Originality or Death? - Nikolas Davidoff Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Originality or Death?

'Games lack creativity!'  If you have talked about video games since around late 2010, chances are you've heard this before.  Many times.  It is, at its heart, a rally chant protesting against the perceived stagnation of the industry due to the current excess of sequels.  In a high profile manner, it has slid off the lips of Quantic Dream boss David Cage, who is best known today as the director and writer of Heavy Rain and the upcoming Beyond: Two Souls.  On January 10th speaking to Official Playstation Magazine UK, he declared that "sequels kill creativity and innovation" and that "many people want the same and if that's what you offer them, they will gladly buy it."  Now there is certainly great truth to people's eagerness to welcome a familiar face into their collections, as the 10 highest selling games of 2012 in the US were all sequels, spearheaded by Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Madden NFL 13, Halo 4, Assassin's Creed III and Just Dance 4, while the UK and Japan also failed to see a number 1 break into their respective lists. (via CVG and GameInformer.com)

Putting aside dull sales figures, is this crisis really so black and white? Is it even a crisis to begin with? Many extremists speak like sequels are some evil entity used by lazy developers and cynical publishers to get rich off of their production sweatshops, but in reality their existence is much more complex. The allure of a fresh idea is not always replicated by its execution, and so it requires the kind of improvement that can only be achieved through a test drive in the hands of the public, while at other times the public is simply not ready for what the developer made. To name-calling across the ages; Mega Man only became a sensation after its follow-up, Resident Evil popularised survival horror with 2 and then redefined the action genre with 4 and Assassin's Creed was merely an interactive tech demo before its second outing.

Then you have the franchises that are broad right from their birth, concepts that possess such far reaching values that it would be a shame not to double dip. Grand Theft Auto springs to mind, a 15 year old series that is only tied together by playing a shade of criminal life in an intricately crafted open world city set to the backdrop of an unapologetic satire of American culture. Gameplay mechanics and story themes take one night stands with various entries, and now even the largely consistent rags to riches character arc has been dashed by two veteran felons in GTA V's split protagonist tale. Other examples are Final Fantasy, whose numeric system clashes with how unrelated each new number is from the last, and BioShock, as it is apparent even before the release of its proper sequel Infinite that it is a series defined by the strange and unfamiliar.

In many differing ways then, franchises can be a breeding ground for creativity, and when a game is this good why would you hesitate to buy it, even if it is a sequel? Although not every series ages gracefully, with many crashing in either an iterative frenzy or a lack of change to begin with. To counter David Cage, not everyone will be satisfied with their purchase just because it has a number on its box to make them 'comfortable', a prime case being with Dragon Age II. Now sadly the subject of sales figures must return, but be forgiving. It is a necessary evil. In the first two weeks after release, it outperformed the first game, Dragon Age: Origins, with 1 million sales, and also shipped 2 million copies to retailers in its first two months, however its early lead quickly waned, resulting in fewer sales over time than Origins. (via Wikipedia) Then add the fact that it arguably ignited the current rage towards developer Bioware as a whole, and DA II can very well be considered a failure.

The reasoning is simple, Origins was so successful and beloved that people were eager to dive back into that world and that style of game but on the promise that the talents of Bioware could make it even better, and so the early sales and pre-orders were assured. However when they actually played the game, they attacked its flaws without restraint, and the double-edged effect that is word of mouth hurt it in the long run. These people were not blinded by a familiar name, they did not sit with their mouths sealed and their hearts content just because it was a sequel. No, they voiced their displeasure and hurt the game's performance with a good high-tech rally. Social media would have a lot more tumbleweed if they never happened.

DA II's struggle highlights the true attraction people have to sequels. Its not necessarily the familiarity that most are searching for, but the faith in quality. Assassin's Creed Revelations may have been more of the same for the third year in a row, but it broke series sales records because the formula it abode by was polished and assured to bring satisfaction. In that same congested holiday of 2011, Saints Row: The Third and Resistance 3 had varying degrees of slow success because of the sheer volume of quality games released over only a three month period, with most of the biggest ones being either open worlds or possessing some form of multiplayer, the two biggest time sinks in games. These two were the boldest and best of their kind, but didn't have names that instantly implied a good time. Resistance 2 in particular faced a similar problem as DA II where the reconstructive surgery applied to the identity of the game forced players away from it and stigmatised the series in the process, resulting in its successor falling on deaf ears despite it returning to the praised roots of the original. Resident Evil 6 also experienced exactly the same drop in momentum.

So in a fashion David Cage has it right, but the motivation he cites is incorrect. Yes people will readily support a sequel year after year, but not because they are afraid to branch out, but because that weathered hero can promise them value for their $60, a large sum for entertainment, especially in this time of economic recovery. At the same time, franchise fatigue is hardly uncommon, as previous pillars of the industry like Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk are nothing more than relics today. Cage also happens to forget 'original' successes like Dishonored and L.A. Noire, the latter of which became the UK's fastest selling fresh game in history. These games played it smart, as Dishonored tactfully filled a conspicuous hole in the industry with its 'do what you want' gameplay style, while L.A. Noire masked its large degree of aged, point-and-click adventure mechanics with an irresistible veneer of frank maturity and the fantasy of being a detective. Different goals, but a shared grasp on the trends of game design, as they instantly differentiated themselves from the crowd while also making their unique qualities something people desired. They weren't niche games thriving off of the bizarre, their strengths were things people wanted to see and experience, and therefore became their competition's weakness.

This also speaks to a greater and actual crisis, which resides in the strict pricing model employed by everyone. An Assassin's Creed will alphabetically sit on the store shelf right next to Asura's Wrath, both brandishing $60 price stickers while you ask yourself; “do I want a 20+ hour open world I can actually begin to describe or this weird Japanese thing I haven't even seen a trailer for?” It is an illogical decision to make, and one that results in the failure of many little known titles like that. There are those bizarre games that strike curiosity at first but ward off potential players because the thought of an ill spent $60 is horrifying, so these games need an avenue by which they can cost a much more welcoming amount of money and in the process attract experimentation.

Indie games are the model for this. Telltale Games' The Walking Dead was one of 2012's darlings, winning numerous Game of the Year awards, namely that of the highly commercially minded Spike VGAs, and has accrued swift and steady sales leading to over 8.5 million sold episodes as of January 2013, equal to approximately $40 million in revenue. (via Wikipedia) It proudly champions its point-and-click adventure styling, eschews the skill driven accomplishment of fighting back a zombie hoard in exchange for emotional connections with its intelligent characters, and refused to dabble in any form of multiplayer. Hardly the kind of game one would initially expect to celebrate the year with, but people were drawn to the emotional experience it achieved through concepts that dare to challenge the very definition of a video 'game,' and it succeeded, both in the clinical and emotional sense. A large part of this success is due to the fact that each of its five episodes cost a mere $5, while the majority of its marketing was in the form of post release promotions on the actual storefronts like Steam, PSN and XBLA, rather than financially exhausting TV spots and billboards. A tailor made approach for the specific needs of the game.

This is where the future must play its part, as while the thought of more complex games is always tantalising and necessary for the medium's growth, they will become unsustainable if the only way to get them made is to continually expand budgets and development teams. Current-gen games are luridly expensive to make and when taken alongside the horrors of Assassin's Creed III and Resident Evil 6's estimated 600 person dev teams, the impending next generation becomes more than a little scary. Therefore the key is in technologies like Epic Games' Unreal Engine 4, which contain a set of game making tools that enable quick and instantaneous tweaking. It achieves in 10 minutes the kind of experimentation that ordinarily takes a whole week, while being done by a single individual of any discipline, so an artist can be productive without interrupting the dozen tasks on a programmer's mind. In short, it makes the nitty-gritty of game development much less complicated, so that there is less struggle with figuring out how to get an idea off the ground and more effort saved for perfecting its actual performance.

Tools like these will enable a rationally sized team to express their creativity in increasingly intricate ways in less than a decade, and on a socially acceptable budget as a result. And its that dirty 'b' word that is important to control, because it is the only way the currently stifling retail cost will subside. Big box games don't cost as much as they do because publishers are inherently evil, but because a AAA game will cost so much to get out the developer's door that it needs to make a ludicrous amount of money very quickly to be successful. It might be easy for Steam to have 75% off sales months after a game is released, but Aliens: Colonial Marines has still debuted at $49.99, the standard retail price for a PC game. That entry price will only go down when the production cost does, and while it is completely unrealistic to expect it to immediately happen when Unreal 4 is broadly adopted, if it works as well as Epic says it does, it will contribute to the stabilisation needed to gradually and permanently bring it down. Comfort can be found in the fact that its predecessor, Unreal 3, is the most used game engine of this generation, with its ubiquitous spiked 'U' appearing on everything from an open world, PC/console title like Batman: Arkham City to mobile games. So when its successor specifically aims to make development easier, it stands as the most logical vehicle into the next generation for hundreds of developers.

Until then, developers will make the best out of the limitations of today, and if anything, they have become more shrewd creatures as a result. Franchises like Deus Ex and XCOM were just as good as new IPs for so many when they faced their 'reboots' over the last 2 years, so their stewards were able to stretch their creative breeches under the safety net of a name publishers could wink at and broad concepts proven years prior. Is David Cage correct in that we the people will shut out the new and unfamiliar? As the market has shown, we will only buy sequels because that is the only clear choice at a given time, so when game makers stop acting like awkward teens and carry themselves with smooth confidence at the date nights, the fact that their game has a funny name slowly but steadily wears off.

 

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