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There is a narrative in the games industry and it is a narrative about ‘the game we are going to make’, ‘the big idea we’ve had’, ‘the beautiful concept art we persuaded somebody to draw’. It is a narrative about potential rather than reality.
Potential is wonderfully, dangerously attractive. Identifying potential, your own and that of others, is a hugely important skill in life. However, potential is just that: potential. It is the possibility of something great rather than its reality.
At all levels the games industry has become obsessed with the potential of videogames rather than their reality. It manifests in the indie-developer-to-be talking up their planned first game in forums. It manifests in the ex-AAA developer going to Kickstarter off the back of a chatty video and a handful of screenshots. It manifests in the huge array of half-finished games landing on Steam Early Access. It manifests in the keynote speeches about how, with just a few more graphics, it will finally become possible to tell a truly emotive, human story. It manifests in the fact that even the best forums for criticism and journalism are dominated by discussion of games that have yet to be completed or even, in some cases, begun.
To hope is human. I realise that. I also realise that money is needed for developers to eat during the development process and that it is far easier to make and sell hope than to make and sell games. I understand the economics that drives big publishers to invest in years of pre-launch hype and the economics that leads independents to push paid-for alphas onto the market at the earliest opportunity. I can see what drives our collective obsession with future games and I can see the necessary role that games critics and journalists play in that process.
But even though I understand it, it still makes me terribly, terribly sad. Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow. No game is ever as thrilling in the execution as in the idea. By measuring our gaming experience against the phantom of next year’s games we do an awful disservice to the games that actually do get finished. “Oh look, it’s that game I’ve been reading about for 18 months – I’ll give it go. It’s alright, but not as great as it looked when fresh. They’ve polished it a lot since the alpha I played a year ago but the gameplay is the same. I’ve tried it, now its time to move on.” The release of a game should be a tremendously exciting new birth, both for developers and players. Instead it feels like closing the book. Writing the final, version 1.0 date on the game’s tombstone. We are wasting our medium.
I don’t expect the industry to change any time soon and I can see the silver lining: platforms like Kickstarter have allowed games to be made that would never have got through a traditional, publisher-funded model; the AAA pre-launch hype machines help reduce risk for the most expensive mega-budget productions, leading to astonishing achievements in terms of technology and polish.
However, I would ask that we spare a thought for the games that have gone before; the games that are not slated for Q2 2014 but were released in 2013 or 2003 or 1993. Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Xmas advent calendar does a wonderful job of retrieving the special games that were finished in the previous year and putting them, fleetingly, back at centre stage. If you want to make one gaming resolution this year, let it be this one: play more old games. Play the games that actually got finished, listen to them, find the secrets and messages of their creators. Find some of the entries in the RPS advent calendars of previous years that you missed and take them for a spin. Give these games your time and, briefly, stop to appreciate a game that actually got made rather than one that is merely an optimistic sales pitch.