Diminished Impact and Changing Expectations
July 07, 2020

I'm sort of going somewhere with this, but before I get to that dubious destination, please humor me as I make one of the most obvious statements in the history of obvious statements: there are a lot more video games available in 2020 than there were in 1990.

Why make such an obvious statement? For starters, I made it because I think it's easy to forget. We look at all the great games coming out these days, and sometimes the temptation is to say something like "They sure don't make 'em like they used to," which is based on a few factors but largely--to my mind--is based on the difficulty developers now have making an impact. Not a lot of new games, even some very good new games, can keep us talking about them even as little as three months after their release.

I looked up records in the HonestGamers database. They're not perfect records, but they're a decent starting point. I found that in 1990, right around 200 games released for the NES in North America. That was the system's busiest year. And the busiest month appears to have been September, which saw around 26 new games released.

Compare that to this week, when around 40 games released for Nintendo Switch. It's not an especially unusual week. Most weeks, the number of releases is somewhere around 30. So that means that in the typical week, the Nintendo Switch has more brand new entertainment options than the NES saw during even the busiest month of the busiest year of availability. I think that's pretty impressive.

And that's only one system, mind you. PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are winding down as their successors approach, but they still see plenty of new content each month. Mobile games--some of them not even completely awful--continue to arrive at a rapid pace I've ceased to even notice. And Steam games, last I checked, arrive at the rate of a few hundred per week.

Put another way: each month sees the arrival of more new video games across the currently relevant platforms than were released across the entire life cycle of classic game systems such as the NES, Genesis, Super Nintendo or TurboGrafx-16 (and assorted expanded hardware for each of those). Maybe that even happens during a particularly busy week.

Is it any wonder we have a harder time paying attention to new releases? I was an obsessive fan of the medium when I was enjoying the last of my pre-teen years, but I didn't have to keep a lot of games on my radar. I could pretty easily remember what games I still wanted to own--but often never even got to play--from the preceding year or so. I missed the occasional gem, but if I slept through a week, I didn't suddenly find myself hopelessly out of the loop. The entertainment world moved a lot more slowly back then.

Nowadays, we have the swarm of new games arriving every week that I've already mentioned above. And we have the games from the preceding few weeks. And months. And years. And... decades. In fact, there are literally thousands and thousands of games at our disposal, with two important new distinctions to consider: a lot of the more recent additions to that list are considerably more robust--more likely to take days or weeks to complete than mere hours--and our access to every game ever made has never been better.

Consider more closely that first point. When we were kids in 1990 and we decided a month like September didn't have anything for us, maybe we went to the rental store and looked at the same 30 or 40 games from the last 2 or 3 years. Maybe a kid returned the one we wanted just before our visit, and we were had an amazing week because finally we were able to rent it. And we promised ourselves that next time around, we'd be back for the latest Mega Man or maybe we'd finally get to try that new racing game. There wasn't a lot of pressure to keep facing forward.

If we had more than one system waiting at home, the latest and greatest was probably miles ahead of the older stuff. When I was a kid, I could have fun playing an Atari 2600 at a friend's house, but it was pretty obvious to me that if I wanted something worth more than a few minutes of my attention at once, I needed an NES cartridge. Nowadays, "old" games include classics from the PlayStation 3, 2 and 1, and the NES is considered positively ancient by a lot of people playing games today who were toddlers (or not even born yet) when the PlayStation 3 arrived on the scene.

Exploring the hits of yesteryear is a lot easier now, too. Of course there's emulation. Look for a ROM site and an emulator and play everything, even homebrew stuff and games that didn't release in North America but are now available anyway thanks to fan translations. But I'm not even talking about just that. Services like PS Now and Xbox Game Pass, along with applications for PC gamers such as GOG Galaxy or Humble Bundle and Steam ensure that we can play games from most eras for pennies on the dollar. If I pay to play my games online on the newest PlayStation hardware, I get bonus access to great not-quite-new games each month. If I pay attention, I get a new gamer or two each week on the Epic Games Store without even providing my credit card details.

It has never been cheaper to be a gamer, never before been so easy to find hundreds or thousands of significantly discounted or even free games to occupy my time. Aside from the investment required to acquire capable consoles or PC hardware, money isn't the issue. Time and attention spans are the new entry price.

And that's good news, in most ways that matter. But it means that if an excited young developer opens up a new studio and puts out the sort of game that at one time might have been a masterpiece and fodder for many a playground discussion near the four-square court, today that potential masterpiece is likely to struggle to find a publisher. It may struggle to get anyone to buy it, even when offered at a substantial discount that doesn't even pay the developer enough to support his habit of eating three square meals a day.

Maybe the games are every bit as good as they always were, but some of the magic is gone because we expect each new great game to be an event or else we no longer care. Maybe we're most of us a little bit spoiled and maybe our expectations need an adjustment. Or maybe not, obviously. That's possible too. But I think it's a conversation worth having, either way.

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Germ Germ - July 08, 2020 (02:47 AM)
I very rarely got new games as a kid. I spent a lot of time going through the Funcoland bargain bins, and some of my favorite games were small titles that were many years old. To this day I love looking through games on Steam, whether releases from years ago with middling reviews or under-the-radar indies, looking for gold. It's fun and rewarding, and the sheer number of games doesn't bother me at all.

I certainly get your point though. I had a Gameboy as a kid, but I didn't have an always online Gameboy with tens of thousands of free games that also makes phone calls in my pocket at all times like kids today. There is certainly a devaluation there, and in the huge number of titles released for consoles you mention.

I don't personally see games as getting worse, in fact, I love the mix of quantity and quality available. But my opinion probably doesn't mean much since I don't really play modern AAA games very often, and its extremely rare for me to get hyped for one.
overdrive overdrive - July 08, 2020 (07:10 AM)
It's definitely different, but for me, it is in a good way. Growing up, I'd get a game from time to time and a few over December for both my birthday and Christmas and there were 2-3 stores within a few miles for rental options. Which mean, overall, I'd have to have restraint in what I played. If I wanted to buy something, I better like it because, if not, the next couple months would either be me playing Hydlide even though it sucks...or doing nothing but replaying titles I'd played to death when I first got them. If I rented a dog, it'd be a depressing weekend when I realized my "new game for a couple days" plan failed.

Now, I have a box with a 35-game backlog (many of which I haven't even put into a system). A few more games on Steam. And with PS Now, access to several hundred more. If a game doesn't click with me, I just move on to something else and I have options in whatever genre I'm remotely thinking about at a given time. Might not get the "know it like the back of my hand" moments with games of today as I did with older ones because each game is more a "play it and move on" thing for me. I'd say reviewing is part of that, but I think I'd be like that regardless just because with so many options out there, it's hard to imagine re-re-replaying that 100-hour adventure when I have a few similar-type games that are so easily accessed.

At least it wasn't like this when I was younger. Me and my impulse control issues would not have been able to handle anything like this as a teen.
jerec jerec - July 08, 2020 (10:17 PM)
Yeah, there's a lot of big "AAA" games being made, a lot of indie games coming out on a regular basis. The Switch is getting a steady stream of these games, although many of them are ports of games that were available elsewhere, but the first time for Nintendo. It's harder to sift through the shovelware and the bulk of games that might not be that good. Whenver there's a digital sale and I see games going for 80% off, I don't want to add it to my collection unless it's actually a decent game.

So at least in that way, reviews are still quite important for figuring out what to buy. I'm at a point where time is a more valuable commodity than money, in terms of how I approach games. Like OD said, if something doesn't click with me, I move on pretty quick. And sometimes I'm just not in the mood for a certain game, but if I come back to it later I might look at it more favourably. Like Red Dead 2... I played about 3-4 hours of that before getting annoyed, but I might try it again later and actually finish the story mode.
honestgamer honestgamer - July 08, 2020 (11:29 PM)
Switch has so many games. So, so many games. And around a quarter of them look really good to me. The rest... vary. But anyway, my main point is that we have so many choices now, it's almost impossible to appreciate any one game as much as we used to. We aren't forced to play Hydlide all the time until we know it better and can appreciate nuances that weren't initially obvious (or perhaps not, in the case of something like Hydlide). We're spoiled for choice, and there's a price to pay for that.

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