aaron white

aaron white

My name is Aaron White. I'm 34, and I live just outside Minneapolis, Minnesota. When I first really noticed things starting to change with video games was a couple things. I guess there were about three things that all kind of happened at about the same time. One was I had a child, which was a major life event that obviously left me with less time. But prior to that, even, I had just noticed there was an increasing trend toward multiplayer gaming, games coming out that were without any sort of single-player element. And while I've enjoyed some multiplayer over the years, I'm an old school single-player gamer guy, and also just a lot of repetition and lack of quality going into some of the games; by the 18th Assassin's Creed game, I felt like I'd played it a few times already.

Oh, I don't think there have been that many. I feel like there's probably about 35? [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] Not to say I haven't enjoyed them, but at what point are we going to see some new properties coming out? And that was something I was not seeing a lot of: new ideas that I was excited about. And I guess the third thing was the next-gen consoles that were coming out. I didn't have the finances to want to jump into one of those, and all of the new -- I mean, graphics aside, all of the new things that they put into them were geared toward, again, more multiplayer, more connectivity. Especially for people who watched a lot of TV, or watched a lot of sports, or wanted to do multiple things at the same time while on their console, and none of that was me. So while I might enjoy some of the next-gen games that are on the way, I just couldn't really care less about the console right now.

So you're talking about which generation, the current one? Xbox One and PS4?

Correct.

I remember feeling a little confused about when the pitch for watching Crunchyroll and sports on your console. Like, who are they imagining buying systems for that? Are they imagining people who are kids and don’t have access to cable or the services that their parents are already buying?

Yeah.

Like, who is it who is just getting access to these services through their consoles who wouldn't either pirate them online if they didn't have it? Or just go through other places online? Who is that? [Laughs.]

Yeah, yeah. Well, and who has that money? But with my Xbox 360, I was definitely pleased to be able to get Netflix onto my TV, or iHeartRadio, or -- you know, some of those things, that was a convenience factor. But some of the things they added to that with the Xbox One or things like that didn't really up the ante for me, especially not at the price point.

Why does the bar seem to be lower? Why are there fewer offerings on the current generation of consoles? Just as far as, like, core features that are new. Do you have that impression as well?

Yeah, I almost feel like developers and console manufacturers are inventing features that we don't really need as an excuse to justify building a next-gen console. I feel like if game developers were making games that people just wanted to play, we wouldn't actually care whether the graphics were real-life looking or something like that. Just give us good games, good stories, good experiences -- they don't need to be padded out with millions of fetch quests or things like that. Super Metroid, for the Super Nintendo, was a fantastic game. You could play it in three hours, but it was terrific; it had a great story and nobody felt the need to make it longer just to make it longer.

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So, older games come up a lot in these conversations. How much of that is just you being nostalgic?

I think only a little bit. There's certainly an aspect; I think any gamer would be deceiving themselves if we didn't all think that we had some sort of nostalgia attached to the hobby, but --

Well, I think the industry is hoping so as well, right? I don't think nostalgia alone is a bad thing.

No, I think that's why we keep seeing sequels of sequels: because people like to hang onto the properties that they enjoy. But if it was just nostalgia, I would still just be playing games on my Super Nintendo -- which I don't have any more, by the way. But I think the fact that we want new things means it’s not just nostalgia.

What do you feel is missing from that era of games? What sort of things do you feel are just not here today that were there then?

I feel like it's storytelling. Because the games that I still like -- you know, there are a few of them still being made -- are games with a good story. I feel like a lot of the games I don't care for are games that are just trying to sell you a different type of experience. "Oh, we've added this feature to multiplayer" or "you can customize your characters" or "you can do all of this stuff" and that's fine, there's nothing wrong with that, but I want to be part of a story, not just entertaining myself twiddling my thumbs on a controller.

So what do you think is the closest a game has come to giving you that experience?

Ever, or just lately, or what do you mean?

[Laughs.] I mean ever. Has it happened lately?

Goodness. I think the -- I mean, this may be a bit of a cliché answer -- but for me, the Mass Effect games were a great combination of a really good story, but with enough "padding" to the game to make it long enough to be worth playing. I actually felt like I was getting my $60 worth with those games. Otherwise, I mean -- I can point to some of the other cliché classics that, over the years, were a great balance between story and gameplay and time spent in it, like Final Fantasy VII or some of those kinds of things. The Batman Arkham series, at least the first couple.

No, it's fine. But it's interesting, because you mentioned -- so, Mass Effect is a recent one. Is there an older example you could think of? That's just a more recent thing than I was expecting to hear.

Sure. I really enjoyed -- back in the day -- I really enjoyed the Tomb Raider games. I really enjoyed Myst and Riven and some of those games that were more immersive and puzzle-solving. There was a story going on, but you had to think, and you had to do more than just run around and shoot things. I enjoyed the Bioshock games too, and they're a lot of running around and shooting things, but there's still a story there. That's ultimately, I guess, what I'm looking for. If I get into a game where there's no meat to it, there's no point to me running around and doing what I'm doing, then it's just not worth it for me.

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Well, how do you define "point?" Like, the actions having a purpose in a game? Of course, it's going to be incredibly subjective, but for you, Aaron White, how do you define this very narrow, specific, hard-to-articulate thing? [Laughs.]

Yeah, exactly, that's a good question, because it is so subjective. For some people, the point is the multiplayer experience, it's the community. That, for me, is not the point. For me, the point is to be a part of an interesting story. For me, it's just like why do I watch a movie? Why do I read a good book? It's to experience the events of a work of fiction or fantasy or whatever that somebody has thought was important enough to tell to me through an artistic medium, and with games, to make me a part of it.

What would it take for you to think, "Huh, well, all right! I have to get that!" It doesn't have to be a specific product. It can just be a demonstration of different thinking, or approaching the industry differently by any company or console manufacturer. Like, what do you think it would be?

Well, I'll take kind of a circuitous route to get there, but I'll put it this way.

Now, I've obviously drifted away from gaming to some degree, so I don't hear all the buzz that I used to pay attention to. The last time I really remember hearing any buzz that actually even excited me was back -- to use this example again -- back when the first Mass Effect game came out. Because people were talking about it as something that was very different. Now, obviously there's a lot of controversy about BioWare not actually delivering on that by the time the end of the third game came around, but I don't think anybody would deny that it was still a fantastic series, regardless of how you felt about how it ended or how the developer handled the decisions along the way. And all the buzz that I can remember hearing about any games since then have been, like, Titanfall or things like that where all I was hearing -- or Evolve, I think is what it's called, recently, the new one -- just a lot of multiplayer stuff.

And I haven't heard any buzz about a game that was about the game's story in a long time. Nobody has talked about "this is a really great story" for a really long time, except maybe Bioshock Infinite. That got people talking about the story elements. And so, for me, I guess, that's what it would take. You know, "What's a really good story that is worth experiencing in that way." Not just something I could read about and say, "Yeah, I got the gist." I just recently played, for the first time, the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. I had some time after we moved in, and decided to play that, finally. It was free on Xbox Gold, so I just went ahead and did that. [Laughs.] But that one was pretty good -- it was a good adventure, good story for the most part -- but again, it suffered from a lot of the things that I feel like are things that I've been kind of talking about, where it was unnecessarily padded out, in a lot of cases, sometimes with fetch quest-type things, sometimes with unnecessary quick time events. Like, "Oh, to open this box, I have to mash my X button 20 times in order to do it. Why do I need a loading screen to open this box?" That kind of thing. And it was gritty just for the sake of being gritty.

And just some of those things, I feel like really lazy game developing and lazy storytelling techniques.

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The "mash X to do anything" is a trope in and of itself, but I find it especially lame when -- like in the Arkham series, Batman has a lot of doors he has to rip open. And you know what my favorite part of the Batman movies? When he's carefully ripping all those doors. [Laughs.]

That's certainly the most dramatic part.

Why is that getting greenlit as just, "Yeah, let's just have a ton of doors and grates for him to open?

Well, even good games. Like, I mean, again, to mention Bioshock or to mention Mass Effect, why do we need these minigames to hack a vending machine? Or to hack open a lock on a door?

Do you think the way we approach games changes as we age?

I think it definitely does. Think about who the new, young gamer is. They've never known gaming without motion control, or without three-dimensional worlds or things like that. And by default, their expectations are going to be different. You put them in front of traditional Super Mario Brothers, they may not care. It doesn't have the same sort of allure for them that it maybe did for us back in the day, because of what they've grown up with.

And I think the same could be said for us. I think if given the games that we have today, if we hadn't grown up the way we did, growing up with the industry, our expectations might be radically different too, and our perspectives on what is quality. To go back to what you were saying about minigames opening doors, what works, what doesn't, I would say a good example would be in Thief: Deadly Shadows, having to pick locks for certain doors or treasure boxes or whatever. That makes sense with the character. It's not the sort of minigame that takes a long time. It doesn't take you out of the game to do this thing forever. And especially, as you go forward in the game, you get better at it, so you can do it very quickly. It becomes a skill that your character gets better at, but also that you as the player get better at, and it serves the story. I feel like Batman hacking his hundredth door doesn't serve the story by that point. You just as the gamer are sitting there going, "Really? Again?"

It breaks the fantasy. It calls attention to the fact that you are playing a game.

Yeah. I mean, because again, you look at some of the outlandish technology that you're playing with throughout the rest of the game, but Commander Shepard or Batman or whoever still has to pick the lock to get it open.

[Laughs.] I think we've hit this pretty well from a lot of different angles, but it's just like imagining they're coming back with a new version of X-Files, and imagine in the new X-Files, Chris Carter explains one of the biggest regrets he had in the original series was not enough scenes of Scully or Mulder opening and closing doors. [Laughs.] It's laughable that that would be a thing they would fix, but these are active choices that people making games. These things don’t pop themselves into these games.

Well, and when you look at gaming from a cinematic standpoint, and they're kind of like interactive films. Again, this is my definition, this is what I want from a game. I am participating in an unraveling story. If I'm watching the movie, do I really want to see the character making dinner, going to the bathroom, taking a shower, all of those things that we all do every day?

In a movie you would edit out, because we all just kind of understand that they're taking place and we don't need to see it. That's the sort of thing that like, where along the line did a game developer decide that some of these rather mundane things are good ways to pad out the story and trick you into thinking that you're getting more for your money by making the game take longer?

But you know, I think games were just, "Well, here's our story, we're going to tell our story, and it's going to be fun." And that's it. But now we have -- let's say, for example, we have achievements, so now we need reasons to justify all 100 achievements that you can go get, so we have to put extra things in there for you to do, or whatever. Now, don't get me wrong, I like that system of psychological rewards, but -- I don't know. I think sometimes we've gotten just off-track about storytelling and think that gaming is about other things.

What do you think they're about? What are those other things?

Well, that's what I mean, is what the developers are looking for. They think we want certain things that we may not actually want as gamers. Now, again, that's subjective. Every gamer wants something different --

I think that's true, but I think the majority of the things we are seeing serve very specific, narrow wants, and I think there are other wants that other people have that are not being as served with equal budgets or megaphones or focus.

Like, what are some of those ideas or those things, in your opinion?

I've been thinking about this a lot, and I don't know that I can be as eloquent as you in answering questions like these. I really hate to rehash other interviews from here, but I interviewed the guy who started the Game Developers' Conference, Chris Crawford, and he talks about there being a finite number of verbs in a game. In other words, the typical actions you do in a game. And I think exploring other parts of the vocabulary would be surprising, and it would be interesting. But I feel like if I'm saying I want to be surprised, it's hard to say what I want to be surprised by.

Well, I mean, and it's a double-edged sword too, because in the information age we live in, if people are going to put down their money, they want to know what to expect. And if a game developer wants to sell their game, they have to tell us what to expect. So it's hard to both surprise and impress us and also get things moving.

I don't think it's impossible, though.

I would agree. I think, again, to -- I feel like I'm talking about the same five games --

[Laughs.]

-- I feel like that's what the Bioshock games did, too, because they gave you a very good idea of what to expect from the game, from the gameplay, whatever, but I think everybody was surprised by the way they ended. And that's pretty rare today.

Do you feel like there is any sort of mechanism or motivation for the industry to want to try new things if people just burn out and move on or stop buying, and the people who stay are the people who just buy what keeps getting put out no matter what?

I think this is maybe one area where modern technology and a little bit of that nostalgia can work hand-in-hand. Because we see this -- you mentioned X-Files coming back on Netflix and things like that -- you've got people now who were fans of things that were successful years ago that now have the ability to bring back either the things they used to like or create new things that were inspired by those things. Whether that's J.J. Abrams being the one directing Star Wars now as a fan, or people doing independent game developing who used to like a certain genre of game that fell out of favor with the major game developers.

I mean, one example of that, I have -- the only Kickstarter I have ever backed is Cyan's new adventure, Myst-style adventure game that they're creating, Obduction. And it's one of those things that was like, "Hey, I liked this genre of game, nobody is making it any more, these are the guys that invented it, practically -- or at least did it the best -- and now after years of just trying to keep their old properties alive on new platforms, they're actually making a new game." And that's kind of what they did back when they made the first Myst is they said, "hey, we don't love all the options that are out there for games right now, let's do what we want to do" and it was at the time, one of the biggest hits ever. So the fact that they're willing to go back to the drawing board and do that again, I mean, kind of repeat history in a way, gives me some degree of hope that other people will do the same kinds of things in other places.

What seems to be weird to you about video games online? Not playing them online, but just the ecosystem around them online on the Internet?

For me, it's just fairly repetitive. There's not as much story to a multiplayer experience. You've got sort of exceptions in things like Left 4 Dead, and that sort of thing, but for me it's like, "Well, it's fun to get online and play with some friends for a little while, but do I want to pay 60 bucks for a game that only lets me do that? No, not really." With Halo 4, I didn't even finish the online components of that game, it just did not hold my interest.

Well, how about when you were much more interested in games -- how did the games media impact what you were interested in?

I never really paid a lot of attention to games media in terms of subscribing -- either a magazine or a newsfeed or anything like that. I mostly would kind of occasionally drop in to searches for games that I was already interested in, and through that, or through word of mouth, find out about other games that I might be interested in. If I was like, "Oh, when is the next Half-Life game coming out?" [Laughs.] and I visited GameSpot or something like that to find out, and in the meantime I saw a headline for an article for some other game, that would be kind of how I'd find out about things. It'd be a lot more organic.

Interesting. Did you always have that approach?

Yeah, I guess. I've never been the most hardcore gamer, but I have a lot of friends who are more into it than I am, so I would, a lot of times, find out about a game from them. Or again, maybe see something in the store while I'm out wandering around. I would frequently drop in at Target or something like that to see what's new in the games section, and would find out about things that way.

When you did go by these websites, what trends did you notice in the things that they covered or weren't covering?

I'm not sure that I can say I really noticed much in the way of trends one way or another. Again, I was not spending a lot of time just kind of casually observing what's going on, I was very much -- this is the way I am about most things -- very much seeking out intentionally information.

Does it feel like they're becoming less creative, are they more narrowly creative? I mean, do you have a feeling one way or the other about that?

From my general perception, as an admittedly casual gamer, and as someone who has not played the widest spectrum of games, it does seem to me like games are falling into fewer and fewer categories now. You've got a whole -- I mean, it seems to me that the broadest swath of games being created fall into multiplayer, vaguely military-style shooters. And then you have a lot of the Nintendo style of games, that are the multiplayer -- like racing, or board game, party game kind of thing, there's a lot of that on the Nintendo side. And then I think you mentioned a lot of the noir-style detective stuff, or you've got the sandbox games that are Grand Theft Auto and whatever else, but, yeah, I just don't -- I don't necessarily see as many different kinds of games as I maybe used to. That's completely a subjective viewpoint, though.

Well, I mean, anything anyone says will be based on your experiences and what you see. I'm asking you specifically because I'm curious what your perception is. I don't know if these are things that -- can you prove that there's less creativity? How do you measure that?

How do you quantify that kind of thing?

Yeah. Which is why I'm talking to so many different people. Because I have that feeling, and there's a degree to where it's like, "Well, you're not looking around enough." And I feel like even as much as you do look, I get that feeling too. And I feel like with technology where it's at, it certainly is plausible that it should be going the other way, right? There should be more, not fewer.

The only thing I can point to is my observation in that recently was that some time last summer, I did actually cancel my Xbox Live Gold subscription. For two reasons.

One, with the Xbox One that came out, and them making their apps available to everybody, not just Gold members, I didn't need a Gold subscription to still watch Netflix, so that was one thing. But also, the Games With Gold promotion, I did not -- I rarely found a game that I was even interested in trying that they were giving away. And even the ones that I had heard of, because they were popular, you know, Gears of War or things like that, I would try them -- or Dead Island -- try them and just, "I feel like I've played this before" or "I feel like it was really thrown together." Just none of them grabbed me. I think one out of a whole year's worth of games was actually something that I was like, "Okay, I'm really glad they gave that away, and I'm actually going to play the whole thing." And that, to me, just says, well, regardless of whether there is or isn't a higher degree of creativity, I mean -- it obviously could be just me. Just my own changing tastes and priorities and whatever.

But I feel like I still like a good story, and there are still games that I enjoy playing. They just happen to be older now. [Laughs.]

The degree to which you do participate in the Internet with games, even if you don't pay as close attention to games anymore, do you see these conversations about who is a gamer and who is not?

I think so. Are you kind of getting at the idea that maybe even the games media or the game developing industry has a certain perception of who the audience is, and they're working toward that person, and that person may not be us?

The correct answer to the question of who plays games is "everyone." So why are we not seeing games for anyone?

Right. Yeah, I feel like -- and I guess I haven't thought about it this way, or put it this way -- but I feel like a lot of games are maybe less intelligent than they used to be.

I'm making this sound like they're evil corporations or something like that, that just want drones, but -- the games today seem to be designed to just sit down there and be mindless for a while just doing the same kind of thing over and over and over again. There's not as much intellectual involvement with it. It's a lot of repetitive actions, which we've kind of touched on, both with button-mashing and multiplayer. It's a lot of the same thing over and over again, rather than, "Here's an immersive experience that's temporary and it's done, but it was worth it." They seem to want to get you to sit down in front of it for as long as you possibly can, day after day. Whether that's World of Warcraft or that's Call of Duty, they want you in front of the game all the time, instead of being able to say, "Well, the story's done, turn on the lights and go back to your life."

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It used to be you'd play a Nintendo game, it would get to the end, you'd get some funny little music and it would say, "Thanks for playing!" And then it would shut itself off sometimes, you know? [Laughs.] Now it's like, "Oh, now you've unlocked the special harder game mode. Do it again!" I don't know. I'm being a little cynical now.

[Laughs.] But I think you're right. I do remember there would be that acknowledgment of you, the player. The credits would roll, and then at the end it would say, "...and thanks to you!" You, specifically. Thank you.
I feel like some of what you're describing is that relationship between the hard work that went into the game from the people before it gets printed and however that magic gets put onto a physical object -- somehow that relationship has changed, where it's no longer gratefulness on both sides. There's a feeling of the boss is the consumer, and they must be they must be appeased and pleased at all times.

It does seem -- you make a good point -- it does seem like there's almost resentment on both sides. Because one could make the case that the game developers have sort of commoditized gamers. "How long can we keep them playing? How much can we get them to spend on the case? And then how many more DLC's can we get them to buy? Let's put out multiplayer games -- multiplayer-only games -- and then we'll string out a bunch of map pack purchases and weapons purchases and character mod purchases over the next 18 months, and then we'll put out the sequel."

Meanwhile gamers complain about that, but they keep lining up to pay for it, and -- but then they go online and complain some more. And so there's like this mutual resentment that's going on. Nobody's treating each other with respect. Gamers aren't content with what they're being given, and game developers are not actually giving us something to be content about. There's definitely some vitriol going both directions, it feels like.

It's a broad statement, it's certainly not true of all games, but I don't know. Maybe we're just old.

I think that's definitely part of it, but I don't think that means we should be ignored. I still have a wallet. I still have a credit card. I'd be happy to buy more games. I don't think they should just ignore me because I'm old.

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