A gallery of weathered posters from the start of Death of the Outsider.

Will They Stop Making Video Games for Me?

Rob Zacny & Patrick Klepek

Following a devastating winter and spring for the games industry, and a lot of dismal rhetoric from publishers and platform holders, Rob and Patrick try and reckon with what the future holds for the kinds of games and experiences they have always loved... and maybe the entire concept of commercial art.

Patrick: Hey Rob, earlier this week I finally put the finishing touches on Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth, the second installment in a trilogy (!!) of remakes/sequels to a video game from 1997. It’s been 27 years since I played that original game. So much has happened since then in my life, not the least of which includes the death of my father and the birth of my two children. I’m nearly 40, but still don’t have gray hair. The video game industry has also changed radically, too, with different power brokers entering and leaving, and the form of the devices we play on undergoing radical shifts along the way. But for all that supposed change, nearly 30 years later, I’m still playing a story about a guy named Cloud and a girl named Aeris—sorry, Aerith—and it makes me wonder: how often do radical shifts end up feeling less radical with some distance?

I say this because on a recent podcast, we collectively wondered whether some of the games we like to play are going away. Thousands have been laid off and dozens of studios shuttered. There are unknowable numbers of games that you and I probably would have loved that we’ll never actually play, because their developers will never get a chance to ship them. What the industry is going through at the moment is, undeniably, change. I just don’t know what’s on the other end of it, and for as rocky as it feels, isn’t there a good chance it looks remarkably similar?

Who’s going to make the next immersive sim? Arkane Austin isn’t going to make another Prey, but this year, we were also treated to a loving System Shock remake. Deathloop wasn’t that long ago, and indies have taken up the design torch with gusto. It feels like we’ve poured one out for the immersive sim at least a dozen times, during the eras of Waypoint and Remap.

Inevitably, are we collectively playing out “that gum you like is going to come back in style”?

There was an interesting data point going around recently about how the most played video games in 2023 were, broadly, old. Games like Fortnite, Minecraft, Roblox, League of Legends, and others dominated, with precious few “new” games managing to sneak in. Strange days, surely, but if Fortnite is the avenue for a Rock Band resurrection, praise be. But it’s also incredibly scary if you’re a player of a certain age, because you can easily look at that data and tell yourself a story that ostracizes your interests with a few more demographic shifts.

I don’t know what to make of it. I also can’t help but wonder if, 10 years on, it’ll look shockingly similar to right now, just as Square Enix begins to roll out its three-part Chrono Trigger remake, and we’re watching someone present their new take on a game directly inspired by Dishonored.

So I put the question to you: how do you feel you, and the games you play, fit in this landscape?

CGW cover with a picture of a spaceship, asking if Wing Commander is worth 12 million.
The December 1995 issue of Computer Gaming World, back when the Wing Commander Franchise commanded some of the biggest budgets in games.

Rob: On the one hand, I think you are right that the future will look an awful lot like the present: an industry that is declining and stagnating, yet managing to bring forth flourishing crops of great games. On the other hand, the cycle of boom and bust can still have an overarching trend, the same way you can still get bitterly cold winters against a backdrop of global heating. I think that barring some major, transformative changes to business models, the future of the games industry will almost certainly be  less interesting, less original, and less sustainable than it was in the past. It will also keep finding ways to produce the kind of stuff we’re worried will go away.

I bring this up a lot, but developer Greg Costikyan gave two famous GDC rants a decade apart, each producing impending doom for the industry. The 2004 speech is absolutely scorched earth: at one point he said, “Iwata-san has the heart of a gamer, and my question is what poor bastard's chest did he carve it from?” This speech doesn’t think there’s such a thing as a “good suit”, putting it at odds with a decade of deferential and even fawning treatment of industry leaders from players and parts of the press.

But here’s the real crux of his argument:

Who was at the Microsoft keynote? I don't know about you but it made my flesh crawl. The HD era? Bigger, louder? Big bucks to be made! Well not by you and me of course. Those budgets and teams ensure the death of innovation.
…My friends, we are fucked. We are well and truly fucked. The bar in terms of graphics and glitz has been raised and raised until we can't afford to do anything at all. 80 hour weeks until our jobs are all outsourced to Asia. But it's ok because the HD era is here right? I say, enough. The time has come for revolution! It may seem to you that what I describe is inevitable forces of history, but no, we have free will! EA could have chosen to focus on innovation, but they did not. Nintendo could make development kits cheaply available to small firms, but they prefer to rely on the creativity of one aging designer. You have choices, too: work in a massive sweatshop publisher-run studio with thousands of others making the next racing game with the same gameplay as Pole Position. Or you can riot in the streets of Redwood City! Choose another business model, development path, and you can choose to remember why you love games and make sure in a generation's time there are still games to love.

Electrifying stuff! And you read it and there’s a lot here that he was right about… but then you think about how much amazing stuff came out between this rant and his next one in 2014 where he revisited these themes.

People who believe strongly in the inherent wisdom of markets and their power to give people what they want, and who see that forces of progress (technical or otherwise) often open up opportunities and innovation in seemingly moribund fields, will see these discrepancies and argue that the doomsayers were wrong. The world didn’t end, it got better!

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