On Disappointment — Gamescom 2014 and Sony’s Press Conference

Before I start, I feel as if it’s important to address my bias going into this piece. I do not own an Xbox One, mostly on the reason that it doesn’t suit my needs as a gamer. I don’t mean that to say it is a bad console by any means; rather, that my current media setup and my love of Sony’s first party studios and their partnerships with indie developers naturally made the PS4 the better fit for me this generation, and it is the one that I pay the most attention to. I will not be addressing the Microsoft conference at Gamescom 2014 here.

I often am struck with the question: as consumers of technology, what is it that we want? We are caught in a strange limbo between what we are promised and what we receive and somewhere in the middle we fall into this deep trench of aggression and disappointment toward billion-dollar companies whose fortunes are built upon technical marvels that were science fiction merely one hundred years ago.

Are you Mac or PC? Are you iOS or Android? Are you PlayStation or Xbox? Are you Verizon or AT&T? Do you fit into a constructed binary that is the same or different from mine? If you don’t, then you’re wrong.

I’ve discussed this before, and won’t spend too much time treading my wheels over this point, but since the launching of the next-generation of video game consoles last year, the fervor behind the Xbox and PlayStation dichotomy has been intense, if not, perhaps, antagonistic. More than a year has been spent comparing one console to the other based on launch titles, on hardware capabilities, on media integration. If you peel away the fluff behind console marketing, you will generally find that all consoles are the same underneath. They all play games. They all allow you to watch Netflix. They all have some 1984-esque always on camera capability. The particulars of this–what kind of games, what kind of VR and accessories, etc. should perhaps instead be the particular chocolate or vanilla or carrot of the console’s cake. No matter which one you pick, you will receive cake. The flavor you end up with is your choice.

I believe, as many do, that the next-generation consoles should not have released until this year. Many netizens have been vocal of their condemnation of early adopters, of which I was one, and it is true that many who opened up their consoles on release day or waited in lines all weekend just to see one have been disappointed over the last year. There haven’t been many games, and this goes for both consoles.

Ryse: Son of Rome, for example, a launch title for the Xbox One, is very pretty but its merit stops about there. The story is not particularly engaging, its hero is not particularly unique, its playtime is not particularly long. Killzone: Shadow Fall, a launch title for the PS4, is not as good as its forebears. Again, it’s very pretty but, like Ryse, its story is questionable, its hero is iffy, and play is not particularly engaging. I am a person of exuberant optimism when it comes to games, but I am more than willing to admit that most of the games I’ve played for my PS4 in the last 8 months have been incredibly meh.

To me, E3 2014, and the more recent Gamescom 2014, have been a refreshing pair of conferences for next-gen console owners. Sony has been intensely promoting its upcoming 6-month lineup, which includes eagerly awaited AAA titles like The Order: 1886, Destiny, LittleBigPlanet 3, Driveclub, Bloodborne, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Farcry 4, The Witcher 3–some of which are exclusives, and others that aren’t. Beyond that, they’ve teased Uncharted 4, DayZ for PS4, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Everbody’s Gone to the Rapture, Silent Hills, Wild, Rime, Tearaway Unfolded–the list goes on and on. I am very glad that I purchased my PS4 at launch (though, it’s important to note that I never actually regretted buying it at launch) because instead of needing to shell out $400 and only choose a few games to focus on, I can adopt nearly all of the new titles in full force.

I left the stream of Sony’s conference at Gamescom on Tuesday exhilarated and excited.

But nobody else did.

Hundreds of tweets on my feed, for hours, all criticizing Sony, all crying ‘disappointed’ and ‘underwhelmed.’

To make an important point first, I didn’t write this blog with the express intent of invalidating the concerns of those who voiced them. It is okay to be critical, it is important to be critical, and it’s understandable if your expectations are not met. My point here is not to say that those of you who did express disappointment are wrong. Criticism is what keeps the world going around, it is what keeps tech companies pushing forward and innovating. If we all loved everything all the time, there would be no need for anything to be different. There would be no progress. There would be no demand.

Rather, I find I am hung up moreso on the idea of disappointment, on this idea that all we are is disappointed when it comes to technology, or at the very least, gaming. I saw very little public outcries of happiness over what Sony did announce, save for that which I shared with my friends and what was said on enthusiast forums.

I am fully comfortable with putting all of humanity into a series of boxes as a means of making my point, and I find that our understanding of technology–in a very general and very shallow sense–bounces somewhere between a level of Cosmos-inspired, “science” is cool sort of wonder sponsored by clickbait articles that condense academic papers into articles that cry out about the cure for cancer or our supposed robot overlords which are often only vaguely true, and the epitome of MLG, comic book guy, worst-technology-ever syndrome in which everything just sucks. There are third and fourth boxes, namely the one for technological determinism and another for technological paranoia, but aren’t necessarily as relevant here.

Robert Gehl makes an astute point in his book, Reverse Engineering Social Media, that is worth reiterating here. Technology doesn’t just exist on a straight and linear trajectory the way we might rationalize it to. When we think of airplanes, for example, we think of the Wright Brothers and then we think of bombers in WWII and then we think of 747s and airbuses and passenger planes. “History is told as a story of these successful projects,” Gehl writes, “while failures and contradictions (that is, messy phenomena that trouble our lovely narrative of linear and logical technological process) are pushed outside of the margins of historiography,” (p. 14).While A may have led to Z, through G, H, and I, we often ignore all the other letters in between, the gaps and spaces between those letters, the very lines that allow each letter to be recognized, and any alphabets that might have come before what we believe A is.

I can’t say if that’s the precise reason why we are often so dissatisfied with our technology, but I would be willing to bet that it plays a large part. We expect major progress, we expect huge jumps between versions, we expect innovation at every level, enough that we often ignore innovation when it is too small for us to see. We ask ourselves often–why aren’t we living on Mars yet? Why don’t we have hovercars? Why haven’t we found out how to live forever? It takes time to get to those places. Technology in and of itself is not a given. It has to be developed, and it has to be understood. Did we forget that laptops were revolutionary only forty years ago?

I have done a great deal of generalizing in this little blog, not without risk of criticism, and so I want to pull away explicitly from the idea that everyone always is dissatisfied with progress in technology as a big, blanket whole, but instead focus again on the video game industry, which I find to be a peculiar aspect of technology that, at least to my eyes, is often the most vocally criticized by enthusiasts and seems to be an egregiously overexaggerated (if not completely real) example of this phenomenon.

I want to compare the PS4 to a car. Cars come out every year, while PS4s don’t. A whole seven years of time sat in between the launch of the PS3 and the launch of the PS4 in North America–a time that was not without progress, but progress often came in terms of larger harddrives and smaller sizes. I purchased a brand new Volkswagen in January of this year, a 2014 model, but I can say with absolute certainty that very soon, if not already, 2015 models of my Volkswagen will be on the market.

It goes without saying that based on these development cycles, it is completely rational for people in the gaming world to expect major advancements at each step. This very notion is what spurred much of the criticism around the consoles early on, as they were found to perform only around the levels that on-the-market, mid-range computers can. The so called PC Master Race–hobbyists who have built their own computers and fined tuned their specs until every game can be played at its highest quality–saw the consoles to be disappointing. Why wouldn’t something built to run games not run them at the highest quality available? (The answer to this has to do with price, considering a PS4, following our example, retails for $399 and self-built computers can often cost upwards of $500 to more than $1000. PCs, however, are scaleable, while consoles, generally speaking, are not.)

But it is more than this. It is not that users expect major innovation from console release to console release, it is that they expect every single announcement–which occur multiple times a year–to offer the promise of some massive innovation. Some new game. Something to look forward to. When they are denied it, they are disappointed. When they are given it, they are often unimpressed. Is it a litmus test for the feasibility of the console to perform over time? Against its rivals? It’s hard to say.

Imagine, now, that we all had the same expectations for cars. They still come out with a new model every year but instead, they were held to the standards that the video games industry is. It would be logical for me to say, ‘well, last year’s model has a sunroof, why doesn’t this year’s model have a sunroof that opens faster? We have the technology for that.’ I could say, ‘When are they going to come out with one that has a larger frame or bigger wheels?’ I could say, ‘Oh, it’s in black again this year? Not very original.’

If we treated our cars like we treat our consoles and our games, and, assuming that the car manufacturers and designers could keep up with us, we would all own compact airplanes that could travel at lightspeed when only twenty or thirty years ago, we barely had bicycles.

This metaphor, I think, begs another question: is it us or is it them? Is it we the consumers who are at fault because of our inherently jaded and cynical and demanding nature, because our expectations are higher than can be met rationally or easily? Or is it them–the software companies for promising what they could not deliver, who raised our hopes to these obscene levels and caused us to feel this pitiful agony of disappointment with every new announcement made?

Is it both of us, together?

I don’t know if there is an answer. But I would, at least, like us to consider that there might be. More than that, I hope that there is a solution, for I fear we are losing our ability to be impressed and enthralled and that, in itself, is a horrible thing to lose.

For the record, I will say, again, that I left Gamescom feeling very enthusiastic about Sony’s progress. I feel as though they are finally able to speak to the level of service they had wanted to launch with, and I feel as though they are stronger with concrete release dates for first party games, like Driveclub, which was delayed nearly a full year. They didn’t show me a game I wasn’t interested in and I am greatly looking forward to the technology they promised to implement, such as SharePlay. I don’t mind that they didn’t show me anything about the PlayStation Vita, I don’t mind that Uncharted 4 was absent. I know they cannot do everything in the time they are given, and I feel that what they did show is enough to keep me very happy with my console purchase.

And you are free to say that I am no longer critical–because perhaps I am. I feel as though I follow instead a path of cautious optimism, a line where I am far less easily disappointed and far more easily enthralled and delighted. I can laugh at myself, I can love terrible games. I think that technology is, in itself, good–a fascinating representation of our cultural psyche that captures the human condition the way few other things can. I urge us to not be disappointed, not to forsake the good over the bad, but instead to be cautiously optimistic too.

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