I know that recently a lot of people have their panties in a twist about Mass Effect 3.  Of course, as a person who feels ambivalent about games where you run around shooting things, I've never played any of the games (please hold the pitchforks and torches until the end of the blog, I have a point here), but I have been seeing a disturbing trend in gaming that's been happening for far too long.  

And that is the BLANDIFICATION of mainstream games.

Meet Howard Blandy- where we get the term BLANDIFICATION...for a very good reason.

If you're not familiar with the episode of Spongebob where Howard Blandy comes along and buys out the Krusty Krab, turning it into a hellish nightmare of a place, then I will explain quickly so you get the context.  Basically, the Krusty Krab in the Spongebob universe is a company.  It's owned by a very skinflint crab named Mr. Krabs.  And even though he can be a huge jerk who is obsessed with every penny imaginable, at least he sells an amazingly tasty food product (the Krabby Patty).  So even if people complain and hate his behavior, his product is actually quite wonderful, and therefore, he gets a ton of customers every single day.


So basically Howard Blandy comes along and offers to buy the Krusty Krab for a ton of money.  Mr. Krabs has a heart attack at the truckloads of cash and then offers to take him up on his deal.  Of course, this means that Mr. Krabs learns that retirement sucks while Spongebob and Squidward are forced to take on the horrible treatment and "blandification" of their jobs.  SInce Mr. Krabs gets horribly bored, he then decides to get a (minimum wage) job back at the newly re-named "Krabby O'Mondays" and starts washing dishes.

This is a metaphor for the state of our current gaming industry.

Ostensibly, under the watchful eye of Blandy, the products look the same on the outside but on the inside are made of a disgusting sludge, one that most customers don't even realize they're consuming until Mr. Krabs eventually goes on a rampage and starts alerting people to this fact.

I think you know where I'm getting with this, here, but just in case you're still confused, I'll say it clearly.

"Does this look serious enough to you?"

The current gaming industry is repackaging the same thing over and over again, and making it look pretty even though it's really not all THAT great on the inside, and just HOPING that enough people will buy the product before they realize they just bought crap and now they can't return it.

"This pocket change will be great for burning in front of starving homeless people."

Most mainstream games (like most products sold today in this economy) have a singular purpose- to sell at the highest possible price and maximize profits for shareholders and CEOs.  Once they sell, the company that makes them has little to no incentive to support or improve the game, and often, just like what we've seen in the music, movie and television industries, they gloss over the media product, make it look pretty enough to sell through marketing, and then rake in the dough regardless of how good that media product actually IS.  There has always been indie music, movies and television shows- forums for these "underground" media items have actually never been nearly as good as they are today with the widespread popularity of internet sites like YouTube.  And with social media sites, it can be easy to promote your own music or your own movie to friends, family and strangers with similar tastes.  But it is still very, very unlikely that self-promotion, even at an aggressive level will ever launch you to super-stardom and riches.  In order to get there, you have to be an A-list Hollywood person or a Platnum artist with a known record label.  The Mainstream Media has all of the industries of success set up and under their control.  None shall pass without their blessing and endorsement (and if you give them a hefty chunk of your super-stardom income).

This advertisement screams "GEEKS!"

But gaming comes from a slightly different heritage.  When we started out with games, they were very simple.  The people making games were technologically knowledgable geeky types, mostly people doing this stuff to see exactly HOW FAR they could push the limits of interactive gaming.  A lot of games started out as basically arcade fodder, replacing pinball tables.  But once home consoles started becoming widespread, gaming became primarily a "kid" thing, or a novelty for people out at the local arcade, doing their damnedest to beat that high score by "ACC."  Sure, games had to be somewhat lucrative to be continually sold (and not just die out as a simple fad), but at the same time, when your average older game was marketed towards very young people (usually kids from 8-17) and games themselves were fairly expensive, they had to ride the line between being interesting enough for the kid to continue playing long enough for the parent to justify paying for the game and being ok with giving it to their kid.  This is why even back in the day, "licensed titles" normally sold poorly because parents didn't want to shell out tons of money for a game the kid would just toss in the garbage. 

"Gaming, you say? It's time for my All-Rush Mixtape and orange soda.....awwwwwwwww it's on!"

So suffice to say, just as much as I don't enjoy watching movies that are all explosion and no story, the amount of games that basically borrow a generic FPS story/game mechanic and then add some different skins or puzzle games that switch out colored blocks with, say, colored OVALS just pisses me off.  These aren't "new" games.  They're generally not even fun or enjoyable games.  But they look enough like something that hits that primal, rat-like irrational pleasure center in the brain where we get trained that if we hit the button to get the food pellet, that the food pellet is going to come out (ie: enjoyment of the game).  Of course, it's never the same high as the first time we played a Pop Cap game or got to shoot up baddies in Mass Effect.  It's never good enough- never "right" enough, and we end up either going back down nostalgia lane or going from fruitless mainstream game to fruitless mainstream game hoping to find that lost spark.

LET'S NORMALIZE EVERYTHING! *shrieks with horror*

I've noticed that when industries try to "standardize" everything, the actual enjoyment of the product goes down.  Sure, we might be able to buy giant cakes from Costco, but they're generally not nearly as delicious or satisfying as that small piece of high-quality cake from the local bakery.  We might believe that big explosions means big entertainment, but once you've seen a few buildings explode, you've pretty much seen 'em all, and you need something more to draw you in and engage your brain besides the same tired old story about aliens or government conspiracies or whatever the cliche plot of the day might be.  

Sure, every Pop Tart tastes the same- you never get the one that tastes like old shoe leather, but every Pop Tart in the world tastes worse than the best apple in the world.  Unfortunately, in order to get that most tasty apple, you sometimes have to bite into mealy ones or spotty ones or ones with worms inside.  I find myself wondering what the use of standardization has in our modern age- it was acceptable at the turn of the century when we first began industrializing our nation, and in certain situations, it's good to make sure that, say, all tires in a certain specific brand are made of the same quality and measured to the same standards for each particular vehicle.  But when it comes to food, entertainment and the "spice of life"- it is very hard to glean that joyous satisfaction that comes of being engaged and truly enjoying what you're eating, watching or playing unless that experience is authentic and rich.  Anything else is just a copy of a copy of a shadow of some hearsay dressed up in fancy graphics.

"It took many hours of grinding in random battles, but I finally have my level 100 Pikachu!"

So what are your thoughts on the effects of "blandification" on the gaming industry, now that we have "big blockbuster games" that are constantly being released?

What is the alternative to samey-rehashed generic titles?

And finally, what do you think are the core practices that the gaming industry (especially the mainstream, big budget games) should follow or adopt in order to consistently release high-quality, unique games with interesting stories, great gameplay and stunning graphics?

I hope to hear from you soon! :)

PS: A very happy St. Patrick's Day to you all as well!