I wonder when I woke up in old person-Ville.
Bear with me- neither turning 30 nor being winded running down the block is what's making me feel old. Game dev 'voices' are. More or less, in the last year, it feels like more and more voices (via keynote speechs, articles on game dev and game player sites, etc)†are promoting various new 'trends' in video games. Facebook as the new killer game delivery system, the death of graphics as a driving force (one of many, and it almost always was just one), the overwhelming desire to analyze, take apart, and determine the what how and why of a game.
Perhaps part of it is the (what I hope) is the new renaissance of the indie game developer. Established houses have grown to such a mass that they have become fearful of risk. (A typical irony, the more able to handle risk you might be, the more you avoid it?) So we see them as stagnant, or worse, that they hold back progress. We look to the indie developer to provide what they are holding back. In the end though, I expect their success rate to be no better or worse than the big time developers. Both sides of the line face challenges, in the end though both sides have dedicated people who love games. (If not, why not?)
Facebook, MySpace, casual games etc... this... is a nice new frontier... I guess. I'm confused, and somewhat defensive about the 'aura' that circles this. The gist that 'this is where things are going'. Somehow the big budget AAA games are dinosaurs. This goes along with the 'graphics are no longer a driving force. The success of the WII is often lauded as an example of this.... This question is driven further around my head by a challenge statement in one my wife's game dev courses- 'Story is not necessary for games'. Not being a part of the course, I can't rail against the wind, even as I walk with it. So I'll rail here- No, story is not necessary for 'a' game. Gameplay, in and of itself, is ALL that is necessary for a game. Though I wanna slam a big ole' 'but' here. Narrative can make ho-hum gameplay enjoyable. Some games simply wouldn't be reasonable without story. The same could be said for graphics, sound, or any other 'color'. Guitar hero could be played quite well with the sound on mute and the background turned off, but for how long would such a game hold your interest? Gameplay is the core, the meat, the gem in the stone. Give that gem a proper cut, polish, and setting, and you have quite the valuable. And my love of allusions goes further- You can have a simple listing of events- Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl die in double suicide. Or you can read Shakespeare or watch a play with pretty costumes.
And look it’s not new- http://www.designersnotebook.com/Columns/037_Dogma_2001/037_dogma_2001.htm (1)
My confusion stems from the apparent 'hidden' assertion, and in some cases not so hidden, that because x is successful, then all its predecessors and those like it†must now be null. Never to come again. In some cases this is being applied rather liberally, 'Facebook games are popular and have more users than there are toasters in the world... therefore this is the new world focus'. If you agree with me that this sounds ludicrous, than my ranting isn't for you... you're allowed to my party... at which there may be cake. But for the others, I fail to see how iphone's/Facebook/flash games/cheese nips being popular means bupkis. These are new markets, in some cases new creative opportunities, at the least new monetary opportunities. It's this sorta 'jump on the bandwagon' atmosphere that has me worried about Project Natal. It will be one thing if the gestures are subtle and make sense, or are for a tangent of games, but I worry about the (hopefully unlikely) event that every game has to have various gestures, again making me jump around my living room when I just wanna trade some shells... yay. (On the other hand I look upon voice recognition with great hope and unfettered desire normally only reserved for my wife or a well made fresh pepperoni pizza.)
The points I'm making, without any 'flare' (well too much flare) are these- these new venues are great, but these aren't the difference between color and black & white, they're just different venues, different audiences, different control schemes. Casual games spreading to a wider audience does not mean the death of hardcore. It will probably lead to an eventual increase in hard core players. Hardcore's percentage may decrease overall, but that's only because the casual market has ballooned. As far as graphics, we're reaching a flat line, but I feel that has less to do with demand and more with tech and tools. (And quite possibly simple logistics limits... how much time do you give an artist to make a character face 'perfect'? Keeping in mind that consistency of style needs to be maintained across the game?) Note the fact that many Wii games, despite the supposed graphics inferiority, look as good as many offerings elsewhere. Frankly I don't think graphics was ever the sure fire draw people claim it was. Accounting for personal opinion, I don't know of any game touted purely for its graphics had 'staying power' once its gameplay or other elements fell flat. It is and was a factor, two 'good' games, one with mind blowing graphics, and one with 'okay but not bad' graphics will sell differently all else being equal. (2) Anyone who challenges this tends to bring about a popular game that they simply didn't like. If I get comments on this I'm interested to be proven wrong. As for why I'm suddenly odd about analysis of games- “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” -E. B. White. I've been doing a lot of frog killing perhaps, so I'm being somewhat hypocritical. Part of it is certainly my uneasiness with the concept of 'making artful games'. They aren't a bad thing... I just don't want this... promise me you won't do this please! This-
It gets worse. But I'm not going to search for anymore examples. This depresses me enough as is. (3)
I end up wondering if I'm desperately clinging to traditionalism. (Ergo, the opening line about feeling old.) And yet like most hard core gamers I find myself craving new experiences in my medium of choice. Tell me, is my 'triple A' hardcore world really obsolete? Should I go ahead and register me some twitter and setup my Farmville um... stuff? Kiss my Halo and Dragon Age buh-bye? Or is this new community just simply... louder? Or is traditional quiet just because there's nothing left to say? I admit I may be 'reading' these viewpoints stronger than they intend. But often they have wording that suggests all or nothing. I will endeavor to provide links at a later date.†
(1) I've harped on this article before in private conversation. I think as is, it is flawed. It IS correct in some of its assertions, but perhaps overreaching. An over the top death animation is not an addition to gameplay, it is not a feature, at least one that can't stand alone. But just because something is formulaic does not mean it isn't worth making. I find the early books in the Shannara series (sorry Mr. Brooks!) very 'familiar for lack of a better term. But they are still worth the read. I still, time after time, enjoy orcs and the dark wizard/knight whatever that needs to be stopped from getting the McGuffin of power. Only our plucky heroes can save the day. Etc and errata. Just because something isn't entirely new doesn't mean it isn't good. But restraint should be used, and in the end it has to be made well.
(2) I'm getting convinced the line for what is 'good' and 'bad' is different. I'm not talking aesthetic, but the 'triggers' people look for seem to be different. For me, visual consistency is most important paired closely with lack of obvious defects. No seams, no obvious triangles (that shouldn't be), no pixilation etc. Then the ideal starts stepping towards wonderfully detailed and realistic (in context). I played a demo not too long ago that met these criteria, at least as far as I noticed. Its gryphon looked like they should, the minotaur were impressive, the people looked as good as people do, etc. Most reviews seem to knock the graphics. Maybe I just need better glasses. Or maybe they looked for different cues on what’s hot in graphics. Maybe they noticed (lack of) shadow detail, or HDR lighting?
(3) Yet I consider myself an ardent defender of games as Art. People's definition of what art 'is' expands and contracts and contradicts everyone else’s. Apparently my definition of what belongs in a gallery- the best the world has to offer, does not agree with either what the art community believes is the best the world has to offer, or what they believe belongs in a gallery. I hope it really is the latter.