#3. We're on the Verge of Creative Bankruptcy
Let's go back to my graphic at the beginning. The reason every major game (that doesn't involve dragons) looks the same is because of the Modern Warfare series. So far we have two games and a spinoff that each took in as much money in the U.S. as Avatar. We already know what the best-selling game of 2011 will be: Modern Warfare 3, which was shown for the first time at E3.
Don't get me wrong, what they showed us was cool as shit. You're thrown right into the action, starting out under water ...
... emerging to see that, holy crap, New York is under attack!
Boats are burning in the harbor!
Look! There's Lady Liberty on the horizon, as if to remind us of what's at stake!
I can't wait to play it. But Modern Warfare 3 has some serious competition in the marketplace. Just earlier this year, maybe the best-looking console game ever made, Crysis 2, hit shelves. In the first level of that one, you're thrown right into the action, starting out under water ...
... emerging to see that, holy shit, New York is under attack!
Boats are burning in the harbor!
Look! There's Lady Liberty on the horizon, as if to remind us of what's at stake!
Don't take this the wrong way. I'm not shitting on game developers. I have friends in the industry, and they're each smarter and more talented than I am. I'm the one who wrote a novel about a man with multiple-personality disorder who, in a twist ending, finds out he was his own rapist -- I'm no one to throw stones.
But this isn't about any lack of creativity among game developers, artists, writers or anyone else. It's about money, and the fact that the market has trapped games in a fucking creative coffin (and developers will tell you the same). Everybody complains about sequels and reboots in Hollywood, but holy shit, it's nothing compared to what we have in gaming right now.
For instance, each of the Big Three game console makers took the stage at E3 to show off their biggest games of the upcoming year. Microsoft led off with the aforementioned Modern Warfare 3, which is really Call of Duty 8 (game makers like to switch up the sequel titles so the digits don't get ridiculous). Next was Tomb Raider 10 (rebooted as Tomb Raider). Then we had Mass Effect 3, and Ghost Recon 11 (titled Ghost Recon: Future Soldier). This was followed by Gears of War 3, Forza 4 and Fable 4 (called Fable: The Journey).
"Seriously, we have no goddamned idea what number we're on now. Just start over."
Next were two new games, both based on existing brands and both for toddlers (Disneyland Adventure -- a Kinect enabled game that will let your toddler tour Disneyland without you having to spring for a ticket -- and a Sesame Street game starring Elmo).
Then, finally, we reached the big announcement at the end (they always save cliffhanger "megaton" announcements for last, Steve Jobs-style) and they came out to announce that they were introducing "the beginning of a new trilogy." Yes! Something fucking new!
Then this came up on the screen:
Confused? So was the audience. By "new trilogy" they actually meant that there would be three more Halo games. Did I mention that Halo 4 is actually Halo 7? Which means they intend to put out at least nine Halo games before they're done? Oh, wait, they also announced they were doing a gritty reboot of the decade-old Halo to make it an even 10.
Sony came up next and announced a sequel, another sequel and then a reboot. After that it went sequel, sequel, special edition of a sequel, new FPS, sequel, new FPS, sequel, special edition of a sequel, new game based on an existing property (Star Trek), sequel, sequel and sequel. Then they introduced a new system (the PS Vita) and showed it off with four sequels.
Nintendo's list went: sequel, sequel, sequel, sequel, sequel, sequel, sequel, sequel, sequel and (hold on, let me double check here) a sequel. And you already know what those were, even if you haven't played a video game in 15 years: Mario Kart, Mario World, Luigi, Zelda, Kirby, etc. Then they showed off their new system (the Wii U) with a demo reel promising that some day it would allow us to play sequels like Arkham Asylum 2, Darksiders II and Ninja Gaiden 3.
Think about the situation with Hollywood -- movies are expensive as hell, so studios are scared to death of taking creative risks and thus we get a new Transformers movie every two years. But now take that and multiply it times five, and you have the situation with video games. Literally. A video game costs five times as much as a movie ticket, and therefore customers are five times as cautious about experimenting with unfamiliar games that might wind up being shit. Game publishers respond accordingly.
And yes, we gamers are ultimately to blame. We don't even perceive how incredibly narrow our range of choices has gotten. For instance, every single gaming forum on the Internet right now is hosting at least one passionate discussion about which is better, Modern Warfare 3 or Battlefield 3.
Seriously, they almost come to blows over it. As a reminder, here are the two games, back to back:
I'm not going to even tell you which one is which.
This here is why all of the innovation in games seems to be about going backward, simplifying instead of pushing the experience further. They are trying to lower the barrier of entry for gaming as a hobby, because they don't know where else to go with it. So I guess what I'm saying is that one thing is becoming clear ...
#2. There is No Real Vision for the Future
As Epic Games president Mike Capps says, nobody has any goddamned idea what's coming next. Epic Games, by the way, are the guys behind the Gears of War series:
Yes, that's a chainsaw on his machine gun.
See, the reason Nintendo's next console promises to use state-of-the-art horsepower to let you play iPhone games ...
... is because for most people these days, gaming looks like this:
Via Yahoo News
Simple games, played on your phone or tablet computer, downloaded from the app store. They cost a dollar, or nothing at all. They can be played on a machine that the customer already owns -- no additional investment needed. They can be developed quickly and with a small team (or, you know, one guy). As the man from Epic says, "If there's anything that's killing us, it's dollar apps." Meanwhile, the most profitable game company right now isn't Activision/Blizzard or Nintendo or EA, it's Zynga, the makers of Farmville.
So what the hell are you supposed to do when you're trying to convince those customers to drop $400 on a game machine with all of the accessories (extra controllers, peripherals, online subscriptions) plus $60 for each game? The answer is game makers have no fucking idea.
It used to be so simple. For the first 25 or so years of video game consoles, the "next big thing" was to just make the games look more like real life. For instance, I mentioned earlier how long we've been waiting for a good Star Wars lightsaber game. Well, in 1983, lightsabers looked like this:
That is, like two erect pixel dicks about to fuck a snake wearing a George Lucas Halloween mask. But every player knew what it was trying to look like, because we had all seen lightsabers before. It was supposed to look like this:
So the makers of future Star Wars games had a clear, tangible goal. But we're pretty much there:
At this point game makers stopped, glanced awkwardly at each other and said, "Well, shit. Now what?"
NO. WHY DID YOU HAVE TO REMIND ME OF THIS?
Sony spent a lot of time at E3 talking about 3D gaming, and they kind of don't have a choice since the TV side of their company has invested so heavily in 3D sets. Now, I don't know what percentage of people can't play 3D games without getting a splitting headache (there are lots of reports, but no studies yet), but I know I made it about three minutes before I had to take the glasses off. Nintendo's portable 3DS managed glasses-free 3D, but you have to hold it at an exact fixed distance from your face at all times, or else the screen becomes a blurry mess and Nintendo was sure to give users the option of turning the 3D off. Oh, and it also causes headaches. This, by the way, is part of the reason why 3D movie ticket sales are falling and investors are trying to get some theater chains to scrap it.
"Fine," you're probably saying, "then what does the future hold for gaming, Guy Who Didn't Realize Until the Final Boss That Resident Evil 4 Had a 'Run' Button?" Well, here's the thing ...
#1. We Still Don't Know What a "Game" Is
Ask yourself: How does it make sense that earlier we had the guy from Epic -- someone who makes $50 million budget games about space marines chainsawing aliens in half -- complaining that his business was being stolen by iPhone Tetris and Angry Birds? That's like a cattle rancher saying all of his business is being eaten up by cotton candy manufacturers. The only thing they have in common is that they can both be consumed.
Now ask yourself why those Modern Warfare games essentially have two utterly different games on the same disc -- one is a five-hour-long action movie (the single player campaign), the other is a competitive electronic sport (the multiplayer).
In both cases, it's because we're combining a bunch of completely different experiences and art forms and calling them all "video games."
Via Farmville Farms
Though the ability to snipe in Farmville would have been an awesome feature.
That hasn't made sense for a lot of years now. The future is that what we're now calling video games will cease to be a thing, and will break up into several different art forms, each with their own medium. We'll have true "games" where we perform simple tasks to kill a few minutes or get a high score (Angry Birds, etc) that will cost a dollar or two. We'll have interactive stories that are less about "winning" and "losing" and more about relating to characters and following drama (LA Noire, Heavy Rain) and they will not be called games, because it never made sense to call them that.
Gaming has become a proverbial cotton candy cow.
Those titles should be priced like what they are: long rendered movies with some interactivity thrown in as a bonus, that the audience will only sit through once. Then we'll have competitive multiplayer games as their own thing -- those will probably be a subscription model, with no $60 game up front but with an infinite amount of shit for the most obsessed to blow their disposable income on.
The industry will realize those all need their own business models. And that would hopefully relieve some of this pressure to keep doing things the old way. They'll be free to stop trying to cram repetitive game elements (like fetch quests) into our interactive movies. They can stop thinking a series like Fable will work on the fucking Kinect. Console makers can stop imagining that people will some day be willing to pay more than a dollar for Monkey Shit Tower Defense.
But we would have no trouble paying that dollar.
And then, maybe somebody will invent a lightsaber game that fucking works.
Until that happy day, you'll have to be satisfied with Cracked's new Adventures in Jedi School mini-series.
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