The Shackles of Gaming

So, here I was trying to write something about No More Heroes, reading what the biggest reviewers had to say about it when I came across the term Wii Audience. The term audience is a funny one as it basically implies a gross generalization of who plays what. I then imagine a Hardcore Audience consisting of only hardcore people in a talk show (They all have tattoos and piercings, because no matter how popular they are today, they will always be hardcore as GOD himself HATES them! Leviticus 19:28). Then I figured that the audience composed of hardcores would be more interesting that the show itself. As I stopped day-dreaming, I came to the conclusion that ‘Audience’ is a very silly term.

And yet is a sadly valid term when it comes to gaming. I am generalizing when I complain about the Twilight Audience, but not when I talk about the X-box Audience or the Wii Audience as the people are part of the X Audience have all the same characteristic: they own the X console. As a result, publishers allocate the console a game according to the sales of previous similar games on that console – which is normally a sound business practice as they are only listening to their customers. The result is a self-fulfilling cycle, as you will have to buy console X in order to play game Y as this is the console that game Z, which was like Y, sold the most.

The problem comes when games like No More Heroes or MadWorld, which are not similar to the games played by the Wii Audience, face the risk of being mismatches with that audience.

Imagine that there are only two ways to watch movies: you buy a DVD-Player or you buy a very expensive chair at the theatre. Without the DVD-Player, you can’t watch movies that come in DVD; without the chair license, you can’t watch movies that come to theatres. Now imagine that 100% of the movies that come to DVD won’t ever pass in the theatres and vice-versa. So either you buy both the DVD-Player and the chair or you become alienated. That’s how messed up console are. For the medium to expand, limitations as consoles have to go.

I’m not saying anything new, of course.

Hideo Kojima says that games won’t depend on any platform. Imperial Hot (aka Yoichi Wada, president of Square Enix) says that what we call ‘console games’ will no longer exist, and all gaming will be done through server-based offerings, game streaming and digital distribution.

This is what people have been talking about lately. It’s the current Zeitgeist. Cogs are moving. You have Steam, which would be incredible if it sold games for consoles as well – directly competing with the current proprietary virtual consoles, networks and live arcades of the world; OnLive – whose games run at the server so – theoretically – I could play them on everything that has an internet connection (Right? Right?) and the poorly executed Brazilian Zeebo. Sure, I could include PC gaming as it currently is understood as a solution for a world without consoles, but PC gaming has too much bad mojo to exorcise in order to be considered.

Dave Perry, CEO of distribution service, said Consumers have loyalties to games — not vendors or publishers. For everyone who plays games, they need a way to receive their titles, and make the middleman as little an issue as possible. I want that to happen. God, I do. I want to live in a world you just buy a controller you can attach to your TV, computer, tablet or phone and play what the hell I want.

I just don’t see it happening. The importance of digital media is growing,  but they are still  separated by the platforms; and although the lack of hardware production and distribution costs may make it easier for more multi-platform games to arrive, the unique developing characteristics of each platform is still an issue. That is why, in ten years from now, I still see myself showing my imaginary children how to play on the imaginary X-Box 1800. Everybody else will be playing the thing they will replace Farmville with: SimCity.

First question: can we do it?

No. Right now, in 2010, there are only two places where that can be done: USA and Japan. However, not only the world goes beyond these borders, but also, even in the US, only 57% of the houses have broadband internet (source). Eastern Europe, South America, Africa and the majority of Asia still lack in that department. To play a console, all you need is energy supply and a TV – which is something the majority o the world has; but in a non-console world, you absolutely need internet. This would be a non-console world where all these countries would be alienated. The “audience alienation” seems trivial by comparison.

The Map of the Internet
The Map of the Internet

Second question: do we even want to do it?

Well, let’s not even consider Microsoft and Sony for a moment. Let’s just think of Nintendo. Nintendo certainly doesn’t want that. In fact, I’m sure its former president Hiroshi Yamauchi’s words are still valid: the day Nintendo stops making consoles it will be the day they will go out of business. They are right to think this way though, because no matter what approach the company takes on their consoles: innovating themselves (Wii), following what others have done (GameCube) or being perplexingly stubborn (Nintendo 64); one thing has remained the same: franchises like Mario, Zelda and Metroid can still carry their consoles alone.

This means that some of the great icons in gaming will forever be limited to at least one console – no matter what we do.

Third question: do we know how to do it?

Now this is a more interesting question. We have learned a lot, no doubt, but there are still lots of questions unanswered. Marketing for example. There is no shelf policy in the current Live Arcade / PSN system. The only things a game has to advertise itself in there are a tiny picture, a sentence describing the game and some sort of rating.

Publishers that spent millions in development will certainly be upset to be put on the same level of the crappiest and less expensive game ever conceived. I don’t know…how much this holds true, considering other forms of advertising. [what other forms are you thinking about? Are they really used? I can only think about the Facebook ads and the occasional promotion. There is virtually no external advertisement for virtual games night now] They are better off in game stores where they can fill an entire wall with their product, making sure that everyone who enters will see it.

Paying methods and distribution are also problematic. There are games that I couldn’t download in Brazil while others worked fine. The same thing happened when I was in Austria. Another problem was registering a credit card: you have to register an US credit card if you buy your console (X-box 360 or PS3) from the US – even if you have an international card issued by your home country. This means that all countries that import their consoles cannot buy virtual goods unless they also import point cards. Only the Wii works perfectly with any international credit card.

The crystal ball looks bleak. Games are the only medium that still necessarily need a hardware package to be enjoyed. And for a long time yet to come, still will.