The Parasocial Relationship Between Gamers and Gaming Companies
Gaming companies treat their paying customers like nasty little paypigs, and most of those gamers wouldn't have it any other way.
The first Legend of Zelda game was released 35 years ago this year. The game’s true anniversary has already passed, February 21. The American release anniversary is on August 22. In the days of 8-bit gaming and the feeble brains of early adolescents like myself, it was the pinnacle of long-form, save-your-quest gaming. Today, I could probably plow through both the main and the hidden second quests in an afternoon if I had enough caffeine and time off from work, whether paid at my job or unpaid as a steward of my home. It’s a testament both to the development of the human brain vis-à-vis gaming and how far games such as these have come in 35 years. The latest mainline installment in the series, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, can sink 100 hours easy in its immersive play. Cooking alone in that game is fascinating, and that’s before you get to things like “slaying Bokoblins” and “figuring out the puzzles in the shrines.”
The Zelda franchise has a huge problem though. The series contains 18 games, and by my count, you can only play five of them on the Switch console. That number will increase to six when Skyward Sword is released as a remaster later this year. For a console that has the power to run every single game Nintendo has ever created, the sheer number of games from company history that you can actually play without unofficial emulation or ownership of older consoles and the hard-copy games to accompany them is paltry. Now that gaming can not only be digital but cloud-based, there is probably no reason why the Switch can’t offer a full library of games, either as first-run on the online emulators for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System or 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, or as third-party anthology games like what Konami has offered with Castlevania and Capcom with MegaMan. I shouldn’t need a bunch of different consoles to be able to play any Zelda game I want whenever I wanted to in this day and age.
However, video game companies have long since figured out that even in an age where scarcity doesn’t need to exist, they keep it along as an artifice to hold their fans for ransom. The only industry where it’s more acceptable to hold your paying audience in contempt than in video games, Nintendo especially, is in professional wrestling, where Vince McMahon absolutely loathes every single person who has ever given him a dollar to watch one of his shows. To keep the demand high for big ticket releases, even if they’re re-releases like when Nintendo finally graced the Switch console with legal ways to play the first three mainline 3D Super Mario games, they keep games locked up in a vault, releasing them almost on a basis of their own whims. It would be infuriating if most of the company’s loyal fanbase, of which I am included, wouldn’t sell body parts in order to have the latest release in one of the franchise lines or to have a way to play something older, like, I dunno, a localized version of Mother 3. Even actor Terry Crews is sick of this shit:
Why does Nintendo, and to a lesser extent every other non-indie gaming company known to man, keep doing this shit? Why can’t Sony make PlayStation 5s at a quick enough rate to meet demand? Why do companies continue release unfinished games at full price and then charge people for DLC that will round the experience out in ways that were unheard of before SEGA blew everyone’s minds and wallets with Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and then the infamous add-on title Sonic and Knuckles? Why is Microsoft? The answer is “because they can.” AAA video game companies and first-party console-and-software developers will continue to shit the public because we the public put up with it to chase the dragon of the same gaming high we all got playing our first ever video game, whether it be Super Mario Bros. for my fellow geriatric millennials (NB do not use the term “geriatric millennial” around me unless you’re being sarcastic, I will hit you) or Sonic the Hedgehog for younger millennials or something like Guitar Hero for Zoomers. If you play video games more than occasionally, you get why we, as a consumer base, are so down bad.
What can gamers do to change the industry? Honestly, I’m not sure there’s anything that can be done outside of full-scale revolution, and that action encompasses more than just a shitty gaming hobby. You can’t make Nintendo release Wind Waker and Twilight Princess (GameCube version without the shitty motion controls) for the Switch, but you can support indie gaming companies creating some fun, offbeat, nostalgic, or otherwise cool games. Three of my favorite games from the last few years, Hollow Knight, Dead Cells, and Untitled Goose Game, were all indie releases. You don’t need to look to the big companies to give you games that can sink a ton of your time with engrossing stories, replayable game controls, or utter absurdity. Hades is another title that I haven’t played yet but heard wonderful things about. The games are out there.
The best thing about indie games is generally, they come cheaper than AAA or first-party games, especially Nintendo. If Nintendo offered a main-title game for $58.99 instead of $59.99, it would be considered a massive sale in their esteem. They want you to pay full price. Even if you go physical media and buy the cartridge version of Hades, it will cost $35 at most, which is still a hell of a lot cheaper than a normal first-party Nintendo game will run you, physical or digital. Meanwhile, digital downloads of these indie games can be cheap as hell. You can get hours and hours of incredibly engrossing gaming at a fraction of the price. Of course, other AAA third-party developers come down in price from time to time too. For example, I’ve seen Mortal Kombat 11 on the Nintendo eShop for as low as $9.99. I’m not saying you shouldn’t spend money on first- and third-party games. It’s just the indie games are nice little treats that don’t jerk you around as bad. Even if they have DLC, it rarely is ever the result of a fatally unfinished game, and sometimes, it’s even free, like with the first couple of rounds of Dead Cell add-ons and all of Hollow Knight’s.
The sad thing about most indie studios is that they’re not nearly as well-funded and thus have longer wait times between titles they produce. For example, Team Cherry, the geniuses behind Hollow Knight, announced a sequel to that game two years ago. Hollow Knight: SilkSong is no closer to being completed since that first demo was released. I’m sure COVID-19 had a hand in that, but you see how Nintendo and other bigger studios are still getting games out. They have the money to survive this pandemic. Smaller studios do not. I hate suggesting to combat capitalism with more capitalism or a different avenue of capitalism, but gaming is one place where you cannot escape this kind of rot. If you’re going to use your money to boost a sector of the industry, why not boost the little guys making quirky games?
Which old-school game are you dying to see released, either as a direct port or with a shiny new remaster, on the current generation of consoles? Leave a comment!
The real solution, however, is for all those classic 8-, 16-, 32-, and 64-bit games to be put into a cloud library that can be playable across the board. There’s absolutely no reason why the games of the past shouldn’t be available while waiting for the future to become the present. I’m not even saying that it has to be free, although idealistically, it should absolutely be free to play, just as library books are free to read with a valid card and the expectation that you return said book within the agreed-upon time. I know you cannot under any circumstances give something away for free in today’s world. Even the “free-to-play” online console games come with the cost of access to online gaming, which carries a premium fee. Charge ten bucks a month for access to this library and let people explore the classic titles that we old fuckers talk about in glowing terms. Let even the old Nintendo partisan geezers have access to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or other franchise titles that moved over to new consoles with the change in the gaming landscape. There is absolutely nothing to be lost that wasn’t being lost with these games in a fucking vault.
That will never, ever happen though, because gaming companies, the big ones at least, are penny-wise and pound-foolish. Gamers will never truly demand better, because the more far gone you are into playing games, the less angry you will get the actual companies who give you your fixes, and the angrier you’ll get on their behalf when someone online posts a less than stunning review of a game you like. There are exceptions, like Marc Normandin, whose excellent newsletter RetroXP is something to which you should already be subscribed. Still, the hive of scum and villainy that contains “hardcore gamers” is one that is not easily surpassed by other awful portions of other greater fan groups. But the fact that most gamers react to news with “gimme gimme GIMME” attitude and not a critical eye is why these companies do not give a shit if you can’t play their entire libraries. It’s why they will continue to release half-baked games that require DLC purchases down the line for a complete experience. It’s one of those things that you kinda have to wait out until, or sadly, if, capitalism ever dies out to fix on a lasting basis.