Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Optimism (a late Thanksgiving rumination)

Recently (within the last few years), there's been ongoing murmurs of discontent with the current risk-averse state of the videogame industry. People have been decrying the lack of original IP and gametypes as well as the industry's reliance on sequels, franchises, and licensed IP. While much of that is true, I have a much more optimistic outlook on the immediate future of the artform (and the biz for that matter). In the spirit of the holidays, I'll take a look at the reasons for hope and excitement this fall.

First off, sequels, franchises, and licensed IP aren't bad things if the games are good. I was talking with Deca last night about sequels, and he observed that, if done right, sequels (and spiritual sequels) are really just an extension of the iterative design process. They give developers a chance to improve on a successful formula. As a consumer of games, how can you argue with "Halo, but better" (ie, Halo 2)? The same goes for franchises. Each new game is a chance for developers to add to the stories and worlds of previous outings, while improving or even *gasp* innovating gameplay. How many different kinds of titles has Mario been featured in? Nintendo uses its franchises to sell new innovations. Remember that Super Mario 64 blazed the way for 3D platformers, even though Mario had been around for years. Even licensed IP allows developers to contribute new and different game types. Think about Spiderman 2, with it's web-swinging navigation of a GTA-like New York. More conservative efforts, such as the Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, still express high production values and a willingness to experiment (first-person hand-to-hand combat was done very well in Riddick).

The current glut of high quality games this fall is a good sign that the industry is healthy. Even with the majority of games being sequels, franchises, or licensed IP, the overall quality of the games on offer heralds a new era in which high production values are a given and innovation becomes necessary for differentiation. If this many games are this good, then some smart developers are going to realize that innovation can make their game stand out.

In fact, this fall is seeing innovation already starting to hit the mainstream. Nintendo, always pushing the gameplay envelope, has released the DS handheld, and although it isn't universally loved, it has received much praise for its leaps forward in gameplay. Touchscreen interaction and dual displays are putting new tools in the hands of developers, who seem to be responding with quirky and original games. Industrial design issues aside, the DS seems to be garnering solid game reviews across the board. There seems to be genuine excitement at the prospect of something new and different.

Innovation is happening in game delivery as well. November saw the introduction of Valve's Steam content delivery system, designed to bring Valve games straight to consumers, bypassing the traditional publishing and retail middlemen. Again, as with all innovation, there have been rough spots, but the reaction to Steam seems to be positive, and the launch was surprisingly smooth. In addition, BioWare has launched an online store through which they are selling modules for their Neverwinter Nights platform. Both Valve and BioWare seem to be developing platforms (or engines) upon which they can build and distribute multiple games. The Source Engine and the Aurora Engine are also both open for the mod community, from which the developers can hand pick the best to release as premium content. The possibility for episodic content seems quite ripe as well, even on consoles, given the profusion of systems that are now online.

Finally, despite many predictions of the death of the independent developer, there are many indicators that indy game development is sustainable. Valve's Steam and BioWare's efforts point to the potential digital distribution and self-publishing. The Independent Games Festival and other festivals provide a forum for independent games, many of which are highly innovative. Indy devs are also finding alternative ways to fund their work, through creativity and perseverence. The massively multiplayer A Tale in the Desert has been an indy success with community-based gameplay that bigger competitors haven't yet perfected. Cecropia is taking a totally new approach to mass-market "interactive animated films."

So I am thankful and optimistic this holiday season. Though there are a lot of things that can be improved in the industry, there's a lot to be happy about. Here's hoping that the coming year show's even more excitement and creativity.


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