Warning: long, sort of pointless rant that has very little to do with horror game follows.
If you read this site often you might have noticed a recurring theme in my rants: I’m of the opinion that the video game industry is shooting itself in the foot with its death march towards computational perfection. Every time we increase the power of video game machines, we also increase the cost to create games, but this cost increase is not accompanied by a similar increase in game players. The result is higher risk to game publishers (they need to sell more units to make the same profit as before), fewer games on the market, less overall innovation (it’s too risky), and greater reliance on licenses and other tie-ins to artificially improve the size of the audience. This ground is well trodden on this web site, I think.
But I wanted to talk a little bit about the few developers who actually have the ability to try something new. Now, I’m not talking about the huge self-publishing companies like Capcom or Konami–these guys are large enough that they can absorb a lot of risk, and their products are pretty consistently innovative. No, I’m talking about second- and third-party developers like Surreal (The Suffering series), High Moon Studios (Darkwatch), Headfirst (Call of Cthulhu), and the now-defunct Computer Artworks (The Thing). These guys are in an odd spot: they are paid by some publisher to make games (and often must relinquish some degree of creative control to their publisher), but they are also small teams who can maintain an innovative vision and execute on it. At big publishers like EA, teams are shuffled around for every game, and the long term fiscal outlook of the company as a whole is the deciding factor when selecting games to produce. But these smaller studios have, to some degree at least, the ability to choose their destiny and (assuming they can secure funding) work on innovative products.
Take The Thing, for example. There is a crapload of new game design ideas in this game. It’s got a fear/trust system that has never been done before, where you need to convince your team mates that you are not an alien (and thus stave off their irrational fear) by giving them weapons and ammunition. The level design is intelligent, and the way the game uses the license from John Carpenter’s 1980 film is excellent. This should have been a revolutionary horror game, but instead, it fell apart because of a few design flaws.
The alien test system is broken. You are supposed to be able to administer a blood test to people you meet and see if they are aliens or not, but in practice the test tells you nothing because it might return a false result 30 seconds before they change into an alien in a cutscene. The Thing’s designers had a cool idea about having team members with different roles (you can’t turn on the lights unless you have an engineer with you), but this falls apart when you realize that any of your team members can be killed at any time (so it ends up being that you can’t turn on lights yourself if your engineer is alive, but you can do it yourself if he’s died… dumb). These are probably the result of the schedule for this game being compressed, or of a lead designer leaving in mid-development. These few flaws pretty much ruin the whole game, and they were probably the result of having too little time to finish the game.
Which brings me to my point, if I have one. Innovation is a hard thing to do. It takes a LONG time to get new things right. If you look at games that are known for their innovative content, you’ll see that they invariably have extremely long development cycles. Companies like EA don’t have time to waste on the sort of iteration necessary to make an innovative game, but smaller studios like Computer Artworks do not have the funds to set their own schedules. The result is that innovative games don’t get made, or they get made poorly because they were crammed into insufficient development cycles. The Thing should have been an awesome game, but Computer Artworks also needs to pay its employees which means that its publisher (in this case, Vivendi-Universal) set the schedule based on when products will be most profitable for them. Basically, it’s a sucky model that does not link innovation to profit.
Sorry for the rambling rant. This came out way longer than I intended. Oh well, it was cathartic to write.