded gamer den and try desperately not to make another random fucking opinion piece before I get around to reviewing Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood. Love you all, thanks so much for taking the time to read and consider my thoughts, I’m gonna go grab some food now it’s like 7 AM this took me 6 hours and I’ve hardly moved.

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