Gaming is a huge passion of mine. Some people love cars, others delve into music, and while I thoroughly enjoy art and film, my real drive surrounds games. While I have found thousands of hours of enjoyment while being behind the controller and actively driving a games experience, I may enjoy the act of talking about games, thinking about games, and researching the processes and backstage dealings that go into bringing the games to life more than I do actually playing them. Since I was a child it’s just been in my blood.
At this stage of my life I have seen, heard about or played every genre that the industry has been able to come up with. From slower paced strategic war simulators, to point and click adventures and then the fast and frenetic “michael bay” experiences that are now synonymous with the likes of Call of Duty. Many like myself have played and enjoyed them all, and while that is great in itself, it is also a small crack to a much bigger problem. The industry is unfortunately in danger of collapsing into itself. When you grow and become too large there is only one way to go. The past few years have seen dozens of studio’s close up shop, game sales are down and people are complaining games are too expensive all the while. Whether the people and the industry can see the trouble ahead and change its fate before its too late is something we can only hope for.
Over the course of the next week or so I will write pieces detailing some of the problems that are currently hindering the games industry and upload them every few days. These posts may state the obvious to some or perhaps shed some more light on a subject for others, but most likely they will just turn into overwrought rants from a bored individual. But here is the first piece in this series…
Standing at the Precipice of Failure
“The Countdown to Gamings Collapse”
Problem One: Story and Creativity
The games industry as it is today has fallen into the same rut that has befallen Hollywood; new ideas and experiences are as hard to come by as seeing a music video on MTV. Nowadays I have become so attuned to the subtle devices that push a game from being average or decent into something truly excellent, that I now only need to view a video or screenshot of a game for fifteen seconds before I know that it is something that will be either great, competent, or utter shit. The experience I will receive is known to me within seconds, and I am not speaking of seeing an FPS and going “Ah, I know I’ll shoot people!” I am speaking of little things one can gleam when they have ridden the ride so many times before. “Oh the movement animations are missing just enough frames and polish as to make them just not look exactly right.” Or “That series of combat, while fast and visually interesting at first, consisted of mostly the actions and the same three animations on loop.” After viewing a stage demo, “While its a nice looking level at a glance, textures and the same character models are repeated over and over, so what else have they skimped on?” And then a criticism many sandbox games may receive, “The city looks nice, but there’s no substance, the level of interaction and things to do within the world are paper thin.” It’s a shame, but a games quality lies heavily on both large and small mechanics and with how well the two gel together.
The majority of the time we can see the rest of the 8-10 hours of the experience and what they will present to us within seconds of viewing a game. Now that is not necessarily a bad thing, its nice to know what an experience will consist of before you make a purchase, but it’s also nice to feel genuine surprise and excitement for a project. Some might say to always give the benefit of the doubt, that such small things may be ironed out in time, but chances are even when a preview states a product has real potential or promise, chances are the finished product will ship with those same inconsistencies. I took the developers talent and time left of development into account when I first passed judgement.
Now saying that, it may seem I am just possibly an asshole, or that it may be just too hard to please me, but that’s not the case. I may see how the mechanics are running and at times it may not be to my liking, but I can also put aside those gripes and just allow myself to enjoy the game the developers have crafted. The game that it is. Rough spots don’t always warrant trash. Earlier I stated that the games industry is in danger, the first part of the problem is that new fresh content is at a premium. I may be able to gauge a games technical polish and limitations from a first glance, so then it is up to the other half of the equation to truly take me by surprise, the story and creative ideas behind the game.
Earlier when I compared the games industry to Hollywood I meant this, Hollywood has been churning out the same filth for years. Film and television have been consisting of the same stories over and over, just different venues and faces covering them up; but not anymore. Hollywood has flat out given up trying to mask its creative shortcomings and are now just straight up recreating past films. “Reboots” or “Reimaginings” are what they like to call them, lazy is the term I prefer. Sequels too, are hurting the industries ability to craft new and exciting features for their fans. The past several years have seen dozens upon dozens of remakes of earlier films for newer generations, and as of this moment there are more than 50 reboots in various stages of production. That’s not counting the several sequels to franchises that have long sat dormant.
That trend is happening in theaters everywhere, but a worse one has overtaken Television. The majority of networks have outright given up on quality written programming, instead opting for “reality television” which itself is a loose term. Gone are the days of true writing and craft, replaced by substandard programming that allow people to contest over a woman’s heart or just a loud mouthed family pandering to the cameras that follow them around and capture their “true lives” for the world to see. For every “Game of Thrones” or “Breaking Bad” there are dozens of shows that are pandering to the lowest common denominator. Cheaper to produce and easier to manage.
The gaming industry has not yet sunk to such low levels, but the warning signs are there. Some of the most popular titles today are so similar to one another or past releases that the average consumer would be hard pressed to notice the differences. Activision’s Call of Duty franchise, EA’s Battlefield and Medal of Honor, UbiSoft’s Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six, they all share so many of the same characteristics one might wonder why the need for another military shooter exists in the first place. Now the rabid fans of each would be quick to argue that the level of execution and the overall flow of each game can be quite different, but are they really? A little sure, but enough to warrant so many sequels and spinoffs? Enough to crowd the market and take up valuable shelf space? Each year see’s the same four genres at the top of the charts; first-person shooters, fighting games, racing and sports. The last two years have seen the release of Tekken Tag 2, Tekken X Street Fighter, Dead or Alive 5, Soul Calibur 5, Marvel VS Capcom, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Injustice and many others via downloadable services or “Ultimate” versions of those very same releases. The same can be said for the racing genre and of course the annual releases of sports titles. Audiences are paying to experience the same thrills over and over again.
Now there are only so many ways in which to categorize material, and those series of titles and styles are repackaged so often for a reason; they sell. So who am I to argue? For one I do not work within the industry at any level, although that is my hopeful goal one day. I am only just a fan who has grown somewhat tired and worried about the oversaturation that gaming has become accustomed too. When one releases the same content repeatedly, eventually the consumers will wise up, and it has started to happen.
Companies today are all vying for the same pie, so again, what helps make them different? The stories they tell and the unique concepts they try to execute! Problem one is that there almost aren’t any new stories or ideas anymore. Film and Television have given up on this save for the few gems that release every few years such as Inception, District 9 and Looper. For most games story is secondary, a loose afterthought that only needs to tie the proceedings together just barely. A faint scent that needs to drag the player along just enough to get them from set piece to set piece on their journey. But in such a crowded market story is more essential than ever before. Publishers need to realize that they have talented writers within their ranks that deserve the chance to really push both themselves and their fans.
Entertainment industries have become so comfortable with churning out garbage and raking in money that they have perhaps actually garnered a negative viewpoint of their own audience! While there probably are lots of average joe citizens that think Transformers is equivalent to Shakespeare there are far more consumers who can and do understand the more intellectual properties that they have occasionally been able to experience than those in power believe. The films that I mentioned earlier, the ones that received both critical and commercial success such as Inception and District 9, when coupled with other smart films and television like The Life of Pi, Django, Chronicle, Lost, Game of Thrones, and Breaking Bad clearly shows that viewers can comprehend such works and do infact crave them!
Game publishers and developers have been catering to the same brain dead masses that Hollywood executives believe rule the market. Those with the power to create art must come to realize they are crippling not only themselves but the fans as well. Do not underestimate your audience’s intelligence but instead harness it and push them harder. Make your fans think, make them sit motionless after completing your game and ask themselves what just happened? Make them feel true emotion. Treat your audience like a true intellectual and you will come to find that they do crave new knowledge and experiences; they yearn to grow and develop while also having fun. There is a reason that The Walking Dead and Bioshock Infinite are so highly praised, and its not for their gameplay.
Why must the truly creative people within the industry, the ones that can create entirely unique worlds and tales be handicapped to such an outrageous degree? The games today that make us feel and think are the ones that have the fewest hands in the pot. The fewest Devils on their shoulders. If you have any doubts as to how big an impact a large publisher can have just look at the growing indie scene. Some of the most unique and inspiring stories in recent memory have all sprouted from a single hard working creator or small passionate team. From Braid to Bastion. Limbo to Year Walk. Papers, Please to Journey. Indie developers are telling amazing stories not only with their incredible writing talent, but also with the intricately woven experiences themselves. Somehow the little guy can imbue heart and soul into their product with little money and support, but a massive production only feels distant and lifeless. Its a shame, it really is. Even a AAA game that begins with a solid premise and creative thought eventually turns to convoluted rubbish, see Assassins Creed.
There can be games such as Call of Duty, games that are meant to be played with others and are meant to be dumb stupid fun, but these games can also tell a story worth hearing. Spec Ops tried accomplishing just that feat, generic gameplay that was held up with a story worth experiencing. With genuinely new ideas being a diamond in the rough, it really is up to the characters, dilemmas, and real human emotion that writers can conjure up to get us thinking and get us feeling again. Consumers deserve better material and we just aren’t getting it. Game sales are down for a number of reasons and the industry itself is in loads of trouble. The lack of great tales worth hearing is but one symptom to a greater disease. But it is a symptom that is easy to overcome if those in power took their audience seriously and gave their talented writers a chance.
If consumers started to truly feel for the characters they play as, if they started to understand the emotional impact of taking down the villain; then the passion for gaming would return to the surface and the joy of grabbing new product would be reinvigorated in their systems. Game sales would increase and gaming talk between friends would begin to take on a new style, going from “I just pwned some noobz” to “The moment you discover the twist, the moment you realize the scope of the game, its incredible. You have to play it.” –Chuck