Are we on the brink of the game-pocalypse?

Credit: Bago Games

We don’t talk enough about video games in this section, which is baffling when I think about it. Our generation may the most clued-up group of gamers that there will ever be. We have witnessed the growth of video gaming, from the colour and wonder of Crash Bandicoot’s polygonal torso to the perfectly-rendered face of NPC #234 in Fallout 4. Once dismissed as the preserve of basement-dwelling nerds, gaming is now a phenomenon spanning all demographics. The age of the gamer is well under way.

And yet it is now, at the height of its success, that video gaming faces its greatest challenge. Back in 1983, the gaming industry crashed amid a slew of poorly-made games and too many competitors. Over 30 years later, it seems almost impossible that such a collapse could happen again. But those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and the video game industry has never been blessed with an abundance of fast learners. Some of the problems of today are new and unique; some are startling familiar. Here are five reasons why the video gaming apocalypse might not be as far away as it seems.

1. New graphics, new problems

Game developers have been realising for a while now that graphical improvements are not always going to be enough to sell games and consoles. When the PlayStation 1 gave way to the PlayStation 2, the improvement in graphics was stark. Boxy buildings and chiselled faces gave way to what seemed, at the time, like realistic graphics. If you squinted. And were a bit blind in one eye.

But you only have to look at the differences between original Skyrim and the PS4 re-release to see that the improvements are not what they once were. At the point where a face looks like a face, there’s only so much more you can do, and it feels like we’ve reached a bit of an impasse in that respect. Graphics aren’t really the selling point they once were. Which raises the rather awkward question, what is?

2. Same old, same old

One or two failed games can spell the end for a video game developer. The most famous casualty is THQ, developer of the Saints Row and Red Faction series, which went under in 2012 after a couple of underwhelming releases. As a result, everyone else is so terrified of meeting the same fate that innovation is very thin on the ground in the mainstream market. FIFA and Call of Duty are reliably the best-selling franchises year on year; Assassins’ Creed has long since slipped into mediocrity with no end in sight. And even relatively new franchises, like The Division and Watch Dogs, are bringing nothing new to the table.

3. The market is overcrowded…again

In 1983, the industry crashed because it was overcrowded with competition and awful games. In 2017, the mainstream is overcrowded with competition and mediocre games. Mainstream gaming faces a threat from mobile gaming, and particularly from indie games, which are often superior. You only have to look at 2015’s ‘Undertale’, which made the sort of critical splash most AAA titles can only dream of at a fraction of the cost. ‘Papers, Please’ also springs to mind. Focussing on atmosphere and story over graphics and empty spectacle, it somehow turned bureaucracy into an utterly unique gaming experience. And I still wake up in a cold sweat at the thought of that blue-faced security guard sending me to communist jail.

4. Too many cooks…

Undertale and Papers, Please were created by Toby Fox and Lucas Pope respectively. In both cases, one man’s vision was ten times more effective than most designed-by-committee titles churned out by the AAA industry. It’s not difficult to see why. Even if a project is helmed by a daring visionary, the number of writers and developers he’ll have to go through before the game gets made will undoubtedly chamfer off any interesting edges the idea might once have had. Assassins’ Creed Unity was developed primarily by Ubisoft Montreal, but with contributions from no fewer than NINE other Ubisoft studios. How can you expect a game to retain any semblance of personality when the developers are working on the game in three separate continents?

5. Death of the consumer

The video game industry needs some lessons in public relations because it has been treating its audience with utter contempt for a while now. The limits on backwards compatibility are a particular bugbear for me, as I own numerous Xbox 360 titles which aren’t supported by the Xbox One. Console exclusivity is almost as bad. Games should not exist to serve the platform for which they are made, and yet that is the reality in which we now live. And then there’s the fact that games are now frequently released with blatant problems which are at best immersion-breaking and at worst game-breaking. With this mountain of problems, you have to imagine that even the most naïve of gamers must be growing increasingly wary.

It is difficult to imagine a full-scale collapse of the industry, but the signs are all there. Video games are very close to my heart, including several of the ones I’ve mentioned unfavourably above. But if this is what it takes to kick some life into the industry, send in the horsemen. The game-pocalypse can’t come soon enough.