It’s a Great Time to be a Gamer

Never mind all the doom and gloom which currently dominates the headlines (Market Sales Down 5% in January! Xbox 360 Shortages Continue! Activision Cuts 150 Jobs!). Here’s what you won’t read on the front pages of the local paper: It’s actually a great time to be a gamer.

Now before you come over here and strangle me with a Controller S cord, let’s get something straight. Yes, I realize how nonsensical that statement sounds at face value. In the immediate sense, we as a community are facing several serious issues ranging from a troubled console transition period to flagging morale and an increasing apathy for the growing number of sequel-driven franchises. Greater scrutiny and accompanying inquests from the media, government and various political interest groups (Yo, Hillary? mind easing off on the evangelizing?) aren’t helping matters any either.

But sakes alive, man ? check out the ever-improving quality of the market’s base commodity, actual PC and console titles themselves. As in, the selfsame outings which drive children and grown adults alike to madness, camping for hours outside software vendors just to snag the latest Halo. Everything said and done, no matter what nightly news anchors claim about thirsts for blood or moral depravation, it’s these offerings alone which send us scurrying to local retailers on a daily basis, only to be berated for copping 25 to Life by a pizza-faced clerk whose closest brush with full-frontal nudity came as a result of playing Singles: Flirt Up Your Life.

Tune out all the white noise being generated by newsmakers and journalists (Psssshhttt! Attorney Jack Thompson alleges? Pssshttt! Two slain in We Love Katamari­-inspired snowball accident?) and the situation becomes much clearer. We’re not looking at a sudden spike in playground violence or a business trying to push pornographic content on an underage audience, just an industry wrestling with its own adolescence. Barely three decades have passed since the sector’s inception. Fast-forward another 30 years, and I suspect grabbing the newest title from THQ or Square-Enix won’t be seen as any different from catching Jerry Bruckheimer’s most recent special effects-laden opus. (Just ask Steven Spielberg, who, as mentioned earlier, is grinding away on a host of new franchise properties for publisher Electronic Arts.)

In the meantime though, rest easy, and know that while the road ahead will be hard, it’s well worth traveling, as the average caliber of games across the board continues to climb. Alone, the first two months of the year have already brought us smashes like The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth 2, Devil May Cry 3: Special Edition, and World Soccer: Winning Eleven 9. Don’t believe me? Let’s do a little math with help from Metacritic.com. As a quick and dirty example, at the time of this writing, the mean review score for all PlayStation 2 products released in 2006 sits at a healthy 70.5 out of 100. All this before some of the year’s biggest potential hits, i.e. The Godfather, Tomb Raider: Legend, Bully, Scarface and Splinter Cell: Double Agent have even arrived.

Snicker if you must; in most cases, straight Cs will get you nowhere in life? unless you’re looking forward to a career at the neighborhood Quik-E-Mart or Denny’s. But rewind back to this same time last year, when throwaway tiles like Death by Degrees passed as the norm, and ratings in the low- to mid-50s were more common. A simple glance at the Q1 2006 release schedule merely confirms it as well. Due to the growing demands of an increasingly tougher marketplace, D-grade and lower (Z- in the cases of certain Eastern European imports? and, for that mater, The Guy Game) offerings are rapidly disappearing from publishers’ lineups.

At the very least, the few second- and third-tier products out there angling for shelf space are being vastly reduced in price, with the median cost for average-caliber or largely nondescript games presently sitting around $19.99-$29.99. Meaning that if you do get hosed on a deal, well? Think of it this way: You saved a sawbuck or two, which can be spent supporting former classmates by dining at one of the fine establishments mentioned above.

I’m not saying the odd Kao the Kangaroo Round 2 or Torino 2006 won’t slip through the cracks. (Executives still have to afford those Cuban cigars and Porsche Boxsters somehow). However, with killer apps like Xbox Live Arcade, a host of casual gaming sites ? I love you, Zone.com ? and boundary-pushing console outings like Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter available, you’ve got more alternatives than ever. And for those joystick junkies hip to handheld gaming (not to mention associated console emulators) as well as mods ? user-created modifications which can change the content and/or structure of entire games ? the options are almost infinite.

The moral of the story: Despite dismal forecasts, lawmakers’ incessant kvetching and diehard enthusiasts’ scathing criticisms, no one’s at a loss for decent ways to play this season. Start searching the archives here at DesignTechnica, breeze past the nearest specialist game retailer or wing by PoGo or PopCap.com and see what unexpected surprises you can come up with today.

– Scott Steinberg

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.