Master Malstrom, thank you for articulating a point that has been at the forefront of my mind for the past four years.
You’ve probably noticed that several of your e-mailers in the past have told you that your arguments can be accurately applied to the comic book industry. I know you don’t like talking about comic books because you have no interest or experience with the medium, which is understandable. But the fascinating thing about the comic book industry is that it is like looking into the future of the declining video game industry. When you talk about Blizzard’s growing obsession with high concept storytelling in Diablo 3, the comic book industry has been dominated by that kind of storytelling for decades. When you talk about how the creators are marketed more than the characters, that is also a tradition of the comic book industry. Comic book nerds act and behave exactly like the hardcore gamers. I know there isn’t much connection in the finer details like game mechanics but in the broader picture (i.e. what motivates the industry), it is the same cancer. Comic books are the worst-selling entertainment medium in the world because the cancer has already reach a more advanced stage.
The peer pressure is at the heart of the cancer. I know because when I was younger and interested in comic books, I lapped up everything the industry said to me. I believed a comic book was good because the hardcore reviewers at IGN Comics told me it was good. When I struggled to enjoy a comic book that the hardcore praised, I thought something must be wrong with me. Had I continued to follow the peer pressure, I don’t know what my life would have been like. Being one of the hardcore, I didn’t even comprehend the idea that the quality of fiction could be decided by people outside of the social group. I believed that quality was not determined by behaviour but by opinions, and I often debated on forums who had the “right” opinions.
Reading your blog was the best thing that happened to me because your disinterest in the hardcore games that the forums loved was a perfect mirror of my underlying disinterest in the hardcore comics that the forums praised. After discovering my disinterest was not “me”, I took a step back and saw for the first time just how little mainstream interest there was in the comic book medium because of the hardcore peer pressure. And then I started analysing the comics industry like you do for the game industry and it was fascinating because a few times I’ve come back to your blog and see you coming to similar conclusions. Although the mediums are different, the people behave the same.
There is one thing that the comics industry has which the video game does not; a martyr for creator worship. There is no one in video games who is considered a “divine” presence, although many have tried to build that reputation. You might be thinking Miyamoto is seen as “divine”, but he is only worshipped by developers and journalists. Hardcore gamers hate “kiddy” 3D Mario games in spite of the stupidly high scores they get from the media. But in comics, to be a hardcore reader is to worship Alan Moore and his magnum opus, Watchmen. It is absolutely ridiculous how much the hardcore will trip over themselves and each other worshipping Alan Moore. The video game industry still can’t really decide what a “perfect” video game looks like but the comics industry has no problem labelling Watchmen as the perfect graphic novel. Likewise, Alan Moore’s buddies, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison (the “British New Wave”) are similarly worshipped for their “creative genius”.
The last time I looked through a comic book store, I noticed that about every single independent comic book writer was in some way or another trying to write the next “Alan Moore” or “Neil Gaiman” perfect comic book. The problem is that there are many qualities in British New Wave that customers find repulsive. You mentioned politics in one post, high concepts in another post. Oh, the comics industry WORSHIPS high concepts. Practically masturbates to high concepts. I get the feeling that comics writers are stuck in the 1920s, thinking that experimenting with high concepts is cool. But high concept sci-fi hasn’t been popular for decades. Star Trek and Star Wars are so important because they grounded sci-fi in human drama. Instead of following these important series, the comics industry instead warps the fantasy genre into high concept crap. They’ve become the antithesis to everything people like about fantasy and sci-fi.
The video game industry isn’t truly lost until it announces the “perfect” video game. Then every developer will start imitating the “perfect” game and trying to attach its “perfect” game qualities onto other kinds of games until there’s no real variety left in gaming.
You may find the same things occurring in the comic book industry because all entertainment industries are prone to the same cancers. I enjoy science fiction books. I pick up a book that has a rocketship on the cover but the book is actually about a lesbian planet and how they are all happy being lesbians. I’m like “WTF?”, this is not what I wanted from my science fiction story. I want space ships. I want aliens. I want all that good stuff. Then when the book doesn’t sell, they complain that people aren’t sophisticated enough to understand it so they keep making more. They are more interested in writing non-fiction lectures than telling a story. My favorite is when they have a puppet as a character start lecturing about religion, but it is clear the author hasn’t even bothered to read the Bible or know much of Church history.
What I find so astonishing is that so many of the ‘elite writers’ (not best selling writers, those are ‘lowbrow’ of course. They are ‘elite’ because certain critics said so) are obsessed with the writing style. The content of their work doesn’t seem to register on their radar. They are more interested in the rhetoric. When you look at works that people love, it is because those writers brought something to the table. For example, with Gone With the Wind the writer came with an incredible amount detailed history of the period. The ‘rhetoric’ was nothing more than just trying to connect the reader with those details. In Horatio Hornblower books, they sport a fascinating detail of sailing ships that is incredibly immersive. The ‘style’ or ‘rhetoric’ doesn’t seem to exist.
This is why I get fed up when I hear video game makers keep talking about their ‘art style’ or even their ‘gameplay’. To me, they are talking rhetoric. Let us talk about the content. WHAT is the game about? “It’s about being in boats.” Cool. That should be the starting point, not ‘What art style should we use?’ ‘What gameplay style should we use?’ I know from experience that works don’t come together neatly or cleanly. Sometimes a picture or gameplay could inspire something. But that doesn’t mean the content gets left out.
One thing Miyamoto said that I absolutely agree with was his advice for game makers to do things other than play video games. They need to read, go to museums, go outside, travel the world, and just become more worldly. All those experiences fuel the game.
I’ve just never been into comic books. However, I do love Calvin and Hobbes. I know that isn’t a comic book but more of strips, I think it is marvelous.
I also like science fiction TV shows. Perhaps I am dating myself by saying that I liked Star Trek. I liked the Stargates as well. I thought Firefly was overrated and Farscape an absolute mess. I learned my nephew is watching Dr. Who so I figured I should watch the new version. Last time I watched Dr. Who was at the Fourth Doctor so it was weird to jump to the ninth. I almost quit when the farting aliens came around. Definitely childish in moments, but the show has some great sci-fi like ‘going five billion years into the future to see Earth explode’. “Why are the continents in the same position?” “Because it is a Classic Earth. They have been pulled back to that position as Earth was in the Trust as a museum piece.” I love that stuff.
What do these three movies have in common? Aside from all being good, they appeal to everyone. Movies had a division where there was kids movies and then there were ‘classic cinema’ movies intended only for adults. But in the 1980s, this changed. Those three movies are just examples as there are many more in that time period.
I think Ghostbusters is a really cool movie. It is fun for both kids and adults to watch. And it excites the imagination. Today, Hollywood cannot make such movies because they do not want to.
I do think time periods play a stronger part in the entertainment created than people suspect. For example, after 9/11, so much entertainment turned to doom and gloom themes. Not only were the movies in the 80s fusing the once segregated kids and adults audiences together, so were video games.
Everyone played Atari.
Above: That song is STILL stuck in my head!
And everyone played the NES. It was only going into the 90s that game consoles became segregated as ‘kids and teenager toys’.
The Wii was successful in bringing the two together but not for long. It separated into the ‘Wii for kids and women’ and other game consoles as ‘bachelor toys’.
I’m curious how much a time period can twist the context upon entertainment.
But of course, in Game Industry Land, people do not ask questions. My biggest disappointment is that there is no more ambition in gaming. The only way to find ambitious games is to look outside the industry like with Minecraft. I remember playing Civilization, Master of Magic, and Master of Orion for the first time and being blown away. The games were just so outrageously ambitious. But I was also extremely excited because OBVIOUSLY the upcoming games will blow them away. Sadly, those games have not been blown away.
Anyone who has played Ultima when it was current is cursed with being spoiled. Ultima VII is twenty years old, and there isn’t anything approaching it. It’s like no one cares about making great games anymore.
I do think we should re-examine the definition of ‘great game’. I consider a ‘great game’ to be one where you cannot stop playing for YEARS and YEARS as well as selling very well. But apparently other people think a ‘great game’ is something that will give them respect of their peers (other game developers). I actually think that is a lousy motivation to make a game.
One thing I’ve noticed is that game developers don’t seem to play old games or appreciate them. They are constantly playing the ‘Industry’s latest ‘greatest hit’, but it feels like they lost touch with what made Pac-Man or Super Mario Brothers so great. I assure you that Sakamoto had not been playing Metroid or Super Metroid as you or I would play the game when he made Metroid: Other M. I know Aonuma hasn’t played Legend of Zelda… ever (he told us he couldn’t beat it).
Something I firmly believe in is that the market is not just playing games that are on the market. They are still playing games that are no longer on the shelves. The game playing habits of the game developer do not match the game playing habits of the typical gamer. One major difference is that the average gamer doesn’t have the money or time to play all these games. He has to choose. And he doesn’t throw away old games. He keeps playing them as well.
At one point in time, the game playing habits of the gamer and the game developer were identical. What changed this? I think it has to be the peer acceptance going around. We have this dysfunctional moutaintop country club called ‘game developers’ who eat with game developers, drink with other game developers, and play games with game developers. It’s dysfunctional because it is going a different direction than where the rest of the gamer behavior is going.
People are asking, “How did Diablo 3 endgame be what it is?” The only explanation I know that might fit is that it matched the game playing habits of the game developers within Blizzard. So when the game comes out, there is a huge disconnect between what the game developers thought was fun versus what gamers thought was fun. Since gamers have much less time to play games and have little to no incentive to play games ‘seriously’, Diablo 3 Endgame felt like a chore. But to Blizzard developers, it might be exactly the type of game they love.