The Dearth of Summer Releases, the Problem with Community-Driven Games, and It's All My Own Issues Too
Like that topic? A triple-header of angst, eh? OK. Time to figure out how to navigate this one and get out of it in less than 3,000 words. Yeah, right. Well, truth be told, as I start to write this, it is maybe not so much this grand sweeping bit of prose that deeply analyzes the state of the industry with a lot of causality that will provide irrefutable proof using the Socratic method. At least I don’t think it is. It's more just a statement that in this lead-up to E3, I am uncharacteristically bored with this year's releases. Let me get started with it and see where it goes.
So I've been on record before as saying that this year is sooooo much leaner than last year's release slate. A furious flurry of jabs that I wound up, in truth, just not being able to keep up with. This year, however, not so much. Some of this is driven by my own personal tastes. Or you could look at as a problem with what has been offered up, what the industry is stating appeals to the mass market, and has assessed as providing cross-demographic adoption this year versus 2017. I would contend that I found and saw and still see a lot of people who picked up 2017's Horizon Zero Dawn that I would not have pegged to be the primary types of gamers who would play that title. Whereas this year's Monster Hunter: World, despite its large sales numbers, seems to have appealed to exactly the demographic of gamers by taste that I would have expected and I think (I'm going out on a limb here) failed in its effort to appeal to a large cross-demographic mass of gamers who had previously staved off from the franchise. While many of us may have stretched ourselves and (mistakenly) purchased it, I don’t know of many fence-riders and outliers who stuck with it.
With the largest release this month going into Memorial Day weekend being Quantic Dream's Detroit: Become Human, and there being little else, I spent most of the weekend diving into my backlog and trying out a bunch of community-oriented games that I had not revisited in some time, as well as trying out a new one. Last year in May we got Prey, Injustice 2, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia (3DS), Friday the 13th: the Game, and Star Trek: Bridge Crew. The first two games were significant, being named as Game of the Year contenders; the others were nothing super-big, but formed a crop of solid staples. This year we did get Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia on PC, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze on Switch (a WiiU re-release), Destiny 2: Warmind (DLC for a game at the center of player/consumer satisfaction controversy), Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire on PC (II haven't played the first one yet), State of Decay 2 (being met with lackluster reviews), and the aforementioned Detroit: Become Human (an acquired taste and also being met with less than stellar reviews). So, not necessarily a bunch of stinkers, but also no titles that were going to set the world on fire. And while I will again admit that some of this is a matter of gamer's choice and particular tastes, I would also again contend that it's been a pretty weak month in comparison to May 2017. It seems like every publisher thought that Detroit: Become Human was going to be some kind of behemoth and therefore staid out of the month of May. Or maybe everyone was afraid that any big game released in May would be drowned out by hyped up pre-E3 leaks and announcements.
But another thing that is fouling the release radar is everyone's mad rush to Battle Royale everything up, focus solely on multiplayer (thinking they can cash in on the success of games like Rainbow Six: Siege), and leave single-player campaigns and story behind. Because of the dearth of worthwhile releases in May, I wound up dumping 6 hours into Dreadnought this weekend, and plunked down money for Laser League. Both of these are PvP style games, although both games are kitted out with both Friend and Foe AI. And that's a good thing. Because at least on PS4, matches with other human beings in these two titles are rare to come by, much less full teams of humans.
I'll talk about the multi-player aspects of these games in separate posts. Both of these are fine games and I so very much wish that the player-base was larger. But having been partially satiated by the numerous battles that I had over the weekend, I was given pause to consider what these games could have been (and how well they would have sold) if they had been built around a solid single-player campaign and given some story, with great multiplayer modes being a value-add. Or in the case of Laser League, if they had built a Madden-like football-esque futuristic sports game complete with robust season modes, as well as a franchise mode, and included stats and player improvements and unlocks? I love the subject matter of both of these games, and will still play every now and again just with bots. But in order for me to play it just for the single-player, there needs to be a hook there. It could have just been the need to practice that could have been that hook. But then there would need to be the potential opportunity to then employ what I had learned in Practice against other people in real world combat. So far, those opportunities are not readily presenting themselves.
There's a point in all this. Game Devs: there are only so many golden door knockers out there. The likelihood that you'll score one and tear people away from a market that really only supports two major titles at any one time is pretty damned low. One need only look at Mixer and Twitch's landing pages and see that at any point in time, the vast majority of streams are about PUBG and Fortnite. Behind that are DOTA, League of Legends, and a few other MOBAS. And streaming anything other than those games is a pretty useless activity, so good luck, streamers, in building a viewer-base that is not interested in your diversity of content and alternative themes. And so, back to the devs, in this cult of Two, how in the world do you ever think that your new IP, steeped in multiplayer, chock full of new systems and sub-systems to learn, is ever going to rise up and challenge the likes of Scylla and Charybdis?
The answer is that they are not. And therefore some of these games are going to collide with their industry partners, and splinter their hulls drifting into a rocky shoal. As the market gets saturated and over-grown by new renditions on a pretty singularly themed game design, there will be no room left for anything but the PUBG and Fortnite of the time and their successors. It is already happening to a certain extent. And other publishers will be emboldened by Activision's choice to not have single-player in the impending to-be-released 2018 Black OPS iteration. It's a statement on the industry and our relative immaturity that we are in this mode of always trying to replicate the last great title. It's an industry that suffers from an extreme case of "me-too's" unlike any other. Here's to hoping that this nonsense gets better soon. In the meantime, I guess I'll play backlog single-player games and occasionally venture into great community-driven games with awesome designs that no one is playing.