games / Columns

The Gamer Parents Strategy Guide: The News Of 2020

January 12, 2021 | Posted by Jed Shaffer
Cyberpunk 2077 Keanu Reeves

Every website on the intrawebz will do some kind of year-in-review or listicle for the new year. It’s tradition. It might even be a law, like Rule 34. And this year, every one of them will have the additional element of viewing it against the never-ending Hindenberg crash that was 2020. There’s nothing wrong with lists; our brains crave order almost as much as they do the opportunity to deride someone’s subjective opinion on media. I always look forward to worst-of-the-year lists, because I’m a sick bastard that enjoys the schadenfreude that comes with a list of other people’s mistakes. Probably not something to admit to in a parenting column, as I’m trying to build a brand here. Too late, that backspace button is really far away, and I’m on a roll.

Given this column’s nature, though, a best or worst games list doesn’t make sense. Best games to play with your kids? Hell, I’d have to make three separate lists just based on the tastes of my own kids. An overall list would be a disaster. It’d read “… Sports? Shooters? Nintendo? Among Us? And nothing by From Software?”.

Disney presents The Littlest Great Old One Eats Everybody’s Soul!

But what I can do is look at video game news stories – good and bad news – and discuss their impact on gaming and parenting in short bursts. And to play into the nature of end-of-year listicles, I’ll do three of each. They won’t be ranked. Just a few news stories I think either made the gaming world better for families, or make me consider needlepoint as a hobby instead.

To start off with, though, I’m gonna go rogue on myself and throw in a bonus seventh story. It could be both good and bad, and is probably the most notorious story to happen in 2020. It is the elephant in the room, if the elephant’s head grew out of its stomach, its trunk and its tail swapped places, and it was made of Silly Putty.

A news story: Cyberpunk 2077.

Wow. Where to begin? A game in development for seven years, hyped up to be a Bethesda-killer. A polished, slick, futuristic world the likes of which we’ve never seen.

Moving on.

A year of crunch (that CDPR’s CEO publicly promised wouldn’t happen) later, the game was pushed out the door like your in-laws the morning after Christmas. Time will tell the full story on why this game released in such an unfinished state *coughCrunchScopeCreepTooManySKUscough*, but the end result was a game with unparalleled hype crashing and burning at an alarming rate. As of this week, the game has lost 75% of its player base on Steam. No word on the size of the exodus on consoles, but it can’t be good.

What this means for parents: This game is both a positive and negative lesson that parents can impart on their children. Managing and being skeptical of hype. The dangers of crunch culture and how it can affect a game. How pre-ordering a game creates an environment that rewards developers putting out unfinished product. It’s … it’s just a whole thing.

Bad News story #1: Worst. Console launch. EVER.

The launches for the PS5 and the X-Boxes Serieses X’s and S’s were hardly the first bad launches in history. If we were to list bad console launches, we’d be here all year: consoles born dead like the Jaguar, awkward “why is that a thing that is happening in this world?!” launches like the Wii U, and consoles that launched under a shadow of corporate idiocy like the Gizmodo.

Look at Sega here, over-achieving and hitting the trifecta.

This year’s consoles, though, had a whole different set of dumpster fire circumstances. We’ve been through new console droughts before, like the PS2 and the Wii, but that was always demand out-pacing supply. This time, manufacturing was hobbled like James Caan in Misery because of necessary manufacturing restrictions brought on by the COVID pandemic. Sony and Microsoft simply could not, as a matter of public health, keep up production. And even when they read the room accurately for once and pivoted to an online-only sales strategy, this backfired due to lack of the simplest foresight. It seems no one in either company ever had the painful experience of trying to buy concert tickets online and watched as, only seven seconds after going on sale, the only available tickets are in a parking lot three towns over. Scalpers, armed with bots, pounced on websites like piranhas, gobbling up stock before most people could finish loading Amazon’s front page. Every last one of us has either personally experienced, or knows someone who has experienced, the agony of adding the console to their cart, only for it to vaporize in the second between adding it and clicking the checkout button.

Why this has been bad for parents? You ever try explaining supply and demand to a third grader? Did you enjoy that feeling of pounding ten-penny nails through your retinas? Okay, great, now add in the context of the plague-inspired manufacturing slow-down, and the glaring weakness in the online retail apparatus. This was a clusterfuck in so many different ways, and little Jimmy doesn’t care about any of it. They only know that their console of choice is literally all they want in life at this moment, and no reason in the world is good enough to mitigate the disappointment. Yes, this can be spun into a positive lesson of “you can’t always get what you want”, but we shouldn’t be forced to teach our kids that lesson because of amoral shitbags trying to screw over Susan from Des Moines by up-charging 400% on a PS5 on eBay. Disappointing our children on Christmas morning should be our option, not compulsory. After sitting through eleven episodes of Octonauts in a row, dammit, we earned that right.

Good News story #1: The industry’s reaction to COVID.

You don’t need me to explain how much COVID has annihilated the entertainment industry as a whole. We’ve all lived it. Whereas TV and movies have found challenges in delivering content, and music has lost the live side of its business, video games have hardly been affected at all. By nature of their development requiring programmers to sit very still for long periods of time, it was an easy shift from “in the office” to “in your pajamas at the kitchen table”.

Yeah, it’s totally weird how the guy fixing my water heater sounds like Gerard Butler. Why is he yelling about Spartans? Must be an MSU fan.

Yes, a lot of games got delayed because of the shift, but the wheels kept turning. And it goes beyond the development side. Various entities in the industry took action to support relief, be it Humble Bundle putting together an insane package at an even crazier price, or Games Done Quickly taking their event virtual and raising close to half a mil for coronavirus relief funds. And some companies, seeing that all this wasn’t going away, decided to encourage people to stay home with free video games; Sony gave away Journey and the Uncharted trilogy remaster for free, while Epic went even further and has been giving away a free game every week.

Why this has been good for parents? Companies didn’t have to do anything. You ever go to a sporting event and pay $12 for a hot dog you could get outside the arena for $3? That could’ve been every video game publisher in 2020, and they didn’t. The coronavirus and the lockdown was the perfect set-up, economically speaking, for video game companies to have a captive audience they could extort at will. Instead, they threw product at us, and did charitable work on the side. It’s inspiring, and the extra content helped us keep some tenuous hold on sanity in those long months. Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t saints, and a lot of the gestures could be filed under “PR gesture”, but it made some of them look, at least, a little less scummy.

With some limitations.

Bad News story #2: The Series X: Jay’s pretty-plate metaphor come to life.

While both new consoles have suffered from under-delivering – in no small part due both companies and their half-step iterations from last generation taking some of the bite out of these new boxes – the X-Box Series X has gotten a lot of criticism for not being able to justify its own existence. Yes, the Quick Resume feature is neat. But aside from that, what does it do that the X-Box One doesn’t? Are loading times really that big of an albatross? Are the minor graphical upgrades from the X-Box One X $500 nice? I don’t think so. There isn’t a single system exclusive to be found at launch, and Microsoft has promised that all forthcoming games will be available across the Serieses models, the XBONE, and PC for the next two years. Even the UI is unchanged from the One! I haven’t seen a single review so far that has come up with a compelling reason to get this machine apart from blind X-Box partisanship. And then there’s the Series S, which doesn’t even have the same horsepower as the Series X. Even Sony wasn’t dumb enough to make the disc-free PS5 a weaker machine than its physical-media-playing sibling.

Why this has been bad for parents? Adults can be rational. We can see the forest for the trees. The Series X is not a bad console. It’s just that, at this point, it’s buying a off-road vehicle while living in San Diego. It doesn’t answer any need the X-Box One (X or not) doesn’t answer already, and where it improves, it only does so at a fractional – almost imperceptible – rate. Kids can’t see that. They see NEW, and that’s good enough. They want the latest and greatest. Microsoft has done parents the opposite of a solid (a liquid?) here by putting out a machine that has no reason to be. It’s a golden fish hook with no bait on it, and we’re left trying to rationalize to our kids why they shouldn’t want to bite.

Good News story #2: Social games in an anti-social world.

Even with TV and beer, being stuck behind closed doors for all spring, summer and portions of autumn made us all something something.

If your kids were like mine, they soon discovered that school at home isn’t the late-sleeping and ice-cream-for-dinner bacchanalian paradise they envisioned. It wasn’t doing schoolwork at home that was the biggest bummer; it was the sudden absence of all social interaction that rattled them to the core. Without social interaction, every kid suddenly became the goth weirdo they all made fun of.

Fortunately, kids remembered that video games have a social component, and began to use it to their advantage. Games like Fortnite and PUBG helped alleviate the lack of face-to-face socialization. Epic even turned Fortnite into a social hangout, as virtual concerts and movie watch-a-longs happened within the game itself. As the lockdown wore on, other games were discovered; Among Us, a social game where one person plays a secret saboteur to the rest of the team, exploded in popularity. Fall Guys, a battle royale-style mini-game competition (think Mario Party without the board game or the license-based mark-up) released in August and became an overnight sensation.

Perhaps no game, though, was more tailor-made to remedy the isolation than Animal Crossing. This not only allowed socializing, but gameplay that kinda, sorta mimicked things we do in real life. Gardening, fishing, interacting with others in a neighborhood … it was no replacement for the real thing, but even a simulation of normal life was an oasis from the drudgery of [gestures outside at everything]. Like Fortnite, concerts were held, as well as a talk show with celebrities who spoke through their avatars. Sure, there were some gross moments, like politicians trying to campaign in the game. But the good vastly outweighed the bad here.

It’s as if they used the “how do you do, fellow kids” meme as a campaign strategy.

Why this has been good for parents? Mental health, a topic some consider socially un-discussable (is that a word? It is now), was suddenly thrust to the forefront during lockdown. Children, with their not-fully-developed brains, are already on a razor’s edge when it comes to mental health. Adolescence is even worse. Being deprived of socialization at those ages was asking for a global mental breakdown, and with face-to-face therapy off the table, it was the perfect recipe for disaster. Having an outlet through which to maintain friendships and have some fun together, I imagine, saved a lot of families. Saved lives, even.

Bad News story #3: Nintendo’s gotta Nintendo all over Animal Crossing.

Nintendo has a weird relationship with its devotees. On one hand, they continue to support Smash Bros Ultimate with DLC for two years, and have ported a bunch of games that from Wii U to Switch so they could get a new audience. But then they do weird things like killing a Smash Bros. Melee tournament because it used a software tool to make it playable online. During a pandemic. Or, you can look at their unique, militant crusade against fan-made, not-for-profit games like AM2R and Pokemon Uranium. They want you to be happy, as long as they control the way you smile.

While Animal Crossing‘s success this year was as much luck as it was anything else, players quickly discovered Nintendo had a craptacular surprise waiting for them: the game only allowed one island per console. Not one game save, one island. You could maintain separate characters on the island, but the island itself is a shared space. You can’t get two people to agree on pizza toppings if they’re identical twins, and Nintendo wants you and someone else to agree on the management of an island population and the design and decoration of a living space.

Try and put an anchor in the middle of our bedroom. The next visitor to the island that goes fishing will pull up your severed head.

Why this has been bad for parents? Have you ever gotten a kid to successfully share anything? My kids won’t even share a box of breakfast cereal with each other. I’d rather be power-bombed onto Legos than try to convince my kids to share a game console. But let’s say you’re in that one-console-per-family situation. Kid A captures the butterfly Kid B has been hunting for a month, or Kid B sells some rare trinket Kid A covets while the price is high. You know that scene in A Nightmare On Elm Street where Glen gets sucked into the bed and a geyser of blood fills the room? That’s where this is headed. Only worse. Nintendo could fix it with relative ease, but they’re too busy getting pissy about something innocuous to care.

And finally, Good News story #3: Retro-gaming is easier than ever.

I start off this section with a bit preamble, acknowledging that I am a Raspberry Pi owner and will trumpet it from the mountaintops.

Hey, Raspberry Pi Guy: WE KNOW. SHUT UP.

Moving on, let’s discuss how 2020 made retro-gaming SO MUCH EASIER. If you’re the kind of person who can make it thunderstorm in da club, Analogue is your dream come true. Producing high end consoles with HDMI output, these aren’t emulators: they’re new versions of old consoles, brought into present day. Virtually every major system from the 8-bit and 16-bit era is available, region-agnostic, as well as every handheld system through the 90’s. It’s also expensive as all hell, and requires you track down the games.

If you’d prefer not to chase down an affordable copy of Crusader of Centy (CIB runs $400), the Evercade launched to good reviews. It’s a handheld system that uses cartridges, each collecting classic and, usually, less mainstream, games around a theme; could be by developer (a bunch of Data East games) or by system (an Atari Lynx collection). It’s far more affordable, and is releasing new cartridges regularly.

And if you’re a sucker for all-in-one consoles like the NES Classic, 2020 has been a great year for you. Konami pulled their heads out of their asses for a brief moment and dropped the TurbroGrafx-16 Mini, which collects a bunch of games from both the American TG16, the Japanese PC Engine, both machines’ CD-ROM add-ons, and the Japanese-only SuperGrafx. Sega, too, had an epiphany and realized their game history extends beyond the Genesis/Mega Drive and released two mini-console collections: four versions of the Game Gear Mini (different line-ups for each) and the Astro City Arcade, which bundles together a bunch of arcade titles. Both of these were Japan-only, so a curious buyer would have to import them, but still, it’s more recognition Sega’s had for their non-16-bit library than they’ve shown in decades.

Why this has been good for parents? There’s an innate part of all gamer parents that want to share the games we grew up playing with our kids. The problem is, the technologies aren’t compatible; hooking up an old console via coax produces picture quality that looks like it was shot through a silk negligee, and stretches out the picture from its native aspect ratio. And who the hell wants to buy an old TV? Solutions like the Analogue consoles and the mini-consoles solve all the technological hurdles, and give us a way to share with our kids where our love of games started.

No, that’s not a lamppost, that’s Indiana Jones. And that squiggly line is a snake. And that – you know what, go bug your mother.

And in closing …

I hope everybody had a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year. It’s already been a … let’s say tumultuous start to 2021. I don’t think any of us want to go down 2020’s road again. Wear a mask. That’s more than half the battle.

Me on Twitter! And the email is [email protected] if you want to get in contact that way.

There’s a lot I want to do with this column in 2021. Got some big ideas. Hope you’ll enjoy them. One of them is going to be a series of columns I start next week. Instead of focusing on a gaming issue and how it relates to parenting, I’m going at it from the other direction. I’m looking at parenting, and how gaming fits into it. Because being a gamer with, say, a toddler is a lot different than a teenager. So, that’s where we’re headed next time, with part one: Gaming During The Pregnancy. If you haven’t been there, you’ll be surprised to find out there’s more to it than you think.

See you in 2.