new challenger

I make games. I also play them. I talk about both activities here.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Comfort Zone

I’ve started watching quite a bit of television lately. Last week saw the return of several of my favorite shows, as well the debut of some new shows that may eventually become some of my favorites. I must admit that I’m blown away by the quality of it all; surely after what had been an extremely dark period in network television’s history (spurred on it’s been said, by the departure of long-running sitcoms like Seinfeld, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, etc., with a lack of quality programming in the queue to replace them), this is the best new season of television in years. It seems to me that The Sopranos, Lost, and shows of that ilk have really influenced the new season, with one mystery-themed situational drama after another. I don’t mind per se, because I’m a big fan of these shows, and it’s likely that I have a propensity to like shows that contain the same elements as these shows. But at the same time I have to imagine that there are tons of other concepts and show formulas that I’d enjoy just as much, if not much more.

The same thing has happened with games, and this “next generation” has really driven the point home for me. Just like this season of television, I’ve been privy to some really good games so far on the 360, and both the PS3 and the Wii show the same great promise. The overwhelming majority of the games on these systems, however, are either sequels or games easily quantified into existing genres. From a business perspective, this is reasonable, of course. Successful games become successful franchises, subsequently garnering imitation from competitors ad infinitum. Genres form, and all of a sudden games become slaves to their own convention; guided by arbitrary rules that no one can even remember the justifications for.

And make no mistake that I blame the consumer as much as I blame the publisher. I’ve seen a recent flood of spirited sentiment expressed over the very nature of what defines a videogame, and a downright reluctance to mess with the “formula” in any way. From removed heads-up displays in Fight Night Round 3 to the apparent lack of any goals at all (so far) in Sony’s Afrika, there are attempts from developers all over the world to reexamine what it is we all do, and these attempts are criticized and attacked by a vocal minority.

It could be argued, I guess, that we’re simply refining an inevitable formula (it has been argued that we are definitely refining a formula, minus the inevitable part), and it’s not my goal to dispute the value of the successful genres that have been developed. Like I mentioned, I’m having a blast playing games from these genres, and there are millions of other people that feel the same way. Just thinking about Lost Planet makes me warm and fuzzy (if this game lets me down I don’t think I’ll ever recover). But I have to imagine that the millions and I will ultimately get tired and want something more. Even Ken Kutaragi criticized publishers for their reliance on rehashing at this year’s Tokyo Game Show (of course, this is at the same keynote where he announced PS3 emulation for Mega Drive and PC Engine games).

You may be wondering, at this point, what solutions I have to address this dilemma.

You might be surprised, then, to find that the answer is none. I know this is the point where I’m supposed to bring it all together, where I explain how dumb and pointless it is to pursue this path. But it’s tough to argue the reality of it all: a known quantity that delivers reliable return is better (financially – this is a business after all) than any unproven alternative. So even though it seems like inevitably this behavior will lead to a huge videogame slump like in Hollywood, it also seems like the only reasonable course of action to take.

However.

Eventually we’ll have to change. I don’t imagine any sort of catastrophic cataclysm where you never see another third-person shooter or Final Fantasy XIX, but I do think when enough guys like me do stop buying traditional titles and start spending their money on other forms of entertainment, you will see opportunists who begin to make games that do stretch the boundaries. That’s right, I don’t think it’ll be from some benevolent creative visionary getting all esoteric because he loves games; I think it’ll come from smart business people who see an untapped market. And I think it’s already happening, somewhat, at developers around the world right now. I was expression my current frustrations to a friend of mine the other day. I said I wanted to work on a game with no winning and no failure – with no end and no goals at all; no implemented objective or purpose whatsoever. I said I wanted to work on a game that simply reinforced the core element of what a videogame really is: input and response.

He replied that I already had; he was referring to the game I had just finished working on, which he had played recently.

Remarkably, he’s kind of right.

Thanks for reading.