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Cliff Bleszinski: Creativity, Design, and Reality

May 13, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

Recently at a Gamasutra-attended event, Epic Games design director Cliff Bleszinski came to San Francisco to showcase Epic's latest title. Developed by its People Can Fly studio in Poland, Bulletstorm [YouTube trailer] is clearly the latest evolution of the fast-action, adrenaline-pumping shooters that the company -- and the studio -- is known for.

As the game is published by EA under its EA Partners program, it marks another major publisher collaboration for the studio, which currently works with Microsoft on the Gears of War series, which has been tremendously successful; Bleszinski is currently working on Gears of War 3 for an April 2011 release.

Tammy Schachter, senior director of corporate communications at EA, participated in the meeting as well, in which Bleszinski discusses the rise and evolution of the shooter genre, how best to work with talent, and the essential elements of shooter design.

I guess this is the first major project you guys have done with this studio since the acquisition.

Cliff Bleszinski: Mm-hm. Well, to be fair, PCF [People Can Fly] did greatly assist in the shipping of Gears PC.

Is this a concept that came through you guys? Is it a concept that came through them? Did you work collaboratively?

CB: Yeah. This wasn't a situation where I flew in in like a helicopter, like, [adopts gravelly voice] "It's called Bulletstorm, and it's about this." [meekly] "Oh, okay!"

No, it was not like that at all. One thing I've learned over the years is let the creatives do what they do, and this is very much driven creatively by PCF.

Given the background of the studio and the fact that you guys had acquired them, I had that sense. Epic is tactical about business but not in a mercenary way.

CB: You know, it's the whole thing where you try and make a business that's good and profitable, and then you don't want to become evil. We let PCF do what they do. We don't try and re-arrange their DNA on the project, right?

The shooter space, over the course of this generation, has become the predominant genre for core gamers. Is that a surprise to you? Is that what you were anticipating?

CB: I welcome it, because I'm primarily a shooter type of designer, as far as the kind of games that I do. I just think, I don't know if this is an American thing or if it's a global thing, there's just [adopts hick accent] somethin' about shooting things that's fun.

If you can nail that 30 seconds of gameplay -- Halo nailed it with, you know, throw a grenade at an enemy to soften him up, pepper him with shots, come in and finish with the melee, right. And I think that's what Bulletstorm is doing with their kick, slide, leash, and weaponry. I think we're nailing that, and I think we're on to something special there.

I think there are a lot of reasons it's popular, but I think one of the reasons is popular is because it's something that video games can do very well, right?

CB: Absolutely.


It's something that the toolsets that we have and the skill sets that designers have are well suited to. It comes together very well.

CB: Absolutely. Is that a question?

Yeah, well.

CB: Well, to be fair, I played through Heavy Rain and thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm glad that they're taking those types of narrative risks over at Quantic Dream, because I'm probably going to be making shooters for the next couple of years.

It's definitely great to see things like Heavy Rain, but at the same time, it's still great to see people explore existing things. Do you think that the genre still has room to really grow, expand, keep fresh?

CB: I've gone on record before, and I said the future of shooters are RPGs, and the shooters that I've liked the most lately are ones like BioShock, which had some light RPG elements, as well as Borderlands, which I continue to gush about, not only because it's our engine of course, but because Randy's a good friend of mine, and it's the kind of game I believe in.

Moving on from there, game developers have a way of cross-pollinating an immense amount. Gears was influenced by Resident Evil, then Resident Evil 5 was influenced by Gears. So, maybe you'll see elements from more RPGs, or Heavy Rain narrative style elements, start bleeding into the genre.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Alex Champandard
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Halo didn't just nail the "30 seconds" of fun concept, they defined it! See Griesemer and Butcher, at GDC 02, about the integration of AI and level design:

Jason Bakker
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Interesting interview! Always nice to pick the brains of a prominent game developer. Plus, he's so dreamy!

agostino priarolo
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Great and inspiring interview. Thank you.

Matthew Mouras
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"You will only lose money by assuming your customer is an idiot." - I love it. Right on. Great interview!

Bart Stewart
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“You will only lose money by assuming your customer is an idiot.” -- I agree, interesting comment... but I think it bears a closer look. There are different ways to assume that people aren’t very sharp.

While getting prettier over the past ten years of console dominance, I think it’s defensible to observe that games have also gotten simpler in the number and depth of their mechanics. (“Dumbed-down” if you’re a crochety old PC gamer; “made more accessible” if you prefer gaming on consoles.) Adventure games? Dead. RPGs? Dying. Console game developers have made decent money by assuming that most people prefer simple, repetitive, mindless action over content that asks you to exercise higher-order functions like thinking or feeling.

In that sense, customers *are* idiots -- game developers have assumed an ever-lower common denominator and have been rewarded for it. People see only what’s in front of them today; they don’t even realize the gameplay possibilities they’re missing out on because of their willingness to accept games with less and less depth. That some developers with a vested interest try to doublethink that loss into some kind of “progress” doesn’t deny it -- or excuse it. They’re treating customers like idiots and getting away with it.

Where the “less is better” philosophy fails is when you assume that you can give people broken stuff and they won’t notice. MMORPGs that launch with bugs in order to meet some arbitrary but inflexible ship date are a prime example of this form of “assuming the customer is an idiot.” Some suit decides that other things are more important than missing textures, missions that can’t be completed, and unbalanced mechanics. The developer then pays the predictable price for this error of judgment in bad reviews (and even harsher word-of-mouth) that causes people to avoid their game entirely.

The trick, apparently, is that you really can give people less and they’ll be satisfied -- as long as it works.

What happened to our expectations?

Ah, well. This was still a very good interview.

[User Banned]
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Bob Stevens
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Have you considered asking Will Wright and Warren Spector what they think about the IW situation yet? Because the under-informed opinions of people who really don't know what's going on (that is, all of us) are really interesting.

Matthew Perez
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"With great power, comes great responsibility."

This quote rings true with the state of contention in this interview. "That you cannot assume your audience are idiots."

As Designers and Creatives we are given the roles of creating these worlds and concepts for the audience to grapple with in a game environment. Through gameplay, sound, graphics we are able to achieve a level of immersion surpassed by none. However, that suspension of disbelief that is necessary in order to become full immersed ranges from person to person. Simply put, some have more imagination then others.

As Designers we are given great power to play games with our audience, toy with them, make them feel a certain way. However the threshold to have a hold on our audiences range from genre to genre, but once we have obtained that hold, it is simply what we do with it that will make our games great and unforgettable. I will agree, as the audiences broadens so do our ideas, they become stretched and watered down to fit the lowest common denominator. However, as Cliff soo aptly put, the brain is capable of such amounts of adaptation and integration into a system of thought that who are we to say that these "dumb." people can't learn hardcore gaming concepts? The trick as Designers is to lower that entry level and raised the Mastery level, and continually baiting the player with achievements and points to improve themselves to the upper level of thought.

You say any fumb duck can pick up MW2 and go to town, but how many times have I as a avid gamer have wandered into a lobby with fully ranked gun toaten "red-necks" in MW2 and got my ass handed to me, quite gracefully I might add. Who's to say these guys aren't skilled and critically thinking here? They are doing things with a system of mechanics few designers even thought of. The designers layed down the sand box for the children to build in, but when you first look at it, it is just sand of course. A sentiment Bungie has been taking with the Halo seriese and reach.

This goes to show the popularity of the shooter genre. It isn't that people are dumb, but simply less imaginative. It is harder to imagine looking at the back of someone running with a sword, or being some omniscient being looking down over a battle field barking orders a little men, that YOU are supposed to be that person, or at least think like, them than it is to simply be LOOKING through these people. There is simply less to believe about your perspective in the FPS world and easier to transplant yourself in the game environment. Thus the entry level is much much lower. Yes it is a road MUCH traveled, but if it aint broke don't fix it! Improve it!

So I would append cliffy's statement that "You will only lose money if you Underestimate your audience."

People can change and adapt, if the audience has broadened that the reach of more hardcore games will as well by the sheer fact that they are more accessible. If peoples are gullible. and will buy any shiny piece of crap then the expectations are already low, what better to blow them away with an awesome game and welcome them into the club then shut our doors to the gentlemen's club for the "gaming elite."

Educate the ill informed! They all have to start somewhere....

JB Vorderkunz
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people who lack twitch skills or quick tactical thinking shouldn't bash shooters - have fun with your turn based RPGs and MUDs, where you can brag about how much smarter you are than the 'average retard'. Believing that your preferred genre is superior to others is a matter of opinion - if you can't see the fun in FPSs, then don't design them, don't play them, and don't get snooty about the people who do those things. There are many many mediocre RPGs out there too; and navigating and controlling the character effectively in the average FPS is much more difficult than doing so in the average RPG. Also, inventory management is not exactly rocket science.

So, abandon your personal animosity to the FPS and see it for what it is, a dynamic and evolving genre OR let your bitterness shine through, it's whatever...

Aaron Truehitt
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Yup, a shooter just isn't all about "shooting" like some might think. There must be more interaction! Always!

Danny Pampel
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I love how I'm being called a retard because I like shooters. I've completed every Mario game that isn't on the Wii (will fix that soon), I've completed more adventures games than I can remember, most before I even had heard of a mouse as an input device but somehow liking shooters means I'm not a real gamer? That's a crock and you know it. I've shown game journalists who's the boss in Quake and Tekken and then had my head handed to me on a plate by a 12 year old at LAN tourney. Just because a lot of people like a specific genre doesn't mean it is the bottom of the barrel. I don't like baseball, American football as sports or video games but I don't go around slagging that market off.

[User Banned]
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Adam Bishop
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The idea that games are becoming "dumbed down" is so strange to me. Name me a popular SNES game with controls as complicated as Assassin's Creed? It takes three buttons to *run* and 4(!) to do platform jumping. Games are becoming less arbitrarily difficult (the original Ninja Gaiden wasn't hard because it was cleverly designed, it was hard because it was abitrary) but they're constantly getting more complex. Which game has more depth, Civ 1 or Civ 4? NHL 96 v.s. NHL 2010? Metal Gear Solid 1 v.s. Metal Gear Solid 4? Yes there are games that are simple to appeal to different audiences (which is a good thing!) but AAA major studio games are generally far more complex than they were 10-15 years ago.

Shay Pierce
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"Like when you first sat down and turned on a car and got used to driving, it was very, very scary. And then before you know it, like five years later or however much later, you're on your phone texting, going 90 miles an hour on the highway, changing lanes while eating a cheeseburger."

I think we need a follow-up interview asking CliffyB to clarify exactly what highways he's driving on like this, so that we all know not to ever ever get anywhere near them.

Good interview. :)

Danny Pampel
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@Bob, why don't you just send us more links for Zero Punctuation or maybe even lolcats seeing as that seems to be where you get your information from for forming your own opinions.

You're exactly the kind of elitist snob that gives games a bad name and the kind of moron that shoots his mouth off online calling people hackers or n00bs because they just killed you in whatever game you're hating on at that moment.

I certainly don't like 99.99% of casual games and the kind of shovelware that has proliferated the Wii but I can see why others do, and that is fine for them, just not for me.

While you're crying over the fact that your IQ is too high for Mass Effect I'll be busy having fun playing whatever game I feel like because I actually enjoy gaming. I've been playing for over 30 years and I hope I will still get enjoyment out of games in another 30 years. I'm hoping you'll have moved on to taking your frustrations out on new school knitters who don't know how it used to be back in the days of knit one, pearl one by then or lambasting people for using tupperware when all the cool kids know that you need a retro He-Man lunch box to keep your PB&J sandwiches (with crusts cut off) in.

Kirk Williams
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I agree, great interview - but guys let's keep the discussions civil. In order to a good game designer you have to respect other people's opinion and be open to all genre's.

Simon T
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I don't think FPS's are unique in being dumb fun. Kinda describes almost every game in existence don't it?

Stephen Chin
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I agree with Mr. Bishop; it doesn't seem like things are getting less complex but rather that designers are getting better at how the mechanics are introduced, used, and merged in the final gameplay. The complexity of Ninja Gaiden (to use his example) would have remained the same if it didn't require you to do as many things at once even though the gameplay would have been 'dumbed down'. Likewise, as a prominent exception, the Madden series has become incredibly more complex than any predecessor and we'd hardly dismiss that title/series as some niche genre.

I think part of the matter is the same thing that happens in any industry. We has designers, as an audience, have simply gotten older/more experience and more so, done so when the language we use (in design, in gameplay) was being formed. We had to learn the language as we defined it (what button is best to have your primary action on? How should camera controls work? When you have two analog sticks, how should control be split between them? The answer is pretty obvious now... but not so much back then) For the younger/newer/less experienced gamer and audience, they just have to learn the language. The conventions are already there for them. They're walking into an established world. It doesn't mean it isn't any less difficulty only that the tools they use have just gotten better, the tutorials more extensive. There's always going to be that audience of the super-hardcore, super-niche purist as in any sort of industry (creative, industrial, or whatever)... but they're not the only audience and it would be silly to think that their way is the only correct answer for everybody. Or that pure tradition makes it correct any more than pure innovation makes it better.

Many pasta sauces for many people, as it were.

Bart Stewart
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A quick follow-up, since I expressed the opinion that games are getting simpler.

1. "Complex" is not an antonym for "easy" any more than "simple" is the opposite of "hard." Just as Tetris is both simple *and* hard, a gameworld can have real depth in its dynamics without necessarily being hard to play for the average gamer. Asking for interesting world-systems that stimulate the brain and a narrative that engages the heart is in no way the same thing as wanting a "hard" game.

2. Mechanics are not the game; they're just the interface. My assertion is that the *dynamic world* of games -- the set of possible interactions a player can have with the gameworld -- has been in decline over the past ten years or so as the primary design environment for games has shifted away from the PC's processor, upgradable GPU, and memory space. I freely acknowledge that there are some exceptions to this... but they are exceptions. Games like Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2 had large world areas, but they still simplified what the player could do compared to where we were starting to go by the late '90s. Even BioWare simplified Mass Effect 2 compared to their own original game.

Deep games aren't for everyone, any more than everybody loves pure action-oriented shooters. But there are audiences for both kinds of game. So the question is, why are we seeing fewer of the former and more of the latter?

If games really are getting deeper rather than simpler, why isn't a sharp designer like Cliff B. making the kind of RPG-driven game with plenty of dynamic options he says he likes, rather than highly-polished but linear shooters where the only "interesting choice" is which gun to use?

Luis Guimaraes
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I'm totally with Bart here.

I like both action oriented games to play quick 10 minute matches while waiting the time to head work (My beloved FPSs), and deeper games about player style/authoring in which you can play with the game instead of just play the game (yeah... Bioshock in the last years, and virtually any stealth game). And also like games that play with you instead (Alan Wake here I go).

But many of my friends that like games often don't realize what to do in these games, just keep asking "where shall I go now?" and "whats the road?"... I think, if people need guidance to do things, they might need so to know that they can make their own choices and have their own style. High budget titles are market oriented after all, it takes a smart move to put such a game there today.

Rob Schatz
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Bart, I love your comments and you've been incredibly helpful to me in the past with regard to directing me to some good sources on game design (i.e., The Design of Everyday Things).

However, I do have to disagree with you when you say that game play mechanics aren't everything. I feel they are the yin to the game concept's yang, different yet inseparable and complimentary to one another.

Take for example, Batman: Arkham Asylum. In certain scenes, you have to glide clear across a huge room. Yet, your instincts are saying "Don't Do It! You'll Get Hurt!" with all their breath. And you HAVE TO do it in order to move forward in the game. The net result is an adrenaline rush akin to the Leaps of Faith in Assassin's Creed.

But it's more than just an adrenaline rush. It goes deeper for me - it's gaining insight into the life this character lives - this is what it means to be Batman, to be an Assassin, to have to do these seemingly impossible things.

Btw for readers out there, Batman was built in Unreal Engine 3 and is an innovative approach to taking a primarily FPS development platform and making it that much more - thank you Rocksteady!

To everyone complaining that people who don't like FPS's have no idea what they're missing, it's not that we don't like FPS as much as pickles on a peanut butter sandwich. To me it's that companies like EA get to say what the dominant kind of gaming genre is. They have a near monopoly and true there's Activision/Blizzard but it's like living in small town where the mayor is also the sheriff, the hotel owner, the car, EA is trying to own us through our entire life-cycle of owning the games we shelled out $59.99 for, not including DLC.

Simon T
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@ Rob

EA don't determine the 'dominant gaming genre'. Consumers do.

@ Bart

Mechanics are the sole vehicle of player expression in games, not just the interface.

Bart Stewart
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Rob, that's a perfectly fair perspective. In the interest of brevity, I didn't expand my comment on mechanics, but I had a feeling someone would feel I was giving it short shrift.

What I didn't say, but what I feel, is that mechanics certainly do matter. They're "just" the interface between the player and the gameworld, but the nature and elegance of that interface can (as you pointed out) make a big difference. A game where every possible interaction has a different randomly-assigned mechanic will feel very different from a game where similar interactions are designed to share an appropriate mechanic. A good mechanics designer, by making the interface to the gameworld minimal and consistent, can make an enormous difference in the "flow" of the play experience.

I actually agree that designers over the past decade have gotten fairly sophisticated at providing concise gameplay mechanics. What I was trying (badly in this case) to say was that I think mechanics in games these days are mostly OK and don't need help -- it's the lack of depth in gameworlds, in the range of interesting things that we as players can do with those mechanics, that I think we've been losing for years without even realizing it.

I'd love to see someone like Clint Hocking or Cliff Bleszinski or Warren Spector (once he's done with Epic Mickey) put together a game that offers a truly broad but coherent set of gameplay actions that challenge not just the hands and glands but hearts and minds as well. I'd pay good money for a deep game where what I can do isn't limited to various "kill it and take its stuff" setpieces but feels like a living, breathing *world* in which I can solve different kinds of problems in different ways.

I hope some day good designers will get back to making more games like that, whether as shooters or sneakers or group-RPGs or some mix of all those.

Kostas Yiatilis
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first off calling fps games for retards shows how little you have played both single player and multiplayer fpss. If coordinating a team of 8-12 people against a team of 8-12 other people is not complex for you , I would really like you to show me what is a complex mechanic for you. In FPS games this happens constantly, every game has it's own tactical problems and when you finally think you mastered all the levels and all the ways to get through an area another team comes in and shows you a different way to play the game.

You also obviously haven't played any of the various modes that come with an FPS game. Skill building, inventory managing and perfectionist quest completion are things I also like, I usually have to skip the dialog because it is so cheesy or the acting is lame to the point I can't stand it. I also sometimes can't stand the predictability of the stories. I understand it is difficult to make a game that large, because I have also designed games). I would also like to see a mechanic that required some skill as in MW2 for instance, I think that is what ME2 tried to do.

Ideally the perfect game for us would have a great story, FPS controls and RPG level of character development, in which all elements would be perfectly balanced and various mechanics would be implemented to make game-play interesting and fresh throughout the game, but let's be honest: can you do all that in 2 years? Will you get a project like that green-lit? I know that only getting this stuff written down will take more than a year with a team of 3 people.

Then you will have to understand that every new mechanic you introduce will need a mini tutorial to explain, then at least 3 levels of complexity to say you have developed it somewhat. Do you know how many game levels that requires? How complex it makes them - cos you don't have to forget about the initial mechanics of your game (platform, shooter, whatever) ? Do you know how many game-play hours you will end up with in the end?

Well just adding a special ability to 2 main characters will cover your budget, your game-play hours budget and your gamers ability to follow the story while playing the game and having to juggle the new mechanics he has at his disposal. The fact is that a game with all that you ask for will take too long to develop, will be too long to finish and in the end the gamers might not see the game.

It took us more than 5 years and we didn't finish - also due to some poor management decisions and the financial crisis creeping in and that game didn't even have stat development, just interesting new game mechanics and abilities that had to be explored. In the end we should have made it a shooter and told the story we spent so many years developing instead of making sure all those new mechanics were developed with a mini tutorial and difficulty arch....

Finally don't forget about technology, 2-3 years is manageable, more is like shooting blindfolded, you have to adapt to new methods for asset production arising all the time, new tech, new hardware, it's not that it is impossible, but who is going to juggle and why? Why? When you can make a shooter with one new mechanic and explore that one in one game, polish it and deliver a final experience to the player that will only make him ask for a sequel?

Dave Parks
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Any 5yo can run around "chatting" with hundreds of NPC's, attacking roided-up chickens or space-wombats or walking plants or whatever as they stroll along their merry little way to whatever next boring "quest", in order to upgrade his little armor, poofy magic spells, or nonsensical manawhatchamacallit - Big flipping deal; now try going online with *real* people, many of whom are actually versed in the real-world weapons of their virtual online counterparts, who not only are just sitting there waiting, actually relishing the idea of stalking and gunning your avatar down, but talk all sorts of smack whilst doing so - THEN you can cop your hoity-toity tudes and climb on your high-horses - until then, how about S'ingTFU about Shooters whilst your little man goes on attacking the next stupid NPC or is out "questing" for his next little (ahem) magic staff or cloak and rare coin or gem, and leave the *real* gaming to *real* Men. LOL!!

Rob Schatz
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@DaveParks, by "real people" you must mean all of the 12-year-olds playing Halo at this very moment pretending to be adults by cursing and shouting racial epithets.

I doubt half, ok - that was optimistic, Let me start again. Less than 1/2 of 1% of FPS players know how to fire a real rifle. And by "versed in the real-world counterparts" do you mean i can go to my local pawn shop and pick up a shock rifle from UT3? SWeeet!

Speaking of "gunning avatars down," you were probably n00b-meat in WoW pvp highlands and have finally found a way to gripe about it. On a website discussion board, how original. I guess it takes more than a 5-year-old to do that, eh? :)

Dru Bagaloo
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There's nothing wrong with liking shooters and I don't get the impression they're getting dumber. The FPS genre has advanced in some very interesting directions over the past few years while still retaining various flavours of play. Stalker, TF2, Borderlands, ArmA, Portal, PlanetSide, Section 8, Far Cry 2, BioShock, Crysis, Left 4 Dead, ... nothing is alike and even the "regular" not-always-too-innovative blockbusters à la Gears of War or CoD can be fun and have some depth in multiplayer, if not then in the sheer amount of online community features they provide (cfr. Halo 3).

The problem here is that it often seems there's only a market for shooters or action games out there and that a lot of other genres are getting an indie-only, niche label from the industry in general. Why on earth shouldn't there be as much enthusiasm for a turnbased sequel to X-Com as for the recently revealed FPS hybrid of 2K Games for example? It wouldn't be illogical to suspect that the upcoming Syndicate remake by EA/Starbreeze will follow the same FPS treatment just because shooters have never before received so much attention as now. Is it even possible for a turnbased strategy game to get a cover from a major written games magazine in these times?

It's a responsibility of sites like this one to get the word out that games can be more than that, regardless of platform, IP, which big publisher supports it or not and definitely regardless of whatever some financial analyst thinks about it. If every game has to turn into a big action game ready to sell at least a million copies then we're doing something very, very wrong. We're already in a time where plenty of multiplatform media outlets can't provide proper coverage for strategy games for example, except of course when it's about big-name anomalies like StarCraft II. Even certain types of games that seem to be making a comeback (like adventure games) don't get the chance to get back up again between the media storms of the same big boys. What a pity.

marty howe
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I think 'retard' might be too strong. Consumers just want to shoot things because its fun. Developers keep creating those experiences and putting them on store shelves; if I want to play a shooter, there isn't really much varied choice.

I think shooters need to grow up.

We need to inject some style, class and sophistication into the action genre. Audiences have grown up, but we're still treating consumers like children and giving them lame stories, 1 dimensional muscle bound protaganists, simple weapons, simple enemies, simple objectives.

I think we can do better. Half life series is a good example, elegant presentation, strong story, cool action.