Tragedy! Gaming’s Darkest Moments
How many of us, when we’re looking back over our gaming memories, automatically recall the good things? Most of us, I’m guessing. It’s part of human nature after all; nobody wants to dwell on the bad times given a choice. Sometimes however, it’s useful to look back on the negatives too. Often, we learn far more by examining the bad things, and I’d like to think that in doing so we learn to deal with future tragedies better. With that in mind, I decided to examine the worst events in gaming, personal to me. I can’t go back and change history, obviously, but it did serve as a useful reminder; don’t take your favourite things in gaming for granted and we all get the games industry we deserve.
The decline of the coin-op.
When I was growing up, arcade machines were (almost) everywhere; in the chip shop, in the news agents, in the video rental shop. I could walk around my local area with a pocket full of twenty pence coins, pop into one of them and get my gaming fix. Today, they’re still around, but nowhere near as prolific. That makes me sad, because once upon a time the humble coin-op was the fuel for our collective gaming passions. If you were a child who had parents that failed to see the educational value of a home console, you could still get your gaming on – all thanks to the coin-op. If you wanted to play the very latest games way before they were released on console, you could do it, all thanks to the coin-op. And if you wanted to get a hint of what the next generation of home console hardware might be capable of, you could do it, all thanks to the coin-op. I know arcades are still around, but they’re not the same. They’re not cheap to play, they’re not at the cutting edge of gaming technology, and they’re not just around the corner. The next generation of gamers are growing up without the coin-op experience, and that’s a damn shame.
Microsoft buys Rare.
On the face of it, Microsoft’s buyout of Rare in 2002 was a good thing. The company’s future was secured, they might not still be in business if they’d stayed independent, so why have I included it here? Well, my reasoning is best summed up by this quote from studio head Scott Henson: ”Kinect will be the main focus for Rare going forwards as it’s a very rich canvas. This is just the beginning of an experience that will touch millions of people.” The studio that bought us Killer Instinct, Golden Eye 64, Perfect Dark, Donkey Kong Country, and Banjo-Kazooie now reduced to creating Xbox Avatar fluff, and Kinect shovelware.
I’ll admit, there’s a possibility that I’ve put the rose-tinted spectacles on, and that I’m over-exaggerating the level of Rare’s past glory, but I still find it heartbreaking to see this once great studio spending their time doing what they’re doing now. Kameo and Perfect Dark Zero may not have been examples of their finest work, but they were launch titles, the studio soon proved they’d relocated their game making mojo again with Viva Piñata, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts and, and Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise. All three games demonstrated that the studio is still capable of producing good quality, enjoyable games. If they’re allowed to do so. Which they’re not. They do what Microsoft tell them to do, and Microsoft tell them to make Kinect games. That’s why their buyout was a tragedy.
Publisher buys studio, closes them down.
Originally I intended to focus solely on Activision’s buyout and subsequent closing of Bizarre Creations for this one, then I recalled the multitude of other studio closures over the last couple of years, and realised that the real tragedy was the repeating pattern of buyouts and closures itself. The pattern is thus: A small-to-medium sized developer starts to build itself a reputation for making good games.
Their latest release becomes a minor hit. Not a “blockbuster” by any means, but a big enough that the studio can consider future expansion, and more ambitious games. This catches the eye of a big publisher, who then goes on to buy the studio, and any original IP they might have. From this point on, the studio make the games they’re told to make, and when they don’t reach blockbuster levels of success, the studio is closed down. The publisher creams off all the original IP, offers to relocate a minority of the staff to one of their soulless game making factories, and make everyone else jobless. Too many promising studios have gone in the last few years, their IP gobbled up and mothballed by publishers uninterested in anything original. Never before has the world of game development looked so grim.
Sega pulls out of the console market.
If you’re the sort of gamer that gets all misty-eyed by the merest mention of Shenmue or Jet Set Radio, you’ll need no reminder that January 31st 2001 was one of the darkest days in the history of gaming. After three years of continuous annual losses, Sega finally announced that they would become a third-party publisher only, and leave the hardware business for good. To say that it was big news at the time would be an understatement. Gamers that could trace their console owning heritage right back to the Master System now had to come to terms with the fact that the line would end with the Dreamcast. Even those of us with other consoles felt the shock waves. A major player in the console business had waved the white flag, and given up.
I personally never owned a Sega console, but I had plenty of family and friends that did, and as a result I spent many hours happy hours gaming on them. I understood what it meant to see the hardware go. Ask any Sega fan why they love the company and you’ll hear a variety of different reasons, but for me, they’ll always be the company that were most successful at bringing the arcade machine into our living rooms. Once upon a time, the best looking games were found in the arcade first. It was where the cutting edge technology was found. So seeing games like Daytona USA, Sega Rally, or Virtua Fighter arrive in our homes, and visually comparable, was impressive. That link between the arcades and the home console is just one small facet of what was the “Sega way”. No other manufacturer has replicated that ethos, and that I think, is why we miss them.
So there we have it, the biggest events to occur in gaming that I really wish hadn’t happened. They’re all personal to me, so I rather suspect that you probably would have chosen differently. Canvassing the Game Jar staff threw up a whole host of suggestions, the implosion of THQ just as things were starting to get interesting, Star Wars Battlefront 3′s cancellation, John Romero leaving ID and the subsequent closing of Ion Storm afterwards, all things that never crossed my mind when writing this. So that obviously begs the question what would be on your list? What things would you change given the chance?
And you’re not allowed to mention Final Fantasy VII or Aeris…