I’m off to E3 for the rest of the week, so updates will be sporatic-to-non-existant. In my absence, why don’t you roll over to Die, Zombie, Die!, a highly excellent horror game website. Spookycreepy has a new monster image gallery up, which I recommend you check out forthwith.
So here’s my pre-E3 take on the state of the industry and games in general. It will be interesting to see if my perspective has changed by Friday. If millions in marketing and 110 decibel music don’t change my mind, little will. Beware, the following rant is long and probably boring.
The thing is, folks, that the industry is in trouble. Some of us see it coming, but most of us don’t realize how deep in it we actually are. This last generation has seen an amazing decline in game creativity and and an amazing surge in game production values. As developers, we’ve quite publicly lamented the mediocrity and sameness of recent game designs, and the mood at GDC this year was clearly one of frustration. Don’t get me wrong, a number of really high quality, really original games have been released in the last few years: Animal Crossing, ICO, Katamari Damacy, Grand Theft Auto, and Rez, just to name a few. But all of these games–all of them–were risks to the developers that produced them and the publishers that marketed them. Though some of them did well (GTA in particular), many of them failed (good luck finding Rez nowadays; ICO sold terribly). Developers realize the quality of these games (Keita Takahashi, the designer of Katamari Damacy, got a standing ovation for his talk at GDC this year), but few of us have enough influence to actually get experimental concepts produced.
The problem, ladies and gents, is not a lack of creativity. It’s not a lack of drive or laziness or an odd nostalgia for mechanics of the past. It’s two things: cost and fear. Actually, it’s really only cost, because fear is the fear that the game won’t sell. Games are expensive to make, so expensive, in fact, that any publisher that makes a competitive game is taking a large financial risk. Publishers pay the bills, and they see a correlation between high quality graphics and high sales, so they poor all of their energy into making sure the graphics and presentation are top notch. And game design is always, always the element that gets slashed when time is tight and cuts need to be made. But the scary thing for developers and publishers alike is that even production value alone can’t produce reliable sales. Look at what happened to Prince of Persia: that game had excellent graphics, top-notch production value, and loads of game design innovation, yet it pretty much flopped in the market. The result? For the sequel, Ubisoft dropped the originality a few hefty notches, inserted a heavy dose of generic rage, and did everything they could to make the Prince as “extreme” as possible. The result looks like pretty much every other game to come out last year.
The stakes are high and nobody really knows what consumers want. The developers think that consumers want new experiences. The publishers think they want nice graphics and characters they are already familiar with. The journalists think they want flawless execution of all of the above. In the end, it turns out to be less of what consumers want and more about what they will accept.
So here’s the kicker: the next gen is going to make this problem 100 times worse. Games cost too much to make, and as games become more realistic, more complex, and more detailed, the costs will skyrocket. And when cost is high, publishers want risk to be as low as possible; be on the lookout for for fewer games, more knockoffs of the Last Big Hit, and many, many more licensed games. There will still be Capcoms and Konamis and Bungies and Blizzards making extremely high quality original games, but the rest of the industry is going to be struggling to keep up.
Of course, the most frustrating thing about this situation is that the next gen is going to provide a technical basis for all kinds of things that we’ve never been able to do before. Xbox 360, PS3, and Revolution would be amazing systems to experiment on if only experimentation didn’t cost so much. Instead, what we’ll get is the same games we’ve played before, only this time with specular lighting, normal mapping, and self-shadowing models. Yipee.
There’s no good solution. You can’t very well charge more for games (well, not yet–it’s already happening in Japan), you can’t pay the developers less, and you can’t really get away with less-than-state-of-the-art games. I think games will be a whole lot shorter in the next gen. Barring some sort of grass roots indy game movement (which could happen; witness the music scene before and after Nirvana), or a sudden explosion in the size of the game-playing public, the next gen doesn’t look like a particularly good time for innovative games.
I hate to be all doom and gloom here. There are going to be original games, just not enough. If you look back as recently as the Dreamcast era, you can see that the market has been reduced to just a few surviving genres; there’s no way a game like Crazy Taxi could be made today, licensed music or no. The market isn’t going away any time soon; in fact, the game industry is going to get bigger. But if the current trend continues, the day that games are regarded as a culturally relevant medium is far away indeed.
This year, I’m interested in a few very specific things at E3: Killer7, the vodoo doll controller, Nintendogs, Katamari Damacy 2, Siren 2, Animal Crossing DS, and of course, anything horror related (Suffering 2, I have my eye on you!). Hopefully, I’ll come back from E3 totally energized about the next gen and just hopping up and down with excitement about the games I saw. Hopefully I’ll be totally wrong about this whole innovation-costs-too-much thing. It could happen.