Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
Question time! (Please read till the end as this question, as others we’ve asked, has the potential to upset the reader.)
Is video game quality, in general, improving or declining?
Let’s tease out the question a little further: is the average video game today of higher quality than the average video game of the past? I’ve encountered this proposition more than a handful of times now and I always wanted to try to tackle it in a post. As ever, I want to hear your thoughts on this topic! The Asking Big Questions series is less about a single writer monologuing and more about inviting the community to converse with each other, whether real answers are arrived at or not. The journey in itself is worth taking: the conversations.
So by all means, write your comments and/or response posts! Let’s talk!
Speaking of, the inception of this article began through a conversation I had with Daniel Flatt of Home Button in our Discord channel. He is an adept conversationalist and also he’s our own Mail Order Ninja Mage, and he has my thanks for the amiable discussion and the spark to write this piece.
But anyway how does one go about answering such a question? What was the average game from the past like, and what is the average game today? What eras of games are we going to compare? What was the percentage in each era that represented the average games? That’s up to you to decide, if you like. As for me, I tried answering the question via the following, looking at some numbers…
The NES had 714 licensed games.
The SNES had 1,757 official releases.
The Sega Genesis had 915 games.
The PlayStation One had 7,918 games, a huge increase.
The N64 had only 296! lol
The Nintendo DS had 1,837 games.
The Xbox has 1,047 games on its list.
The PS2 had 3,874 games.
And probably the worst offender, the Nintendo Wii had 1,262 games…
That’s a total of 19,620 games from a selection of the most fondly remembered libraries (minus the Wii) representing a period spanning almost 30 years from the release of the NES in Japan to the release of the last PS2 game (Pro Evolution Soccer 2014), or 1983 to 2014. Of these 19,620, undoubtedly a large percentage is occupied by rubbish, throwaways, and forgettable titles. There were however markedly fewer games back then than there are today…
How many more games are released today and how many of them are low quality?
Last year, 7,672 games were released on Steam. In 2016, 4,207 games came out on Steam, and the year before that it was 2,964 games, and the year before that it was 1,772. We’re seeing an increase, it has nearly doubled each year for the past few years. It should come as no surprise that a report in 2014 showed that nearly 37% of Steam’s then-781 million registered games have never even been played… Only about 483 million have. Whenever I express my… skepticism toward Steam, I ask Steam users for screenshots of their collection and on average there’s a sizable chunk of games they purchased that they’ve simply never played. On an even more anecdotal basis, a close friend of mine quit Steam after realizing he’d spent hundreds of dollars on thousands of games he realized he would never even play.
It’s harder to find numbers for another category that’s potentially even bigger than that, though: mobile gaming.
Apparently, an average of more than 500 games are submitted to the iOS app store every day, and that number comes from 2016. Considering the number of mobile gamers has increased since 2016 and the number of games on Steam has increased since 2016, I think it’s reasonable to suggest that the average number of mobile games being submitted daily is increasing. We’ve all likely heard of games like Pokemon GO or any of the Final Fantasy mobile titles, but what percentage of the totality of mobile gaming do the few notable titles occupy? Given the unprecedented number of titles, it’s a very, very small percentage, indeed.
Demographics put the number of mobile phone gamers in the US in 2017 alone at 192 million. I know you’re probably not a fan of mobile gaming. Neither am I, but it remains that they are interactive digital games on a platform and there are millions upon millions of them. I was looking for Tetris on my phone a few weeks back and had to choose between an innumerable amount of clones, each with their own weird gimmick and low consumer ratings.
I receive about two dozen emails a week promoting games (typically indie or at most AA) available for code requests and I am sorry to say that very few of them seem to be high quality exemplars of their respective categories or genres. As fun as Super Seducer 2 looks… thanks but no thanks.
The key word is “general”. It seems to me based on sheer numbers that the general quality of games has actually slipped. The “average” game is some schlop that comes out on Steam that nobody wants to play, or a mobile game that flies well under the radar (and should), a clone of Candy Crush, or an indie fling that just fills space on the Switch or PS4. By the time the PS2 and Wii came around, we had invented the term “shovelware” for a reason and now it’s taken on new market presence.
Given the numbers above, here is my conclusion:
I’d say the average game today is much poorer, even so far as to being an unplayed romantic visual novel about protoplasmic furries, compared to the games of the past. Pick one game out of 19 thousand then versus pick one game out of nearly 1 billion now… how lucky do you think you’ll be in picking a quality title?
Now, this is IMPORTANT: the average big name game we care about and mark our calendars for IS likely on average better than the average game from the past.
The next big release you’re looking forward to, be it AAA, AA, or indie, is likely going to be great, but it does not represent the average game. Your favorite 10 indie games are a drop in the bucket compared to what’s out there. These represent an exception the the millions and millions beside it. The average game today across the entire market certainly is not of high quality, and I think that’s a good distinction to make. Even if video games slightly improved generally on quality from the past, the overwhelming number of games released today in mobile gaming alone by comparison means the average game today is terrible and nobody plays them. We care about the exceptions to all the flood of poor games today, and those are the ones we talk about. Smaller sites tend to talk favorites and reviewers review what they enjoy, so the most talked about games are the middling to upper quality ones. Definitely I agree that nobody can review all the games anymore. Millions is simple too many, anyway, but the fact remains that they exist in this massive video game market.
Is the average game today better than the game of the past? No, but the best games of today are certainly better than the average game of the past, comparing the best we have today to the passables of yesteryear. Beyond that, there’s only comparing individual games to one another.
And as a final follow up, let me say that ultimately this doesn’t matter. Very few things ultimately matter. I put this together because curiosity is worthwhile motivation and discovery its own reward. You and I are completely and totally free to love and enjoy video games from any era. Flat fact. I just thought it was an interesting excursion and I’m not at all interested in bashing anyone’s tastes. We each have our preferences and I prefer it that way; we’re unique because of what we uniquely enjoy and this article is not about what to enjoy. This is not about sectarianism or proving one side right over the other, retro gaming vs modern gaming. It’s all gaming. It’s about the conversations, my friend. I don’t know how to make this article any more benign than that!
Thanks for understanding, now let’s hear your take on it!
-The Well-Red Mage
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