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The Pool of Gaming Familiarity

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In the last decade, video games have become more and more like movies than their old-age makers could ever have even thought of. We have games like Halo 2 which are so big, expensive, and popular that it can generate more money in a single day than any blockbuster movie could ever hope to bring in on its opening day. One thing that is becoming really hard to do with modern games, though, is making a really "good" game; and, by good, I mean fun to play and experience. The actual source of this challenge is certainly debatable, whether it's because developers are really out of fresh ideas, or that publishers don't want to take any risks with new games for fear of not heavily profiting from it, but one thing that is for sure: games have the technology to be far, far better than some of the crap that's actually being released these days.

These days, a lot of games are all about two, maybe three, things:
  • Franchises: These are games that, while maybe innovative in the first place, become so common-place in their own name brand, that a number of other games feel the need to copy aspects of the game in its own drive "to be popular." Every developer feels the need to always make a sequel when one of their big games has success, which is something I really don't blame them for, but just because this new game may be a sequel does not mean that it has to be the first game's identical twin plus graphics engine upgrade. For the love of God, guys, let's show some originality. The best sequels, in my eyes, are the ones that flop (or have extreme success, but if I said this first, you wouldn't read the next sentence). A flop of a sequel means that the developers tried very different things, and these things failed miserably; similarly for successful sequels, though they fared far better.

    Examples of what I mean here are Civilization 3 (flop), DOOM 3 (success in my eyes, mostly a flop in others), Grand Theft Auto 3 (huge success), Half-Life 2 (success in most eyes, flop in mine), Warcraft 3 (success); these are all game sequels that made a big impact, either positively or negatively, in that they either GREATLY expanded or alienated part of their fan base, because the sequel was such a changed game. DOOM 3 was a far more cerebral and lengthy experience than its counterparts, while Half-Life 2 was a far more varied/gimmicky/abstract game than I think the original Half-Life was. A graphical upgrade is, in my mind, always a necessity for a sequel, but it's not very important to the overall success of a sequel, just a must to keep things "fresh." A game like Warcraft 3 kept a lot of the things that made the original game popular, but with the unit count cut in half, Warcraft 3 put a lot more emphasis on micro-management of units, rather than letting players just mass a large amount of units like in Warcraft 2 and Starcraft. I think the upcoming Dungeon Siege 2 will be one of the most successful sequels in PC gaming history; the original game may have a very big name, but it has a fairly small fan base. Though, despite this, the amount of work and effort that the guys at Gas Powered Games are putting into Dungeon Siege 2's new focus on gameplay has really paid off, and I think a lot of PC gamers will see this when the DS2 press and reviews start rolling in. The amount of fun I had with the Dungeon Siege 2 beta was incredibly surprising; DS2 is almost a completely different beast than the original game was, and the beta was some of the most fun I've had in RPG/Action gaming in a long time. Not many games make me do a double-take and yell "Holy shit, that was AWESOME!" at the top of my lungs.

    A counter-example to my point here is Halo 2. The game may have had a graphical upgrade, and may be one of the highest grossing games of all time (I'm not sure if this is just for one day, or for all-time), but it's a horrible excuse for a sequel. Halo 2 is essentially the same game that the original was, except it had Havok physics, better graphics, and Live! support. "Oh, Trent, but it had a completely different player, letting people experience the game through an entirely new perspective!" Yeah, sure, but this "new perspective" only changed the fact that you could now use camouflage, but dammit, those aliens sure can't use a flashlight.

  • Movie Tie-Ins: Please... just... stop. I'm so tired of seeing games based on movies, which seem to always be either a Metal Gear Solid, DOOM, or Grand Theft Auto 3 clone. Movie tie-ins are cool occasionally, especially when it's a big-name movie that just screams the need for a video game version. In my time as a gamer, and I've been actively gaming for eighteen years (since I was two; yes, two) and only twice have I ever played a decent movie-based game: Goldeneye and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. Movie-based games are very obviously made solely for the extra income generated from the movie's success, and I know there's nothing I can say that will stop their production, but I just wish that since these games are being made, that they can actually have some genuine thought put into them (as well as into the question: "Should this game really even be made?"), as it seems like every one of these games is simply a port of whatever game is popular at the time. Currently the big thing is to make movie-based games almost exactly like Grand Theft Auto 3. I personally can't wait to play as a decked-out Tom Cruise and blast the shit out of tripods in War of the Worlds because, after all, that's exactly like what happened in the movies.

    I might actually give the game a chance if all the game consisted of was my playing as Tom Cruise and simply trying to avoid the Tripods for a few hours.

  • The Third Type: These are the games that make me happy to be a gamer, and even happier to realize that I will one day be working in a game development company of my very own. These are the games that simply cannot be classified under a type. This is the type of game that comes from a fresh, creative mind that has the goal of revolutionizing the genre in ways that had previous not been thought of before. These are games like Will Wright's Spore and The Sims, Chris Taylor's Supreme Commander and Total Annihilation, Sid Meier's Civilization, Brian Reynold's Rise of Nations and upcoming Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends (two games in the same genre, though neither similar in the slightest other than the franchise name), and so very few more.

If only there were more than a handful of titles released every year that were truly raising the bar in quality then, maybe, publishers wouldn't be so heavily rewarded for releasing a hardly-update sequel in a popular franchise. Remember, it's not only the fact that a lot of developers don't embrace their own creativity, it's also a matter of the fact that the cash that gamers throw out for various games is what keeps the industry going. Support the developers who try something new and succeed. It's what will keep the industry from breeding in its own familiarity.
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I think the policy to take for the third type of game is to "make games in genres you hate". That's what Chris Taylor said before going onto Dungeon Siege.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to freshen up a stale group -- consider Edison or "outsider art" or independent comic books. Indeed, consider independent game developers as a whole.

You guys should be doing games in genres you hate -- fix them!

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For Chris Taylor's new game, Supreme Commander (a kind of spiritual successor to Total Annihilation, since Atari owns the IP), Taylor is quoted as saying that he is simply making a game that he wants to play ("I was scratching my own itch," he says).

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Sometimes it takes an outsider to freshen up a stale group

Thats an interesting idea.

Here at work they're doing similar with developer/tester/designer rotation with (supposedly) great success... The idea being that developers get too used to being developers, likewise for testers - neither end up living each other. However, when they do forced rotation each person gets to see how it works "on the other side" and consequently learns a bit of respect/understanding.

It is different, but in some ways a similar "proof" that shaking things up can be quite beneficial.

I'm not sure it'd work so well with games yet - as there is, as i see it, a fair bit of similarity (down to the classic hack-n-slash style) such that a veteran MMORPG coder could probably adapt quite quickly to FPS development without introducing anything ground breaking.


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Good to see a column I can understand (!NickGeorgia && !Washu). You raise some very interesting points, and I look forward to your future entries. Stay fresh, and stay frequent! I'll be reading!


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