Sunday, June 20, 2010

E3 ends, and entropy begins... but is there new life?

A quick housekeeping note: yes, I realise that I haven't updated in some time.  I apologise for this, but I've had neither motivation or energy to post anything for the last couple of weeks.  Coupled with things going on in my personal life, including my recent university graduation, it was just a bit tough to get myself into a mind-state where I was capable of writing something interesting.  Now that much of that has been resolved, I hope to be more productive.

It's that magical time of the year: E3.  Everyone who follows videogames in some form knows about this event, especially as it's now screened on mainstream television channels for the world to see.  To say that there's a lot of hype going into E3 week is an understatement: the entire industry finds itself holding its breath in anticipation, and news practically dries up for weeks in advance of it as publishers hold their cards closely for the trade show - though it's also interesting how most of the big surprises and stories seem to increasingly show up during the lead-up to E3, likely a case of publishers wanting to capitalise on their information-starved fanbases.

This particular E3 was exciting for a number of reasons.  Nintendo in particular managed to steal the show, with a new handheld that, according to reports, really is quite phenomenal, and a huge slew of new games; Kid Icarus alone would have been enough to cause celebration, but to see Kirby, Donkey Kong, Goldeneye, and more all in the same presentation was nearly stirring for old fans.  Microsoft and Sony came off as far more tame, with far fewer surprises to their names.  Kinect and Move are both interesting pieces of hardware, to be sure, but even with better technology, it's hard not to look at them and think "aren't they four years late?"

 Hmm, haven't I seen this game before?  Oh, wait!  This one has grass in it!

The thing that really struck me, though, was just how uninspired the entire event felt.  Now, I wasn't there, and I'm sure that it was quite exciting for those who were, but from an observer's perspective, when examining what actually went on display, there's surprisingly little to truly get excited about, beyond the 3DS and the potentials that the Microsoft and Sony motion controllers might hold.  By my count, the biggest games of E3 were all follow-ups to established franchises, most of them in the action genre: Gears of War 3, Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops, InFamous 2, Gran Turismo 5, and so forth.  For someone who is desperately searching for something new in the games industry, this endless precession of sequels doesn't present too many new ideas.  In fact, some of the potentially most interesting games, including Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Portal 2, were barely even shown.

Let me make it clear that there's nothing wrong with sequels.  I am actually quite a fan of sequels, simply because there's so many games I hold close to my heart.  I try to keep a level head, but we all know how it feels when the theme of our favourite game hero begins ringing in our ears; sometimes nostalgia takes over and it's hard to not to be swept away in memories of years past.  Yet when I take a step back and realise that nearly every single mainstream title being premiered (even those which are likely to be original, clever and all sorts of good things) is a follow-up to another mega-hit, well, it's hard for me to not be a bit upset about that. 

Of course, we all know how this works.  Gamers develop strong emotional attachments to particular franchises, characters and so forth.  While developers would love to run wild with new ideas, the economic realities of game development mean that increasingly, the industry needs to rely upon the most popular names in order to remain financially stable.  Most gamers know that this shift to big-budget, universally-appealing games has gone hand-in-hand with increasing monetisation of games, from microtransactions, to downloadable add-ons, to pay-to-play models.  As healthy as the industry would like to present itself, the reality is that it's sputtering for air - and it's not out of a lack of ideas, quality or effort.

I don't mean to cast a dark shadow and say that gaming is doomed, that our favourite developers are going to boil in a sea of fire and be swallowed up by a dark abyss.  Games are simply too profitable a sector of the entertainment industry to abandon.  Like films, they aren't going to be abandoned; interactive entertainment is here to stay, even if its nature changes due to technology or economics.  However, the reality of the games industry right now is that creativity and innovation are dying, not because the people making games aren't capable of it, but because the market demands that efforts be directed towards reliable ideas.

The more observant of the industry may have noticed that the most creative titles to appear lately have been small indie games released on Xbox LIVE Arcade, Steam, and other digital distribution services.  The more observant still will have noticed just how much this business model mirrors the early days of PC gaming, where shareware games were common, games were smaller and bite-sized (not to mention cheaper), and more importantly, were able to get a way with a whole lot more.  Making a big-budget hardcore role-playing game is a near impossibility given the extreme technical requirements of the genre, but on a platform where we expect smaller, niche games, it's possible to survive and even thrive.  The developers, too, mirror those of the golden era of PC gaming - with small teams of only a dozen people, some of the most popular indie developers are able to be as creative as they want, and their low costs ensure they can get away with it.

This observation isn't new, by any means, but in light of it, we have to ask ourselves a few questions.  For starters, what does our obsession with big-budget games that eschew creativity in favour of predictability say about us as gamers?  Is this obsession a vicious cycle headed towards an implosion much like the crash of the 1980s?  If that's the case, then are these indie developers going to rise from the ashes and revitalise the gaming industry, only to fall into the same problems later down the road?  If we are not at the end of an era, then I think we are very close to it.

Comic Jumper is one example of originality that is all too rare in gaming today. 

I only have so much time and money that I can put into games, and it's increasingly becoming fewer and fewer.  Are gamers as a whole going to feel the same way?  What happens if they just... get tired of it?  I love gaming, but I have a pile of games that I have bought and have yet to get started on, and I know many people who are the same way.  I clamour for new ideas, yet I also continue to buy sequels to games that I enjoy, even though the only improvements made come in the form of shinier visuals and some new variations on the established formulas, and I know plenty more people who are in that same boat as well.

E3 has managed once again to stimulate the industry for another year, but I have to wonder just how long that's going to last.  We need some sort of radical new model for the games industry, I'm relatively sure of that much.  There are about two ways that we can take things: we can go for cheaper, smaller, more niche games, like the indie developers are releasing right now, or, we can create games that are more expensive to produce, significantly more expensive for players to buy, and offer less value as content takes increasingly more resources to produce.  I'm hoping that the games industry collectively moves towards the latter model, even if it's not perfect.  But what about everyone else?  Modern Warfare 2 has sold 20 million copies.  It's not looking so great from where I'm standing.

[Image credit 1]
[Image credit 2]


  1. this e3 was all about civ5 >_>

  2. I hope that by "towards to" you mean "away from" :P

    Great article. I agree with you, the gaming industry is just too volatile to keep this way. When games cost 250 million dollars to make, a flop is just way too big of a risk. Design gets stuck and this stagnation will eventually reach that flop. I don't know if the industry's prepared for flops like that.