A Growing Apathy

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I started writing about games in 1997, half way through my final year at university. The video games portal of the, then fledgling, Microsoft Network (may it stay dead) was looking for some writers they didn’t have to pay. I wrote a review for Front Page Sports: Baseball (my first such effort), submitted it, and the rest is history; albeit history only of interest to me. In one capacity or another I’ve been writing about games ever since. To some extent that’s because I have an internal compulsion to write and this is what I know, but also because I enjoy sharing with people what I love about games. It’s why I wrote the Mordin piece a few weeks back and the piece about my son and his DS last year. I’m proud of those articles and the handful I’ve written like them the last couple years. I wish I could post pieces like those every week. You may have noticed that hasn’t so much been happening…

Not unlike Bill, my schedule has gone chaotic. Windows 8 is coming soon and my day job involves a lot of working on Windows 8 books (among some other projects) that we’re desperately trying to get finished up in time to be printed and on shelves. Some of it is also that there’s not much going on these days in terms of new and exciting releases. But what it really comes down to is, while there’s a lot of stuff going on that is of interest to any number of core gamers, there’s very little happening right now that’s of particular interest to me.

All evidence to the contrary, I don’t particularly enjoy writing bitchy pieces about the industry. At the same time, I’m not going to cheer it on when it’s doing almost nothing I can get excited about on a week to week basis. I’m not going to play just to play and I refuse to be a stenographer for companies I’m growing to despise. As time goes on, I’ve found that leaves me with less and less to say.

Most writers in this business can write about it, even through its doldrums, because they continue to have real passion for gaming. Brandon and Mike? Those guys just love to play. They’re going to find stuff. Matt sounds like he’s in seventh heaven after his recent PC build and wealth of Steam Summer sale purchases. I envy that enthusiasm. Danielle loves the exploding movement of independents and she’s absolutely right to do so. That’s where gaming is at its most interesting these days. Bill? He may be swamped with the new job, but he’s still neck deep in gaming even if it’s not video gaming at the moment. For me there has always been an ebb and flow to my interest in the hobby, but right now it’s not just ebbing, it’s a full on drought. Said lack of interest isn’t being helped much by an industry that seems determined to make me look for my jollies someplace else.

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On Jumping the Shark #137 Brandon and I talked at length about the extent to which publishers are pushing excess software onto the systems of PC gamers as a requirement to actually launch their games. It started with Steam. Steam blew up in a big, big way and I’ve grown to love it. Valve is very open in what they do and only one time did I ever feel gouged by their practices – when I bought a boxed copy of Half Life 2 and had Steam forced on me. I hated that sort of thing then and I still do now. But, again, for what I use Steam for today, it’s aces. The problem is, now everybody else thinks they can ape the formula and they think they can force us to participate. Origin. UPlay, Games for Windows Live, Battle.net. Is it possible to buy a PC game anymore without it forcing you to install and launch or engage in some other piece of software to “enhance” your experience? Doesn’t much seem like it.

The PC business has long had a term for this practice – crapware. Buy a laptop or desktop from HP or Sony or Compaq and find it loaded down with pre-loaded software you never asked for and don’t want. I’ve been building my own systems for more than 15 years so I’m not sure what the state of crapware is in the PC world, but it was a big topic for several years that has slowly faded from the limelight. I can only assume that’s a sign that as consumer outrage grew, the pure volume of junk loaded onto a system purchased from your corner Best Buy lessened. It’s something your EAs and Ubisofts should take note of as they look for every last possible nook and cranny in your digital life to worm their way into.

For me, it’s really a pretty basic formula. This business isn’t my livelihood. It’s cheesy, but I do it for the love of it. At the same time, you have to give me something to love. You have to make the time I devote to gaming worth it. My children’s activities, my girlfriend, my other friends, family, books, television, films, and a day job – there isn’t room for all of it and increasingly gaming isn’t justifying its place in my life.

Sure, I can throw a half hour at Summoner Wars before I collapse into a narcoleptic coma at 11:00, but why on Earth should I make time for the hundred-hour slot-machine slog that is Diablo III? I know that game’s got millions upon millions of players at this point. The notion that Blizzard should justify its model to me is beyond absurd. But if my choice is between having a catch with my son in the backyard or watching Game of Thrones with my girlfriend versus playing Diablo III then Mr. Ugly Face doesn’t stand much of a chance. Nor do I want to be a part of a company (*cough* Ubisoft *cough*), that not only incompetently exposes my computer to outside hackers, but does so not because the game I want to play has an inadvertent hole in it, but because of some crap piece of software that isn’t the game I paid for, but has to be there to run the game I paid for.

Don’t even get me started on license agreements. What’s that? You want to play Mass Effect 3? Well, first read and agree to this novella of legal jargon I wouldn’t understand if I did read it. Nevermind that I very often can’t return the software I just paid for if I don’t want to agree to the terms.

Is it any wonder that for the first time in my lifetime, the average age of the gamer, which used to track steadily with my own age, is going down? This may be condescending as hell to younger players, but I truly think the older you get the less tolerant you are of giving your business to companies that treat their consumers like the enemy.

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Let me be clear – I have not outgrown gaming. The business, however, with its Day One DLC cash grabs, mandatory registrations, bloated and insecure crapware, and increasing devotion to business models I want nothing to do with (microtransactions), is moving in a direction I’m not remotely interested in following.

Am I done? Of course not. This isn’t a farewell piece and not every company is as determined to drive me out of the hobby as EA, Activision, Ubi, etc. CD Projekt has more than earned my adulation. Even if their games aren’t all in my wheelhouse and they’re not always perfect, I’m a big fan of how Valve, Paradox, and Stardock manage their business and treat their customers. I am 100% devoted to playing projects like Wasteland 2, FTL, and The Banner Saga when they come along. My nightly Summoner Wars sessions are going nowhere. And, since I own and enjoy it, I’m still interested in seeing in what direction the excellent Driver: San Francisco goes, despite having to have uPlay open in the background to play it.

That said, as much as I love the community here at NHS, the sun is setting on the days of me having something to say (and write) about this industry on a weekly basis. I’ll be writing here as long as my wonderful and amazing friends here will tolerate my rambling, but I’m not going to fake it by feigning interest in titles and news about which I could not possibly care less. Nor am I going to waste further hours of my life decrying the direction of a business that so casually insults its paying customers on a regular basis. Some weeks you’ll see my byline at the top of features and news more often. Some weeks, as has often been the case of late, there simply won’t be anything that compels me to rush to my keyboard. In essence, I’m not working from a plan or a set schedule that I know I won’t adhere to.

Finally, just because I haven’t said it enough, the readership here continually honors me with every page impression and piece of comment feedback. There isn’t anywhere I would rather interact with other gamers than right here at this site. Don’t ever think that the time you take out of your day to visit NHS, to take in and comment on our work, isn’t something for which I’m not grateful on a daily basis. If it weren’t for the support our work gets from all all of you, I’d flat out walk away (and would have done so some time ago). These days it’s you people, more than the games themselves, who make continuing to write about games worthwhile. Thank you for that.

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Todd Brakke

Todd was born in Ann Arbor, with a Michigan helmet in one hand and a mouse in the other. (Never you mind the logistics of this.) He grew, vertically anyway, and is a 20-year publishing veteran as an editor of books on consumer tech and professional development for educators. Because that wasn't enough of a challenge, Todd was a 20-year part-time snob about video games, writing reviews, features, and more for multiple outlets from 1997-2015. Follow him on Twitter @toddsfoolery.

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