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They Shout Louder

The future of videogames is not in the hands of the mob that shouts the loudest. A look at the past, present and future of videogames and a theory on why we're maybe where we are right now.

“They shout louder because they’re losing”

I’ve been thinking about this. It’s a reply you hear a lot when discussing the current bizarre-o-world slinging of abuse from a more capital C Conservative group of people who play games towards, well, anyone who they decide is an enemy of videogames. Which, it seems, is pretty much anybody but especially women and minorities.

I can understand the allure of it as an idea. I can understand its allure even more if you’re of the “oh gosh, let’s keep moving things on” bent. I sort of like to think I’m somewhere there but I dunno, it rings a bit hollow. It’s almost too ideal and heartening an answer and maybe I’m off it and off base but, well, you know.

I don’t think it’s true because I think the capital C Conservative group of people who play games aren’t losing. The more I think about it, the more I believe they lost years ago.

Well, to be fair, historically I don’t think the gaming utopia of manly man games for men ever really existed but for a long while they were made to feel as if it did. Their money, their spend was the driver of the modern big box machine and big box were happy to pander to that. Breasts and guns sold videogames to teenage boys and to twenty year old supposed men and to thirty year old men and on. They were the dominant spenders.

Then they weren’t.

Over a period of time in the mid two thousands, post casual indie boom, sometime around Nintendo throwing their Wii out into the world, sometime around Facebook games, sometimes around the app store and mobile, the big box industry realised that whilst they had a vocal and self-identified-as hardcore slew of supporters, their spend wasn’t the biggest spend. There were other people who spend and they spend a lot. Sometimes it was groups of people who weren’t traditionally considered “gamers” who spent a lot. Sometimes it was just by throwing the net wide enough they caught more and more people but compared to what the more traditional gaming audience spent, the numbers were enormous and growing the further the net was cast.

And bit by bit, this changed the way many operate. Companies were more likely to court the non-traditional spend, companies were more likely to be more upfront and explicit in how much of a money funnel they see their customers as because pissing off the hardcore still left all those who weren’t. Even the hardcoreiest of hardcore videogames, Call Of Duty primarily courts the filthy casuals with its film style launches and nods to the Hollywood blockbusters. There are people out there who just play CoD who never had an interest in videogames before. FIFA and Madden do the same. And somewhere, somehow, they bring in a new hardcore, this time accepting of map packs, DLC and all the norms of new Big Box.

Big box releases becoming ever thinner on the ground as studio after studio got shuttered by the big boys of videogaming. Of course, this leaves a void and along comes Ubisoft to fill the big budget shelves. Just as Gameloft filled the big box on mobile need even if it meant copying games to bring it, a space needed to be filled as the roster of big box games shrank. Releases dried up. With AAA budgets reaching the stratosphere, big box games take longer and those that do appear do so with day one DLC, preorder bonuses, microtransactions, season passes and more. In big box, “just a videogame” is dead. It has been dead for years.

Just a videogame is dead and big box killed it.

I’d love to be able to believe that the current screaming is all because women and indies are taking away videogames, because journalists are corrupt and all that jazz. I don’t doubt there’s people whose belief in this is sincere either, I’ve read their words, heard their pitch shifted down to disguise their voice conspiracies, I’ve read their forum posts, got their eggy messages on Twitter and this week I’ve witnessed a major gaming site throw them a bone that validates their beliefs. I’ve seen the abuse and the damage they cause and it is awful.

The middle ground gave way. But the rise of indie filling out the gaps that studio culture brought with it is partially a show of strength from those of us who make games outside of that culture but partially because we’re filling a void big box long since stopped giving a toss about. Like Ubi moving into the AAA space, indie fills out the middle and below. That with humans being let loose to make videogames comes a higher level of social responsibility shouldn’t surprise. The rules of the big box machine do not apply here. A developer’s ethics are not hidden amongst 300 other staffers, thousands or millions in marketing and from videogames made to appease shareholders as much as the audience. This is the way it always would be when that machine ceases to function as people who play videogames have grown used to and it is a tremendous thing.

Indies are an easy target for a generation pandered to by big box unable to accept that the ones they defend are the ones excluding them, the ones killing off the games they believe are the true videogames. The same as minorities and women make for an easy target (although it cannot be understated how this videogame culture holds an allure for the more repellent of views about humans, built as it has been on breasts and guns for so long). Journalists too are in on the deal because someone has to be to blame. I read that on the internet, it must be true. It is telling that it is everyone but big box people consider to be killing just videogames, except in those rare moments of clarity when the pre-order day one DLC seems awry or the servers dip under the load.

It cannot be big box because they supplied the videogames, their marketing pandered to the manly man exclusively for so long, their marketing is still omnipresent and all consuming enough to mask the fact that they long ago stopped concentrating on the self identified hardcore as their main source of cash. It is obvious to everyone that this is no longer the case. It’s obvious to those who slide in to fill the gaps left behind by big box and it’s obvious to those who buy videogames and identify as the best at buying videogames. The changes are laid bare. Yet here we are, the belief is strong that it must be someone else, anything else. It's easy to see the change, not so easy to see the cause.

The hardcoreiest hardcore lost years ago. The net has been cast ever wider, year on year. The hardcoreiest hardcore spend considered insignificant compared to what else is out there, a point ably proven by F2P where the money in a fortnight can eclipse the money made total with the right game.

The just a videogame is dead, the hardcoreiest hardcore see it too, sort of.

It died as indie allowed progress in other ways, vastly more types of games are now able to be made and exist. The death of the videogame is not at the hand of women, queers, PoC or more human white men, it did not happen at the hands of journalists reporting on the more disturbing aspects of videogame culture, it did not happen because people decided that "gamer" was maybe something not so great to identify as. It did not happen because someone made a video pointing at a few things videogames have the habit of doing.

It happened because the big box money machine found itself more people to make money from. The very people who pandered and supplied the wares shifted their focus. And that’s when the hardcoreiest of hardcore, the vocal screamers who just want to play videogames with none of this ethical rubbish or DLC or microtransactions or or or lost their fight.

The depressing thing is, the hope for a future of videogames made of "just a videogame" doesn’t lie with big box, it lies with the very people some quarters are attempting to drive out of the industry in order to "save videogames". It lies with those who’d fill out the middle ground and below. It lies with those who would say no to DLC, no to microtransactions, no to DRM solutions and on and on and on. It lies with the indies, the small developers, the women, the people of colour, the queer and beyond.

The vocal "just videogame" mob have lost one battle. What they’re losing this time isn’t the right to call videogames their own, it’s their chance to keep having videogames of their own because really, money aside, they’re not making the most compelling of cases that they’re the kind of people you’d want to make videogames for.

When big box no longer care, who will?

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