Jamie Madigan, who’s written extensively on the psychology of video games, points out that nostalgia tends to be at its strongest when people are reminiscing about socializing. Gaming has always had a communal component to it, and it’s only more so now, with the rise of “Let’s Play” videos on YouTube. (The site’s most-subscribed channel for nearly two years has been PewDiePie, who’s known for his game walkthroughs and commentary.) Last year, Amazon paid more than $1 billion to acquire Twitch, a company whose sole purpose is allowing people to watch other people play video games, as The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer wrote.
It’s by now fairly common knowledge how powerful nostalgia is as a marketing tool, but with video games, there’s another component that makes players more likely to stick with what they know and love. For many, it comes down to time: It’s one thing to watch a 90-minute movie, but squeezing a 30-hour fantasy epic into your schedule is a serious commitment. It’s a bit like taking on a new TV show, but it’s easy to fit an episode or two into an evening, whereas gameplay tends to be less structured. As a result, about 90 percent of people who start a game won’t finish it. And because the average gamer is aging alongside the industry (the typical player is 37 years old), he or she will tend to be mid-career, perhaps with a family. In other words, with more responsibilities and less time to form an emotional connection with a new game.
Interestingly enough, those 37-year-olds are part of the first generation who can feel nostalgic for old games. Gaming doesn’t have much history before the 1980s—with all due respect to Pong, no one reminisces about the time they whiled away hours moving a paddle. So nostalgia for games is a novel phenomenon that the industry’s taken note of. One of the biggest announcements to come out of the 2015 Electronic Entertainment Expo was about a remake of Final Fantasy VII, a beloved 18-year-old game. IGN named it number three on their list of the 11 biggest expo stories from 2015, a list that’s remarkable in that every entry except one is about a sequel, remake, or existing game.
With the exception of big-name franchises like Star Wars, moviegoers tend to groan at Hollywood’s parade of remakes and sequels. Look at the anemic reception to Terminator: Genisys, or the debacles that were the Spider-Man and Fantastic Four reboots. Meanwhile, when a Final Fantasy V remake came out not long after the VII remake was announced, the biggest complaint was that it hadn’t received the same attention and care as last time. It’s rare to see a Hollywood franchise get so many sequels and remakes that it hits double-digit installments, but it’s so common in gaming that hotly anticipated remakes can dominate the year’s news.
The end result is a creative quagmire. Big names like Mario and Final Fantasy get slapped on everything from basketball games to dance titles, but companies are hesitant to experiment with new ideas. Nintendo released the goofy paint-shooter Splatoon in the summer of 2015, and chief among the praise was happiness that Nintendo had released their first new big-budget property in 14 years. Blizzard Entertainment, one of the industry’s most influential companies, is currently working on a new shooter called Overwatch. It will be their first game not based on StarCraft, Warcraft, or Diablo since 1997.