Saturday, May 14, 2011

FEATURE - is a golden age of gaming coming to an end?

I wasn't planning on making this so linky. But it's very linky.

I feel that, currently, we are enjoying a golden age of gaming. We have so much choice. There are so many cool, beautiful, inspired, fun, interesting, original, sexy games out there to choose from - and more successful platforms to play them on than at any point in the history of the medium - but I worry that these days may be numbered.

I perceive a future where video games are so expensive to produce, thanks to the ever-increasing technical demands of the audience, that only a select few will be able to compete. After a few rounds of attempting to - when to place such a bet means tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars - I fear there may be a time when only one company makes video games, because they've become the last company that can afford to.

I worry that our appetite for ever-more impressive visuals, ever-more astounding gameplay will ring the death knell of countless studios - and mean the loss of so much art, so much beauty we will never get the chance to see.

Electronic Arts' Battlefield 3 is set to usher in the next generation of gaming, and go toe-to-toe with the Call of Duty juggernaut.

Developers have to compete on a level never before seen in the industry, and everyone agrees it can't last.

If you pay attention when developers talk, you'll notice the general attitude lately is rather doom-and-gloom for those who create games for a living. It's rare for a month or two to pass without news of some studio or another shuttering its doors. The market has become increasingly cutthroat, and unless you bring the noise and the funk, it's a crap shoot as to whether or not your game will break even, and you'll still have a job next month.

Really, the only way to guarantee success is to have three important things: (1) make a sequel for a major franchise which (2) has the budget to be a triple-A game and, just to be safe, (3) make it a good game. It doesn't help that every holiday season since 2007 has had a seven-thousand pound gorilla called Call of Duty waiting in the wings, ravenously consuming ninety per cent of the available bananas. That doesn't leave many bananas for everyone else.

At the onset of the current gen, I was worried that the production costs required to compete in such a market would sound the death knell of creative, original titles, but that hasn't happened.


The torch of originality is often sparked where you'd expect. The independent scene produces the occasional remarkable crossover success, but we also see ambitious, risk-taking ventures from third-party developers. High-quality games are still inviting us into interesting worlds, letting us meet fascinating characters and pushing at boundaries. I fear these dangerous maneuvers on the part of publishers may be on their way to becoming extinct.

That said, it's 2011, and these titles are still coming.

Developers are still taking chances, but you'll notice such unusual fare rarely, if ever, takes the form of a triple-A title. So how is this working? How on earth are we getting a sequel to the charming but largely mediocre Wet? How can the same studio that made Naughty Bear - after putting out two somewhat crappy games in a row - afford to keep making games if things are as bad as they say?

The answer, it seems, is to quite intentionally not be triple-A.

I can only think of three triple-A titles that were truly experimental on the current gen.

Mirror's Edge was a beautiful, ambitious, original freak of a game. Lauded by critics, adored by gamers, it sold like yellow snowcones. A planned sequel has reportedly been canned.

Little Big Planet was equally experimental - a game whose long-term success relied entirely on the patience and creativity of its users - but massive critical acclaim and a huge marketing push from Sony allowed it to achieve success. Likewise, the freakish and unusual Heavy Rain managed to move a respectable 2,000,000 units within a year of its release - but these two successes, financed and publicized entirely by Sony, are the exceptions to the rule.

They are very unusual cases. No independent studio would try it (or could afford to). The other strange, inspired, charming titles manage to get made - and occasionally get a sequel - because they don't try to compete at such a high level.

Double Fine tried, and while the game was wonderful, it didn't find the market it needed to break even. Ever since, they've been making very weird, very small, very charming games for the downloadable marketplace.

The answer is to aim low. Don't bet too many of your chips. Don't try make the best game anyone has ever seen - just make a really good game, and success will perhaps find you. Make something that seduces us with its beauty or inspires us, on some level, to fall in love.

It's unlikely you'll sell two million copies - but with a solid product, you're likely to break even - and with a bit of luck you may even get people talking, and end up with a bonafide hit.

Perhaps, come next gen, things will manage to remain much the same - perhaps we'll still get the cool small titles that allow us that thrill of uncovering a hidden gem. Studios with passion and artistry will still be able to create adventures that call to us, and find their own required modicum of success to continue their craft - and they'll simply make sure not to release it anywhere near Call of Duty 13: Napalm Sunrise.

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