Let us Muse! : Games as Mainstream Entertainment
I’m not old, by any means. I’m 24 and I’m nowhere near the phase in my life where sitting on a park bench, between feeding the ducks and drooling all over myself, I go into fits, lecturing the young folk about how things were better in the old days. No, reader, my twilight years are still some time away, but I feel the need to say this: things aren’t what they used to be!
Just to make clear that I’m not some new jack, gen-Yer with a ‘tude, I’ll lay my cards out on the table for you. I’ve been playing video games since I was six years old. As clichÃ© as it may seem, my first system was an NES and Super Mario Bros. was the sexy beast that had popped my gaming cherry. Holy shit, was this the thing for me! I was blown away and I was instantly a gamer for life. Gaming was something that I could always fall back on for a good time and like a fine wine, over the years my tastes grew more sophisticated, as did the consoles. The ideal game to me has always been a perfect marriage of excellent gameplay mechanics and rewarding challenges. This has not changed for me since day one (I’ll put aside the fact that with modern technology art and style has a larger impact. That’s for another discussion). I could go on and on about how many awesome gaming experiences I’ve had over the years, but I’ll spare you. Odds are if you are reading this, you know exactly what I’m talking about and we’ve probably had lots of the same ones. However, in recent years, I’ve noticed more and more that I’m not nearly as interested in or play as many games as I used to. Putting aside my brief three-year stint with Final Fantasy XI, the bastard son of Satan that consumed parts of my soul that I’ll never recover, I had come to see a significant change in the gaming landscape around me.
(Editor’s Note: Seriously, avoid MMOs, if you can. They will ruin your life.)
“A picture of my first… I’ll never forget him!”
I’ve never been or even considered myself “mainstream” in any of my tastes, with regard to music, movies or gaming. In fact, gaming was a sort of refuge, at a time. It was a niche kind of hobby that was like that really cool club that no one knew about and it was awesome because of that, but now I find myself at odds with my passion for gaming since it has become mainstream. This isn’t because I’m some snooty “indie” douche who looks down on all the “conformists”. I’m not opposed to gaming becoming mainstream in the social sense. I love that there are more gamers; all the more people to enjoy gaming with! However, I’m opposed to what it does to games in a business sense because, unfortunately, that becomes a governing factor in how games get made nowadays.
Now, before you think that I’m some sort of cantankerous man-child, I’ll say that I’m very aware that gaming becoming mainstream has had positive effects. In no way would it be possible to see some of the huge, amazing games that we’ve seen in recent years such as, Metal Gear Solid 4, the God of War series, Resident Evil 4, etc., without bigger budgeted development teams. It used to be that teams of three to five developers would make an NES games and now development teams can reach the hundreds. However, with the scope of current games, the financial risks also become that much greater for companies and the need to “play it safe” tends to overtake other concerns. It’s just plain old business sense to make a product that appeals to as many people as possible, because simply put, odds are you’ll rake in big. No one can fault a company for trying to succeed, but what I find disappointing is that sacrifices to core game design are usually made. Sure, Metal Gear Solid 4 was amazing and, ridiculous plot aside could contend with some Hollywood blockbusters, but to be perfectly honest, gameplay took more of a backseat than any other game in the series. In earlier entries to the series, the gameplay and stealth mechanics were the focus, while in MGS 4, it was more like the mother of all cut-scenes with gameplay breaks. I’ll give credit where credit is due though; MGS 4 isn’t a bad game by any means. In fact, it’s probably one of the better results of a business oriented, mass market driven development process.
On the other hand, let’s take a look at the lower end of the spectrum, which conjures up the blackest bile from the deepest parts of my liver. Think about how-many-juiced-up-(space)marine-with-a-boner shooters have been released in recent years *cough*Fracture,Haze,Turok, etc. Companies know that the mass market love shooters and so these nutty turds are churned out that have virtually nothing to offer in terms gameplay. I’ve tried them because I believe in giving new games a shot and opening myself up to new experiences, but these games sucked hard and not in the good way.
“Excuse me while I go choke myself out of boredom…”
Meanwhile, some of the most amazing games remain obscured to the gaming public because they don’t cater to this “mainstream” audience. Take the average gamer off of Xbox Live and I’m sure they will have never heard of Okami or Shadow of the Colossus; two of the greatest games of the last generation, if not of all time. I’m not one to drift off into hyperbole, but PLAYING SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS WAS THE MOST MAGICAL EXPERIENCE OF MY LIFE! EVER! THE END!
Sorry about that… But I digress. My point is that the nature of the mainstream market does not inherently foster great games. This can be said for any kind of entertainment medium, really, but we are fortunate enough to have some truly talented minds that can still make it work. Excuse me if I’ve dated myself a bit, but I’ll talk about a more current example. Let’s take a look at Mirror’s Edge. Touted to be part of EA’s new focus on coming up with original IPs, Mirror’s Edge offers a gameplay experience we’ve never seen before and for the most part, it’s excellent. Disappointingly, the game’s sales were lackluster and with that I can definitely say that people don’t like good games. Just kidding! But seriously, take a second to digest the fact that the mass market(consumer), which basically tells companies ( in dollars) what they want, are not buying cool, interesting, unique, good gameplay experiences. Now, I know there are a lot of factors involved such as marketing, distribution ,release dates, etc., that can affect sales and should be part of the discussion, but I’m keeping this reasonably brief since you aren’t going to earn any credits for sitting through a dissertation by me.
Despite all this, I’m still optimistic. We’ve been seeing some excellent old school remakes such as Mega Man 9 and Bionic Commando: Rearmed that follow in the tradition of great gameplay focused experiences and actually have sold very well. Also, there are still current-gen games coming out that do an excellent job at providing a strong gameplay experiences, like Street Fighter IV, Pixeljunk Monsters, Fallout 3 and Grand Theft Auto 4, among others. I’ll say again, that I don’t blame developers completely as business and markets have significant effects on their work, but I’m always happy to read interviews , such as the one with the upcoming next-gen Bionic Commando’s director, Ulf Anderson of GRIN, that show that people haven’t forgotten about what it means to make a good game. Ulf (awesome name!) really seems to have a good perspective on the whole process of creating a great gameplay experience, which he and his team proved with Bionic Commando: Rearmed. I recommend checking out this interview that Gamasutra did with him in January where he talks about game directors slowly slipping into the realm of mainstream movie directors and missing some of the key elements of game design. (http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=21717).
Also on my list of favorite devs that I would systematically make out with are Valve, who over time have crafted some of the most excellent gameplay experiences in recent years (Thank the lord that my former wet dream game Left 4 Dead was actually created) and Capcom, who I have great respect for as being an innovative Japanese developer that hasn’t let the west overshadow it. You’ll notice I name dropped a few Capcom titles already and for good reason. I would take a look at the speech Capcom’s Jun Takeuchi, producer of Resident Evil 5, gave for the 2009 DICE developer conference. (http://g4tv.com/thefeed/blog/post/693347/Live-Blog-DICE-2009—Jun-Takeuchi-Capcom.html) In identifying key problems faced by (Japanese) developers , Takeuchi points out, “Management focused only on selling more copies – new technology is developed blindly, without a proper goal in mind” and that “Risk reduction can actually increase risk”. Jun, you had me at hello . . . <3<3 <3. I’d also recommend looking at the speech that Valve’s Gabe Newell gave at DICE only because almost anything that comes out of his mouth is gold. ( http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=22378)
“The second coming of Jesus, as imagined by me. Yes, I do have problems.”
Well, that’s about all I have to say. What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Am I even making sense? Let me know, because I’m an insecure attention whore. Ok I’m not really (maybe just a bit), but I’d love to hear what you guys out there in the vastness of the interweb think anyway.
Now, excuse me while I go and feed the ducks. They get fussy when I hold out on them.