new challenger

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Is This Thing Still On?


The dearth of posts is due to many, many contributing factors. One is that, at the end of a long day, there are several other activities with which I prefer to unwind. Of those activities, some are gaming related. I play Company of Heroes - Game of the Year 2006 - almost every day. I record a lot of television, and despite the cancellation of many of the shows I found interesting this season, I still spend one or two nights a week catching up on missed episodes. And despite many happenings in the world of videogames since my last post, I really haven't been compelled to complain - or celebrate - about anything (this is not entirely true; there is one particular topic that I'm waiting to dive into, but I haven't yet found the proper tone with which to address it). I find myself becoming rather apathetic towards videogames as a whole.

I attribute this feeling to an accelerated inevitability that in my opinion, faces all game players if things continue as they are: that of a diminishing return on videogame satisfaction. I say accelerated in my case because, as frequently mentioned, I probably play an abnormal amount of videogames. I can say with little hestitation, for instance, that I own most of the games released on the Xbox 360 this past year. And of those games, I probably could have skipped all of them and not missed out on much in terms of real significance (this is obviously a sweeping generalization I know, but if I have to give pause to come up with the Xbox 360 game that really impacted me in 2006, then the point is kind of self-evident, isn't it). But I didn't skip them, I played them. I played a great many games on the PS2 and PC as well. I purchased the collector's edition of Bully - it came with a rubber ball I never inflated and a comic book I never read. I spent a week of vacation time playing Final Fantasy XII (which is, disappointingly, just enough to scratch the surface of that game; a problem in and of itself). When the Ps3 and Wii came around, I picked those up to, and played them, dutifully (and in the Wii's case, begrudgingly), for a while. And what I've realized, through playing all of these games, is that they're all fundamentally, really freaking similar. If you've played GRAW, you rest assured that you've played Rainbow Six: Vegas too. Feel free to tell people as much when they ask you. And the entire time I played Bully - which I consider to be the best console game released last year - I felt that inevitable GTA3 deja vu; its composition as a game is unabashedly iterative. Lucky for me, I guess, that they iterated on the best videogame of this generation.

In other words, I'm burnt out. I have very nearly had my entire fill of what games, as they are presently crafted, can offer. And I think that as more and more people reach the accumulated play time that people like myself have amassed, they too will experience the same estrangement. I see elements of this inevitability in the sentiments of others; one only need look at the anger and venom that plagues the members of the NeoGAF forums to see these feelings manifested. And the things is, I only have myself to blame. Not because I buy an abnormal amount of videogames; I maintain that getting burnt out on videogames as they are currently planned and constructed is an inevitability only accelerated by my frequency of purchase. But I place the blame on myself and others like me who continually, by our pervasive purchasing decisions, indicate to publishers that we absolutely love the current status quo. It's the buying community that told Ubisoft to give us two Ghost Recons (and a Rainbow Six: Vegas to boot) in one year. It's the buying community that encourages publishers to annualize any (and nearly every) successful game franchise. It's the buying community that said, "Hey, I really like these game elements, and I will blindly purchase any other game that emulates these same game elements," thus creating these prematurely formulated game genres - comprised of arbitrary properties like camera perspectives and the odd gameplay mechanic or two - in which all games are now carefully packaged. It is the buying community that places more value on games as cutting edge technology showcases than as a thought-provoking medium. And invariably, once this same community grows weary of the monsters that they create, they characterize the publishers who provided these services as being greedy and opportunistic for giving them what they once wanted.

This behavior goes way back, pretty much to the rise of the Super Nintendo. Successor to the NES, the SNES was really an evolutionary machine, and its games reflected this. Super Mario Bros. begat Super Mario World, and thus the template for iterative design was not created, but at the very least was most loudly celebrated (this happened before Mario of course; Pong begat Pong Doubles, Asteroids begat Asteroids Deluxe, Pac-Man begat Ms. Pac-Man, but I doubt many of you readers were even alive when those games were created). More and more publishers saw the success afforded to this trend, and sought to accommodate the public's insatiable thirst for sameness. To this day, the trend continues. It's why you still have new Marios sitting alongside new Sonics sitting alongside new Ratchet & Clanks. And the trend is wholly based on the buying public's bullishness with regard to accepting unproven concepts. Pick the worst, most derivative, broken game that I've ever worked on ( in your opinion of course; you can see them on this page). No matter what you choose, every single one of them has outsold Killer 7. And Meteos. And Gunvalkyrie. Depending on your choice, you may have selected a game that outsold Katamari Damacy. And Shadow of the Colossus. Nintendo is still shamefully guilty of this iterative development (and they rewarded heavily for it), and yet most people seem to give them a pass, preferring instead to attack companies like EA - I guess because EA doesn't have stock in our collective childhoods - for doing nothing more than engaging in largely the same practices. But again, I'm not here to attack Nintendo or EA; if people didn't buy the iterative and shun the new, the iterative wouldn't get made. It's an entirely cyclical event.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to play God of War 2.

Thanks for reading.


  • At 8:32 PM, Blogger James O said…

    Interesting; it's true that we gamers perpetuate this sort of behavior. I'm not sure how this vicious cycle could be broken though - publishers and developers won't be too interested in making something new when the tried-and-true sells so well, so oftentimes the innovative title may not make it off the drawing board. The poor sales of many creative titles probably doesn't help much either. Perhaps it will take a 1980s style crash to rejuvenate the industry?

    I like your point on Nintendo, this has bothered me for some time too. So many people carry on about how creative Nintendo is, and then selectively ignore the fact that the flagship title for their new hardware is yet another same-old Zelda game; or that Warioware has gone through four iterations already; or that Nintendo continues to flood the market with a glut of sports games differentiated only by the presence of Mario on the box art. It's funny that Nintendo execs should discuss this pandering of Mario as a sort of "innovation Trojan horse," ensuring a minimum level of sales for unorthodox titles due to Mario's presence (theoretically making it easier to invest in originality.) If that was the case, why do we only get Mario Golf, Soccer, etc? I can't imagine Nintendo can spend away their cachet like this forever.

    Nice to see other CoH players :) Two presenters from Relic at the GDC said they had to add in a pimping-slide to their presentation because apparently very few people at the GDC had played, or even heard of, CoH. What a shame - the most creative, innovative RTS game since Rise of Nations getting snubbed (presumably because it is WW2 based.) When I saw it lose the audio award to Guitar Hero 2, a little part of me died inside.

  • At 10:36 AM, Blogger omar kendall said…

    Hey James, thanks for the reply! I'll be honest, I'm not sure what the solution to this is either. It seems that this new generation has simply encouraged many of the larger publishers to launch new IPs thoroughly entrenched in pre-existing game archetypes. Perhaps the advent of tool sets aimed at smaller developers (like XNA) will see the rise of more forward-moving, low-risk products that make a connection with some sort of meaningful audience. Unfortunately at the moment, old stalwarts like Uno rule the day in that realm.

    I hope against hope, though, that it is the first-party developers - Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft - that take this responsibility onto themselves. Because honestly, for as big as the EAs of the industry seem, they sometimes just can't afford the risk.

  • At 10:39 AM, Blogger James O said…

    Thinking about this some more, perhaps what is needed is a major paradigm shift in the way games are presented/advertised - currently, publishers are in the business of selling games and in particular game franchises. People are always on the lookout for their next Zelda/Halo/GTA/etc iteration; but the buyer doesn't necessarily know who created it. Certainly, a small subset of gamers cares and knows the difference between a game directed by Eiji Aonuma and Shigeru Miyamoto, but they are few and far between.

    What publishers need to move towards is not selling games, but selling studios and designers (which is exactly what Hollywood has been doing for ages.) It's already been proven to work - Pikmin probably wouldn't have sold too many copies, but because people knew it was designed by Miyamoto, it was successful. Will Wright's star power is practically unmatched when it comes to selling innovative ideas to publishers. Hideo Kojima leveraged his reknown from the MGS games to make the unique game Boktai. Shadow of the Colossus sold without being a mere "Ico 2," it sold because a growing number of gamers recognized Fumito Ueda as the director.

    I think a mainstream shift to this business model could very well rejuvenate it. Consumers like to avoid risk; so they stay with the familiar. Well, when you invest familiarity into a person or studio instead of a particular title or franchise, it opens up enormous latitude for new and unproven ideas to be tried out by proven minds. Here and there we already see games titled similar to movies (i.e. in the form of Developer's Game, or Developer presents Game); Mr. Kojima seems to have been especially prolific in branding himself. If we see more movement in this direction, it will probably pay big creative dividends.

  • At 2:31 AM, Blogger Bruno Velazquez said…

    I say go and download Flow and enjoy it's simplicity and support it's creativity. I hope we get to see more of these experimantal type of games that open the doors to creativity and new concepts. Or you could always grab a friend and throw in some Streets of Rage 2 and enjoy the simpler times.


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