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Game On: The future might be bleak for video games

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 19, 2020

A snapshot of the “Fortnite” storefront. Players can purchase in-game cosmetics using “V-bucks” – yes, you can spend $15 to unlock a pickaxe that looks like a flamingo.
A snapshot of the “Fortnite” storefront. Players can purchase in-game cosmetics using “V-bucks” – yes, you can spend $15 to unlock a pickaxe that looks like a flamingo.
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

In recent months, I’ve been slowly chipping away at my sizable backlog of video games – while I enjoy this reprieve from the latest and greatest, I also find myself wondering why I’m not more enamored by many newer titles. I consider myself something of a retro gamer, but I certainly don’t restrict myself to older games exclusively.

Many of the latest big-name games center around story-centric campaigns that place significant focus on the unfolding plot to keep players on the edge of their seats. Like an interactive movie, they typically succeed in that goal but aren’t well-suited for multiple playthroughs. The other AAA games that come to mind are online multiplayer games, enticing millions of gamers across the globe to compete against one another.

Although technology has improved, I can’t shake the feeling that video games have regressed in some ways. Story-focused games have remained largely linear, comfortable shoehorning players into identical outcomes regardless of their input. I understand the value of telling a good story, but these games make me feel like I’m riding in the passenger seat rather than driving.

The multiplayer games are more my speed, as they tend to emphasize skill, tactics and reaction time. But thanks to the explosive success of “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” and “Fortnite” in 2017, publishers have chosen to pump out clone “battle royale” games en masse in the hopes of creating the next big hit. These titles feature massive arenas where as many as 100 players duke it out until there’s only one survivor left, and they’ve proven quite popular.

I enjoyed “Fortnite” for a month early on, and “Apex Legends” and “Spellbreaker” grabbed my attention for a while, but I quickly found these games to offer far less replay value than their online shooter contemporaries from a decade ago. “Halo 3” launched in 2007 with nine game modes and a dozen varied multiplayer arenas, doubling the level count after two years of downloadable additions. “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” was released in 2009 touting similar numbers.

By comparison, nearly every battle royale title features just one massive arena and one game mode. It’s a solid gameplay loop, and the effort these developers have put forth in the interest of attaining fair game balance is admirable – regardless, it’s not enough to keep me captivated for more than a few dozen hours at most. I can’t help wondering if I am alone in this.

For more than two years, I assumed my lack of enthusiasm for battle royales was due to losing streaks. But two months ago, I was somehow winning about half of my 45-player “Spellbreaker” matches, and I still grew bored of it.

So what keeps people coming back? I can only guess – but deep character customization features are likely one driving factor. The games I cited from a decade ago had very few options for personalizing your in-game avatar, while these recent competitive shooters often boast hundreds of customization options. Back then, cosmetic items were locked behind in-game accomplishments – now, your options are to repeat those feats ad absurdum or else purchase cosmetics with real money.

I remember when these “microtransactions” debuted in “Team Fortress 2” in 2010 – “what a racket!” I thought. But fast forward to today, and Activision-Blizzard, the company that publishes the likes of “Call of Duty” and “Overwatch,” recently reported $1.2 billion in revenue just from microtransactions for the July-September period, with the publisher making $1.95 billion across all sources of revenue in that time.

Keep in mind the vast majority of these in-game items are purely cosmetic, so the company made $1.2 billion in three months from gamers wanting to look cool. It’s vanity insanity. Unfortunately, it seems this new source of income has begun to affect the quality of game releases.

“Fallout 76” and “Anthem” both hit shelves with short campaigns, riddled with bugs but a plethora of purchasable cosmetics. Despite palpable hype before release, they scored 52/100 and 59/100 on Metacritic, respectively – far below what was expected from the likes of developers Bethesda and BioWare.

Just like most other industries, gamers effectively vote with their wallets. It’s frustrating to see publishers lock content behind paywalls, but these companies would stop taking advantage of consumers if we stopped allowing ourselves to be easily manipulated.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com

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