Okay. My name is Ben Dutka, and I am 36 years old. I've been playing from the moment my uncle brought over the Atari 2600 with Pong. I was sort of fascinated, even though I didn't play a huge amount because I didn't have those parents who would buy you every videogame system and every videogame on the planet. I really only had Nintendo and Super Nintendo and a few games from both.
But, you know, it sort of became a bigger thing during high school and college. I got into RPGs, and in college I played a lot because I had a lot of time on my hands. I don't know what sort of commentary that is for the state of universities, but I had plenty of time on my hands. To me, college was a joke. If you want to call that an education, I guess.
But I was really into it for a while, and I thought it would be interesting to be part of it. I actually started off -- even though my degree was in psychology -- I started doing freelance writing for some local newspapers. I did that for a while and then I had an opportunity to get on with a site, PSX Extreme, back in 2006. That's sort of what really kicked things off. I had done stuff for Gamerweb, and Kikizo earlier than that, and I guess that was enough of a résumé to get me part-time in PSXE, and then I quickly moved to editor-in-chief because the editor had left for GameSpot. So, I was full-on into it at the time but over the years I think, well, life plays a part. You just simply do not have as much time as you used to have and, well, the less time you have, the less time you can spend with your hobbies. So that's part of it.
The other part of it is I started to develop some severe eye strain. If I was working all the time on the computer, I didn't really want to be playing games after it because it just added to the eye strain. So that pushed it back as well. I’ve found ways to deal with it now, so I can still play. But the other important thing is that games used to be -- I don't know, something more of an escape. They used to be something I could do and just get away from it all.
Over the past years, while a lot of it is optional, you still can't shake the feeling that so many games, in order to get the full experience, they want you to be fully connected -- you're supposed to be online to receive updates, you have to go online if you want to play multiplayer, people can see what you're playing if you're connected to the internet -- like people on your friends list can see what you're playing and talk to you. Now they work in social media, they work in apps, they work in -- it just doesn't seem anywhere near as private of a hobby, and the only way to make it private is if you completely cut everything off.
And when you do that, you're cutting off downloadable content, you're cutting off online access. It's not the full experience anymore. They just don't make games like that as often, and when they do, they're the smaller, digital indie games. Which I started to gravitate towards a little more. I lack that completionist attitude I used to have; I'd be like, "Okay. I want to see everything, do everything, I want 100 percent, I'd have the strategy guide next to me, I'd want to do all that." Now, it's more about just wanting to play. I want to see the story and I want to finish the game. So it's not as fervent, I guess. It's not as avid. It's not as much of a driving force between my hobbies. I really like to read. I've reached the point now where if I had to choose, if someone said: "I'm going to take away all your books or all your videogames," I'd probably tell them to take away all my games.
In some sort of Fahrenheit 451 situation?
Yeah, I mean. It's more one of those things where you look at it and go, "I've had so much fun with these games, and they meant a lot to me, but what I'm getting out of them now is simply not what I was getting out of them before."
It could be for a variety of reasons. It could be environmental, it can be personal. During a certain period of time in my life they were much more helpful. Now, maybe I don't need them. I mean, I think in a lot of ways, gaming was therapeutic for me, and when I no longer needed the therapy, it sort of felt superfluous. I still like to do it; I still play and I probably always will.
But I lack that full-on, I don't know, I guess people call it "hardcore." I also used to be a big part of the community and I'd interact in all the forums and all the sites. That, I can't do that anymore. It's -- the immaturity level is so through the roof I can't deal with it. It's really embarrassing. I don't get involved with that, either. So, I wouldn't say I'm an outsider 'cause I'm still involved, but it's more of a casual look at things.
I'm playing The Witcher 3 now and I know it's a big, hardcore game. And I actually had the game break. The game completely froze, and I had to start the whole game over after putting in eight hours. If that had happened 15 years ago, I would have lost it. I would have been really, really annoyed. I wouldn't have been able to sleep I would've been so annoyed.
Now I was like, "I don't know. Whatever. I'll start over in maybe a few days, give it time." My reactions to these things is much less -- I just don't put the same stock in it anymore. Maybe -- it's not so much the games changing. They games haven't changed as much as I think people think they've changed. They're bigger. They're more open. There's more stuff to do. But you're still sort of interacting and pressing buttons. Some of the really new stuff that’s more narrative-driven, very heavy on having you doing very different thing; those are really interesting. Big budget games aren't that much different than they were a decade ago. They're just bigger and flashier.
What's different is -- you mentioned it just a moment ago, which is there are apps to connect us and all that. But to keep this focused on you, why do you find that solitary experience preferable?
I think it's because -- it could be rooted in my past. In the old days, the only way to play with someone was if they were sitting next to you, otherwise you were always playing by yourself. When you're playing by yourself, it's more of a "I get to be in my own little world" thing, and for people who live very much in their own heads, as I've always done, it's very appealing.
You interact with people you maybe don't want to interact with throughout the rest of your days -- people who don't like school, the reason they gravitated very much towards solo activities is because they didn't want to be around them, and they wanted to take time to themselves. That was what gaming was for me and for a lot of other people.
Now, people don't bother me, whatever. I don't have this glaring need to be part of it. [Sighs.] I just want to sit by myself and have some fun for an hour. It doesn't need to be eight hours, it doesn't need to be 10 hours. Just for a few hours. But like I said, it's rooted in my past. I think if you grew up a different way -- like, kids today, they grew up now, they've got all these multiplayer games, multiplayer is so huge -- I mean, I know people who have kids now and the only way they even play is with other people.
And when I say that, I mean virtually, I mean online. That's going to lead to a whole different thing. Their experience with games is going to be very different from mine, so I really think it's in how I grew up with them and how I interacted with them in the first place. I was by myself, and maybe, I don't know. Maybe nostalgia's playing a bigger role than I think.
If you think nostalgia is playing such a big role, and you can maybe try to put it aside, what do you feel is missing from those older games that you don't see as much of in modern games?
Well, it's definitely -- you can't say content because let's face it, the older games had, compared to today, virtually no content. Tetris was Tetris. There's not much to talk about. So, it's not so much what content-wise -- it's more of a tone. I would use the word "innocence."
Because games really did start off as for children, they really were toys for kids. They were electronic toys. That's what they were. They were geared towards children. They all were. That's the whole point.
Nowadays, obviously, they're not. It's an adult form of entertainment just like anything else. There are games for all ages. But I think in that time period, there was something lighthearted about it, if you go back to those older games; even fighting games like Street Fighter. This is pre-Mortal Kombat, now. If you go back to Street Fighter on the Super Nintendo, it's colorful. It's bright. It's comical. There's a whimsical nature to a lot of those old games that you just don't get much today. Everything now seems is dark, gritty. I think the best word is probably -- "dark" doesn't encompass enough, but that's really what I get. I mean, everything that I'm playing now has a really dark vibe to it.
Even if the game itself is brightly colored, the story is dark and depressing and gritty. And that -- we didn't really have a lot of that. I think I'm missing that. I think that's why when I play a game like Journey from a few years ago, it was so surreal and so simple and so straightforward that it did remind me of a time when games were not trying to shock, they were not trying to send a message, they were just trying to entertain. And entertainment in those days, it was to make you smile. Now it's more of a -- to make your eyes open. To push you back in your chair.
In those days it wasn't like that. I think there's that distinct difference in tone, which, granted, Nintendo has carried that torch forever and has never deviated really. You could make that argument, I guess, but even then there's a difference in tone. It's just there's something about it. Then, you couple it with the fact that you were young, you were a child. So you have those little rosy memories of being a child and you couple it with this sort of lighthearted nature of entertainment, I just don't get that anymore. I don't get it because I'm not a kid anymore. And I don't get it because kids are very different in tone.
Well, okay. But tell me a bit about your cutting back, how you ended up going to about an hour a week from 10 hours a week.
Well, as I mentioned before, life happened. I got a girlfriend, I got more friends, I moved around a bit. I also started to indulge in other hobbies. I started to really love reading, which I do for at least an hour a day now, and I wanted to get outside more. I got into gardening, hiking, playing tennis, and all that. Toss in the fact that I still have to work at a computer, and I don’t want my leisure time to always be spent in front of a screen, and I guess the tailing off was inevitable.
Yeah, and tell me a bit about your eye strain. Given how you’re making efforts to repriortize and restructure how you spend your days, why is it still worthwhile to you to make some time to play videogames with that obstacle?
It’s worth it because despite the scaling back, despite my reservations and concerns about where the industry is headed, I still love to play. It’s still fun for me. My tastes have shifted a bit but I still get great enjoyment out of certain games. Now, if my eye strain is too severe, I won’t play, obviously. But if I can manage that problem -- and I’ve done a good job of it lately -- and I can still play, I definitely will. There’s still no other form of entertainment like videogames.
You were mentioningJourneybefore, and something I remember about that game is the sand shimmers.
Games used to have a lighter tone. It was silly, it was comical. Mario was out to save the princess, isn't that amusing? Zelda. You look at the biggest games; like I said, I'm playing The Witcher 3 now. All you see everywhere you turn is strife and starkness and disgusting creatures and people desperately trying to survive in a ridiculously harsh world, and that is not uncommon. In fact, that is the common theme actually today. I know it doesn't affect some people, and maybe it shouldn't. But to me, it's a little draining. It's like, how many games can I play where the focus is suffering and death? How many games can that be the atmosphere?
It's in all the big mainstream titles, and everything. Where are the bouncy lighthearted uplifting stories? Can't people write stories like that anymore, or do we just not do that? I don't know. But it's certainly not so much in gaming. You get it more in smaller doses. Like, Bastion's a great example of that, I think, and some of the smaller indie games where they try different ideas. But when it comes to mainstream stuff, it's just very dark and I don't find it all that appealing in large doses. I'll put it that way.
How do you define creativity in games?
I mean, I don't go the technical route. I understand there are a lot of unbelievably talented artists and they can create some amazing imagery and creativity in and of itself is an extremely subjective term. But games I tend to call creative, the ones I tend to make a note of in my review that this is a very creative game are the ones that are very original. That there are things in them that I have not seen before. Or if I have seen them before, not in this way, they're presented in a different fashion. It means to me that the designers went out of their way to convey their message or present this form of entertainment in a way that no one's ever really seen before. Something unique. Even if I don't like it.
My enjoyment of it, when it comes to creativity, I think is irrelevant. If it's creative, it's creative. It matters not whether I like it. So, I tend to put a big premium on developers that take risks and try these new things, even if they don't work and maybe the execution's not that great. There's a lot of highly creative games with poor execution, unfortunately. But I tend to look at games that try new things and affect you in a different way, and try to come at you in a different way. And that's why I start to look at innovation, and in my head innovation and creativity are starting to, I don't know, combine or bleed together.
What's funny is I interviewed a developer recently who said for her, they're doing the opposite. They're differentiating themselves in her mind. But for you, what's an example of a really creative game that had poor execution?
Well, actually, it just came out. It's a game called Toren for PS4. It was made by -- I believe it's the debut game from a Brazilian developer, Swordtales, I believe is the name. Toren was pitched as an Ico-like game, an adventure, very surreal and you play as a boy who grows up and must climb this tower. And at the top of the tower, you must slay a dragon, and it's very simple in that way, but there's a lot of lore behind it. You can see the South American influence that's coming through in the game. At some point, he dives into his own dreams and you even explore, like, underwater. It's a very creative, very interesting concept. I think the first thing I do in that game is you're crawling and move towards a rock. You don't do that very long, you quickly grow up into a young man.
But the problem is the technical side didn't match it. There was a lot of problems. The control was loose and awkward and there was a lot of graphical problems and hitches and glitches, and they didn't do enough with the concept they put it in, it did seem kinda thin the further you went. But it was very creative and, you know, it did remind me a little of Ico but it did not have the polish and execution that you needed for something like that if you're going to make that comparison.
So, I think that's one example. And they come out every once in awhile, and I'll go, "You know, this game had such a great concept and they just didn't finish this side of it. Oh, by, the way, this is also an interactive medium." If the interactive side doesn't work, then unfortunately, the rest of it doesn't work. So, we always have to remember that. They say it's cliché to put gameplay at the top of the list, but if you're sitting there pressing buttons, then it has to be at the top of the list because this is an interactive form of entertainment. And unfortunately, Toren, it isn't I would say broken, but it's not stable enough and it's not polished enough, and within that is a concept that's sort of languishing.
And you see that. You see that every now and then. And that's okay. Developers are trying new things, and these indie developers are trying new things and giving it a shot, and I have no problem with that. It's better than nothing. It's better than having the same-old, same-old come out, big-budget AAA blockbusters. At least we get some variety.
We have more variety at this time in gaming than we have ever had in the history of games. That is -- well, I wouldn't say the lone positive, but the biggest positive, I think, right now.
Well, you say that, but I talked to a teenager recently for another outlet, someone who is much more actively playing, and his perception of games is that there are only three types of games. Like, that sounds low, right?
Although he was able to articulate it in a way where it was like, "Oh, you know what? He's actually right." He is not beholden to the genres that we're likely thinking of. He was able to fold them into much bigger buckets that you and I have not really thought of.
Well, you can do it with three now. But if it is three now, it was one in 1985. There's no way to try and make the claim that there's less variety than there was 20 years ago. That's just not possible. We had one type: We had side-scrolling, 2D, that's it.
We have such a wildly diverse array of games from not just perspectives but in how they're played, how we even interact with them. It's true, I think, you can say that some games are about shooting things, some games are about solving puzzles, and others are about following the story. I suppose that's one way to put it into three, and almost all games would fall into there. But in 1990, I remember going over scores of games on the wall in a Blockbuster and trying to find a new one to rent and realizing, "Yeah, they're all pretty much the same." They even look the same, because they didn't have the technical capability that we have now. In my view, it's unfortunate that people don't think we have a lot of variety now. I think we could use more, now.
Maybe so. But so, I'm curious: If you claim to be losing interest in videogames, how come you are so current or why do you stay so current on newer stuff? Toren came out pretty recently, this year, and you seem to know a lot about it.
Well, I’m still working in the industry. I’m still writing for PSXE and I see the news every day. I also still write lots of reviews and previews and features and all that. The interest that I’ve lost stems from how my life and general hobbies/interests have changed. It’s not that I don’t still want to play games, and even love playing them; it’s that I’m just not as heavily invested in them. They aren’t such a huge part of my life anymore. They’re simply a hobby that I enjoy from time to time and in all honesty, I would like to get away from covering them for work. If I could do that, more of my interest might return.
You were talking before about smaller teams, independent developers. What do you feel is lacking from that space? You were talking about execution before.
Well, I mean, here's the thing: The reason I think indies are being held up as the champion of the times is there's the conception that these developers are not under pressure by publishers to create something. In other words, they're allowed to be free in their beliefs and they can create whatever the hell they want.
And there is some truth to that. To some extent.
But no matter what, you still need the money to put it out, and if you're going to put it out yourself, you need to raise that money. If you want a publisher to do it, then a publisher has to like what you've made. So, I think there's that conception: "Oh, well, they put this out because they wanted to do it, and they made something completely different." And that's true. That does happen. But at the same time, these are hardly proven individuals. These are just people who decided they wanted to make a videogame. They're not people that have been doing this for 25 years and know exactly what they're doing, so it's sort of a crapshoot. It's why people will talk about games like Journey until they're blue in the face, and there's a lot of great indie games over the years: Echochrome and Rain and things like that.
But for every one game, that indie game that gets so much attention and so much positivity, there's 10 or 20 or 30 that are just plain bad. And we tend to gloss over that, and the bottom line is they're people who just want to try to make a game. They've never done it before, maybe they don't even have an education in that field, so of course you're going to get a lot of misses. I think we just sort of need to acknowledge that as much as people hate big companies and big developers and big publishers, they tend to have the money to recruit top talent, and there's a reason that those people are there. So, the lower you go, the less money that's involved, well, the less talent is often involved unless you're lucky enough to have somebody who's just starting their career and is amazing at what they do, and then you start seeing these amazing indie games.
I'm wondering in the future, thatgamecompany -- you know, Flower and Journey and Flow -- they've been held up as the paragon of the indie developer, like, everyone aspires to be like them because they started small and made these amazing little games. But with that success comes growth, and what happens when thatgamecompany becomes the next Naughty Dog? Will they be viewed in the same light? All of a sudden they're not independent, maybe they're owned by somebody, then what happens? Do people see their games as not as impressive because they were from humble origins and now they're not?
So, there's that. There's a lot of that going through the indie world now where if it's indie it's automatically better than something that came from a giant team of 800 people. But that's not very logical and doesn't make much sense to me.
I used to teach in this one university games program. We were talking about EA in class one day and immediately in the classroom this one student just starts laughing. I was like, "What's funny?" And he says, "EA is terrible." I was like, "Why?" He couldn't tell me why.
Yeah, that happens. That happens a lot.
What happens a lot?
Here's the thing. EA, Activision? They're whipping dogs, they're favorite targets for gamers. They don't want to admit it but the only reason they're favorite targets is because they're as big as they are. If they weren't these massive mega-global corporations, they would not be under as much scrutiny. It's very true that there are practices that are not the best, and everyone is whining about how much downloadable content and microtransactions -- I only have one response to that: "You bought them. You bought it. We all bought it."
They wouldn't keep doing this if they didn't sell. You bought them. You bought the downloadable content, you're complaining that it exists, and then you went and bought it, so of course we're going to get more. You can't complain over having these big season passes that cost $50 for extra content for a game and you're saying, "Oh, well, it should have been in the game in the first place." But you still bought it. You went and bought it.
This is a business, and if you're going to buy it, it's supply and demand, and they're going to keep giving it to you. So, don't blame them. It has nothing to do with them. Microtransactions? You're buying them. These things would not exist if it didn't work. If they were not making money with these plans, then they wouldn't exist. And they exist because they do make money and they make money because people buy them. So, it's hypocritical of people to make all these claims when the community has responded overwhelmingly that this is obviously something they want, because people keep buying it, and they make a lot of money doing it, and no one's putting a gun to your head.
And people always say, "Well, you know, they're putting out games that are not full and complete." And my response to that is I have never played an incomplete game. I have never finished a game and said, "Well, I think they left things out of this." That's never happened. If I didn't know about downloadable content, I would never have known. I wouldn't know! It didn't seem incomplete to me.
And a lot of developers are yelling at the top of their lungs, they're trying to defend themselves, they're saying: "Look, we just made more content for the game. We didn't even start on this until the game was over. We did not hold back on content." That's the belief now, that the publishers are having developers chop up games so they can keep selling pieces of it off. And no developer has ever said that that's happened to them. No developer has confirmed that any publisher has ever made them do that.
It's certainly true that they'll make them work to create new pieces of content so they can sell them, but if you really think about it, the manifest intentions of downloadable content is actually very positive. If you go back to 1985 and you walk up to one of us, and we were sitting there playing Super Mario, that Nintendo is going to make five new Super Mario levels for this game, you're trying to tell me you wouldn't be interested? Really? Give me a break. We would have all been interested, we would have all been over it. It's more content for a great game and we don't have to buy a whole new game for it.
Unfortunately, there's a downside to everything, and when things get big, they start to enforce their will a little bit and say it's become part of an ingrained part of the culture now. Everyone expects to pay for DLC, so we can kinda do what we want. Now we can make them bigger, we can make these packages bigger, we can charge more. So, there is that side of it, but every time that happens, the response from the gaming community is, "Well, that's all right. We'll still buy it."
Well, all right. So buy it, but you can't complain in the next instance that it exists, you bought it. [Laughs.] That's the way it is.
I think I've only bought DLC for, like, two games?
Yeah. I'm with you, I think I did it once or twice.
And it isn’t an act of protest, just a byproduct of my schedule and how many games I've beaten to that point. I think I've ended up getting a lot of DLC just buying games after the fact and it'd be packed in.
Though I think there were some cases where the griping was a little legit. For example, do you remember -- I think it was Street Fighter, a Capcom game where I'm not even sure how they discovered it. But apparently there was just all the DLC, or at least some of the DLC, was already on the disc that people had paid for. You had to pay unlock stuff you already bought.
Yup. I wrote the stories for this, I remember it very well. And I remember thinking, when I was writing them: "One, this is wrong. This is what happens when a decent idea goes bad." The second thing that I thought was, "Oh great, now that this is going to get this much traction and attention, everyone's going to think that all DLC is like this. Crap." And I knew that is what was going to happen and that is kind of what has happened.
The things that get the most attention are the things that turn things into facts. The bottom line is that is an extremely rare incident. I've spoken to many developers over the years who say, whenever you mention it, they go, "Oh God, yeah, I don't know what that was all about. We don't do that, we've never done that. We make our extra content later. I don't know what that's all about."
Capcom came under so much fire -- and rightfully so. They should not have done that, and when it came out, all the flack they received was well-earned. They should never have done that. It shouldn't be happening. But, you know, it is a rare instance. I don't think the games that come out today -- developers will say, "Well, there's this and this and this and this." And it's like, well, if they can announce these four packs that are coming, why can't they put it in the game? They announced it a year early. They know they're making them, why can't we put it in the game? Well, the answer to that is, "Well, they probably could, you just have to wait much longer for the game, which you all hate. You don't like to wait longer for a game." And when a game comes out, they like the idea of more content because it keeps the game fresh and they don't have to spend another $60 for the game.
And let's not forget that this is the first generation in, I think, three generations where the price of games did not increase. It increased $10 from starting with PlayStation, new games were $40, PS2 was $50, PS3 was $60, and now PS4, they're still $60. And one of the reasons they're still $60 is because these DLC and season passes and microtransaction issues are making them plenty of money and they don't have to increase the cost of the titles. Too many people glossed over that. I was fully convinced games were going to be $70. I think by all rights they could be $70, and publishers are saying, screaming at the top of their lungs, "By all rights, these games should be $100."
And why? Because in the Super Nintendo days, cartridges were 70 damn dollars. And we forget that the cost of games, for the technology compared to now -- I mean, we were paying $60 in 1988 -- and we're paying the exact same price now, and there's no comparison between those products. There's none. I mean, it's a universe between them. And we're still paying the same. The difference is they're making the money on all this extra content. They're making a lot of it, and digital download is becoming a big thing and that's how the industry has changed and people are saying, "Well, everything is going digital and we don't want the physical copies anymore." Of course, old guys like me are going, "I want a real collection, you go ahead and stick to your digital files on a screen." But whatever.
How do you think the games media could be helping improve the industry?
Well, the biggest problem that they face right now is that because they're almost entirely centered online, they have to deal with the online culture, which is very different. If you want to make any money at all, you have to have traffic, because the only source of revenue for you is ads. You're not e-commerce, you're not selling anything, the site is essentially free. So, how do you make any money at all?
And the only way to do that is to drive traffic. And, unfortunately, there are legitimate ways of driving traffic that have nothing to do with legitimate journalism. In fact, legitimate journalism is probably the best way to shoot yourself in the foot. If you go to N4G or if you go to these aggregate sites that collect the hottest stories, right? Do you see the best researched, most well thought-out articles at the top? No. You see the dumbest, click bait, stupid headlines that could ever exist getting the most attention.
Now, granted, that's indicative of the embarrassingly adolescent community and that's all they apparently want to read. But, in general, it's also the internet culture that does not encourage reading. It absolutely does not. It encourages the opposite.
The digital trend right now is shorter, punchier headlines, shorter, punchier articles because people don't read. They read the headline, that's about it. So, it's difficult to create a really nice piece and put a lot of effort into it, and something that might actually be worthy of being published in, say, a print venue. You put it online, especially in the gaming community, and unfortunately nobody cares. It's just not going to get enough attention.
Unless you're already established. Unless you're a Polygon. Unless you're a Gamespot. If you're a site that's trying to grow, if you want to put these kinds of articles on your site, just give up now. There's no point. You're going to need to spice things up, you're going to have to get some hard-hitting headlines. Yeah. They may be gimmicky or sensationalistic, but unfortunately it's the only thing people seem to respond to.
Wait a minute. Are you saying I should give up?
No. Your site, thankfully, has a goal that will reach far beyond gaming. If it was only gaming, yes. But you have a much better idea of how things are much more encompassing.
For example, say if The Atlantic tried to come into being today and they were only basing it on a website, they would fail in a week. There's no hope. They have the best written articles in the world. And a lot of times, very often, these are things that are talked about on the highest spheres of society, and yet, they obviously have a huge history behind them so everyone knows who they are. If you're trying to start out now and you do that, it doesn't matter how good you are. It doesn't matter what kind of quality you have. If you don't have a way to bring people to your site, it's just not going to matter.
And gaming falls into a big trap. Anyone who's any good will want to be paid for their efforts. It's hard to get people who are extremely good at their craft to work on either part-time or voluntary salary, which is meaningless to them, and meaningless to most people who want to live normal adult lives. You can't live on $500 a month or whatever it is. So, what happens is it's a Catch-22. You can't afford to pay the necessary talent, the good people who are well trained in their craft and are professionals, but at the same time, the people you bring on aren't good enough to launch your site into a new sphere, and they're being told -- they're being the directive: "We need traffic. So, do whatever you can do get that traffic or we don't exist."
Which is why I think there are examples of sites purposely putting up a review of a huge game where everyone else is giving it a 10 or a 9 and they give it a 6 or a 7. Why? Not because the game is a 6 or a 7, but because it's going to get hot. It could go viral. "Oh my God, someone just gave Grand Theft Auto V a 5." Guess what? It's going to be the No. 1 looked at review on the internet. And there's all these gimmicky things that people are trying to do to stay alive. There's a few people going, "Why is everybody doing this? Why do journalists sound like kids? Why do they sound like they put all these stupid fanboy articles up there?" The response is: "That's because that's what you want." It's obviously what you want. It's what's at the top of all the lists. It's what the most trending topics are.
The hottest videos on YouTube are arguably the dumbest or they're the cutest. [Laughs.] But, I mean, these long, drawn out, really well-researched articles on the state of the gaming industry? Go ahead. You can put it up, and I'd be proud of your effort, and I'm glad it exists, but you'll get nine hits.
And at the same time, someone who just wrote "PS4 Kills Xbox One because Blah, Blah, Blah," that gets 10 million hits. Well, then, what are we supposed to do? We can't change the culture from the inside-out. We have to give the people what they want. And what they want is not anything that's going to enhance the reputation of the game industry.
Or, I mean, change it in a meaningful way or evolve it. When you were more actively gaming, how did the games media impact what you were interested in?
I think it impacted it a little. As much as everyone wants to stand and posture and say, "It doesn't affect me at all," that's a big pile of crap. If you're paying attention at all, it's going to have some impact. I think maybe the biggest change is that it may have been positive in that it opened my eyes to different types of games, it brought more games in front of me -- because I was on an RPG kick for a while, and I really only played RPGs. When the PS2 came around, that started -- I wouldn't say it began, but it really enhanced the media surrounding gaming.
The PS2 generation to me saw gaming be a common part of mainstream media and saw it it be more in front of you more of the time. It's not just back in the day, where the only way you could see a game before it came out was some fuzzy pictures in Nintendo Power. You could go online and you could see actual gameplay and you could see previews and I think that changed -- that offered a lot of people a lot of chances to see different games. I would never have played Grand Theft Auto 3 if it hadn't been for being able to see some of it and learn a bit more about it. Not just from other people, not word of mouth, but be able to do some research on my own. And you couldn't do that before. You just look at the box, that was the best you're gonna do, especially if you didn't have a magazine subscription. And you look at the box, and try and get an idea of what it is. And you know what you like and you stick to what you like, but now all you gotta do is click a button on YouTube and look for 30 seconds and get an idea of what it is, and I think it actually helped. I think it helped me try new things. It helped me get more interested in different things -- like I said, I'm not a big fan of constantly being connected, and yet this medium allowed me to actually say, well, I actually do want to go on to the PlayStation store and see what some of the cool little games they have up there are because that did help me a little bit in that respect. So I think that's a positive thing for me.
What trends do you notice in what game outlets cover or don't cover?
In terms of just websites and podcasts and just general coverage of the industry, I think one of the things you see is fewer text previews because in the wake of all this video and media exploding, people don't really want to read, they can just look at the game. That's one thing that I see changing. There used to be big previews that would get a lot of attention, but what's the point now when you can just look at three or four different gameplay videos?
But maybe the biggest change is -- again, maybe this is a reflection of the readership, but it seems to be more negative. It seems to be -- the headlines that are negative in tone get more attention than the headlines that are positive in tone. Again, there's evidence of that everywhere. So, the headline that says, "Such-and-Such is the Worst Game of All Time and Here's Why" is almost guaranteed to get double the traffic as, "Such-and-Such is the Best Game of All Time and Here's Why."
Again, I don't really know why that is. It could be because the readership is comprised of really nasty people, I don't know. But I think people forget that this is supposed to be fun, this is a hobby, this is supposed to be entertainment. I wouldn't say you shouldn't take things too seriously because when you say that you want to make it sound like gaming is not a legitimate venue for entertainment -- which it is, and it should receive proper news coverage just like any other entertainment venue, but it is also entertainment, and we probably shouldn't lose sight of that fact. I think the trend now is they are losing sight of the fact that this is entertainment. This is not the end of our lives. Just because this game got pushed to here, let's not all run away and jump off a cliff.
I'm putting a little bit more of a positive spin on thing. Like, this year, there's been a lot of delays. I mean, there was a span of time where I didn't go a month without writing about another big delay. But at the end of I'll always say, "Yeah, okay, so, it's delayed. It's terrible. Unfortunately Uncharted 4 is gone. It's not coming out this year." That is not good, it is not good for a number of reasons. Now the PlayStation 4 line-up for the holiday season looks a lot less robust, it could affect sales, blah, blah blah. But at the end of it I go, "You know, as always, when we come towards holiday season of September, October, November, there are going to be plenty of games worth playing. There is probably way too many to even try and play them all, the ones you want to play, so don't worry about it too much. It's not like we're suffering from a game shortage." And, the other upside is, "Do you really want them to come out with the game when it's not ready?"
Everyone's complaining about The Witcher right now, but they were complaining about delays before. Well, you can't have it both ways. You need to give them the time. Would you rather have a fantastic game six months later, or would you rather have a disappointing game six months earlier? So, I do try and do that. I'd like to think it has some sort of impact on the reader and they look at it in a little brighter light, but I don't see that a lot in other places. I see a lot of people -- they want to take advantage of the bad news and kind of freak out about it and get everyone talking, which is a legitimate way of creating attention, but I don't know. I miss the -- because when I was a kid, yeah, there were wars. There was always Genesis versus Super Nintendo, but they were never nasty, they were never hostile, there was always, like, "Well, my system is better than yours." But now, the focus is on, "Your system is worse than mine." That is not the same thing. That does not say the same thing.
Hang on, are you saying there's a big difference between the systems today?
Let me put it this way: not much. I know what you mean, though. One of the things that you start to notice: I mean, there was a very big difference like Super Nintendo and Genesis, but now we're getting to the point where Xbox One and PS4, okay, you could say that most of the multiplatform games for PS4 will hit 1080p while on Xbox One they're only doing 900 or 980, if that makes any big difference. I don't know. I may not even tell the difference on my TV. You could be blue in the face and compare Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. Whatever.
And at the start of the PS3 generation, it's absolutely true that there was no comparison between Live and PlayStation Network. Live was light years ahead of the PSN. That is not true now. It hasn't been true for a while. Now, of course, you have to pay for both. PlayStation Network was free last generation. They both run similar campaigns. Ninety-nine percent of games are released on both systems. They all have apps, they have streaming capabilities, so, it's not entirely wrong to say that these systems are very close -- I wouldn't say identical, but boy are they similar. So what's the point?
Even so, you still have the people -- fans of each one. They seem to get much more delight in slamming the other system than promoting their own. When I was a kid it seemed to be a reverse. I think that's the difference in tonal shift. It was just more positive and lighter, and now it is darker and more negative. That's the most significant shift, I think.
Do you feel it's odd to be writing about videogames if you're paying less attention to them, or playing them way less?
It feels a little strange sometimes. I get up and write some daily news and the whole time I’m thinking, “this used to be an industry I adored.” It’s not that I’ve lost interest entirely but my changing perspective has resulted in more apathy. People get all worked up about various topics and I don’t. People get all bent out of shape over certain controversies and I just roll my eyes and move on. I am playing games less but because I still have to be knee-deep in the culture on a daily basis, there’s this constant clash. It just feels weird.
When you hear the word "gamer," what do you feel is missing from the mental picture that tends to come up for most people in discussing that term?
Well, there's the now-archaic but lingering stereotype that if you say that to people who are not familiar, they will only dredge up memories of what the mainstream media covered -- they covered things about addictions and people who died in front of their computer because they wouldn't leave and how they got more violent by playing such and such game.
So, I have had instances where, in a group of people, I say, "Well, I'm a journalist." And they'll say, "Oh, in what?" And I'll say, "Oh, for videogames." And you can see the reaction. I mean, the reaction is visible. They may try and cover it up, but it's visible. And it's clear that they don't take it seriously, it's probably the bottom rung of the ladder in the world of journalism, and some of them actually look afraid. Some of them look like they're scared. The question in their eyes is, "Oh, so are you weird? How are you going to react if I say this?"
There's still a lot of misinterpretations, a lot of assumptions that people who play games are maybe affected by them. And honestly, I have come across people who are fearful. I suppose it could help that I'm 6'3" and 220 [pounds]. But even so, despite that, I think there's also a lot of people who are going, "Well, so, if you played that game -- did you play that Grand Theft Auto game?" And they have that look in their eye, like, "If you played it, you're more likely to take out a bat and hit me over the head."
There is still that. It's getting better, though; as years go on and gaming becomes more accepted, it'll dwindle, but it's not dwindling fast enough. And, well, it's not helping that a lot of the mainstream games are exceedingly violent, so that's not really helping our cause, either. But, yeah, I mean, "gamer" used to be taken as more of an age thing. I think we're past that now. I think most people who are even in a little in the know understand that it's not just for 9-year-olds as it used to be. I think we're past that. But we're not past some of the, "Well, how does it affect you?" questions. They wanna know how long you play. I think a lot of people say -- like, if you're going out and you're going dating or something, and you tell somebody who has no idea about any of this, one of the first concerns they're gonna have is they think you're not gonna want to go out with them on a certain day because you just picked up a new game and that it's a major priority in your life.
And I've never done that, ever.
Even when I was at my peak RPG time, if someone called me and said, "You wanna go out and do something?" I have never said no. That has never happened to me. I mean, if it was something stupid that I didn't want to do, that's different. But if it was something I wanted to get out and do and be active, I have never said no and it certainly has never impacted anything else. And I think for the huge overwhelming majority of people, I think it's the same way.
I mean, addiction? I have a psychology degree. I know what addiction is. And I also know that you can become addicted to anything. You can become addicted to peanut butter. You can become addicted to tinkering with your car in the garage. The other thing is they say, "Oh, that seems like a very time intensive, expensive hobby." Time-intensive? Eh. I don't know. I guess it would depend on how much time you put into it, if I put a couple hours in a day, I don't know if that's time-intensive. Ten hours a week? Maybe. Expensive? No. Not even remotely close. You want to know an expensive hobby? Golf. You want to know an expensive hobby? A real hardcore sports fan who likes to go to all the games and get all the games on cable or on the dish. That's expensive.
This is relatively cheap and relatively unobtrusive for people who live normal lives, and these are things that I think most people don't get about that term, "gamer." So, I think there's still a lot of that. People who are in the industry and people who play games a lot, when you say "gamer," I think they know what you mean. I don't think they take it a wrong way. "Oh, you like games." It's becoming to them not much more different than you say, "Oh, I like movies or I like books or I like music." It shouldn't be that much different. In fact, it's very similar. I hope we get there soon.
But for now, there's some lingering stuff about the term that makes it challenging for people who really like to play games when they're out amongst people who don't know anything about it.
Do you think the lack of creativity in games or the lack of exploring other possibilities, do you think that keeps the perception of games narrow? Or do you think it's hurting games?
It is because -- well, they're stymied. Maybe they do want to create these new things, but with the amount of money that has to go into these products now, publishers are not willing to take that risk. They have a tried and true formula. They have a winning formula and they're going to stick with it because they know it works. They're not going to put $50 million into something that may or may not work. They want to put it into something they know is going to work. There's a lot of money, there's a lot of jobs on the line, there's a lot of lives on the line. There's a lot of people's careers on the line. So, you can't really blame them for saying, "Yup, I want to put out an Assassin's Creed and a Call of Duty every year."
You can't, because they keep selling. And if they keep selling, then they're gonna keep doing it. At the same time, yeah, because we still come out with these same types of things, and you see the commercials -- when I was a kid I never thought I'd see a commercial for a videogame on TV, but they're all over the place now. And people outside the industry could look at them and say, "That kinda looks just like the other one." And they're not entirely wrong. So that's not really helping us. It's sort of saying, "Oh, so you're just shooting a different type of enemy here or you're swinging a different kind of sword over here."
But my biggest problem with that is interactivity is actually inherently limited. You have to make something that people want to interact with. What do you want to do? Do you want to garden? Do you want to clean the house? You wanna do something you probably can't do in real life. In that case, it's going to be fantastical, it's going to be over the top, it's going to be something that gets your attention, something you can interact with. I mean, the interaction is what makes it interesting.
You can try and be all sorts of creative and arty and make a game where you have to go through a museum and find clues. You can make a Da Vinci Code-type thing, which I think would be really cool. But not everybody's gonna think that. In fact, a lot of people are gonna think that's boring. And we have that problem because of the interaction of it. I actually think it's limiting because we have to want to interact with this world and this character and do what we're doing and we if we want to sit and watch a movie, we can do that.
But this is different. We're participating. And as active participators, we want something we can't do in real life, and we want something that is rousing. Even if it's in an area where you are solving puzzles. Well, yeah, but you don't want to be solving puzzles in a bland, modern-looking room. You want some sort of tinge to it. You want a narrative. You want an atmosphere. So, you really have to cater to that understanding. These people are participating in your product, pressing buttons, and having fun. Well, how are they gonna have fun? They've tried new things and some of them don't work and some of them do. But experimentation is the key.
If you're allowed to experiment, the publisher says, "Here, do this." Gives you some free rein, this is not a big title, we're not risking a lot? I think it's important that they do it. I think it's important that they put things out there.
Would we have really gotten Heavy Rain? I mean, look at that game. That's a game that people complain and go, "Oh, well, it's like watching a movie." But it's a very different interactive experience. And people wanted to interact with it even though we're not running around in circles and driving cars and shooting at things. So it's different.
I think the conservative approach to games works because it's a business model, and it'll probably continue to work because now it's driven by the mainstream, it's not driven by a niche group of consumers. And the mainstream will always, always, respond to a tried and true formula, as evidenced by the never-ending siege of superhero movies that never ends.
It will always work. And if it always works, then you can't blame them.
But at the same time, if you want to make real progress, you gotta turn to a few brave individuals who are willing to put themselves on the line and put something new out there. And we have examples of that. It's not like we don't. And hopefully we'll see more as time goes on, and I would encourage people who are in games to look for them. Actively seek them out.
Just because a game doesn't get a huge amount of promotion behind it doesn't mean it isn't something you wouldn't have fun with. You're going to be bombarded with ads for the new Call of Duty, but that doesn't mean it's the only thing coming out. So, it's incumbent upon us to look about and see what we can find. It's not that they don't exist. They don't exist in spades, but we should try new things. And if it's only a few bucks to try, give it a shot. See what happens. The more people that do that, then the braver the publishers will become and the braver the developers will become.