Hookshot Inc. was founded, in part, as a way to cover the huge influx of new video games in the world over the past few years. The arrival of game development tools such as Unity combined with that of the new distribution platforms such as Steam and the App store has lowered the barriers to entry for any would-be game-maker. There are now more opportunities than ever for anyone to get a game idea both out in pixels as well as out in the world, for almost anybody to play.
With this ubiquity comes an unprecedented degree of choice for the player. Never before have so many games been available to so many at such low cost. Steam sales, ‘humble’ indie bundles not to mention Freemium and Free-to-Play games ensure that a games hobby is now one of the cheapest and most accessible, where once it was one of the more expensive and exclusive.
Moreover, there are games to suit most tastes, a fresh ocean of experiences in which to lose oneself week after week for the intrepid explorer. It is, in short, overwhelming.
Overwhelming because there exists a paradox at the heart of all of this choice. When humans have no choice, life becomes almost unbearable – restrictive, prescribed, stifling. But as the number of choices available to us increases, we begin to experience autonomy, control, and liberation. Humans are built for choice – it allows us to express our individuality, to exert our free will, to somehow identify our humanity to others.
But researchers have found that as the number of choices available increases, we become overloaded – it becomes more difficult to parse our choices and, eventually, we become debilitated, unable to choose. Some players even experience a sense of shame as they acquire new games without having fully experienced the ones they have already invested in – the ‘pile of shame’ phenomenon, where people stack their old games by the TV, ready to be completed at some unspecified future date, one by one by one.
This sense of choice paralysis is something that legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto talked about earlier this summer when I asked him whether he would still play video games if he weren’t making them.
He said: “It could be that… I might not be playing games. I think it’s the lack of time in general. And maybe I don’t see so many titles that I find fascinating enough that I want to spend time playing. Time is precious and a game has to be worthwhile, right? Another problem is that there are so many games on the market today that it’s difficult to find the right one. In many ways I think I am in a similar place to the average game player. I think this is one of the greatest challenges for the industry right now.”
The weight of choice and the illusion of choice (where few games are truly different and fascinating): Miyamoto considers there to be no greater challenge to the industry today.
If the vast amount of choice is a growing issue for consumers (and Mario’s maker), how much more so for the developer, trying to get their beloved creation noticed.
Weekly Hookshot Inc. receives emails from game-makers puzzled as to why their iOS game is failing to sell, despite positive reviews on Eurogamer or other high-profile specialist websites. If choice paralyses consumers, it can render creators invisible.
Every iOS game-maker knows that a positive review from Gamespot or IGN is worth nothing compared to being featured in Apple’s New and Noteworthy lists, where the vast ocean of choice is distilled to ten short, sharp recommendations – an artificial limiting of choice. And yet jewels somehow do rise to the surface through the wisdom of crowds, Minecraft and Day Z both experiences with an indefinable brilliance that found fame and fortune against overwhelming odds.
I wonder if those of us who write about games – or who are most heavily invested in the hobby – feel the weight of choice more keenly than most. For years the dedicated player has been able to stay abreast of the most important and significant releases in the medium. Today that task is impossible. We must choose to specialise, or, alternatively, to chase the zeitgeist and play only the cream that rises to the surface.
Recently I stood at the back of a local church during a service. Around 10 young teens sat in the back row of seats, each one playing a different game on their iPhone or iPod Touch. I didn’t recognise a single game they were playing and yet each player had found something to love in their chosen title.
My initial reaction was one of dismay: what is this fragmentation doing to our medium’s canon? Will every member of this generation have grown up playing a different set of games to her classmate?
When I was young our school huddled around Super Mario Land, Tetris, Tomb Raider and Metal Gear Solid. We shared our experiences as a community, and natural classics emerged in that friction. Together we identified the ‘best’ games, the ones that defined us and our time. Is today’s sea of games and multitude of delivery points eroding that sense of canon, community and shared passion.
And if so, is that such a bad thing? Certainly life just got a lot harder for the men and women who may eventually edit the ‘Best 100 Games of All Time’ Christmas specials for the 12-year-olds of today. Surely settling upon an agreed list of downloadable classics from the 2010s will be next to impossible based on anything other than sheer volume of sales.
But perhaps with this choice comes a critical freedom, the opportunity to try any experience without prejudice, the chance happen upon something magical as we do so. It’s certainly Hookshot’s hope. And if and when we do find those treasures, we’ll be sure to let you into our little secret.