Sunday, December 16, 2012

Confessions of a Last-Gen Gamer

Back in September, Sony unveiled a third body design for the PlayStation 3 (PS3) console, which left many game journalists puzzled, or at best, indifferent.  There was no headline-grabbing price drop, despite the system being constructed from cheaper materials.  The timing was odd and anticlimactic: too far away from a projected PS4 release next holiday season, yet somehow too close.  Maybe Sony wanted a new piece of hardware on shelves to counteract the Wii U launch.  If nothing else, a cheaper manufacturing assembly could only improve the PS3's per-unit profitability, a problem for Sony since the console debuted in 2006  Speculation went on, but the big question was "who is this for?"

The answer: me.  I live and breathe games, but I've yet to own a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, until now.  It's a little embarrassing to admit this in the age where anyone who talks about games first must prove their "gamer cred."  But it's true, for the past 6 years, I've been a "last-gen gamer."  With my new PS3 this year, I've finally entered the current generation of consoles.  It didn't have anything to do with the console redesign, just that this was finally the right time for me.

For years I got by just fine, discovering older games that I never had the chance to play, while keeping abreast of current game culture through various podcasts, news feeds, reviews, and feature stories instead of actually playing the titles being discussed.  On the upside, there are so many interesting older games that I could dedicate time to, instead of overlooking them in favor of the constant cycle of zeitgeist-of-the-week titles.  For a long time, I was quite content to revel in undiscovered 8 and 16-bit treasures, absorbing Mass Effects and Assassin's Creeds from the sidelines.  Sure, I've missed those big communal gaming moments, like the collective puzzle-solving of Fez upon release, but that was all part of the gamble.  However, since I spend so much time and effort writing about games, it became clear that I could no longer hang back.

In large part my decision to withhold buying a current generation console until now was based on money.  I was a PS2 loyalist from launch who wanted nothing to do with Xbox and it's giant jewels-for-buttons Halo controllers.  This was also high school, so let's not dwell on biases.  Naturally, I was interested in continuing the legacy by purchasing a PS3 in 2006, but the $600 price point was a nonstarter.  I was then a very recent college graduate, trying to practice personal fiscal responsibility and independence.  I didn't want to throw down that kind of money on something as seemingly frivolous as a new video game console, especially when the price of games also increased to $60 from 50.  The PS3 was even too expensive to feel comfortable asking for as a birthday gift from my parents.  Besides, for that kind of money I'd rather have invested toward something truly extravagant like an arcade cabinet or a pinball machine.  I knew from history that console prices eventually lower; they always had.  I figured I could just wait for Sony to come to me, but that wait was much, much longer than I expected.

Despite this, being a last-gen gamer isn't depressing like you might think.  In fact, during my current-gen fast I discovered several substantial benefits of forgoing day-one-purchase culture.

1: Hindsight.  2012 alone has seen the release of hundreds of games—far too many for a single person to play in one year.  Coming to a console after-the-fact means I can easily select the critical standouts and avoid the noise.  Games are a unique medium when it comes to the quality of sequels, often iterating on their predecessors, improving functionality and addressing unresolved issues from the previous title.  If I can buy LittleBigPlanet 2, I really don't need the first one.  This logic doesn't apply to all franchises, but is especially applicable to sequels plagued by critical labels like "more of the same" which were otherwise touted as technical improvements.  I spend less time and money, but still get the best of a particular brand of experience.

2: Cheap games.  This one's pretty simple.  I don't need to spend more than $20 for new, in-box retail games that originally sold for 3 times as much.  Deluxe reissues and trilogy collections abound, including DLC add-ons for a fraction of what they would have cost a la carte upon debut.  As for downloadable games, they're digital, so there's no "limited pressing" impulse buy.  Digital supply is virtually unlimited, so there's no need for consumers to rush out and pay a premium for fear that a game might be hard to come by later.  Plus, even downloadable games go on sale from time to time.  This isn't even taking into account used games, which can reduce costs even further, despite having to deal with blocked online modes and anti-resale DRM.

3: Avoid the hype.  It's refreshing to exist outside of the realm of tech-lust.  In fact, I'd say I'm more appreciative and caring of the technology I do possess because I'm more invested in its longevity.  Part of the appeal for early adopters of new technology is the sexiness and air of luxury that comes with owning something few but the elite crop of die-hards have.  Perhaps it's just come as a part of getting older, but I don't feel an intense need to be a member of that club anymore.  I like new stuff, but if a product is built for the long haul, it'll still be around when a purchase becomes more personally convenient.

The wait-and-see approach has its downsides though.  Conversations about current games are richer when drawn from the physical experience of actually playing them.  Even with a background in previous console generations, I can only assume so much based on descriptive video footage and commentary.  Also, much the way services like Netflix and Hulu have been accused of killing the simple pleasures and unexpected discovery of channel surfing, a last-gen gamer making the leap forward is more likely to invest in a "greatest hits" game collection than try out B-tier titles that try something unique, but flounder on the overall package.  For example, I may give the supposedly provocative, yet middling shooter, Spec Ops: The Line, a shot someday, but it's certainly not on my initial list of must-plays.

Ultimately, I recommend being a last-gen gamer, at least for one console generation.  It was a great run — I've learned quite a bit about my own consumer preferences and have observed the video game industry from a more objective, disconnected perspective.  As long as you're not a collector, last-gen gaming is a super cheap way to maintain a gaming hobby.  I've only joined the corporate-indoctrinated fray because writing about games has become more than a recreational exercise for me, and at some point I was missing essential tools for the job.  There's not one correct way to play or interpret games, and by extension, there is a diversity of gamers who consume games at their own pace.  I don't know if there are enough last-gen gamers out there to make an impact on the video game marketplace, but no matter—flying under he radar is sort of the point. 

:image modified from The Daily Mail:


  1. The wait and see approach takes on another benefit that you kind of illustrated with the 'hype' part but not fully. Simply put: waiting a couple of years actually allows you to see which games are good games and which ones are simply good products.

    In the video-game medium there's too little focus on games that show their worth over time. If people are to take the medium more seriously they should probably look more at games as how they'll develop over time, not just how they will impact on release.

    People (and journalists) judge games as pieces of technology too much still for my liking. We treat them as we would a tablet by being impressed by the latest specs rather than we would a movie or a book. A lot of highly-acclaimed technologically accomplished games get outdated pretty quickly and we're left with not much to take from them on a replay. To me this just suggests they probably weren't great games in the first place; they were just good products with little substance.

    1. I agree with your sentiment about the need for criticism that judges games on their long-term merits, but also understand how most game reviews, especially those on bigger sites, are offering some degree on consumer advice, and that advice is most relevant when the game debuts because that's when the most people buy it. Video games are still very linked with the tech industry in this way, for better or worse.

      I'd be very interested in a site that dedicated some coverage to games 6 months, 1 year, or two years after release. In fact this is even becoming more essential in the consumer space as well because of the prevalence of patches and the fickle nature of online multiplayer communities.