Money and Games

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Where once it was exclusively the realm of spotty teenagers and pale, vitamin D deprived, basement dwelling individuals, gaming is now a major pillar of the entertainment industry with budgets and sales comparable to those of even the biggest Hollywood movies. This decade has seen gaming become truly mainstream and grow into a medium of mass consumption. However like the movie industry before it, this spectacular growth and desire to become a viable mainstream product that vies for mass market approval has begun to affect the gaming experience for a large section of the gaming community. Current games are certainly very beautiful. The graphics are slick, realistic and beautifully rendered and allow players a level of freedom that would have been unimaginable a mere two decades ago. The ubiquitous nature of HD TVs and surround sound have also played a huge part in immersing the gamer in his virtual world and with each new release, games make another tentative step towards that holy grail of a totally real and believable gaming world. However this progress has perhaps inevitably begun to negatively affect the way new games are developed and influence the choices developers make when tackling new projects.

The Nintendo Wii proved to the world that everyone is a potential gamer and that there was in fact a huge market for a more ‘casual’ game experience. Other companies have been quick to follow suit and switch a lot of their focus over to what they see as a huge potential source of income. The end result however is that games have invariably gotten easier. It is perhaps symptomatic of an industry that is desperately trying to appeal to a more casual audience that the difficulty levels have been turned down, tutorials have become more abundant and health packs and lives have slowly disappeared, and to a degree I can understand the change. No one wants to be forced to start from the beginning of a level upon dying, or face antagonists of virtually impenetrable difficulty. We want to receive an enjoyable experience from our games. However the amount of hand holding and the number of on screen tips and tutorials has gotten out of hand. Gamers don’t need to be told fifty times what button to press to mount a horse or to move the left stick to swivel the camera. These simple controls should either already be obvious to the player or should become apparent through good game design. Mario games have never had onscreen prompts or told players how to jump or avoid obstacles or pointed us in the direction of secret levels and they have benefited greatly from this. These things should come to the player naturally through experimentation and intuition. A large number of recent games have begun to feel like little more than long quick time events with players simply going through the motions to achieve a goal without fear of failure or a game over screen. Many games no longer allow the player to think presenting them with puzzles and then providing obvious solutions or answers, a glowing yellow handle that opens a locked door, a giant arrow indicating where the player should go or an onscreen hint as to the whereabouts of a certain item. These things are often unnecessary and detract from the experience as a whole. If the game wants to give us hints, it should do it in a way that doesn’t take the player out of the experience.

Also there is too much emphasis on building franchises and making sequels recently. The games industry appears to be going the same way as the movie industry in this respect. The number of sequels is increasing while the number of original IPs is seeing a sharp decline, with those that are appearing being set up from the very start as trilogies. I can see how an exceptional game may warrant a sequel, or how a development studio that builds a popular yet imperfect franchise on a low budget may want to release a more polished product on a higher budget later on, but the endless slew of sequels, prequels and reboots pumped out of studios recently is stunting innovation and hampering originality. Game budgets have started to rival those of blockbuster movies in recent years and as the money spent on development and marketing increases the willingness to take a risk on a new idea or an original game mechanic or character drops dramatically. There is too much money at risk and as smaller studios are eaten up by the big publishers, less commercially viable IPs are dropped and talent is moved to work on proven franchises that move units and sell overpriced downloadable content. Game’s stories (especial those in the FPS genre) are often contrived, banal and riddled with cliched characters and plot devices, the ‘grizzled, misogynistic space marine battles against aliens for the world’s survival’ being perhaps the worst offender. There is a lot of discussion about whether or not games should be given artistic merit in a similar way to films and comics, but games are never going to be accepted as an art form unless trends begin to change and developers start injecting a little more passion and originality into their products. The industry is not entirely bereft of ideas however, and games such as Portal, Shadow of the Colossus and Red Dead Redemption continue to push the limits of what can be achieved in terms of mechanics, gameplay and story and if games such as these continue to sell well and receive critical acclaim then there is at least a glimmer of hope for the industry as a whole.