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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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