The Year of Lagging Dangerously

My one man battle against backlogs and Twitter

I made two New Years Resolutions for 2014:

1. Update this blog at least once a month.
2. Do not purchase any video games for the first half of the year (excluding games where at least 30% of proceeds goes to charity, e.g. Humble Bundles).

The first is the sort of resolution every lazy writer makes. The second is unusual, and I think it’s worth explaining the thought behind it, both as a player and as a critic.

The Rise of Backlogs

In December of 2009, Valve Software shook the foundations of the PC gaming industry by having an unprecedented Christmas sale. Hundreds of titles, many of them new, saw their prices slashed by 25-75%. Never before had so many games been available so cheaply. This was the latest in a series of pricing experiments by Valve; the theory was that they’d sell so many copies that it would more than make up for the reduced profit margins, all while tying an increasing number of users to their lucrative platform.

Valve clearly liked the results: the next year, they had two ginormous sales, and the number has only increased since then. Other online retailers were forced to compete and slashed prices appropriately. The end result is that a given PC game can be expected to be had cheaply within 6 months of release, max.

I can’t imagine most retailers (or publishers) were thrilled about this downwards price pressure, but it was going to get worse before it got better. In 2009, shortly before the first Steam Winter Sale, developer 2D Boy celebrated the one-year anniversary of World of Goo via a “pay-what-you-want” sale. World of Goo was the first well-known title to be sold at this non-existent price point, and the results spoke for themselves; they moved a considerable amount of volume for a year-old indie game, and most people chose to pay actual money despite the ability to get it for only a penny.

In 2010 – the year the Steam Sales really stared to roll out – Wolfire Games launched the Humble Indie Bundle, a collection of indie games collectively available for 1 cent or more (with bonus games for those beating a set minimum of a few dollars). The Humble Bundle took off, and a number of copycats – notably Indie Gala and Indie Royale – showed up to create a cottage industry around selling digital games in bulk.

In some sort of super-rationalistic universe, people would have responded by buying only the games they had time for, and saved a lot of money in the process. But that’s not how consumer psychology works; the time-limited nature of Steam Sales and specific bundles meant we rushed to stock up before these incredibly low prices (which most people, myself included, couldn’t quite believe were real) went away. The short term result, as far as I can tell, is most people spending about the same amount of money they always did, and exponentially more owned games than at any time prior.

By 2013, I’d stopped spending significant cash on Steam sales, but the bundle train rolled forward, and by the end of the year, I owned about 300 games I had never played (about 100 of which I actually want to) and an additional 40 games I had started and intended to finish.

 

Social Gaming

This raises an obvious question: what sane person would buy new games when they already own over a hundred they want to play? I don’t go to the grocery store when I have a dozen refrigerators stocked with food.

I think there are two reasons why people in my position (and there are a lot of us) continue to buy games:

A. Because the new game is something radical and fills a niche that your current collection doesn’t;

B. To participate in the social culture of video games, which is almost always fixated on the latest releases.

Both of these are real reasons, but the first is the exception to the rule. Even with the massive explosion of left-field games we’ve seen in recent years, the number that are totally dissimilar from anything else is pretty small, and the vast majority of the time I purchase a game under this assumption, it doesn’t pan out. We get caught up in the hype cycle, and video games – more than any other cultural product – are marketed on novelty. “Innovative” is one of the most-used words in game ad copy. But like everything else in life, iteration is the norm, revolution the rare exception.

So – if we somehow manage to step outside the hype cycle – it really comes down to the social experience, to participating in the culture of video game fandom.

Not much of a revelation, I know. Of course it’s social. We’re social creatures. But despite this being an obvious truth the moment you frame things this formally, I rarely *think* of video games in these terms. I tell myself I am interacting with the video game as an artifact, and comparing it only to other artifacts and (perhaps) my personal life experiences. I get off on clinical analysis, and at the end of the day, I think there’s some real value in it. But it’s difficult when you’re thinking about you view a game you’re playing through the lens of “What am I going to say about it on Twitter?”

We often talk about how games age, and their reception now relative to when they were released. And I think the differences that manifest are mainly due to removing the game from a busy conversation. Once people stop talking about it, once opinions on it are no longer phrased as part of a social dance where we are responding to other people’s views of the game as much or more than the game itself, we can view the game as part of a broader historical framework.

I say this not to denigrate a social exploration of games (that’s, like, half my Facebook posts!) but to note that that it’s a continuum, and what you gain on one end you lose on the other. And – as noted previously – the overwhelming majority of game writing exists within the short-term, social conversation of games rather than the broader historical analysis. So because I like nothing more than an unfilled niche, that’s what I like to focus on.

But I’m far from immune to the social pressure to participate in the latest conversations. Single-player gaming is an inherently lonely activity, and participating in the discourse about these games is a way to counteract that loneliness. As a result, I spend the vast majority of my time on games released in the last few years, and considerably less on decades-old classics.

The Experiment

The result is that picking which game to play next ends up being a painful process of self-interrogation. How much will this game expand my knowledge of the medium? Will I be able to write something about it? Is it contemporary enough that anyone cares? Am I properly balancing my focus on the historical with engaging with my peers?

If that sounds neurotic, it absolutely is. Picking a game on a whim – because it seems nifty, sounds fun, is just my idea of a good time – doesn’t happen nearly often enough.

So here I am in 2014. I have more games than God, and yet keep buying things to participate in this conversation, which often feels like it’s more trouble than its worth.

The solution is simple: I cut myself off. This isn’t a sacrifice. I’m pretty sure I could entertain myself for years to come on the games in my backlog. And for the first time since the advent of social media, I can play “unimportant” games without guilt or feeling like I’m missing the next big thing. I can try to tackle them as artifacts, to give them space to be what they want to be, to engage with them on my own terms.

So that’s the plan. It’s too early to say yet whether I’ll reap all the benefits I hoped, and I’ve already felt the pain is ignored releases (Jazzpunk!). But it’s definitely happening, and in July, I’ll tell you how it went.

  1. Resisting the urge to buy Octodad and Jazzpunk during their first week Steam $2-off phases is the most (only) adult thing I’ve done all year. But I’m glad I did! Your “conversation” theory re: impulse buying is spot-on, and furthermore one consequence in my case, and I’d imagine others’ too, is a kind of gradient of commerce-versus-involvement that somehow multiplies my indolence exponentially rather than keeping it proportional with the amount of shit I’m buying. Fuck, what should I play first? What if I get too antsy and don’t give one game the attention I normally would? I’m also often so frozen with anxiety over new stuff, or especially near the end of the year with all the Best Of bonanzas, that I’ll get to be “part of the moment” or whatever that I shrug off or get too exhausted for the actual activity of playing a video game and just go indulge in some time waster like reading a book or spending time with friends and family. (I’m sure there’s some Frankfurt School quote I could plug in here but I snoozed through that business in college, you know how it is.) But I’ve dug into my backlog more vigorously lately than I have for months and the rewards are immediate. It turns out I just love playing video games, who knew? It seems so obvious that it’s hard to believe I expend any mental energy on it: I’ll get to the hip new titles eventually, and if they’re as good as everyone says, why the hell would the remove of a few months from their initial buzz sphere matter?

  2. Came via Critical Distance – great post. I appreciated your clear articulation of the two approaches to choosing/playing a game (being a part of the conversation, or approaching as an artifact). My mind has been circling around this for the past year trying to define that difference. Thanks!

  3. (Came through Critical Distance)

    Not sure if you’re aware of this, but your experiment reminded me of couple of reddit posts a while back where a couple people also put a real effort clearing their massive Steam Backlog with interesting results. Not sure if you’ve read it, but in case you haven’t here are some of them:

    http://www.reddit.com/r/truegaming/comments/1jg15u/so_i_actually_cleared_my_massive_steam_backlog/
    (this guy also went on to write an interesting piece on Steam a few months later: http://www.reddit.com/r/truegaming/comments/1os424/steam_library_fatigue/)

    http://www.reddit.com/r/truegaming/comments/202cg8/900_games_finishedbut_at_a_terrible_cost/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>