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The Short Lives of Video Games

Here today, uninstalled tomorrow: On the ephemeral quality of gaming

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A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the office of a game developer who'd recently left one successful company to form another. He was talking about how this time around, he was going to approach his craft differently — no more 18-hour days trapped in the dark with a case of Red Bull and slices of reheated Meat Lovers' pizza.

He leaned forward in his chair, a look on his face that reminded me a lot of the one David Caruso always busts out on CSI: Miami, where you can't tell if he's reacting to this week's grisly death or his film resume. "I used to be proud of the fact that I spent the end of a project sleeping under my desk," the developer said. "Now I look at that time and say, what the hell am I doing? No one's playing the game that I spent a week at the office for — that was two years ago. What was I burning my life for?"

Dude had a good point. Said game, a cool, somewhat innovative first-person-shooter, had released to mostly favorable reviews and healthy sales (not to mention millions of pirated downloads). But I was exhibit A that proved his point: I'm no longer playing his game, and I'm not likely to go back and play it anytime soon, either, since my attention is focused on the stack of titles that are out now. (When I note that said stack contains The Transformers and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, a little part of my soul dies, screaming).

In the ol' U.S. of A., we like, nay, demand, our entertainment to be utterly disposable, eye and ear candy to give us our blissful sugar buzz before we're blithely off to the next fix. When the entertainment's of dubious or faulty quality — like, say Tenchu Z or Hour of Victory, casting it aside is easy, even cathartic. We paid our $60, dammit, and with it comes the prerogative to pitch four years of someone else's creative essence into the darkest corner of our closets (or the nearest Gamestop resale bin) if we feel it doesn't measure up.

The phenomenon's certainly not restricted to gaming — every year thousands of movies, albums, and books appear and disappear from our consciousness quicker than Joey Chestnut downing a foot-long. The anonymous movie professionals who worked for months to make Wild Hogs can't exactly have enjoyed watching it careen quickly off the charts and into the budget cinemas (Although, frankly, they shoulda known better.)

It's when the good games — like Bully, Psychonauts, or Crush — vanish from our radar screens with the same speed that Pocket Pool does that something's lost. And while I'm sure that the developers of games both horrible and awesome were paid equally well for their long hours, I'm also sure that there are a sizable number of them who, like my developer friend, wonder whether all the time spent creating that disposable experience was actually worth it. Maybe his reaction helps explains a recent survey by the International Game Developers Association that revealed 34 percent of game developers expect to burn out and leave the industry within five years.

Enough games manage to transcend the typical salmon-like life cycle, burrowing into our gaming consciousness and remaining in our disc and hard drives for years — the Grand Theft Autos, Final Fantasies, and Half-Lifes — to prove that enduring greatness is possible in this what's-next gaming world. Today, I'm thinking about the good games that don't — and the people who gave their hearts to make 'em great.

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