Do you ever wonder if we have too much choice?
We hear tired clichés all the time about competition being good for the consumer, and I'm in full agreement when it comes to buying fruit and vegetables at the market, but looking across the sprawling techno-vista of available computer and videogaming opportunities, I find myself staring into a particularly noisy abyss.
Right now, I'm quite keen to buy a new game system, and like the obedient consumer I am, I find myself asking a question previously uploaded into the decision matrix of my brain by the Gibson-esque industry: "PlayStation, Xbox or that new Nintendo thing whose name we do not speak?"
Don't get me wrong; I'm not going off into my usual "retro gaming" rant. These three systems demand serious investigation, yet it quickly becomes obvious that our apparent overabundance of choices all lead back to the same two or three sources: products cleverly designed to complement each other at every turn and drown the market in an astronomically expensive advertising competition, keeping the smaller players from joining the elitist videogame suppliers club.
While visiting China Town in Manchester, England, I saw a Java sticker on the door of a Chinese newsagents/VCD/magazine shop with the word "games" written underneath it. Inside were two girls, three lads and the shop assistant, all standing around or leaning on the counter thumbing away at their mobile phones. After a few minutes of pretending to look at the magazines (one of which should have been on the top shelf - oops) and trying to catch a peripheral glance at their phone screens, I decided to ask about the "Java games" ad on the door.
The assistant told me - without looking up from his phone - that they sold mobile games. He was far too busy to elaborate on this, so I enquired of the other customers if that's what they were playing.
I know a basic, broken smattering of Chinese and was able to decipher that they recently arrived from Wuhan, and were indeed playing a new game which was tearing up the mobile gaming charts back in the motherland (the translation of its name was beyond my limited understanding of Mandarin, however). The shop assistant curtly asked if I wanted it, and being the old campaigner that I am, I decided it would be valuable research for a forthcoming The Escapist article I had planned. For the benefit of you, the reader, I set about getting this game onto my mobile phone.
For the price of two and a half pounds, he hit the internet for a few minutes, then handed me a scrap of paper with eight letters and a number written on it - I was to text the letters to the number (the SMS was a further £1.50), and then I'd receive my game. In truth, I was losing my bottle, as everyone's heard horror stories about bottomless money pits when it comes to "texting for ringtones," but you are dear to me, reader, so I persevered.
To my immense delight (and equally immense relief), it turned out to be an Easternized version of Metal Slug! My round-eyed excitement was not shared among the shop's other residents, but I really didn't care; this game rules! An hour later, the bell above the door announced a new customer, and I awoke from my phone related reverie, realizing I'd suddenly become one of the shop's virtual Terracotta Warriors of the Mobile Gaming Army. I wished them all a breezy zaijian (goodbye), and headed off to the train station. I almost missed my stop, which is the only stop I might add, from staring intently into the mobile phone screen I'd never before given a second thought.
Could it be that I actually found a new game platform in the midst of those magnificent seventh generation consoles waving their triple processor, 3-D extreme temptations under my nose while a dazzling entourage of handheld beauties danced a seductive, overpriced advertising campaign on the shelves next to them? Surely, my Chinese experience was not a unique one.