piechartsidebar.jpg['The Z-Axis' is a bi-weekly column from game writer Michael Zenke, stretching games and gaming trends out planarly to poke, caress, and pinpoint the innards of what makes them great. This week, he offers an alternative viewpoint on excess and quality in the modern gaming industry.]

On the surface, this is the best time going to be a gamer. The industry is booming, with the ‘next gen’ consoles now really hitting their stride. PC gaming is so dead it’s getting cool to develop for again, and the online game industry is threatening to grow its own consciousness and take over, Skynet-style.

PSPs and DSes seem to be everywhere, and grannies are happily showing their grandchildren how to play Wii Bowling at the senior center. The problem: what’s good for the industry is not the same thing as what’s good for the gamer.

I’d argue that, in fact, it’s becoming increasingly hard to be a gamer.

The sheer torrential pressure of game releases over the last three years has made it extremely difficult to ‘keep up with the flow.‘ As gaming continues along the path to mainstream acceptance, the constant lust for the new (and the resulting dismissal of the ‘old’) will be one of its biggest obstacles.

How can we really take seriously an artform which deprecates and dismisses work so quickly? How can we even track the artform when this week’s hot new release is next week’s bottom-of-the-pile forgotten pearl? Let’s tackle the thorny problem of why too many games could be - in truth - a bad thing(TM).

Always Looking To The Future, To The Horizon

The essential nature of gaming has become one of excess. Once primarily the pick-up-and-play of dim arcades, the console and PC renaissance since the early '90s has lead to a wholly different concept of what a game is ‘supposed to be.’ The expectation that every game should give the player hours of entertainment is now implicit, and the result - even combined with the rising costs associated with gaming - is a hobby rife with bargain basement-priced experiences.

For the cost of two tickets and a box of popcorn, you can buy a videogame that will last 3-20 times the length of the average movie. For the cost of a hardcover book, you can pay the monthly subscription fee for an MMO that might happily swallow every waking moment of your life.

That’s great on paper, and has lead to the aforementioned boom in gaming popularity and sales. That success has a very real downside, though: gamers are simply swamped with games. The GameRankings site offers some clues to just how much gaming we’re doing.

Since the Xbox 360 launched at the end of 2005, there have been 683 games released to the platform. There have been 844 NintendoDS games released since late 2004, and some 331 PlayStation 3 games dropped since late 2006. That’s an average of four games a week, every week, for both the 360 and DS. The PS3 averages more like three games a week.

piechartsidebar.jpgThis isn’t just a surfeit of choice, it’s a tidal wave of gaming. There can indeed be too much of a good thing. The result: gamers who stand in front of their television sets or sit at their computer desks and stare in mute horror at the sheer number of options they have.

Despite the seemingly self-evident reality that more choice is always better, modern life has proven otherwise. There’s even a book about this phenomenon called 'The Paradox of Choice'. Barry Schwartz, author of the book, gave a compelling talk about the issue at the TED conference a few years back.

The gist of the idea is this: even though having more choices might make you think you’re doing better, or are more well off, you’re probably going to feel worse about the situation. For some people - maybe a lot of people - having too many choices causes serious problems.

Let’s take last year’s smorgasbord game release season as our example. The list of AAA titles that came out last year made it quite possibly the strongest year in gaming ever. But how can you choose, realistically, between Halo 3 and Mass Effect? How can you choose between BioShock and Puzzle Quest? There were so *many* good games released last year that you couldn’t.

You couldn’t go into a store and buy Call of Duty 4 without *having* to pick up Super Mario Galaxy. Can’t snag Rock Band without that Burning Crusade box. And - seriously - can you even still be called a gamer if you didn’t play at least one of the offerings from The Orange Box?

The happy shopping sprees and smiling faces at GameStop, more than likely, eventually turned into sour grimaces and furrowed brows at home. Like it or not, the gaming public is an aging public. We’ve got kids, jobs, and responsibilities. Ironically, at a time when more gamers are able to afford these games than ever before, the Western lifestyle precludes the time to play more than a handful.

So I’m willing to bet that, across the country, gamers brought home games they didn’t play. They downloaded titles they never loaded up, purchased handheld games that stayed in the packaging.

Time To Get High-Falutin'

Not only is this bad for the pocketbook as gamers purchase games they never play, but it’s bad for games as an art form. Compare games with the modern literary scene. Novel-writing is a mature art, and one that the enthusiast can dive into with as much gusto as a gamer. There are dozens of books released into stores every week, and within a given genre one can always find new titles to enjoy.

Add to that the enormous history of every novel ever written and you have a beautiful unbroken chain of artistry. New aficionados can arrive at the literary doorstep with no preconceptions, and enjoy modern works as easily as classics.

Games are simply not that accessible. The bang for your buck in buying a game means working through a series of video game titles is just not as easy as reading through a few hundred-page book. It might take fifteen hours to read through a thick trilogy of books, perhaps spread across a few weeks. It might take even less time for a dedicated reader. Even the most dedicated game player might take just as long to complete one of last year’s AAA titles.

RPGs, arguably one of the epic examples of the art, could easily take three to four times as long to complete. Again, for one title. To play through all of the games I mentioned above (not including The Burning Crusade) I conservatively estimate could take 60 to 70 hours - for just nine of the dozens of quality titles that came out last year.

Lots of gamers are buying games. This much is clear from the NPD numbers. But how many are playing them when they get home? Of those, how many are making it past the first hour of gameplay? Of those, how many actually finish the games they play? Grand Theft Auto IV is sure to be this year’s GOTY darling but - as Warren Spector recently asked - how many people do you think really finished it? The need, the drive, to see the new and the interesting always pushes gamers onward to new games, to new experiences.

That push into the future guarantees that even a great game of a few years ago will probably be relegated to the bin of history. The news of a new Beyond Good and Evil will no doubt spur numerous players to actually try it out, tying the old with the new.

But what of true classics like the LucasArts adventure games, or even the most primitive graphical games of yesterday? Anyone that’s played through the original Alone the Dark will tell you that in that time, and in that place, it was as terrifying as any over-the-top gorefest could hope to be. More so, I’d argue. But no one is going to play that game in anticipation of the new version from Eden Games. Why would you? “It’s so old!”

Great novels live forever. Great games live only until the next great game.

What we’re left with is a medium where the vast majority of the audience has only a flimsy grasp on the subject. They don’t know about the games of the past because they don’t have time to play them. They don’t know about the games of the future because there are too many to play.

They know about the games of the future because game journalists choke them with previews and spoilers, forcing them to swallow the delicious promises of marketing devils. After all: the lies of tomorrow are better than the bitter reality of today.

Taking Off The Whineypants

So what, right? I mean, it’s great to talk about this and reflect on what we’re missing out on as a subculture. It’s intellectually interesting to consider what might be if we had the time to really explore the art form we’re so fond of. But that’s not the way of things, that’s not reality. No-one has time to commit to a game the way they might want to, gotta pick up and move on to the next thing while the going’s good.

My purpose for bringing this up is to point out the role of the gamer in this mad dash. Ultimately, it’s the individual’s choice to participate in the hobby the way they want to. You can surf the cutting edge of gaming trends, if that’s your goal, but that wave will carry you swiftly past some experiences that take a bit more time to digest.

Despite what the marketing tells you, despite what your friends might be telling you, I want to tell you that it’s okay to slow down. It’s okay to stop and experience what games have to offer. Go back and play Deus Ex if you’ve always wanted to. Fire up that copy of Baldur’s Gate or Planescape:Torment.

Don’t let your relationship with something you love be dictated by hype, fads, or peer pressure. You may not know art, but you know what you like.