Asking Big Questions

Asking Big Questions #011: “Is Game Quality Improving?”

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
-Isaac Watts



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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18 replies »

  1. Overall the quality of games is wayyyyy down. Aside from the millions of stupid, crap games being pushed out that you mentioned, even a lot of AAA titles are garbage, at least at first. Back in the day, once you released a game, that was it. You had to give it your all and had one chance to impress consumers.

    Now we live in a world where developers can make something, put out a beta or two for fan feedback and so they don’t have to pay as many testers, rush out a compiled mess of all the fans opinions, react to even more feedback when the game they release is still somehow rushed, low quality, and then merrily send out patches to fix it.

    After spending money on a more expensive game than in the past, you are now presented with tons of dlc, most of it overpriced and pointless, and some that should have been in the game originally.

    But with all this technology why would the developers not try to squeeze out every dime they can and with minimal effort?

    And not to mention most games simply are not as good as they used to be. Only a few developers out there deliver consistently great video games. So many people are obsessed with graphics and framerates, that as long as the game looks pretty, gamers are content, so why would developers even try to make a fun game, when that seemingly has taken a backseat to appearance?

    And single player people are screwed. We get shorter games, quick thrown together things, while the budget for the game always goes to an expansive online experience and the upkeep of that. Online play doesn’t really make a game good, in my opinion, unless it is strictly made for online multiplayer.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think there’s also a little more wiggle room nowadays in case of a bad or messed up release thanks to patches and DLC. The developers can have gamers be the QCs, something that couldn’t have been done years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like that games can be fixed these days, I just wish more developers didn’t abuse it and roll out games that are unfinished. Every virtue can be a vice, right? I rarely buy games on day one these days because of stuff like that.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hooboy, where do I begin? I could point out that, yes there are many games than ever before, and that yes a lot of those are bad. But that’s also leaving out a huge fact: Shovelware, is too good a term for what much of it is. Whatever you think of Jim Sterling, love him, or hate him, he has pointed out one grievous thing: The asset flip. A lot of those terrible Steam/eshop/PSN/MSstore/Mobile download games aren’t really games. Anyone can spend money to get their hands on the Unity engine, buy some base models, throw it in a map, and sell it on these services. Out of all of the terrible games on said services, I would guess, that at least 25% of them, are said asset flips.

    Shovelware is just rushed out to make some money, but at least shovelware is mostly original. Shovelware actually functions. Barely in many cases, but it functions.

    But there have always been shovelware games. Always. Atari 2600? SSSSnake. NES? Color A Dinosaur. Sega Genesis? Barney’s Hide & Seek. The list goes on, and on. There isn’t a single platform that doesn’t have at least something where a company thought “We already put money into this, so get it functional, and get it out there.”

    Is there *More* of it now, than there was back then? Well yes. However, the market has grown exponentially since then. In the early 80’s everybody loved video games. Even your Grandmother owned an Intellivision. But over time, it became more niche. Sometimes due to content. Other times due to complexity. But a lot of the older generation moved on, and things shrunk for awhile. Don’t get me wrong, it was still popular, and many people played them, but things weren’t as mainstream as they had been. Today, games are as popular as they were in the days of Missile Command, and Pac-Man. There are more games to choose from than ever before. There are more genres to choose from than ever before.

    Obviously the vast leaps in technology also allow for vast worlds, Hollywood blockbuster effects, jumps, in video, and audio, and internet multiplayer, among other things. But that stuff only matters if the games you’re into hook you. There are tons of games that look pretty, but when you get down to brass tacks, aren’t very fun. Again, this has always been the case. Compare Altered Beast to Golden Axe. Altered Beast arguably looks cooler with the awesome animal transformations. But it’s slow, and clunky. By contrast, Golden Axe just plays better. It’s more engaging. And it doesn’t look *that* much worse. It’s why a lot of the earliest games are still so enjoyable today. They had fun, and challenging concepts. Centipede, Berzerk, and Donkey Kong are amazing games. They will always be amazing games.

    But that doesn’t mean the things that came out later aren’t good. Wolfenstein 3D took an awesome concept, blended it with early dungeon crawler crpg perspectives, and turned it into a first-person action game. Doom furthered the technology, and became a bigger hit. Quake III, and Unreal Tournament showed the multiplayer concept could be a competition that paved the way for esports. Today, there are a slew of FPS games. Sure many of them take the linear, story driven approach that Valve’s Half-Life does. But a lot of other ones do their own thing. Splatoon showed the world it is possible to make a fairly family-friendly third-person shooter, that can also appeal to the most hyper-competitive shooter fan out there.

    And that’s just scratching the surface. There’s also the fact that there are many, many, MANY great, innovative indie games. Some are bringing back older style games. Others are entirely new concepts, and others are made by folks passionate about the old stuff, while adding contemporary conventions, and original twists. I’m currently playing through The Messenger, which has been fantastic so far.

    I hesitate to say any particular era is unequivocally better though. As retro, and esoteric as I tend to be at times, even I recognize there are improvements. Technological improvements. Improvements in storytelling. Improvements in execution. In the old days, a broken game was broken forever. There weren’t patches, except on PC, and even then you had to know a patch existed. Then, assuming you did, you had to write the publisher so they could mail you a disk with the patch on it. Back then there weren’t crazy DRM efforts on console games for the most part, though computer games had code wheels, and manual protection. So if you lost documentation you were screwed.

    But these days every game requires fixes. These days a lot of games ship broken without a care because “Eh, we can fix it later.”. Console games are often a more complicated experience than the computer versions as a result. Slower download times, and installations. No options for private servers or LAN. Meaning a lot of them will be unplayable at some point. Then there’s the piecemeal drip feed model of some games. And the abuse of things like Loot boxes. It’s no wonder many people long to go back to the days of the mighty Atari 2600. You bought a game with bitchin’ cover art (I’m looking at you Warlords), got it home, plugged it in, and BAM. You were fighting your parents, and kid brother for medieval ping pong warfare dominance. No hackneyed storyline. No hoping your next loot box would give you a stone skin for your catapult. All you needed was one paddle dial, and a bright red button.

    So celebrate gaming. The great ones. The good ones. Even the mediocre ones. Because as much as you love to deny it. You all know you’ve spent hundreds of dollars putting quarters into PIT-FIGHTER. And you loved every minute of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ok, so that basically was a post haha and I’m not sure how to even begin to respond because you covered so much incredible ground. Ultimately, I think we both see that widespread industry improvements have been made (I like what someone said “It’s easier to play games from the 80s now than it was in the 80s”) but that no era is perfect. The comparison of eras and individual games is well beyond the scope of this one article, which is just addressing averages, but I don’t think the best of today equates to today’s average.


  4. This is a very interesting question to ponder…I enjoyed reading your perspective. It’s hard to argue with that logic! My odds of just randomly picking a decent game would be much higher in the past simply due to less saturation. I think there’s something interesting to be said here too about what makes a game “quality” -whether or not newer games are on average better depends completely on your definition of what makes a game good in the first place. I won’t say more than that here because I think I may very well answer this one on Adventure Rules…🤔

    Liked by 1 person

      • I feel like critical reception could be tricky since game criticism is more of a modern development, if that makes sense? Some older games primarily have published criticism that’s colored by the lens of nostalgia, which introduces its own problems, I think. This is a compelling question because it can be considered from so many different angles!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Correct, you would have to go by contemporaneous criticism, which I know at least existed in the 16-bit era, but I’m not sure before that. Right? I’ve seen some magazine scans of critiques, but not much for NES or certainly earlier.


  5. Whatchoo got against the poor ol’ Wii, sunshine? That platform actually has a great library of overlooked, underappreciated and genuinely unique gems that never get talked about because of the assumption it’s a shovelware machine. Sure, there is shovelware… but if we’re going on pure numbers the PS2 (another of my favourite platforms, I’ll add at this point) almost certainly has it beat.

    Anyway… I have mixed feelings on this. I actually like the triple-A field much less than I have done in years gone by. Sure, your average triple-A release these days is technically impressive, but more often than not it feels artistically vacant, designed by committee and, in the worst cases, monetised out the wazoo. Don’t even get me started on “games as a service”.

    Conversely, the mid-tier has got significantly better, and in that category I count the massive increase in localised Japanese games we’ve had from over the last 10 years or so. Japan-centric companies like Marvelous and Idea Factory have specifically set up international branches rather than relying on third party localisation houses, Atlus’ partnership with Sega has yielded only good things (particularly for gamers in Europe) and Japanese devs have very much cottoned on to the fact that you’ll inspire a smaller but more passionate fanbase if you give your games a laser-sharp target audience rather than taking a scattershot “I must appeal to everybody” approach.

    You’re correct that the sheer volume of crap getting released on mobile and Steam is dragging the “average” quality of games down, but I simply tend not to think about that particular side of things at all, so it doesn’t really bother me too much.

    Gaming is much more diverse than ever before — and I mean that in the literal sense, not the handwringing politically correct definition — and it’s ultimately a good thing. There really is something for everyone these days. I haven’t touched a triple A game in any real seriousness for years now, and I feel I’m having a much better experience than I’ve ever had before.

    Plus, of course, we still have access to all those previous generations of games, too…

    Liked by 1 person

    • “the assumption it’s a shovelware machine. Sure, there is shovelware…” I mean, you said it for me right there. Shovelware actually became a term in the video game community because of the Wii and the PS2, both of which had large libraries full of shovelware with a still large percentage remaining of good games. Even if you thought 150 games on the Wii were the best ever (and I’m betting you don’t love that many on the Wii), that’s still a tiny percent of the Wii’s 1,262 game library. So it’s a numerical fact, not an assumption, but at the same time that doesn’t diminish the fact that the system has its great games, many of which made it to my Top 111, too!

      AAA are a hard pill to swallow, sometimes. Technical quality is probably easier to gauge than artistic quality, though, considering how expensive these games are to make now and they have to appeal to the widest possible audience and the lowest common denominator. This article takes the technical quality into consideration more so than artistic quality, however important that is. My personal take is that some of that bleeds into AA games as well. I’m not an anime fan so that counts out some of the more anime-skewed Japanese games which to me seem as homogenous as the AAA scene, so I try to look at gaming on the basis of individual examples, as I mentioned there toward the end. And really, my take right there is a result of what you described, developers taking a laser focused approach that won’t appeal to everyone. Many times, I stand outside of that small fanbase.

      “You’re correct that the sheer volume of crap getting released on mobile and Steam is dragging the “average” quality of games down, but I simply tend not to think about that particular side of things at all, so it doesn’t really bother me too much.” This is I think what everyone does because low quality games should be ignored. It’s reasonable. However, it does mean that indeed the average game today is terrible, whether we think about it or not. It’s better that we don’t, so you’re absolutely right.

      The diversity of modern gaming and its inclusion of past experiences is probably the best thing about today, in my opinion, not technological advances. I’m happier that anyone can find their home in gaming than I am about the re-invention of VR gaming, for example. That consideration is also outside of the realm of this article, I believe, which has to do with overall quality, not necessarily a comparison of individual merits. If you are to make that comparison, then I wholeheartedly and delightedly agree that diverse gaming experiences today is something that makes being a player today so awesome! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ll have to agree to disagree on the Wii and PS2, sir; the prevalence of shovelware on both by no means makes me feel their libraries are in any way “lesser”. Checking my collection spreadsheet, I have 62 Wii games at the time of writing, none of which I’d consider to be shovelware, and I have a mile long list of other games I still want to get and cover! So I’m pretty sure I could get to 150 without too much difficulty. Challenge accepted 🙂

        Anyway, that aside, I think something worth bearing in mind here, as well, as an extension to this discussion, is that “gaming” as a catch-all term is becoming almost as meaningless as “movies”, “books” and any other attempt to collect everything under a single banner according to its means of delivery.

        I’ve long argued for “specialist” press in gaming, because it happens in all other sectors. However, what we have at the moment is a situation where “the games press” is already considered to be “specialist press”, and so it seems unwilling or unable to focus itself further. I feel it would be interesting — and of benefit to all manner of people — if we started to see publications that, say, focused entirely on triple-A games, indie releases, sports games, driving games, Japanaese games and suchlike. There’s certainly more than enough talent out there to make it work.

        The common argument against this is “something something echo chamber”, but it’s been working pretty well for the sports, music and film press over the years. You don’t get Classic FM Music magazine reviewing a Miley Cyrus album, much as you don’t get a writer for FourFourTwo (a football magazine) writing about a basketball match. Movies are perhaps a little closer to what we have with gaming in that something like Empire is just as likely to review a summer blockbuster as an interesting arthouse film (I believe, anyway — it’s been a long time since I read Empire) but there’s still a definite sense of specialisation, and of critics being informed/knowledgeable about their area of specialism.

        Unfortunately, with the ad-based revenue model the current commercial press works on, this sort of thing is unlikely to happen, and it’s difficult to know how (or if) things will ever get shaken up. Still, at least what the last few years in particular have shown is that smaller, independent outfits of varying sizes are more than happy to fill the void. It’s just a case of getting noticed.

        While we’re on, I also think the need for “game journalists” has all but gone away in favour of “game critics”, since the two are VERY different skillsets, and part of the massive problem with the current press is people with skill in only one (or worse, none!) trying to do both. But that’s a discussion for another day, I feel!

        Liked by 1 person

        • My point is not at all (let me stress it) that the PS2 or Wii had inferior libraries. Not at all. Again, you’ve phrased it yourself in terms of the “prevalence” of shovelware, comparatively. That’s a fact we both agree on, and we both agree that the libraries are great, too. The point being though that even if you got to 150 (or 300) that’s still a tiny percentage of the total 1,262 Wii games.

          For the purposes of this article, I have used gaming to refer to all interactive digital entertainment media (so that excludes things like websites, which are not ludological in nature).

          I agree on more specificity from press and publications! That would be awesome. Yeah that’s a discussion for another day, maybe the next big question! Game critics > game journalists.

          Liked by 1 person

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