Recalling ‘The Decline of Video Gaming’
It was a simpler time in the online and gaming community. Three-dimensional video games were in their second generation, with the Nintendo GameCube, the Sony PlayStation 2, and the Microsoft Xbox leading the way. Google was a rising star, but its favorite asset, YouTube, did not yet exist. The leading platform for user-based video content was Newgrounds.com, which enjoyed a golden age of Flash animation that defined the era. It was on this site, on March 30, 2004, that a handful of British teenagers unleashed what would become one of the most famous and beloved series of that time: The Decline of Video Gaming.
With such a bright time, gaming looked like it would last forever. Little did we know that we drew ever closer to our self-manufactured downfall!
A collaboration of brothers Dim and Tom (Super Flash Bros.) and their friends Dan and JT (Double Helix), the Decline series set a standard for quality flash animation in a bubbling genre that now permeates the Web, even if these creators are mostly forgotten now. One of their voice acting partners on this project, who still enjoys online celebrity, is none other than Egoraptor. He is better known today by his real name, Arin Hanson, and his gut-busting rage as he films himself playing video games, in a series known as Game Grumps. Indeed, Arin is one of the few titans of this period that has remained in the spotlight.
The change of the winds aside, Decline was an impactful series when it was released. It imagines a comedic future in which video gaming has grown stale and uninspired. Dim, Dan, and JT (along with Tom here and there) explore video game stores, E3, and Tokyo as they rip into flawed video games, to the chagrin of developers. Nevertheless, one can tell that their critiques come from a place of love. In fact, the jabs appear to occur on a background of pure admiration for the major titles: The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, Super Mario Bros., Devil May Cry, Resident Evil, and many more.
While the satire is meant in good fun and appears to feature little, genuine concern for the future of the industry, some of their observations seem to have stuck. The industry as they foretold is rife with a slew of sequels, overstretched franchises, and gimmicky hardware, often lacking originality or truly innovative experiences. As gaming has become more mainstream than it was in that time, lifelong gamers such as myself will, on occasion, wistfully recall the feeling of satisfaction that one used to get when playing a truly great game, a feeling that is, more and more, hard to replicate.
In its opening sequence narrated by Arin, Decline provides the following exposition: “With such a bright time, gaming looked like it would last forever. Little did we know that we drew ever closer to our self-manufactured downfall!” This line presents the main idea, that the Decline of Video Gaming is the result of its own growth, that something about its rise guaranteed an unfortunate reversal. It suggests that it was unavoidable, as well as the product of our collective decisions, be we the makers or the players.
Just how much of that projection actually came true?
The Money Side of It
As technological demands of more advanced games has grown, development has become quite expensive. AAA games are a multi-million dollar investment, and the need to make all of that back leads firms to adopt a couple of strategies. One thing they do is to make a game that is generally popular and will capture a large share of the general gamer base. This is why franchises are constantly milked dry; there is often no money in a risky, experimental title. The film industry operates with this mindset, so it is not surprising that gaming would follow suit. With small margins, developers need volume to win the day, and so playing safe has its rewards.
For veteran gamers, this can be kind of annoying. We remember when the release of a new, major title consistently took our breath away. By comparison, a Call of Duty that has little improvement since a predecessor from ten years ago is no longer worth the excitement, nor is it worth the sixty dollars. Despite this, most other gamers will purchase it, giving developers predictable returns and allowing them to take shortcuts by recycling their material for the next installment. Ere long, the market becomes saturated with mediocre products, and a game shop suddenly feels less like the Neverland it used to be.
The second strategy can affect even games that are considered good: microtransactions. With a constant stream of cheaply made, additional content, developers are able to expand on their razor-thin margins and get more revenue out of games after their initial release. This has led to the emergence of several “pay-to-win” games, as well as a tendency to cut corners and release unfinished products. The latter statement is of crucial importance, especially for those of us who remember what it was like to buy a complete game. Most video games that I have ever owned have been like this, never needing an update.
It’s a time that is sorely missed.
The Culture Wars
Games are supposed to be an escape. They are supposed to be an egress from the usual misery of daily life.
In the first episode, we see the trio come across a game called Ghetto Party 5, which recreates Mario Party with contemporary rap artists. Dan laments it as “another attempt to appeal to the entire market at once.” While this title never came into being, the problem that he noted ultimately did. In order to capture as large of a market share as possible (due to the financial constraints previously mentioned), gaming companies have started to embrace identity politics and its goal of “diversity” as their best strategy.
Controversy over this came to a head just earlier this year during E3, when complaints emerged about having female soldiers in Battlefield V, a game set during World War II. Many felt that female soldiers did not fit the theme of a historical game. Others responded to this criticism as an example of misogyny. More recently, anger and debate surrounded a PAX West panel by Riot Games that did not allow participation by men. Riot officially stated, “To help recruit women into gaming, we held PAX workshops for women and non-binary people. We’re proud of that and stand with Rioters at PAX.”
EA and Riot are not actually trying to take a moral stance, but they are trying to make a profit. They probably figure that making their content more accessible or appealing to women will double their market and help them achieve the volume they need to be profitable. This is most likely a miscalculation, and they have not been able to handle the fallout of this in a way that is not insulting to their extant player base. In the grand scheme, no one will win. Developers will not make more money, and players will get less interesting games.
If anything, allowing the culture wars to permeate the gaming world is a mistake for one fundamental reason: Games are supposed to be an escape. They are supposed to be an egress from the usual misery of daily life. The injection of the culture wars into gaming has disrupted that dynamic. Now players are being told by the developers that they are prejudiced, merely for having the hobbies that they do. This negative air nullifies much of the charm that comes with the improved features and technology. That is the tragedy of modern gaming.
The Rise of the Amateurs
One benefit of the growth of technology, however, is the proliferation of amateur talent in gaming. Decline really marks the beginning of this period, as amateur Flash games came alongside these amateur animations. It allowed for some neat titles. Does anyone remember Bullet Time Fighting? How about Desktop Tower Defense? These simple games turned out to be quite fun to play. Even Super Flash Bros. made some of their own games, which turned into a viable career for them. Their recent work, Snipperclips, was even picked up by Nintendo.
As we rolled into the 2010s, amateur creators were able to evolve beyond Flash, and true indie games became a thing. This gave us Slender and Minecraft. It also gave users the ability to create their own content like never before through distributors like Steam. There are many game concepts that would never be tried by major developers that true fans will put into motion now. It also allows for retro gaming, old aesthetics being applied to new releases. I am currently beta testing an 8-bit strategy game that a friend made. I certainly could not do that in the days of the N64.
Whatever nostalgia the guys behind Decline (and the rest of us) may have had before, the ability to make the stuff we want is actually in our hands now. Payments schemes, such as those provided by Patreon, allow us to make them economical. It even allows us to modify imperfect AAA games or to amplify what they do well. I definitely call that an improvement.
The question remains. Did Dim, Dan, JT, and Tom call it right? Did video gaming decline? In my view, that depends on what you mean.
If you are talking about mainstream video gaming, which was roughly all that video gaming was at the time, this is probably true, for the reasons discussed thus far. The film industry went through a similar cycle. It started out as being a platform for artistic ingenuity. The smart films were often the most profitable, but after the release of Jaws and later Star Wars in the 70s, Hollywood’s formula has been far more focused on summer blockbusters. The same could probably be said for gaming, in perhaps a more roundabout fashion.
Nevertheless, the increased availability of media technology has allowed rookie filmmakers to enter the scene. The same goes for gaming. While mainstream video gaming declined, the quality void has been filled, in large part, by this new river of creative energy from amateurs, to include Super Flash Bros. Does this make their prediction wrong or only half true, or was the emphasis intended to be on the AAA developers? While their imagined PSP with two disc drives never materialized, adding 3D visuals to the DS certainly seemed just as irrelevant. Certainly the industry has not put itself above selling cheap thrills.
Overall, I think they were mostly correct. One can never tell the future completely, but we are definitely in a bit of a rut and for the basic reasons they pointed out. Now, do they think they were onto something? Even if they do not, it is perhaps still worth thinking about what we liked from the older days and what we can do to resurrect those traits as we approach a new decade. They never predicted that the Decline would be permanent. We have the means to change the course, after all.
Yes, I’m thinking we’ll rise again.