We’re a year on from the release of the suped-up eighth-generation of Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One consoles, and developers are still in that awkward early dating period with the hardware.
That’s no surprise or cause for criticism. New consoles usually take 12 months to heat up as publishers get to grips with how best to utilise the new technology.
As such, the number of marquee games released this year was at a minimal, which was reflected in the sales figures. GameStop’s third-quarter earnings revealed that, despite a booming hardware market, software sales fell 34.4pc on the same quarter last year, which the retailer attributes to the number of must-play software launched during the period in 2013, such as Grand Theft Auto V, Battlefield 4, Batman: Arkham Origin and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.
In fact, some of the games the new consoles leaned on this year were enhanced retreads of last year’s PlayStation 3 classics, such as Grand Theft Auto V and The Last of Us.
Frustratingly, though predictably, this year’s biggest seller came from the tired Call of Duty franchise, which lurches from each perfectly well-made instalment to the next. Elsewhere, the much-hyped Destiny and Watch Dogs arrived to a din of hype only to receive a slightly better than lukewarm reception.
There were, however, some moments of ingenuity that won over critics. Sunset Overdrive’s presentation at June’s E3, the electronic entertainment expo, mocked the traditional shooter before unveiling a bright and colourful third-person romp rooted in old-school arcade aesthetics that IGN called “big, gorgeous, and a hell of a lot of fun”, while Alien: Isolation provided a dead-on throwback to Ridley Scott’s Seventies sci-fi classic.
Away from gamers’ living rooms, Microsoft and Sony continued to duke it out for hardware supremacy, with recent suggestions that the Xbox One might just be edging out its competitor. Microsoft ended Sony’s streak by outselling the PlayStation 4 in the US and UK in November – a critical month in the pair’s ongoing tussle as the holiday season heats up.
Elsewhere, a sleeping giant awoke in the gaming market, as the Xbox One become the first foreign games console released in China in 14 years. A ban on foreign-made gaming machines came into force in 2000 following parental outcry surrounding the potential mental-health effects of gaming on children.
By becoming the first console released since the ban was lifted, Microsoft has stolen a march on Sony’s PlayStation 4 in a potentially huge new market. Originally slated to hit shelves on 23 September, Microsoft actually delayed the machine’s release after admitting pre-orders had been “beyond our expectations”.
Making more headlines than any piece of hardware and software in 2014 was, however, the so-called Gamergate ‘movement’. Dubbed a ‘cultural war’ by many mainstream press outlets, the sorry saga began during the summer when Zoe Quinn, the designer of the game Depression Quest, received threats of violence after an ex-boyfriend and gaming journalist posted a rambling attack on his personal blog targeting Quinn, which led to since-debunked conspiracies that she colluded unethically with the gaming media.
These threats later extended to media critic Anita Sarkeesian, who, via her YouTube channel Feminist Frequency, critiques how women are depicted in pop culture, particularly video games. The series has been the subject of shocking levels of criticism for what is, essentially, one woman’s analysis of gaming and pop culture.
I spent a lot of time researching Gamergate (and I loathe the constant comparing of any controversy to the original Watergate scandal) to attempt to contextualise its gripes. The problem with providing a comment on the ‘arguments’ is that they are so scattered, conflicting and lacking in any real leadership that they are impossible to get to grips with.
The one consistency appears to be the movement’s criticism of gaming journalists’ ethics, which reached an apex when several websites published articles critical of Gamergate in conjunction with one another. And yet the faces of Quinn, Sarkeesian and women in particular continue to be plastered across pro-Gamergate videos relentlessly – two very small cogs in the wide-scale gaming industry. As pointed out by The New York Times’ Chris Suellentrop: “These players are so concerned about the fragility of big-budget video games in the face of cultural analysis and criticism that they circulated an online petition last year calling for the website GameSpot to fire a critic, Carolyn Petit, for daring to complain that Grand Theft Auto V ‘has little room for women except to portray them as strippers, prostitutes, long-suffering wives, humorless girlfriends and goofy, new-age feminists that we’re meant to laugh at.’ (There were no such demands for the heads of male critics — including me, writing in The New York Times — who said pretty much the same thing.)”
Much of what Gamergate supporters fear appears to revolve around the end of the ‘gamer’ identity and computer games entering the mainstream. But games are already a mainstream form of entertainment, with the biggest sellers out-grossing the most popular music and movie releases. And that’s a good thing. With more popularity comes bigger budgets and better-quality games.
Half a year into this thing and I can only dismiss Gamergate for what it is: a lot of smoke and mirrors from those with an irrational fear of feminism that excuses the abuse of women in the industry, who really have little influence in what the Gamergate supporters claim they want changed.
PlayStation 4 image via Shutterstock