When I was a kid, as a diehard Super Nintendo fanboy, I thought myself flatly superior to the "Sega kids," both morally and objectively. With them, it was always about "graphics." That was always the most important thing. Whatever games had the best "graphics," or at least pretended to have the best graphics, those were the games to play. I sneered at them regularly. Gameplay was obviously the most important thing, I thought. Why waste time on pretty games that played horribly, when the Super Nintendo was right there with a fantastic library of games that were actually FUN, the equal of which has not yet been produced? All those kids who cared about graphics were just the pawns of cynical advertisers, shelling out hard-earned cash for glittery garbage. (Nintendo, on the other hand, was pure as the driven snow.)
This dynamic continued right on up 'til the present day with me. Instead of SNES vs. Sega, however, it became about AAA vs "indie." Right about the time of the GameCube, I started having trouble maintaining interest in console games. A lot of games seemed to be trying to become ever more cinematic, which I had (and still have) no interest in. Some games basically felt like elaborate movies interrupted by sequences of Simon Says ("Now push X! Now push B! Quick!"). Other games were gigantic, sprawling, complicated messes requiring never-ending tutorials. Big, expensive games would come out that even had basic gameplay issues - poor camera control, bland storytelling, awkward mechanics. The graphics were beautiful, of course, but the games weren't any fun for me to play.
So sure, buying indie games basically meant taking a huge risk on quality - but sometimes you could find an excellent title here and there, if you got lucky. Somewhere, deep inside, I imagined myself virtuous and noble somehow, taking a chance on indie games. After all, they couldn't afford good graphics so they HAD to rely on good gameplay. Having cheap graphics is obviously no guarantee of good gameplay, but if the art isn't expensive, it makes it much easier to adjust, iterate, and fix problems with the rest of the game. The lower the cost of developing art assets, the more likely the fundamentals of the game can be fixed. Levels can be dropped and added, new mechanics can be introduced, and so on. Hence, I figured I knew what was really important about a game. It frustrated me to no end that the big game studios seemed exclusively focused on making games pretty rather than making them fun.
And then I had a rather unpleasant realization: I'm a gigantic game-buying hypocrite.
I realized this when I was reading a debate about indie games on a forum somewhere. A bunch of gamers were arguing over what indie games "should" be priced, as though there was some objective, correct answer to that question. The interesting thing to me was that there was actually a fairly large minority of gamers who felt like people ought to be willing to pay more for indie titles - the infamous "race to the bottom," they argued, was making it harder for small studios to survive in the current market. Who can make a living in an environment where $0.99 feels like WAY too much for a game? They argued that if gamers were willing to pay more for indie titles, we'd get better quality games.
The argument made a certain amount of sense, I guess, until I read a reply from a rather obnoxious forum member. This guy was pretty upfront about his feelings on the subject. He was perfectly happy to shell out $60 for a mediocre game from a AAA studio because he knew that they had whole teams of artists and programmers bringing the game to life. He had no intention of ever paying that kind of money for an indie game that, no matter how fun or well-designed it was, could have been made by one guy in his basement.
WHAT?! was pretty much my initial thought. Why should that make any difference at all to what you're willing to pay? Isn't fun, isn't good design the WHOLE POINT of buying games? Who cares what the developers had to spend to make it? Was Waterworld a fantastic movie because it was expensive?
But then I realized - I behave exactly the same way when buying games. He was simply articulating what I felt deep down - as irrational and goofy as it might seem. I was in denial. As it happens, I am perfectly willing to spend $60 on a AAA game that I play for a couple hours and abandon, or that even sits in its shrink wrap for all eternity. On the other hand, for a game like Anagram Mathica, a word puzzle game for Android that I've wasted hours and hours and hours of my life trying to solve, I would not pay more than a buck or two. Why? Why am I happy to pay so much money for a mediocrity like Starcraft II but no money at all for a game that I love?
Because I could imagine myself building my own version of Anagram Mathica in a couple days, and I could never produce Starcraft II myself. It doesn't matter that the game is lackluster and tepid compared to it's brilliant predecessor. Just like that guy on the forums, I knew that Starcraft II required a huge team of artists and programmers to create, and I factored that into my buying decision. The fun of the game was a distant consideration. The graphics may not matter to my enjoyment of the game, but they absolutely matter to what I'm willing to pay for it.
So I realized I'm a hypocrite. I may self-righteously champion the virtues of the low-resolution-but-brilliantly-fun game all day long, but I'm still not willing to pay for it. And that's key. Game companies can only be all about the fun until they run out of capital. At some point, they have to make games people will pay for. And if I'm not willing to pay for a good game with cheap graphics, then I'm not going to get a good game with cheap graphics. Studios are going to keep putting out the cinematic garbage that people will pay for. And it will be my fault as much as anyone else's.
Is there a solution to this problem?
I suppose I could start donating to those few indie game studios that made games I love. For all the hours of fun I had playing Anagram Mathica or Elliot Quest or Maldita Castilla I could pay extra. Every little bit helps, right? Or maybe some platforms could start selling "fair trade" indie games (in brown packages!), where you pay extra not only for the brilliant indie game but for the patina of righteousness you get from supporting a worthy cause. Or maybe I can get super preachy on Twitter and convert people to the cause of paying more for a game than they feel should have to! That's gotta work! Right?
So is there a solution to this problem?
No. There is not.