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A 15-year-old critique of the game industry that's still relevant today
A 15-year-old critique of the game industry that's still relevant today Exclusive GDMag Exclusive
June 5, 2013 | By J.C. Herz




"The game business has succumbed to High Concept Disease."
The more things change, the more they stay the same. In a column just as true today as it was at the time of its writing, this reprint from the February 1998 issue of Game Developer magazine by game designer J.C. Herz blasts the industry conservatism and the retreading of familiar ideas.

Like most people who write about digital entertainment, I get a blizzard of press releases every month from game developers. The releases usually go something like this:

First, there is is an exclamatory headline, in ALL CAPS and punctuated by lots of exclamation marks, announcing that this product is the Next Big Thing. The release proceeds with a couple of paragraphs about how the game is a breakthrough in its genre and loads of turbo-charged prose about the technology: game engine, pixel count, graphic virtuosity, and so on, and so on. And this is supposed to get me really excited about the game. But more often, it reminds me of that scene in Big, where Tom Hanks, playing a kid trapped inside an adult's body, looks at the prototype of a really complicated, expensive toy and says, "I don't get it. What's fun about that?"

I mean, sure, everyone likes pretty graphics. But at the end of the day, if it's just another Doom clone, who cares? You can pack more pixels onto the screen, but if there's nothing original in the game play, if the game harbors no independent spirit or innovative design, there's nothing to brag about. It seems as though the authoring tools are getting more and more powerful, and designers are getting more and more lazy. Anyone can talk about advances in modeling, voxels, antialiasing, and all the rest of it. But do those technical statistics make a game any more fun? Have we made any serious breakthroughs in game play since the arcade salad days of the 1980s? Have we made any quantum leaps, fun-wise? Is Postal any more thrilling than Robotron? I think not. It's just better looking.

Which is why all of us wax nostalgic for the "classics," I suppose. Because fifteen years ago, graphics pretty much sucked. So you damn well better have had some heart-pounding game play. Because if it wasn't inherently, structurally fun, you were nowhere. The extreme limits of the available technology forced programmers to actually think, to bang their heads against the wall about game design. And look what we got: Pac-Man, Tempest, Defender, Asteroids, Galaga. Games that arguably stand up to the orgies of texture-mapping and merchandising currently available. Because it was impossible for games of that era to coast on eye candy and a great marketing campaign. The standards for innovative game play, in a very real sense, were higher. Those games were more different from each other than today's. Because apparently, the game business has succumbed to High Concept Disease, transmitted in some nasty backroom encounter with Hollywood ("Yeah, it's like Myst meets... Ridge Racer. Tomb Raider... with an Asian chick. It's like Mortal Kombat... with a twist.") Inevitably, that's what happens when the financial stakes rise to a certain level and the payroll balloons. But it's sad to see an industry this young in a rut this deep.

After all, this is no time to be conservative. At the moment, everyone with a couple of SGI workstations is piling onto an audience that's completely saturated. Adolescent boys only have so much allowance money to spend, and there are dozens of Doom imitators squeezing them for it. You can't just turn up the attitude -- we've hit the ceiling, attitudinally, and it's called Duke Nukem. It's time to turn a corner. Given that the market is sclerotically glutted, this industry's long-term survival requires that game developers code their way out of the friggin' box. And that doesn't mean hauling out a stack of market research that says the female market is underserved or that there's a exploitable niche of retirees with personal computers. This isn't about dragging out the Ouija board to determine what will sell. It's about forgetting the formulas for a second, maybe even turning off your computer, staring out the window (if you have a window), taking a trip, or maybe like, reading a book.

It's a vision thing. Everyone's looking for inspiration in the same places. Look elsewhere. Everyone's taking the same risks. Take some different risks. You'll make mistakes, but they'll be new mistakes. Interesting mistakes. They'll teach you stuff. No one can learn anything new cranking out another "Mech" title. (I await a barrage of venomous e-mail from incensed "Mech" animators -- hit me with your best shot.)

There is so much talent out there -- odds are that if you're reading this, you're a highly creative person who, instead of engineering database software or going to law school, chose to work on video games. It was an insane and inspired choice. You have no excuse to be conventional. If you're reading this, you probably fell in love with video games because they were incredibly thrilling and fun and unlike anything else you'd experienced. So you have no excuse to stamp out cookie-cutter products. If you're reading this, you probably spent a lot of time learning to use highly specialized, arcane technical skills. Why use that hard-won expertise just to showcase new technology? The technology is not of prime importance. It's only important because it allows you to express your vision, which is the real point. It's not about tools.

Which is to say: Ask not what the medium can do for you...


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Comments


Ardney Carter
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Interestingly enough, we could use another Mech game right about now...

Erin OConnor
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Hawken?
http://www.playhawken.com/

Mech Warrior?
http://mwomercs.com/landingpad

Kujel s
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@Erin... that's not f2p!

Ardney Carter
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Erin, I've played both. Spent far more time with MWO. Nevertheless, they do not represent all that can be done with the concept and I stand by my comment. We could use another Mech game.

Eric McVinney
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We need another Armored Core title.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Apparently you just got your wish. Titanfall was just (inadvertently) announced :)

Ardney Carter
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@Ramin I was scanning the headlines a moment ago and couldnt help but smile when I saw the title :)

Granted, I have no plans to get an XB1, but it's still fun to see.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Max Haberstroh
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I dunno if 'rut' applies to platformers in the indie scene.

They're common for sure, but I see that as the point. Everybody grows up playing platformers, so playing on their simplicity and those uniquely ingrained expectations is more effective.

You wouldn't see this trend in something less universal, like RTSs, because the departure from universal structures is the point.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Kyle McBain
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@ Brion, I like what you are saying except platformer doesn't equate to a camera angle. It is a type of gameplay.

But you are right in saying it is way too broad and their are many other types of indie titles out there.

And I like how indies are re-inventing all while being influenced by gaming roots. I think it is good for the industry. I don't get turned on by indie titles but I think they are important as a case study. Not to diminish anyone else who does like them. I think that's great it's just not the reason why I turn my PC or console on.

Kyle McBain
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there are*

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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So, like, did Gamasutra run out of topic to write about so they need to microwave something from 1998?

Kris Graft
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With the closure of Game Developer magazine, we'll be keeping its spirit alive by running older content from the mag. Partly for nostalgia's sake, partly because some things are interesting and relevant, even if they're years old. Some of this stuff offers nice perspective.

Also, we've run a dozen "new" stories so far today, if you'd like to read one of those!

kg

Kujel s
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This is more relevent today then it was in 98, very good read, thanks for posting.

Kevin Fishburne
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Couldn't agree more if I had written it myself. One of the main differences between then and now though is the scale of investment in creating a game (a AAA game, anyway). More money means fewer risks will be taken. They have shareholders to please and such.

I think the glut of platformers out of the indie scene is more due to the fact that the design is accessible from a dev's standpoint. It's arguably easier to create a platformer than many other types of games. 2D graphics are "cheaper" and aren't shocking to players, yet there is still near infinite creative opportunity for mechanics and story.

Something else to consider is that the industry is now "over the hill", worldwide and immense. Dev toolsets, languages and operating systems are robust and often free. Everyone and their mom is making games. I compare it to the current state of novels. So many have been written and so many new ones are published every day that it is a sea of entertainment no one has the time to fully enjoy. Good luck writing the next groundbreaking, classic novel cherished for generations. Gaming has become a victim of its own success in this respect.

Tony Dormanesh
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This article from '98 is pretty hilarious.. Not because the games business sat on it's ass for 15 years and is still stuck with "High Concept Disease", no creativity and game designers are still "lazy", cranking out Doom clones.

It's because people still sit here complaining about the same crap.

All I hear when I read articles like this is, "How come I don't like games as much as I did when I was a kid?!?!"

I say, "It's your fault for getting old and bitter, not realizing it and blaming the world."

The icing on the cake would've been the author proclaiming that PC gaming is dying and this is the last generation of consoles.

This article was written pre: Portal, Left 4 Dead, WoW, Minecraft, Angry Birds, etc. Bunches of entire new genres have been birthed, squeezed, refined and perfected. To say game developers are lazy and out of ideas is itself an old and lazy argument. I'm sure we can find an article from the mid 80s saying the same thing about Pac Man clones.

There's a sea of awesome-ness being created every day, it's your fault if you're too lazy to find it. Sure giant publishers are a fresh spring of non-creative ideas; they, by nature are risk averse and 13 years after this article you can change the word "Doom Clones" to "Call of Duty Clones". True. But someone innovates the ideas that they steal and mindlessly crush...

I love gaming and every year it gets better I think. Reading 13 years of articles saying the same thing gets older than playing 13 years of better and better Halo games.

Michael Joseph
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@Tony Dormanesh

I think people who are a bit dismayed at mainstream titles are expressing a sense that the industry could be doing better.

What if 13 years of articles saying the same thing has inspired developers to fill the sea of awesome-ness you enjoy today?

Indeed, some of the people who are writing these articles (and/or agree with them) have created the games you're alluding to.

EDIT: but i think you are right that there are a lot of gems out there.
---
As to your first point, there are people who play 20 year old games that were mainstream games in their day who don't play the mainstream games created today. So I think there is an objective difference in the quality (can of worms here) of yesterday's mainstream games and today's. And I think its perfectly natural for people to lament this fact and to wish they could share the same quality of games they played in their younger days with today's younger gamers.

Curtiss Murphy
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Tell it like it is Tony! Since she wrote this article, the industry was flipped on its head by massive changes, including the Wii and iOS/Android. No one had even played Guitar Hero, or Journey, or Sims (?), or Little Inferno, or Super-Hexagon!

The magic-kid may have died inside of old-cynics like her, but creativity is far from dead.

James Tien
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Great read. Thanks for digging it out.
I recently considered to leave my current employer because our 2013 BIG PLAN is to be a "FAST FOLLOWER". Please, I'm not join this business to learn how to be an extremely efficient copycat.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Going back to say 1980 and then thinking forward the next 33 years, I think in general the focus in early games was on design, since technology was in its infancy. I think single player games really hit their zenith around 1996 with games like X-COM, Masters of Magic, Masters of Orion, Command and Conquer, Diablo, Heroes of Might and Magic 2, etc. I'm not big on shooters but there were probably some great ones then like Doom 2.

Then came Ultima Online and the ability to play with other people, a lot of other people, really transformed the industry. Everquest, Dark Ages of Camelot, Anarchy Online, EVE Online, World of Warcraft just kept pushing the envelope to eye popping levels.

Then IGE happened, and the parasitic effects of what I call RMT3 (gold farmers) just dragged the industry down and killed off numerous online games. The industry reacted by moving to microtransactions and limiting economic activity in games, thereby killing most of the social interaction.

Just as we were recovering from IGE we ended up with pay to win and skinner box based game design. Things got even worse.

So I would say that at the time the OP was complaining about design laziness, we were in the middle of the design renaissance for our industry. What came after wasn't just design laziness from 2005 on, it was business model laziness, and actions that became increasingly hostile to our consumers.

So I would say this article would actually be much more appropriate today than it was in 1998, as Kujel said. That said, I'm under NDA with a lot of progressive studios and I can tell you that with the passing of Zynga the near future is looking like a second gaming renaissance, at least from what people have been showing me. I've been publishing game reviews since 2001, and honestly what is in the pipe is really innovative, not just emulative.

Craudimir Ascorno
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I think it is all beautiful to say that developers should do new things never attempted before and all, but when you see the sales charts and the game reviews, trying to be very original is a risk most companies cannot bear.

We hear about five or ten "indies" that made it each year, but we don't hear anything but silence or undeserved assessment of the works of hundreds or thousands of game makers that don't get any reward for their efforts, and have to face the situation of doing something that will appeal to the masses (i.e. more of the same), or losing their jobs.

Art doesn't blend well with mass market (we have seen the same thing on film, literature, music, etc), and keep pushing the "you gotta be original" motto when the market knows that it is almost a death sentence on the business side will not change anything today as it hasn't changed anything 15 or 30 years ago. Idealism is beautiful, but it doesn't put any food on people's plates in this capitalist world.

Michael Joseph
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art does blend with mass market, but people have to step up to art and be expected to do so because everyone is capable.

Mass entertainment products on the other hand meet people where they are and then keep them there. In fact they suppress desires to become better (healthier, more open minded, more analytical thinkers, more curious and knowledgeable, etc) people. They view people in the worst possible light and they have no expectations of them beyond that.

so you can very easily get the majority of people to appreciate and seek out art.... but... probably not if there are competitors selling products that exploit the reptilian brain. Pizza out sells broccoli.

Kelly Johnson
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I'm old. I have been gaming steadily since the early 70's and I have worked as an animator in games since the 16 bit era. I remember this article. It was a much different gaming world (mid to late 90's). It was all about the genres and the term "triple A" didn't even exist. Also, a huge leap in graphics and game size was made in a short period due to the introduction of the internet, Windows 95, CD-ROMs, and 3d software like 3D Studio. I went from painting with pixels to 3d modeling/texturing/animation in the span of one game.

It was an exciting time to be in gaming. I remember this article and I also remember that a lot of us didnt agree with it at the time. Yes, there was a lot of copying of hit titles but you had way more hit titles and originals back then. From 1995-1998 I can think of many great games across a wide range of genres...Dark Forces, Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo, Command and Conquer, Tomb Raider, NHL 95, Gabriel Knight 2, Resident Evil, Myth the Fallen Lords, Microsoft Flight Simulator, Soul Caliber, Goldeneye 007, Mario Karts 64, Full Throttle, Ultima Online, Sid Meier's Civilization 2, Mech Warrior 2, Half Life, Grand Theft Auto, Descent, Grim Fandango, Fallout, Final Fantasy VII, Rainbow Six, Bladerunner (adventure game), Duke Nukem 3D, Carmageddon, Quake, Metal Gear Solid, Motocross Madness (a Microsoft game!), Thief, Age of Empires, Dungeon Keeper....and these are just the games I played.

There were plenty of bad games too but it is probably my favorite period of gaming. There were so many different types of games, even games that used FMV for the entire game!

Ramin Shokrizade
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I'm old too, and (as I posted) my experience is similar. A lot of great lessons were learned in this time that would be hard to learn in the current environment. Recently the focus seems to have been more on immersion than design, and mobile is undermining the whole value of immersion focus.

TC Weidner
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even games that used FMV for the entire game
--------------------------------

Ok I'll admit it, I actually enjoyed night Trap. I know it wasnt, and probably still isnt cool to admit that, but hey I did. To be honest I really could appreciate what they were trying to do, and I found I played it and other sega cd titles quite a bit back then. I would actually enjoy seeing some more new attempts at FMV games now with all the new horsepower etc, it sure would beat playing a FPS War game number 56383927387.

Kyle McBain
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I don't know why, but I really loved Grim Fandango haha. Maybe it was because it was so comical. All those other games were pretty amazing too. I am not so old and wonder if I liked those games so much and still do because I was young and now they have that nostalgia attached or because they are well designed. I think it is because they are well designed and this comment confirms that.

Matt Wilson
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It's amazing how many of us remember the mid-90's as a golden age for gaming.

max bowman
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Technology in the nineties has developed to a point where you could do pretty complex scenarios fluently that you couldn't do in earlier times. Plus the birth of 3D gaming, RTS, fighting games, fps, driving simulation. Nineties were the time of innovation and complexity in gaming. The Nineties were a golden age of gaming because of the explosion in processing power. Once we gotten to the millennium, there were fewer and fewer innovations due to the fact that tech hasn't advanced that much since the nineties. Compare a game from 1990 to a game in 2000. Now compare a game from 2000 to a game from 2010.

Sure great and innovative games came out, but in smaller number and with lesser innovations.

John Ehresmann
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This is actually something that I've been saying for a few years now. Me and my friends started to do youtube videos reviewing E3' and all that other kind of stuff, and the big thing I've always kind of harped on, and still do now is that games can look as pretty as you want them to look, but right now we're at a point where there's like 6 big titles dropping a month that...well if you're not trying to be different, then you're going to lose your audience.

I think that that's why the indie game genre has kind of picked up the way it has. They're not trying to be like one another, mostly, and are doing everything in their power to try and recapture that magic that we all had growing up. I definitely do think we're at a point where it's time to take a step back and look for what can we offer, that's new to the community, as opposed to trying to recreate the magic that others have already captures.

It's truly amazing to think that this article is 15 years old, because it's still so relevant to today's climate of games.

Kyle McBain
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Relevant in terms of what's mainstream. If you look at games coming out right now as a whole the market is far more diverse than realized.

That's a good point though about how many Triple A titles are dropping each month. I look at it as a good thing. I have a life outside of gaming. I work as an engineer in the automotive industry and have a social life so when I get into a game if it doesn't really capture me the first 2-3 hrs I play it I usually move onto something else. I have a hard time investing emotion when I know there are several other big studio games out there that could be interesting too.

John Ehresmann
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Yea, in terms of the 'mainstream' games it's not really diverse, while there are differently diverse experiences out there, you just have to really look for them.

I own a Vita, and a PS3, as well as game on my PC and have the pleasure of enjoying a variety of experiences. Whether it's a title like Gravity Rush or something fun, and exciting like Rayman Origins.

To me, the biggest triumph of Ubisoft isn't Watchdogs, but their making Rayman a fun title to play again. I was immediately captivated by the bright art style, that drew me in and sucked me up.

For a long while, the on going joke between me and my friends was a game wasn't complete until there was a sufficient amount of orange and brown in it. Games like Heavy Rain are great, because they're different from the norm. As a student right now, trying to save money up to move and be closer to the game industry, I can't afford to go out and drop $40-$60 4 times a month, in fact I've had to cut back my game buying a lot in recent years.

It's become one of those situations where December has become a nightmare if you're someone who tries to play everything, because so many games are packed into that tight window, and it defeats the purpose to a point of trying to release games in that window, because now you're trying to compete with like 10 other games in that holiday window, that have a similar target audience.

Sorry if some of this comes off as a bit of a tangent, or ranting a bit, been talking about so much different stuff on various outlets that I've been resorted to chaos...okay that's just an excuse for typing as I think and not thinking as i type...

Kyle McBain
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Thanks for the reply!

Austin Keller
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I agree with the article, but I see a problem. The games industry is still a business, and if consumers are going to keep purchasing certain games, they will be created. Game developers don't control the market, the consumers do, just like any other industry. Consumers are starting to want newer games... different games, so now you're starting to see a rise in indie developers. People are starting to sacrifice graphics for something different, IMO.

I think things will start to change, slowly. There is a rise of support for indies. Steam Greenlight, PS4, OUYA, and Nintendo is even jumping on to the band-wagon. The industry has been dominated by BIG studios, who were investing HUUUUGGEE amounts of money into a game and couldn't afford the risk of trying out a brand new mechanic; indies usually have that luxury.

Again, just my 2cents based on my inexperience.

max bowman
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I would like to point out the double edged sword of innovation when it comes to gaming.

First there's the technology ceiling. You can't make a Grand Theft Auto game in 1990 cause then you get this
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Ix9iD64pV4

Thats a generation before doom came out, let alone the slow progression to GTA type of interactivity.

The other one is innovation in itself is a rare thing, except in the beginning. It's easy to innovate in the beginning because there no previous works to be judged or measured against. Once you invent the first person shooter, how much further can you innovate given that's birth of virtual reality. (in a sence it is) Any other innovation is going to have replace something that works really, really well. Once you create doom, what else is there to innovate, ok real 3d environements, 3d characters and not sprites, storytelling, physics, per pixel lighting. What then. And don't forget every innovation is going to be smaller and smaller just because you're building on the firmament of interactive gaming and not every brick is going to be part of the load bearing column. You don't just pull innovation out of thin air, it's all about opportunity and at times this opportunity is rare.

I think we're at a rut because a lot of genres and innovations have been done and at this point we're waiting for some technological breakthrough to give us some gas to invent more interesting games.

I do believe that tech is what guides a lot of the gaming scenarios we have today. We're in a FPS rut because that's the technological limit of interactivity. Once the Occulus Rift takes over we're going to be in the golden age of sitting in a virtual cockpit while driving our mechs, cars, scooters through a virtual arena. Then we get real power gloves and we're in a golden age of wheelchair accessible adventure, once that onmi treadmill takes over we're in a Holodeck territory.

Needless to say we're in a rut right now, how many trully classic games can you name that came out in the last three years?

Innovation is still out there, but it's harder to achieve due to all that's been achieved.

As they say, there's nothing new under the sun.

John Ehresmann
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I'd agree while disagreeing if that makes any sense.

I don't think that there's nothing new that can be done, I think it's that there's not much that can be done 'safely.' It's hard to be innovative on a AAA level, because every studio is one massive failure away from going bankrupt, look at THQ. They took a big gamble with udraw, and lost.

I think that there's a lot of innovation that could be done, but studios can't afford to take that risk, and even if they wanted to, they have to first get publishers to LET them. We're in an era where gamers are afraid of innovation, and are afraid of change in a lot of ways, and I don't say that as a derogatory way, I say that as someone who's worked at Gamestop, and hangs around gamers all day, every day.

When I was 10 years old, I actually envisioned a future where games were played like the Kinect is now. I had this vision for a Dragon Ball fighting game, that would be played using something that would pick up the players movements, and the player would actually have to say voice commands to make it work, and if parents wanted their kids to workout some more even have some Fitness programs built into it.

My friends laughed at me, here we are now and I'm 26 years old, and that kind of stuff is now possible...The point of this is that back then they said that wouldn't be possible, because people wanted controllers, and today people still follow that notion. They legitimately sit there, everytime I've ever tried to talk about motion gaming and say "Just give me a controller in my hand, I don't want to do motion."

The majority of people I've spoken to, have had that kind of thought process, which makes it incredibly hard to really make use of a bunch of the tools that are out there now, because no matter how innovative it may be, there's that chance that a lot of people simply won't 'get it,' which is something that could be devastating for a company. I assure you, the opportunities are there, if they weren't then games like Journey wouldn't be held in such high regard as they are.

I just think the most of the innovation we're going to see from here on out, is going to be from the Indie devs, and then adopted by the AAA titles, at least in large part. If you're on that AAA scale, they want surefire hits, they don't want something that has the potential to blow up in their face, now more than ever. When games like Kingdoms of Amalur can sell 4 Million units, and be considered a failure, publishers won't take huge risks, it's the reality of being in a world where games cost what they do to make.


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