Before you read, realize that I’m primarily a console gamer at heart, so I’m writing this more from a console-centric perspective rather than PC. However, I still think most of it applies.
The golden age was over 10 years ago, and even then I might even say it was well on its deathbed even before that. Various industry moves that started well before the death of the golden age, and are continuing even now, have exacerbated the stifling of innovation. Mostly there has been the massive buyup of smaller game studios, consolidation, etc. Now it seems there are very few mid-tier games in development anymore. You have the AAA blockbuster titles, and these garner the most attention. With large budgets, marketing, and high expectations, these are games that cannot fail for their publishers. Why change the winning formula? Play it safe and the money will flock in. Punctuating lack of innovation is the almost annual releases to various franchises (Assassin’s Creed, Madden, CoD, to name a few).
On the flip side of that, you have a large independent game maker environment starting to blossom. However, these are not without pitfalls either. Often these can be crowdfunded, and tend to overpromise and underdeliver. For every Super Meat Boy and Shovel Knight, you have a Mighty No. 9 and (dare I say it?) an Ouya. The budgets are smaller, the teams are small, and this is where I’m seeing the real innovations start to happen again. I’m hoping there is more widespread acceptance and movement on the indie scene. This gives me hope.
What is missing is mid-tier game development. We have the large studios and the indies, but not much in between I’m thinking about companies like Square and Enix (before they merged), where they were dedicated to a niche of gaming (hello JRPGs!). They weren’t typically the best looking games. Polygon count and parallax scrolling weren’t the forte of those games, and their development skewed towards story-centric gaming. What these developers did, they did well. Then came the merger. Final Fnatasy XIII was decreed to be a very pretty game, but fell apart in most other areas, and Square-Enix has taken 10 years to get another FF onto consoles. Too big and too many expectations. I miss the old days of getting a few more of these types of games, but not to the extent of annual releases either.
I’m looking at the post-crash years from 85-05 being the real golden age, and I might even put the cutoff earlier. Rising from the ashes you had the NES and Master System that took gaming from being about high scores, and seeing all the mechanics of gameplay in the first couple of minutes into full-fledged stories with an actual end to them. Further refinements came by moving games into the 3rd dimension. I can not overstate enough the milestone that was Super Mario 64. That game was probably the first real mainstream game to go into a 3d world and do it well. Honestly, the game that really sold me on ‘Wow, we really can do just about anything now, and are no longer limited by the hardware’ was Grand Theft Auto 3 back in 2001. It was an amazing open world, and it was at that point that I think all previous gaming had culminated to.
Since then, the games have been mostly derivative of one another. The emerging indie scene gives me hope, and as others have stated, VR is another area I can see being rife with possibilities.
If anything, we’ve been in a dead zone here for a while. I’m seeing the signs of a second golden age incoming.