Experienced Points: The Dumbification of Gaming

By Shamus
on Apr 8, 2011
Filed under:
Column

splash_scott_pilgrim.jpg

So my Friday column went up last night. On Thursday. For some reason. It’s all good. Check it out. It’s a bit about how games are getting simpler, shallower, and broader.

This is one of those articles where I thought of a dozen more points to make after I’d turned it in. Near the end of the article I say:

No matter what genre you’re talking about, for every person who digs it just the way it is, there’s about 17 people who would like it if it was a little easier and less confusing.

I chose the number 17 because that’s how many Scott Pilgrim vs. The World movies it would take to equal the gross of Transformers 2. I’ve said before, I think Scott Pilgrim is a better movie. By far. The script was smarter. The comedy was wittier. The action was more novel and more coherent. The characters were more interesting. The acting was better. (That is, it existed.) The cinematography was better. It was a better movie in every way except for the one that really mattered: Less people wanted to see it. I’m sure you can do similar comparisons with books and television shows. It’s sad, but hardly unique to games. It’s a problem with human beings in general and not something related to the ongoing platform wars.

Here are some other thoughts I didn’t put in the article, because I didn’t have a definitive position on them. I offer them as questions:

Once or twice a year, the movie industry gives us one of those huge blockbusters with a $100 million budget. (These can be great, like Avatar, or horrible, like Waterworld.) But what if they were making a half dozen of those movies a year? For every $100m action epic there are a dozen $15m Rom-Coms or $30m Buddy Cop movies. On the gaming side, are they just making too many blockbusters? Are too many studios chasing the Modern Warfare money, and not enough chasing (say) The Sims, Sam & Max, or Total War?

Follow-up question: What’s the budget difference between The Sims and a modern brown cover-based shooter? Is it actually cheaper to make?

We keep looking to indies to deliver us, but is that reasonable? Note the gap in budgets. If someone wanted to make another System Shock 2, how could it be done? It’s too niche for a current-gen big-budget game – the development costs of making a game that big and open with today’s technology would be astronomical compared to the cost of making the game back in 1998. On the other hand, making a first-person game is really tough for indies. The jump from 2D to 3D requires an increase in the size of your team. Even if you’re working with old tech, it still takes a lot of different people to make a character, texture them, animate them, voice them, and give them proper AI. It’s probably completely unreasonable to attempt such a thing with the usual indie team of one to five people. Is it reasonable to say that some games simply cannot be made, even though certain people would love them?

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From the Archives:

  1. Ax says:

    It isn’t just me escapistmagazine is down!

    Any idea what’s going on over there, Shamus?

    • Shamus says:

      Hm. It was up a couple of minutes ago when I copy & pasted my link.

      • DaveMc says:

        Well, there you go. The huge surge in traffic generated by that posting obviously crashed their site. Nice job, Shamus, you reckless fool! :)

      • Tometzky says:

        They have broken DNS configuration. If your DNS server has www\.escapistmagazine.com IP cached then it will work:

        $ host -d -r -t ns www\.escapistmagazine.com. a.gtld-servers.net.
        escapistmagazine.com. 172800 IN NS ns1.clt.peak-10.com.
        escapistmagazine.com. 172800 IN NS ns1.jax.peak-10.com.
        escapistmagazine.com. 172800 IN NS dns1.tmserv.net.
        escapistmagazine.com. 172800 IN NS dns2.tmserv.net.

        $ host -d -r -t a www\.escapistmagazine.com. ns1.clt.peak-10.com.

        www\.escapistmagazine.com. 86400 IN CNAME esc.lb.escapistmagazine.com.
        lb.escapistmagazine.com. 86400 IN NS lb2.tmserv.net.
        lb2.tmserv.net. 600 IN A 209.34.224.93

        $ host -d -r -t a esc.lb.escapistmagazine.com. 209.34.224.93
        Host esc.lb.escapistmagazine.com. not found: 3(NXDOMAIN)

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Its not just you.Well,Ill check it later during the day then.Or tomorrow.

  2. Mr. Wizard says:

    Yes they are making to many blockbusters, trying for the homerun too often. Greater variety not just in genres but in budgets is the key to growing games and fighting disinterest in gaming. The whole swarming mentality with big budget games chasing a narrow list of genres and themes is slowly eroding away the enthusiasm of gamers.

    • Zak McKracken says:

      Yep, it’s eroding the enthusiasm of those gamers who were enthusiastic before, but at the same time it’s attracting more and more gamers who have never been enthusiastic in the first place. Like many blockbuster-moviegoers probably are not going to expect a deep experience but instead just to have an entertaining evening, where others (partly at least also me) would be dissappointed because the movie contained nothing that’s gonna be worth talking or thinking about in a year. Not good for my enthusiasm but very good for “reaching a larger audience”.
      Meh, I don’t even go to see the ig productions anymore. Have converted to seeing more of the small indie productions. And I guess that’s what I’ve also done with games. I guess that is what happens if your favourite nerdy pastime gets turned into mass media.
      The same thing happened to me with music already, years ago (look up the lyrics to “Panic” from the Smiths. That sums up my perspective nicely). Eventually I was so fed up with what’s on the radio that I stopped listening to music radio or MTV and whatnot and started looking for (and finding) stuff on the net, collecting useful hints from friends and think-alikes. Since then, my CD (actual physical CDs!) collection has more than doubled. The downside is that sometimes really cool stuff is on the charts but I won’t know unless they play it in the supermarket … :(

      • Falcon says:

        I’ll throw in with you here and reccomend my own personal favorite song that uses similar themes, ‘The Sound of Muzak’ by Porcupine Tree. I honestly grew fairly tired of radio music about 10 years ago, but at the time didn’t have good (or reliable) internet access. A friend of mine introduced me to Pandora about 6 years ago, ironically to try and hear a popular song. Through a series I like to call ‘chasing down the rabbit hole’ I discovered a whole new world of music, and never looked back. My CD collection is now almost 5 times it’s former size. The underground music scene makes me happy.

        With games there is a similar thing for me, though to a lesser extent. I play alot of indie games, but also mix some blockbusters, mostly of the Bioware/ strategy vein.

        Movies though I’ve not dug that deep. While no fan of the mindless blockbuster, most movies I watch tend to be major movies though. Watchmen, District 9, Iron Man, etc. They’re mostly the bigger movies that hit on my geeky tastes.

        The difference though is about quality. There is no discernable technical difference in sound quality between major band and underground (not garage band, there’s a difference) now because the tech is there to allow professional quality sound with a much smaller team than 10 years ago even. Music quality is better even, but that’s more subjective.

        For games there is a discernable technical difference between indie and mainstream, but that gap has been closing, and even now if you don’t mind graphics that are 5-7 years out of date the difference is of minimal importance anyhow.

        Movies though there is still a large gap between what can be done in mainstream and indie. Special effects are one of the most expensive things that they do. Limits sometimes force creativity, George Lucas 1977 vs George Lucas 2001, but there are things indies just can’t do. Writing, dialogue, story these are no doubt better in the niche markets, but in terms of technical ability will always lack. Even the acting. Some big name actors get their gigs for being famous/ popular/ attractive and nothing more, but many of the top tier actors are legitimately good at acting.

        That’s a long way of saying that Shamus’s question of the indie scene providing those niche products is possible. Not quite today for everything, but in 2-4 years quite possibly the tools will be available to make 2005 quality graphics for a large System Shock type experience.

        • Zak McKracken says:

          Re popular/underground music: I’m mostly not even aware of how popular some band is. So sometimes I’m surprised a lot when I realize that some band is actually extremely popular, and at the same time I sometimes talk to people about some band that they’ve never ever heard of in their lifes. It can get awkward.
          With the Fratellis’ last album I didn’t even know which the singles were until the band gave up. They picked the songs I liked the least, they did pretty bad and virtually disbanded … in my world, that album was so much better than in public perception, even within their own fans.
          Knowing songs for years and only then seeing the video is interesting, too.

          Movies: Good movies can be indie movies, but they don’t have to. Like Big Lebowsky. Not quite in the Blockbuster league, but most people know and love it, and many actors don’t look at the paycheck too closely if they can work with the Coen brothers. There are some directors who will reliably produce very very well done movies, who can even command a decent budget, who are not James Cameron.

          Games: Yeah, well, it’s true. Technical possibilities are probably vastly different between the big companies and indie producers. I have some hope that the “in-between” space will be filled by someone at some point. There must be some space in the market for reasonably-priced, well-done, technically ok but very very creative, DRM-less games for geeks.

          Please?

        • Blake says:

          Porcupine Tree woo!

  3. Jordi says:

    I think the questions asked here are more interesting than the Escapist article. I especially like the first batch of questions, because it’s something I have been thinking of lately. Almost all games that are coming out are either incredibly low-budget, or triple-A titles that must be blockbusters. Besides stifling innovation (because the game has to be developed for the lowest common denominator), this also limits choice and competition. If I am really mad at BioWare for “consolifying” the combat in DA2, lot’s of people will say “just don’t buy the game”. But if I want to play a story driven Western RPG with team combat and (some) strategy, there is basically no other choice on the market. So I might end up buying the game anyway, and BioWare will think I was totally okay with all the choices they made and might continue on this (for me) slippery slope. Which would not have happened if there was more choice on the market.

    As for the second batch of question: I would think that there is a “niche” in between indy and multimillion dollar corporations that could make these games. Think about it, the System Shock 2 team (or another team of equal size and talent) could probably still make another System Shock 2 (probably even faster due to better technology). Of course, they wouldn’t be able to make it with today’s graphics, physics and AI, so the question is if we’d still think such a game is any good.
    But I think gamers need to realize that there is a choice to be made. You can’t have awesome graphics and a huge world and top-notch AI and lots of detail etc. all at the same time. And I believe that many would be willing to compromise. The question is: can you save as much money in development by not making awesome graphics as you will lose due to reduced sales because of the shitty graphics.

    • some random dood says:

      Reminded me of an article on here before – http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=9403 where Josh covered The Old Republic. Basically, it sounds like they are “betting the farm” on it being a success, because anything short of an absolute stunning hit may mean the end of Bioware…
      Scary thought – one of the few developers left of the types of games I like, and taking such a huge financial risk that there may be no way back for them.

      • SuperKP says:

        Isn’t that the whole reason that Final Fantasy is named the way it is? i.e. FFI was to be the last thing that Square would be capable of creating unless FF turned out to be a great success.

  4. Lanthanide says:

    Here you go Shamus, multiplayer mech game made by an indie team of 9 people in 9 months: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zm7gEDhrPfk

    Here’s a gameplay vid, rather than the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/v/udEAEARD-Fo&hd=1

  5. Ben Munson says:

    That indies couldn’t make a current gen version of something like system shock 2 I’d say is a certainly given their limits on budget and manpower.

    A more interesting question for me would be along the lines of: could the mechanics that make those games fun to play be worked into a design that doesn’t require a huge budget to make?

    • Eric says:

      I would say yes, absolutely. The problem, it seems to me, is that the vast majority of indie titles are more concerned with either a) artistic pretense or b) retro nostalgia masturbation. Not that the games that go those routes are bad, mind you, it’s just interesting to note that most indies seem more focused on appealing to people on presentation and style rather than truly compelling game mechanics. I love Super Meat Boy as much as the next person, but if it wasn’t for all the retro-trendiness, that game wouldn’t have sold a third of the copies it did.

  6. Strangeite says:

    This brings up a question that I have been wanting to ask you and the greater Twentysided community as a whole?

    What is your take on the proliferation of mobile gaming and the low threshold of entry for indie developers on such devices?

    The reason why I ask, is that my 13 year old son has an Xbox and a Wii, but 90% of his gaming is done on the iPod Touch that he bought with his own money. Apparently most of his friends divide their gaming time in a similar fashion.

    I read the other day that the World of Goo (great game BTW) developer reported… let me just quote him.

    “In the first month of sales on the iPad App Store, World of Goo sold 125K copies (thanks to being prominently featured by Apple). In comparison, World of Goo’s best 31 day period on WiiWare was 68K copies (thanks to a mass mailing by Nintendo), and on Steam it was 97K copies (thanks to two promotions at discounted prices). So far, the iPad version is by far the fastest selling version of the game, both in terms of number of units sold and in revenue generated.

    What makes this even more amazing is that this is a two year old game released on a platform that is less than a year old. The iPad doesn’t have the benefit of an install base built up over several years.”

    That is pretty powerful stuff. Especially when the cost of entry to develop for the platform is only $99. Given the low cost of development and the wide spread adoption by the next generation, what are the consequences for the future of gaming?

    For me personally, the most complex, deep and fun games I have played in the last 2 years have been on my iPhone and iPad.

    • Strangeite says:

      Simple shallow games apparently do well too. I just read that the newest Angry Birds sold 10 million copies in 10 days. Even after the 70/30 split, that is 7 Million dollars in revenue in 10 days. Not too shabby for an indie developer out of Finland.

      • Strangeite says:

        OMG. I also just read that the original Angry Birds has broken the 100 Million download mark. All sold at $1 a piece and all sold on iOS devices.

        That is insane. The reporter commenting on the figure suggested that Angry Birds will be this generation’s Super Mario Brothers, and after playing it, I can’t say that I disagree.

        • I really do not understand the appeal of Angry Birds. It’s a second-rate knock off of earlier games. The only difference is that it’s available on phones. Now of course I understand that a critical point like that can caue it to sell very well but can we stop calling it amazing and original when it so clearly isn’t?

          • Blake says:

            “It’s a second-rate knock off of earlier games” that only people looking for small games online had ever played.

            It’s a simple enjoyable accesable mechanic and its been sold to a great many people entirely new to paying for games.
            I honestly wouldn’t be suprised if there were thousands and thousands of people whose first game purchase ever was in the Angry Birds franchise.

            I’m not saying it’s a great game, but as a very simple entrance into the world of gaming it does quite well.

    • Nathon says:

      Just a point: if cost to develop for a platform were a driving factor, we’d be seeing Linux games out the wazoo. It’s hard to get more free than free.

      Of course, there are zillions of Linux games. They’re just not (for the most part) commercial ventures.

      While writing this, I remembered that I have World of Goo for Linux. Huzzah!

      • Hmm, I honestly think that the reason Linux games usually kind of suck is that they are a one person venture (or a few.) Very seldom does a team come together and try to make a game (a team including a writer and artist–there are tons of Linux geeks who can program out there, very few who are artists and decent writers.) I have been complaining about the lack of aesthetic appeal in Linux since I first started using it 10 years ago. Also, a lot of Linux geeks are very focused on Open Source and since time is money they can’t really do a good job earning a living from making a game just for Linux. Even if they tried so many Linux geeks would be up at arms because “it should be free” that their potential buyer base would be minuscule.

        That said, were you able to get Minecraft running on your Linux box? I have jumped through all sorts of hoops and still get a black screen so I gave up.

        • Fenix says:

          Minecraft works fine for me (Ubuntu 10.10). Just install the Java packages and download the .jar from the site and it works… better than on Windows. Then again, not sure what distro you’re using seeing as Ubuntu is beautiful (especially after enabling tons of compiz effects).
          And what I mean by better than on Windows (7 in this case) is that it gets higher FPS (even with my compiz effects enabled) AND doesn’t crash with a black screen (which the Windows version seems to be plagued with).
          This is on the same hardware including a fresh install of Windows 7 64bit and Ubuntu 10.10 64bit.

          Hmm… this came out a little ranty. This went from attempting to be helpful to “I love linux and it runs great”.

          I guess the starting point is what distro are you using, what kind of hardware do you have, are you using open source drivers of proprietary and finally did you install the latest Sun Java Runtimes (heck it even works on OpenJDK).

          • bucaneer says:

            There’s a bug in ATI proprietary graphics drivers that causes Java to crash when starting Minecraft on Linux (Ubuntu 10.10 here, but plenty of reports from other versions/distros).

            I got it to work through Wine (that is, Minecraft.jar through Windows version of Sun Java runtimes through Wine) and it still runs smoothly, but damn, how hard is it to make functional graphics drivers for Minecraft?

            If you ever meet somebody who works at ATI, please punch them in the face for me.

            • I use the latest Ubuntu distro but no worky. Sigh. Bucaneer’s response would explain my problem. Sigh. Stupid ati card. I have tried through Wine but my computer box is too slow. Though I did just double the memory so maybe? Will have to give it another go.

        • Zak McKracken says:

          Yeah, Linux and games is a problematic combination. Although there are games, just no really big titles (disregarding Quake which is so old I even forgot when that was). But still, indie games feature it a lot more.
          World of Goo, Amnesia, The Rainslick Precipice of Darkness, and some more. It’s a start I guess, and I like to think that it’s growing and becoming more accepted as the Linux user base is growing, too.
          … which might then lead to the same type of shallowfication we’re seeing on other platforms, but … damn, then I’ll be less special :(

        • I really don’t think Linux geeks have a problem with paying for games, or games being closed. Even Richard Stallman doesn’t have a big problem with games being non-Free, because
          (1) They’re relatively ephemeral and can’t really become a necessity that you’re forced to use, and
          (2) Precisely because so much of them is art and writing, which isn’t in his opinion generally the kind of thing you can use the GPL with.
          I’m sure he’s pleased at the idea of open source game engines

          In practice, when there are for-pay games that are available for money on Windows, Mac and Linux, Linux people seem to buy them out of proportion to the number of Linux desktop users, and I’ve never heard any complaints–to the contrary, both articles and comments are always all “Kudos for making it available on Linux”. That still doesn’t make a ton of Linux sales, though, because let’s face it there still isn’t a ton of Linux on the desktop. Which would be the real reason there isn’t so much development of Linux games–small audience for indie games massively compounded by small install base of Linux gamers.
          I saw it pointed out recently, though, that certain categories of Linux games may start doing better, just because small portable computing thingies tend to use OpenGL rather than DirectX, and Linux also uses OpenGL, so OpenGL is going to see faster development now and those games will be readily portable to Linux.

          • Zak McKracken says:

            Linux users paying for games: Maybe that’s a fear of some game companies, but this one shows it can’t be quite justified:
            http://www.humblebundle.com/
            If you scroll down a bit you see that Linux users on average paid over twice as much as Windows users for the games of the second Humble Bundle although they could just have taken them for free.
            Granted, though, these are not the big games you get to play on a PC, even if some well-known names are on the list.

            • Ranneko says:

              And there were over twice as many windows users. Windows was the platform filled in by default, which means that it also was the platform for people who did not care enough to change the defaults.

              Finally, considering you are looking at a bundle that contains 5-11 games depending on whether you were donating more than the current average. Linux users still only averaged $13.78. Less than $3 per game assuming they were only after the 5 in the most recent bundle. It still is not that hopeful a message regarding financial viability.

          • Granted the last time I hung out on any Linux forums was about 5 years ago or so– and just lately Slashdot had a huge rant about Ubuntu and the whole ability to “purchase” software thing. I run into it in the opensource community all the time– rants about opensource=free and one should never have to pay. It occurs to me that because of Ubuntu a lot more “regular” people are coming into using Linux and therefore may break that trend.

    • S. Richmond says:

      Those stats on their own are indeed amazing. But you have to take a step back and really analyze what you’re looking at if you’re to start comparing markets. I mean, on the face of it, it would be safe to say that the iPad userbase are generally people who have some spare money to swing around with an entry fee of $800 (The iPad). As compared to Steam or a mobile phone, where the entry fee is $0. There is no commitment.
      There is also the ‘app fever’ devs often try to capture in the first year of a devices’ life, where apps are rare enough to get good attention and the userbase is at the height of loving the device.

      • Strangeite says:

        I agree that iOS users will tend to skew towards individuals with more disposable income but the cost of entry is not quite as high as you suggest. The baseline iPad 2 is $500 and you can pick up a brand new original iPad for $300 (I bought one for my wife, so she would stop stealing mine).

        $300 is a lot of money, but not so outrageous that it is only for the rich. Especially since it is also a web browser, e-reader, portable TV, etc.

        • S. Richmond says:

          My point was that the iPad market is predisposed to a much higher likelihood to buy something.

          • Strangeite says:

            I agree with your assertion, but won’t developers go where the money is? If I was developing a game and deciding between platforms, I would develop for the platform where users are willing to pony up for the game.

            What really go me thinking about this topic was the fact that my son and his friends seem to be eschewing consoles in favor of mobile devices. If that trend continues, it seems that it will profoundly shape the gaming landscape.

            And none of them have iPhones or iPads, just iPod Touches.

            • theLameBrain says:

              This is not necessarily the case with Indie developers. Indie developers are far more likely to choose a platform based on the developer’s interests/available tools.

              Remember that many Indie developers are not making games in order to make money. (Not that we would turn money down.)

          • Veloxyll says:

            Also remember i users have a lower risk level when buying a new game. It’s like “Hmm, that could be cool. $5. Heck yes” (my stack of unplayed PS2 games is testament to this, since they’re only $20 while new PC games are like $100, and DS games are still $50-$70, NINTENDO >:( ).
            And because PC and Console gaming has already explored the low graphics area fairly thoroughly, developers for apps already have a pretty good idea what looks good. Not having to fill a screen 2000 pixels across helps there too of course. And since graphics and v/o aren’t major issues, it can come down to gameplay more.

          • Alexander The 1st says:

            Especially since the iProducts, while admittedly having a long price holding life, tend to outdate year-after-year in terms of updates, with not quite the full use of the app store, for example.

            If someone still has an XP computer running Steam, however, you can generally imply that they hold onto their disposable income like a dragon guards its hoarded gold.

        • Sumanai says:

          “Especially since it is also a web browser, e-reader, portable TV, etc.”

          Or “a tablet PC” (unless you can watch TV on it, but I think you meant “media player”) for which it is rather cheap, but don’t you get stuck using only Apple approved software?

          Why is the ability to display text worth special mention? I understand it with e-ink stuff like the Kindle, but those have special screens.

    • Kanodin says:

      Based on everything I’ve read, Phone based games have a very strong chance of taking a large share of the handheld market from Nintendo. A common theory, that I agree with, is that Nintendo went for the 3d technology as something phones couldn’t do to fight this trend.

      Anyway, as to what phone games will mean, well there are some graphical and memory limitations since these devices aren’t really meant for games, so you probably won’t see much of the triple A industry there. Indie developers thriving on the platform makes sense, and I’m sure they will come up with a lot of cool ideas for it.

      I’m curious, what deep games did you play on the Ipad and Iphone? I ask because I fear the biggest limitation of this market is that most of it wants timewasters, not deep and involved games. So we may get many interesting gameplay ideas but probably not much of story or character or involving worlds. Amnesia for instance, could never work on a phone and probably wouldn’t sell if they tried.

      • Strangeite says:

        Most of these games I played on the iPhone (because I have had my 3G for almost 3 year and my iPad for about a month), but here you go.

        I tend to gravitate towards strategy games and so my list is heavy with them.

        Reign of Swords: Episode 2. On the surface it appears simple but was amazingly deep. I don’t even want to know how many hours I have sunk into this game.

        Red Conquest. Not my favorite, but I can’t imagine a more perfect UI for a RTS game utilizing a touch interface on such a small screen.

        Sim City. I loved Sim City 2000 and the iphone version was an almost perfect port of this game.

        Dungeon Hunter. Basically it is a Diablo clone with about 20 hours of gameplay. Not bad for the $5 it cost me.

        The Settlers HD. It was on sale for a buck and was the first game I bought specifically for the iPad. It is a port of an older PC game, The Settlers IV, but I never played it on PC. I have been playing it exclusively for about 2 weeks and have about half the missions still to complete.

        While I am not a fan, my son would want me to mention N.O.V.A. It is a first person shooter that you can play in a single player campaign, locally over wi-fi or multiplayer with people from all over the planet. I am not a first person shooter fan, but my son is addicted to playing multiplayer.

        • Kanodin says:

          Fascinating, I think I’ve underestimated this market. While the timewasters will still be the biggest moneymakers it looks like smaller but still significant markets exist for deeper experiences.

    • Eric says:

      I don’t know if this sort of development is “the future”, but I think the move towards multi-function devices like smartphones and tablets over dedicated gaming consoles and handhelds risks cutting into the big boys’ profits. A lot has been said about the “app market” cheapening gaming as a whole by effectively reducing the value of content to nothing (since so much stuff is given for free or extremely low prices), and while the situation isn’t dire, it is worth noting that we are soon going to have a generation of kids who have grown up playing games almost entirely on these portable devices. To them, the idea of a dedicated gaming console will be absurd. Hell, to many already, the idea of using a desktop computer is absurd.

      You also have to look at trends in how people spend their time and what sorts of lifestyles they’re living. People are spending more and more time working, with their jobs cutting into their personal lives and requiring they be on-call at all times. Not only does this mean people will generally have significantly less leisure time than past generations, it also means that they will will be in possession of devices capable of playing games around the clock. Such conditions are perfect for the short, casual-type games you see selling so well.

      There’s a lot of other contributing factors to the emergence of gaming in the app market. Most app store games are free to download, but cost money to unlock additional content. Once your game is installed on the player’s device, and they’ve had some time to try it out, the barrier for getting someone to pay you is much, much lower. I tend to be pretty picky about buying games, and even I can appreciate the title that allows me to buy right from inside the demo and continue playing immediately after.

      Additionally, the app market is now open to a lot of people who previously didn’t play games. Titles like Angry Birds are stupid-simple, little more than Flash games, but they’re right in your face if you take a moment to use your iPhone as anything other than a phone… for someone who’s never done gaming before, the easy interface and gameplay are extremely appealing. Going back to the blockbusters analogy, why do you think Transformers sells so many tickets? Because it’s got special effects, explosions everywhere, boobs, robots, and pretends to have a love story. In otherwords, it’s the kind of movie that appeals to multiple demographics (albeit mostly on the male side), and it’s one of those films you’ll go see with your friends for the purposes of an outing, rather than for personal edification. Sometimes even things we tend to claim are quantifiably “bad” are actually pretty gripping in their own ways. Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, etc. are basically just that: simple, easy, cheap fun.

      Last, a lot of those games are perfect for the water cooler and passing over to friends. One of the ways you can see a game is to get your customers to do the advertising for you… and while you can talk all you want about Assassin’s Creed to your friend, without being able to see it, she isn’t going to necessarily “get” it and be committed to a purchase. But hey, if you’re sitting around at school or work, there’s nothing stopping you from whipping out your phone and just showing the game to your friend – and subsequently nothing stopping her from pulling her phone out as well and dropping a couple of bucks on it. Nothing gets money flowing like friends.

    • Zak McKracken says:

      Weird, and I did not think this would happen.
      But maybe it’s also because this is one of the very very few “real” games that are available for the iPad? That’s not counting Bubbles and minesweeper and that type of stuff. Whatever, I’m happy for the developers, 2d Boy, they deserve the success, and so does their game.

  7. RichVR says:

    It’s marketing vs. creative. And marketing always wins because they have the money on their side. It is the same reason that games are released broken. I strongly doubt that it’s something that can be fixed. As long as companies like EA buy up smaller development studios and drive others out of business, the beancounters will run the business. And that sucks donkey balls.

    Even a company run by Brad Wardell, Stardock, a company that many trust for quality, released Elemental horribly broken.

    • Sumanai says:

      Wasn’t Elemental released broken because it was their first time without a licensed engine? Also the project was ran by an inexperienced AI programmer, who seemed very happy about giving up the reins a few months back.

    • You should have a read of this month’s Edge magazine. There’s an interview with the new head of THQ where he talks about precisely this. He says that most games are pretty much created by marketing to the detriment of the creative types, but that THQ are now changing all that and giving more power to them to create good games rather than just successful games.

      As for how much truth is behind it I don’t know

  8. S. Richmond says:

    http://www.escapistmagazine.com is 100% down for me. Can’t pull a DNS record from Google’s own DNS servers. O_O

    • Nathon says:

      It looks like whoever does their DNS is down and has been down for long enough for other DNS providers (like Google and OpenDNS) to have forgotten its IP address. Shamus could probably get there because he goes all the time and his ISP’s DNS server has a special place where they cache it just for him.

  9. Patrick the Oppressive says:

    I think you’re forgetting the ‘sequel’ factor. Movies have substantial cost reductions in production aspects when filming sequels, making them more profitable even f less people see it. Funding is easily available for sequels to successful movies since lenders are less worried about losing their shirts. While these extra funds are not really needed, it makes making a movie alot easier since you don’t have to worry about a budget. Actors are more familiar with their roles and it takes fewer takes to get a scene. camera crews, boom guys, makeup and even the caterers are more familiar with a routine. Sequels are what can make or break the descision to green light a project in movies and I’m sure in games as well.

    You think the guys at EA working on Madden 13 have trouble getting money if they ask for it? F no…. they get whatever they want.

    I’m sure the team who made Assasins Creed didn’t just sell pitch the idea of one game, they pitched the idea of 4+ games. With 2 of them being made at the same time really.

    The Sims would have never been made if someone didnt point out the infinite amount of “booster packs” that could be produced. How much does one of those things take to make? 50 bucks? You were an item designer for a time, how long would it take you to whip up a new “Justin Beiber” booster pack? a week? selling for 25 bucks?

    Transformers got a 100 million dollar budget because they knew they could make 3-4 more, each costing less than the one before it and selling just as many tickets. Scott Pilgrim has no sequel.

    • Daimbert says:

      Well, plus that they knew they had a sizeable audience that would go see it, and so they knew they had some money in the bag. As an example, I’d never heard of Scott Pilgrim before the movie came out — and I still haven’t seen it — but had definitely heard — and been a fan — of Transformers.

      The Star Wars prequels got the same sort of treatment; everyone knew they’d make money even if they didn’t turn out to be as good as expected. Movies and games without that sort of context are far riskier. Some will pay off and some won’t.

  10. Daimbert says:

    Well, the last three PC games I bought, and that are sitting in my queue waiting to be played are:

    Tropico 3
    The Sims: Medieval
    Dungeons (the new Dungeon Keeper inspired game)

    I’m not sure if any of these count as big budget, but they aren’t indie either. I certainly expect “The Sims: Medieval” to sell well, and it makes me yearn for an updated version of Majesty that takes some of the same features and does it better.

    I think the more creative and niche games are out there. They may not get the attention they deserve, though, and so people don’t notice them unless they take off. Dreamcatcher made adventure games for years — and some very creative ones, like Missing: Since January — and even made sequels — like Evidence for the aforementioned Missing — in the years when adventure games were being totally ignored. Overlord is an example of a game with a creative mindset that ended up becoming popular and getting some attention, but I doubt I’d have heard of it if it hadn’t been mentioned here.

    Maybe we just need to draw more attention to the niche games.

    • S. Richmond says:

      FYI – Dungeons is shockingly bad. Go reinstall DK2. ;)

      • Daimbert says:

        Well, I also do commentary for a newish gaming site, so if it’s really bad I might at least get an article out of it [grin].

      • Veloxyll says:

        It has one of the worst cost to fun ratios of games I’ve played lately. SO SO TERRIBLE. DK2 is a better game in every way.
        Dungeons suffers DA2’s not knowing what it wants to be, except I can’t make fun of people, taunt Anders or gib people.
        Sims Medieval is pretty fun though, if a bit repetitive (same can be said for Tropico). Both of them are good games still.

        • Daimbert says:

          I haven’t played Tropico 3 yet — and had issues with the key, since it wasn’t included with the game (seriously) — but I did give it a quick run after installing it and I do like some of the updates, like the avatar system. And I’m sure that some will appreciate that you can create a female dictator in the game [grin].

    • Mari says:

      I’m sad that you’ve played Dungeons and I haven’t. I miss DK and DK 2 and was so excited about Dungeons that I pre-ordered it on a non-Steam platform which shall remain nameless. Unfortunately I could never get it to actually run on my machine. I back and forthed with the Dungeons folks (Kalypso) and then those nice folks outsourced all their support when too many of us had problems with the game crashing on start. The new support people went through the same ineffective fixes again then shrugged and ignored us in favor of Steam users. So I bumped over to the GamersGate people who ran through the same ineffective fixes for a third time then directed me back to Kalypso with the claim that it wasn’t their problem. Eventually I had to get firm and demand a refund for the game after the update that was supposed to fix the problem couldn’t even occur because the game crashed too fast to update and Kalypso wouldn’t release a manual update to users at GG. After much buck-passing and avoidance, GG finally gave me in-store credit and my itch for DK is unscratched.

      The moral of the story is apparently that Steam is the only decent game service and I should suck up my fear of large corporate ventures and deal with them.

      • Daimbert says:

        Oh, dear.

        I haven’t even installed Dungeons yet — I bought an actual disk copy, though, as I was browsing in a store when I heard about it — but if it won’t run I will be … irritated.

        And yet, oddly happy, because it will get one thing off my list of games to play [grin].

        • Mari says:

          It’s obviously not a universal problem, or probably even enough to be considered “widespread” but there were quite a few of us on the Dungeons support forums with the issue. I didn’t see anybody with a physical disk posting, though, so maybe it’s isolated to online copies of the game. And beyond that, they released a patch that fixes the issue for Steam users. Unfortunately it required a separate manual update rather than the integrated “in game” patching system that we non-Steam users are having to use. I can’t imagine that it’s a huge problem, though, or they would have tried harder to fix it (I hope).

      • Veloxyll says:

        I’m jealous. You get the sexy imagined version of what it COULD’VE BEEN. without any of that pesky reality getting in the way. :P

        ps you didn’t do very well at keeping the shop nameless.

        • Mari says:

          It occurred to me halfway through the post that maybe the shop shouldn’t remain nameless because I’d hate to see other people go through the same issues. Unfortunately I’m in “running around like a chicken with my head cut off” mode today so I forgot to go back up and fix it.

          I think I’d almost rather have to deal with the sad reality of what is apparently a very lackluster game than always imagine how awesome it might have been and know I didn’t get to play it. In the back of my head, even after reading comments here about how bad it was, I’m thinking, “But maybe I would have liked it. Maybe everybody else is just wrong. Maybe I’m missing out on the most under-rated game in history…”

    • krellen says:

      Majesty 2 exists.

      • Veloxyll says:

        And is pretty fun. even if I’ve never finished it.

      • Daimbert says:

        You know, I kinda remembered that after posting.

        But I’ll bet that it doesn’t let you actually create specific heroes, which you can at least do for the ruler in the The Sims: Medieval. I think I’d like a Majesty 3 with a little more control — optional, I suppose — to make it more personal.

      • Mari says:

        It’s funny that you mention that. A while back GOG ran a special of Majesties 1 and 2 together for a ridiculously low price. I naturally grabbed it. I tried Majesty 2 a couple of times before I found myself playing the original again. Recently I’ve gone back to it and am currently running my fantasy kingdom once again through all the campaigns, trying to beat my old records. I’d forgotten how much I love this game.

        • krellen says:

          I just love the advisor’s voice acting.

          • Mari says:

            “Majesty! A building! is complete!”
            “We’ve improved! the guardhouse!”
            “Our research! in the library! is finished!”
            “Your magic bazar! offers new! potions!”

            Honestly, the advisor is pretty cool but my favorite is the scenario where your kingdom is under a curse of stupid and you can hear the guards in the background going on catapult rides.

  11. S. Richmond says:

    Shamus,

    My own take on the question of cost to develop games is that we’re currently in a period of heavy and rapid technology growth. The industry is moving at such a pace that indie’s and middleware companies alike seriously struggle to turn these technologies into wieldable tools.
    I do however believe the pace is slowing. Middleware, or really end-to-end’ware like Epic’s UDK is a huge step towards a much more efficient development life-cycle.
    Tech is only around that corner that allows artists to literally jump into a level and begin painting in a sort of 3D photoshop environment with no thought necessary to texture size or resolution (iD TECH 5). After that tessellation technology will further remove the artist from having to deal with polycount too.
    Development is actually about to get cheaper in my opinion.

    • Eric says:

      I agree. I’ve been using various game development tools for a number of years (mostly for just my hobbyist purposes), and I can say that by far the biggest barrier to entry in creating games are the tools, and so much time can be eaten up just trying to learn them. So many of them have conflicting standards, broken features, bizarre work-arounds for everything, make it difficult to do some things and easy to do others, etc. that by the time you’re familiar with them, it’s three months later and your interest has waned. A lot of tools work great internally, I’m sure, when you can just ask the guy who created it how to do something, but for the modder and indie developer, it takes up a lot of time.

      Right now I’m working on a Dragon Age mod, and while the Toolset isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever used, it has some major, major problems and annoyances… no easy way to browse certain types of models, for instance, no way to preview animations in-editor, extremely lengthy times to visualise lights in a level and then getting completely different results from what you expected each time, requiring constant and time-consuming adjustment, etc. It’s all kind of a mess, and while you can definitely do cool stuff when you’re dedicated, I’d say probably the first month and a half of my mod’s development was hamstrung by just figuring out the tools (which is why I’m almost happy I lost a bunch of my progress in a system crash; in recreating the content I ended up being able to recreate a lot of stuff to a much higher standard).

      I have to say that the best game editor I’ve ever worked with is CryEngine 2. It has its faults, but holy crap, is it intuitive to use. Easy, on-the-fly testing, in-editor viewports that show what you get in the game pixel-for-pixel, relatively easy to understand objects, flow graphs for scripting that doesn’t require programming knowledge (I had to learn some C++ just to get my basic quests in Dragon Age to work), etc. I’ve seen previews of id Tech 5 and it looks like an even greater step up… manipulating objects in 3D space is always going to be a bit awkward, same with terrain editing, but texturing the environment and getting great results almost right off the bat looks extremely appealing to me.

  12. imre says:

    This is a topic that has been bugging me for years now. Yes, there is a huge gap between “big” games made with a budget of tens of millions of dollars, and indie games with a budget of maybe a few tens of thousands. Almost no one seems to be making games that cost something like $200K – $500K.

    @Lanthanide: Paying a salary to a team of 9 over 9 months would cost at least $200K. Most indie entrepreneurs can’t afford that much. That kind of budget already requires an investor (or publisher, whatever), and not only is it hard to find one as a small indie startup, but also that would probably force the team to move away from niche markets and original ideas towards the mainstream.

  13. Hal says:

    I’m not sure where the problem lies, but I’d agree that $100M games are a big problem, especially because that pricetag guarantees little to no innovation in terms of what the game brings to the table. If the game has to sell like gangbusters just to break even, you go with the tried-and-true formula, even if it ends up feeling stale. I’d be ecstatic if they made a bunch of $1-10M games but left room for new IPs, innovative gameplay, and out-of-the-box thinking, but that just doesn’t seem to be the way things are done.

  14. Tobias says:

    Shamus, could you tell your chums at the Escapist what a Twitter account is for? The website has been down for quite some time and there’s nothing on Twitter about it.

    … and now I realized that it’s probably because hardly anybody’s at work yet.

  15. Daemian Lucifer says:

    The thing about the gap in the price is that games mostly use the same resources,while movies vary a lot in that department.If you want to add more explosions to a game,you just tell the coders to do it,you dont need extra crew and material for it.If you want more scenery,you just tell the artists to make them,you dont need new sets.Plus,you dont need as many live actors for a game.

    • Kanodin says:

      Which makes the current realism trend all the more disappointing. These game designers could go off the wall with the art style and do something really imaginative and interesting without really adding to their budgets. Instead we get dozens of brown shooters a year.

  16. webrunner says:

    I chalked up Scott Pilgrim’s lack of success to the following factors:

    Americans don’t want to watch a movie about Canada.

    Canadians don’t want to watch a movie about Toronto.

    Torontonians don’t want to watch a movie without subtitles.

    I don’t know what subtitles want to watch. I think they’re just content to sit there.

    • krellen says:

      From my experience, its failure is largely because its target audience contains a lot of people that can’t stand Michael Cera and refused to see it on principle.

      • Irridium says:

        I’m… actually one of those people. I thought it was another god damn teen drama but this time peppered with video game references to try and draw in the video-game crowd. As a result, I opted for The Expendables. After all, to me it was “Every action star” or “Michael Cera”. Yeah, the choice kind of made itself.

        I was going to go see it. But then Moviebob’s video came out and essentially insulted everyone who went to see the Expendables instead of Scott Pilgrim. And since he’s “internet famous”, everyone who watches his stuff starts doing the same thing. I myself got quite a few hate messages for explaining my stance on the matter(what I said above).

        Now, I’m just not seeing it out of spite.

        • krellen says:

          Spiting yourself, really. If you like Shamus’s site, you’ll probably love the movie. It has overtaken The Princess Bride as my favourite movie of all time.

      • Soylent Dave says:

        More seriously, it failed (as in ‘failed to recoup its budget’) because its target audience is relatively small to begin with

        It’s easy to forget that “nerds in their late 20s and 30s*” are a niche market (particularly when you hang around places like Shamus’ blog!). In Scott Pilgrim‘s case it’s even more of a niche, because they really also need to be videogame nerds who like coming of age films.

        It’s quite a large niche market, and when you’re part of it (and most of your friends are, too, and all the places you visit on the internet are as well) then it’s easy to think that it’s massive, but it’s still incredibly tiny compared to the mainstream audience.

        (although the fact that this same niche is liable to violently oppose things (like Michael Cera) just because they’re getting a bit too popular definitely didn’t help matters).

        It is a really good film. But I am pretty squarely in the niche, so it’s not that surprising I liked it (yay to them for targeting a film at me, though!)


        *I know people outside this age range liked it, but marketing doesn’t. Or something.

    • Jarenth says:

      From the European (Dutch, specifically) perspective: I can’t remember ever having seen Scott Pilgrim play here, in any of the major movie theatres.

      This might have hobbled it a bit in comparison to Transformers 2.

  17. DanMan says:

    I would add a link if I could access the Escapist from work, but it’s blocked for gaming…

    Anyway, to comment on your later questions without reading your article, I would direct you to the Extra Credits guys and their discussion of the symbiosis of indie and AAA publishers. (I know you already watch them, so maybe more of a reminder).

    If the AAA companies concentrated on 1 or 2 huge blockbusters per year then spent money allowing their indie branch go wild with a budget, we could see a ton of innovation while still realizing profits.

    The problem is that the AAA game publishers are afraid of Waterworld – $100 million bust, so they find something that works and spend a ton of money copying it. If they could feel safe making a game that is outside the box, they could make a lot of money on less risk.

    The Extra Credits guys make this point better. I will try to add a link here when I get home, unless someone beats me to it. It was just a couple months ago that they made the episode to which I refer.

  18. Veloxyll says:

    Your Friday Column killed the Escapist :(

    Also, the gross of a movie isn’t that interesting a figure, I’d be more interested in the net. Possibly as a % of the cost. Because sure more people saw Transformers, but that’s got a good 20-30 years of brand name backing it. Scott Pilgrim is a new IP, so while it was probably a better movie (I haven’t seen it, but I’m still pretty sure), it only gets people who are interested in the movie. Not those guys and fans of its long long history.

    As for the whole “there’s no middle market in gaming, it’s either indie, app store, or giant budget” thing, part of it is probably due to companies re-inventing the wheel whenever they make a new game. I dunno, maybe I’m just crazy, but surely EA with it’s 500 different companies all making brown shooters could…collaborate? Use a shared engine for games? maybe some sort of shared model pool. I mean, they’ve known since Sims 2 that 2x the polygons does not give 2x the profits.

    If you look at all the amazing things they did with the Quake 3 engine, there were fpses and third person rpgs and colours! And, occasionally, Lightsabers! I’m already suffering Yelloverload from Spoiler Warning FO3:NV and it’s 2 episodes in. Think of all the other colours they’d have if they colaborated! It just seems daft to bemoan the cost of producing games, then have every team working on solving the same problems. Even if someone comes up with an innovative solution TO a problem, the knowledge is kept on that one dood, and their project rather than used in ALL your productions.
    I mean, one of these companies OWNS Maxis, a company that specialises in making games that simulate BUILDING A DAMN CITY. But all your dev teams have to make their own cities from scratch. You have another division which makes and sells games where the daily lives of people are simulated. Gee, I wonder if they’d be helpful for making realistic civilian behaviour in cities?
    Then more of your $100m can be spent on making new and interesting games, rather than doing something that’s already been done. Now in 64 million shades of brown!

  19. Wolfwood says:

    I’m guilty of liking the easier simpler approach :P

    I enjoyed Scott Pilgrim and Transformer 2 :P

    Also on this topic and others similar to it. I highly recommend everyone who hasn’t, watch the movie Idiocracy. XD

  20. X2-Eliah says:

    On that article, you also mentioned something about game forum discussions (too tired to remember what exactly).. Something about trolls, perhaps.

    Anyway, first thought I had when reading that was “Bioware forums”.

    So, now that I’ve the opportunity, I’ll just leave this as a reply:

    Bioware forums.

  21. Irridium says:

    I think there are too many blockbusters. Or too much of a focus on blockbusters at least. In the industry there’s this train of logic that states: “If it doesn’t have a giant-ass budget and isn’t a blockbuster, it won’t make money”.

    Or thats at least the logic of Ubisoft. Basically, everyone’s trying to do Avatar and Transformers. Instead of, say, District 9 or Predators. Trying to do big blockbusters instead of lower-budget stuff. Even though lower-budged stuff provides a LOT less risk and has a higher chance of turning a profit, but for some reason Publishers don’t understand this.

  22. Jokerman89 says:

    Waterworld is underrated

  23. SolkaTruesilver says:

    The graphic issue can be side-stepped quite easily for an indy developper who is willing to take a bold step, promoting gameplay rather than AWESOME graphics, yet still conveying the feeling and atmosphere you want.

    Can anybody take a guess what’s the obvious solution?

    • Irridium says:

      Um… have a strong art-style so your game doesn’t look bad, but is still not very graphics-intensive?

      • SolkaTruesilver says:

        Bingo. My personnal preference, go with comic-book grade graphics.

        You can still retain 3-d elements, but keep it basic. Hell, you can make it ultraviolent if you want to avoid the “kiddy” issue.

        Either whatever comic book style you take (and I include mangas), stick with your theme and leverage it to hell. Instead of processing 405235 polygons to make a perfect rendering of an orc, just have nice drawings that can be automatically and randomly generated with procedural contents.

  24. Chris B Chikin says:

    I’m not sure I agree with Shamus that the reduction in the weapons you can carry is a sign that games are dumbening down. Sure, I get the point that you have fewer ammo counts to keep track of but I think this is outweighed by the challenge of selecting which weapons you carry.

    In the older games that allowed you to carry every weapon you could be pretty sure that you were prepared for every situation. In Halo, you have to choose your weapons much more carefully. I’d love to lug around this rocket launcher for the entire level in case I run into a Wraith, but that only leaves me with one slot for everything else which could range from lone elites to be dealt with using a sniper rifle, to hordes of infection forms against which only the assault rifle will put out enough lead at once. So I’m forced to forego this beautiful god-cannon in favour of a balanced strategy. In a game where I could carry the rocket launcher, sniper rifle, assault rifle, etc. at once I’d never have to consider this problem – just select the appropriate gun for each fight and fire till everything’s dead or I run out of ammo, in which case I’m probably carrying another weapon that will do the job just as well.

    And because of the challenge, it’s possible to get it wrong. I’m sure every Halo player has had that moment where they’ve been fighting their way through waves of Elites at close quarters. Just as only a few remain, your shotgun runs dry. You switch to your other gun; a sniper rifle wholly unsuited for this sort of fight. If you survive, the next few seconds you spend frantically blasting into the enemy a few feet away will probably be some of the best moments in the level, ones which you just wouldn’t have had if you’d still been able to switch to any of the assault rifle, plasma rifle, SMG or pistol.

    But then again, I’m one of these curious people that doesn’t actually lament the current difficulty of games, enjoys cutscenes, and puts Halo: Combat Evolved and Gears of War 2 in his top five games.

    • Chuck says:

      True, but this system can awry. In Resistance 2, whatever gun is best suited for your situation is usually just sitting there waiting for you. Thanks guys, how about you keep the weapon wheel so I can figure out which weapon is best? Plus I wanna keep my Rossmore.

      Like so many things in gmaing, if its done right, it works. If its not, it doesn’t.

      Wait, did I just praise Halo… I have failed as a PS3 fanboy…

    • Gndwyn says:

      I think that for a lot of us that started playing FPS with Doom and Quake and Duke Nukem 3D, it’s just boring to have only two weapons to choose from. In practice, it means you spend long stretches of the game carrying the most boring middle-of-the-road weapons because you need the versatility.

      Rocket Launchers and Sniper Rifles are fun! Why should the game create all these roadblocks that keep me from having a rocket launcher when it would be most fun to use it?

      • Chris B Chikin says:

        I was born in 1990 and didn’t catch up with the console race til I got an XBox in about 2003. Before that I had a PS1, a SNES, and a Sega Master System – oh, and parents who adhered to the age limits on games. I missed out on Duke Nukem, Doom, Quake and all the other marvels you beardy sods keep wittering on about! :P

        Anyway, I think it’s that argument you just made that usually causes level designers to put a rocket launcher five metres before you encounter the tank; the scenario Chuck is so distasteful of. I don’t have much of an opinion either way, but I do find taking out said tank with a rifle and grenades is a lot more fun than just throwing rocket at it.

        • Chris B Chikin says:

          Also, I actually find the ability to carry lots of weapons at a time to be an immersion breaker. A real soldier can’t carry more than two or three tops, so the idea that my character’s keeping twenty various modes of devastation in his pants is a little ridiculous.

    • Shamus says:

      “but I think this is outweighed by the challenge of selecting which weapons you carry.”

      I’ve been playing a lot of military shooters lately, so choosing your weapons means picking which automatic rifle you want to use. Once in a while they go crazy bananas and give you, say, a shotgun.

      Realistic, but when mixed with all of the other uninspired choices, leaves you with a very dull experience.

      • Chris B Chikin says:

        I agree with you on that point. Every weapon in a game should be noticeably unique in more than just its damage output.

        I don’t have XBox Live so I go for games with solid single player. That means I’ve not played Modern Warfare or whichever Call of Duty everyone’s making a fuss about, but I imagine there’s very little difference between choosing the M16 and choosing the FN SCAR. Both are assault rifles with, I expect, only marginal differences in damage and range, and they’re only a fraction of the family of rifle redundancy on the game.

        Every weapon in a game should be unique. The thing I liked about the weapons in Halo: Combat Evolved was that they each had very different mechanics. Even the assault rifle and plasma rifle, while both automatic weapons with roughly the same damage output, had noticeable gameplay differences. One needed reloading while the other overheated; one was strong against shields while the other worked well against flesh. The same was true with the pistol and it’s Covenant counterpart. Both pistols, but one was a miniature sniper rifle while the other was death incarnate for a shielded opponent.

        The weapons were so well done that when Halo 2 came along I was often looking at some of the new weapons like WTF?. The new covenant sniper rifle was almost the same as the human one. There was no difference between the Battle Rifle and Carbine, and I’m at a loss to explain the existence of another plasma rifle. Having two weapons that did the exact same thing added nothing to the game, so why do it?

        In one of his videos I think Yahtzee laments the sameness of the pistol/rifle/shotgun/sniper/rocket/BFG boxes, each of which games try to tick once with a particular weapon. However, I agree with you that ticking that box more than once is just redundant. Having to decide, prior to a close-quarters engagement, between the shotgun and the assault rifle is a challenge. Having to choose between the Remington 870 and the Benelli M4 is just silly.

        • Jennifer Snow says:

          There’s also a problem with the “lots of unique weapons but you can only carry a few”–if they make the difference between the weapons MATTER in some way, you have to be prescient about what’s coming up. And if they make it NOT matter, really (so that it’s just a personal choice of playstyle), there may as well only be 3 weapons in the game. Or, ONE. Either way, somebody’s time is getting wasted.

          I run across this problem a lot with Bioware games and companions–because I want to take the companions on the quests that have interesting reactions/things to say/stuff to do. But you can’t KNOW which companions those are until you’ve already played through that part of the game.

          I’d be perfectly happy if, in many games, they just ASSIGNED you companions for a given section (maybe have *a few* pick and mix sections like when you were coming up on major boss battles). This would open up a lot of possibilities for storytelling because they’d know who you would have at a given point. You’d also have a more varied experience because you’d get time to try out all the various options at least a little.

          Why not do this with weapons in shooters? In most sections, you get a set loadout and get to live with it. (As a dev, you could pull some hilarious stunts on people this way, too: “WHAT DO YOU MEAN I GET A BEEBEE GUN AND THREE GRENADES?! AND I HAVE TO ASSAULT THE FORTRESS ALONE?! WTF?!?!?” and then when boss battles were coming up they let you loose in the armory and you get to pick what you’d most like to have.

          Granted, probably every other person than myself in the entire world would hate this. :P

          • Chris B Chikin says:

            True. I looked at your proposal like “Have the game choose my guns for me? No thanks!. I wouldn’t even like that system imposed with the team in Mass Effect.

            And I would still take the challenge of picking my loadout properly over the ease of being able to wade into any situation with every weapon I could possibly need. Besides, a good level designer can usually ensure that every weapon will be used at least once in a game.

            As an experiment, try playing through an early Halo or Gears of War game from start to finish, and keep a list of all the weapons in the game next to you. As you play, tick off each weapon that you use.I expect that by the end of the game you’ll not have more than two, maybe three boxes unticked.

  25. Phoenix says:

    I loved the ultima series. It’s a thing of the past, origin being the company with the motto: “We create worlds”. And, especially compared to the typical modern game, it was true. Their later games were so rich and impressive. With ultima 8 and ultima 9 they already had problems, the conflict between a team that would complete the game and the marketing manager/whoever that push it to finish it before it’s really completed, thus dumbing down the story and certain aspects of the gameplay. It costs less and still appeal the most. You will wine, but you will buy it, and you will play it. Well, probably. :D

    Mount & blade is one of the indie games (has just two people I think) with most potential I’ve seen lately. The autors produced a sequel, warband, which is barely an expansion adding multiplayer and few things in single player, with a little refresh of graphics. I played a lot the first, the graphics are out-dated however the gameplay it’s extraordinary and does something never seen before. But I feel it’s an exception, and no matter what feels incomplete. The gameplay was so good that I closed an eye on other things that the authors hadn’t time to do/fix.

    I’ve seen a few original games lately, but despite the originality yeah, they feel dumb compared to the past.

    I think that complexity requires more effort. Also, dumb games perhaps have more appeal. So you put the two things togheter and see why the games are taking this path. So it’s improbable to expect something that smart from big companies. It’s the market.

    So, the typical renounce that indie games do is graphics. Or they make them really short. Or the other things you all said up there. But often isn’t enough. It looks pretty hard, I don’t think it’s impossible but it’s still pretty hard.

    The market influences everything, politics, our lives. It’s only natural that it reflects in videogames. It’s probably the less damaging reflection of the market that I can imagine. It’s naive to blame the stereotypical console player.

  26. Tohron says:

    Your comments reminded me of a developer journal by Brad Wardell, CEO of Stardock: http://forums.elementalgame.com/406827

    It goes to show that there are still companies aiming to produce games with budgets somewhere between “indie” and “AAA”. Sins of a Solar Empire was made by a 20-30 man studio and published by Stardock, but it was able to compete in its niche because it did things no other game had previously done, and with more detail than indie producers could have managed.

    Perhaps there aren’t enough companies like this, but at least they exist.

  27. Jennifer Snow says:

    Did you read my comment about The Long Tail in the Escapist comment thread? Anyone looking to read more about the economics of blockbusters should definitely read that book.

    Anyway, yeah, the big games are currently stuck in a blockbuster model, caught between high costs of entry and the publishers’ corresponding demands for high profits. But I think we are gradually edging away from this with DLC and other similar stuff. (Another good book to read is “everything bad is good for you”). DLC lets companies extend the lifetime of a game, get more money out of a game that has itself gone down in price point quite a lot. People bitch about DLC as the company trying to squeeze extra money out by releasing and “incomplete” game, but the game IS a complete game without the DLC/expansion. The DLC adds stuff, it doesn’t take it away. It makes it so that you can fire up a game you enjoyed a while ago, and enjoy it all over again. You get more out of your games this way. The company gets more out of the game this way. And it helps break that blockbuster model where we only get the most inane, lowest-common-denominator game possible because 10 million people HAVE to buy it the first week it’s out.

  28. Brandon Walker says:

    Darnit, Shamus, I like so much of what you write, and yet you so often use “less” where you should be using “fewer”. Fewer people, not less people.

  29. Deoxy says:

    I miss my small community, where I could squeeze in reading all the comments before I added my own. Sigh.

    Apparently, Shamus has gotten dumber, as he now appeals to more people. :-)

  30. Tizzy says:

    To give an idea of how hard 3D development can be, I guess we can try to look at volunteer projects. Of course, volunteers are just that, and it’s harder to maintain the momentum especially with a scattered team, but Black Mesa, the Source port of the original HL, has been languishing for a while now.

    An ambitious project, agreed, and maybe they suffer from the tyranny of having to measure up to the original, and more. Still… 40 people team, engine ready and guidelines from the original. It suggests that 3D development must be brutal.

  31. RichVR says:

    Tycho at Penny Arcade has a few things to say about this today. Of course it’s composed of his usual bloated verbiage and may well be too much to work to read for most people. I leave it up to the individual to decide.

  32. Neil Polenske says:

    “I think the best approach is for games to offer enough flexibility to appeal to people of different tastes.”

    Thing is, wouldn’t this be just as prohibitively expensive – if not moreso – than 2d/3d conversion? At least in conversion to 3d, there are a wiiiiiide variety of pre-set engines to work with and once you’ve actually created the art assets, your done with ’em.

    Here, you’re suggesting…well I’m not sure what you’re suggesting. It’s a very vague statement. It has about as much solidarity as “Games would be better if they made them better.”

    But let’s apply solidarity to it by giving it the context of difficulty like you did with F: NV. In NV, I’m assuming hardcore only applied to character interactions entirely dependent on the user. In other words, turning on hardcore didn’t effect any missions or ‘story events’. No dialogue was altered as a result. And being an open world sandbox game, this would be a relatively easy since the mechanics are very localized and player dependent. What you’re doing in the beginning of the game – in terms of game mechanics – is what you’ll be doing at the ass end of it.

    But not every game is Fallout. Other games have pacing to consider, or mechanics that vary during the game. Increasing the ‘flexibility’ of a game means increasing the amount of design, testing, and even art assets required to polish these new elements – tripling the work load. This is in an era when games are already prohibitively expensive.

    Which I believe is the REAL reason games aren’t as complicated as they used to be or at least a considerable contributor. It’s not just to appeal to a wider audience, but to developers who just don’t have the resources to create and polish multiple game elements in such varying degrees.

    • Shamus says:

      Yeah, it was very vague. I was thinking of options to remove complexity from the game. (Like Hardcore in F:NV) Not so much easy / hard as simple / deep. Kind of “turn the combat of Dragon Age into Diablo”.

  33. Tizzy says:

    By the way, the move away from 10 guns collected from weakest to strongest that was the hallmark of classic FPSes is probably a GOOD thing. I always hated how you spent a lot of time with a handful of weak guns, and then had so little time to learn how to make the most of the big ones.

    Now, if they could make the last logical step, which is to give me powerful guns when I’m learning the game and less powerful ones when I know what I’m doing… That would make it more fun than to pit me against absurdly powerful enemies in endgame…

    • Sumanai says:

      People keep talking about that, and it bugs me. I agree, but I’ve had an idea for several months about a game that I’ve kept to myself and I every time someone mentions “worse equipment/skills over time” I feel like going on a rant about the idea.

      Fine, better to let it out. A first or third person perspective melee combat -based action game where you play as a knight. No skill system, but there’s equipment with varying stats. The player character starts with great equipment and over the course of the game the equipment will wear down and/or break. This forces the player to pick up the crappy ones the enemies drop or keep using the damaged items already carried.

  34. bubba0077 says:

    Here’s another take on the issue posted yesterday from another blog I follow: http://theferrett.livejournal.com/1603424.html

    He focuses mainly on movies and books, but I think it applies to games as well. The author is a former book purchaser for Borders, so he has some experience in the matter as well.

  35. Amarsir says:

    I was hoping forever you’d bring up this topic, and then due to the Thursday publish I almost missed it.

    I’m certain that the overall trend in games is not for them to get simpler. The natural progression is for increasing complexity and we’re so expectant of it that anything to the contrary stands out.

    WoW was called “dumbed down” because of Cataclysm changes. But is the game simpler than it was 6 years ago? Back then it had fewer locations to recognize, fewer instance enemies to know, fewer abilities to learn, and fewer professions to integrate. Now you have to understand which glyphs combine with which specialization tiers to amplify the benefit of which gems are socketed into your tier 11 armor. Back then you just looked at your weapon to see if the dps was higher. Now enemies don’t aggro for levels 1-5, but you get the entirety of 80-85. Net loss to complexity? I don’t think so.

    Magic: the Gathering has been trying similar updates for a few years. A big issue was removing “mana burn”, so you don’t have to track unused resources. That was 2 years ago and people still talk about it. But in those 2 years there have been over 8 new sets, a thousand new cards, and a dozen new keywords. The game isn’t getting less complex, they’re just trimming complexity in some places to justify the additions we take for granted.

    I think you’re right that it relates to new acquisitions, but it’s less a new breed of gamer and more just new gamers. We’ve been learning for years as we play and accepted new complexity piecemeal. Someone coming in fresh has a much steeper learning curve. And this is easy to take for granted.

    One impression RIFT left on me was that not only are they targeting the WoW player, I feel they’re only targeting the WoW player. MMOers were taken by the availibilty of options and frequency of raid-style events. But someone new to the genre would still be figuring out how to move because RIFT rushes through all that. (Unlike WoW which displays the WASD keys on-screen for you to hit.) RIFT may do well with hardcores but will need work to bring MMO virgins.

    So yes, there may not be so many developments with a big challenge purely for experienced gamers who want a steep curve on top of what they already know. But games in both the micro- and macro- view are only getting more complex as more are created. As final take-away look at Portal, one of the most casual-friendly first person games ever made. Is there any doubt that Portal 2 will be considerably more complex?

  36. Rack says:

    Transformers 2 is probably the perfect analogy to what the “hardcore” gamers want. It’s unnecessarily twisted, convoluted and messy. It’s not a smart film, but it’s hard to follow just because it demands attention and rewards it with puerile crap.

    It’s the shooter with ten different guns one of which is the best at everything, the strategy game with 50 troop types and the best strategy is to make a massive pile of the best one and push it at the enemy, the RPG with a thousand different stats for damage, the fighter with 20 button long combos.

    The gold standard is to make something that is simple and easy to play, but has real depth to it. Unfortunately most of the people who complain about games “dumbing down” are too dumb to understand anything with depth.

  37. Don'tKnowMyName says:

    It’s funny that the article brings up New Vegas’s hardcore mode, because it shows why such an implementation doesn’t work and should be avoided. Everyone’s already read dozens of articles and forum posts on this, but its hardcore mode doesn’t actually add any challenge, it just adds a few tedious things whose only test is of your patience rather than skill.

    Compare NV’s hardcore mode to an actual hardcore survival game, like UnReal World or Robinson’s Requiem (both of which everyone should play, BTW), or even other games that mixed RPG mechanics with survival aspects like Realms of Arkania. These games work much better in that respect because they’re actually designed around their hardcore mechanics. Let’s take a more specific example. In RR, there are no hit points, instead your character’s physical condition is represented by specific injuries to specific locations. If you’re hit by someone with a knife, you won’t see that you lost x hit points, but instead your diagram of your character will show that you have a gash somewhere on your body, requiring you to manually treat it with the appropriate process (and if you don’t know what that process is, you better get the handbook and look it up quick). NV couldn’t have something like this no matter how hardcore the developers wanted hardcore to be, because the hit points system is so thoroughly ingrained into the mechanics that it wouldn’t have been reasonable for them to change it. Not only would they have had to implement the specific damage, but the would also have to change the Endurance stat and so on. Yes, I know NV has limb damage, but all that really is is hit point values over a picture of your body that only improves when you use a certain item so it doesn’t really count.

    Other aspects of survival games just show how difficult it would be for a regular open world game to have a true hardcore mode. Actually, some of the things Fallout has now kind of pales compared to other survival games. For example, the sheer scope of URW’s crafting system, allowing you to create everything from traps to clothes to tools, makes it far more interesting than what appears in NV.

    If NV’s hardcore mode shows anything, it’s just how all-or-nothing such gameplay is. If developers really want a game to have hardcore aspects, it needs to be designed and built with those aspects in mind the ground up. I wouldn’t mind seeing a true hardcore survival sim like RR in the Fallout series. Based on both brand recognition and hardcore pandering, maybe it could even do well…

  38. […] anyway, then Shamus talked more about this on his blog, and hell, this time I might as well just quote him directly. “We keep looking to indies to […]

  39. JPH says:

    Hey Shamus! Don’t know if you’re ever going to read this comment since there’s already over 100 of them, but I actually cited and responded to your article in my own blog entry.

    You probably don’t care about Super Meat Boy so you might only want to read the first half of my post. Anyway, shameless plug time!

    http://ninjagameden.wordpress.com/2011/04/09/old-school-gaming-and-super-meat-boy/

    I’d really like to know what you think.

    • Shamus says:

      Great stuff.

      Interesting that you played Deus Ex last year. It’s rare to find people who:

      1) Are willing to play the game
      2) Haven’t already done so.

      A post relating your reactions and impressions to the game would be really interesting.

      • JPH says:

        Yeah, that’s part of the reason why I love Steam. They like to put old games like DX on big sales every now and then. I remember seeing the game on sale for $2.50, and I remembered seeing people on forums saying it’s one of the greatest games of all time, so I figured, what the hell?

        And it ended up being my favorite game ever.

        I’ve been planning on making a post about Deus Ex for awhile. I might get on that for next week.

  40. Ish says:

    Despite the rather divergent strategy that the conversation has taken in the comments, I think the idea of the mid-range pseudo-indie game is really important… That is where we (as gamers interested in these elder niche markets) could really see games we want to play.
    I think most of us (as consumers) would love to see these games, and would gladly pay the slightly lower production values and 5-year-old graphics to get them.
    It is, however, very much new territory for development, which would certainly make things very difficult. It means some game companies have to prove that it can be done, before such a thing starts to proliferate.
    The only game I can think of remotely in this vein is Achron (achrongame.com) the Time-travelling RTS. They’ve got a rather interesting development model which hopefully will be successful and become popular.

  41. I’ll note that WoW has expressed that their design intent was to make the game easier and more accessible.

    http://us.battle.net/wow/en/forum/topic/2369917233#9

  42. […] We need smarter, cheaper games that have their priorities in order and don’t care if an audience small… […]

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  1. […] anyway, then Shamus talked more about this on his blog, and hell, this time I might as well just quote him directly. “We keep looking to indies to […]

  2. […] We need smarter, cheaper games that have their priorities in order and don’t care if an audience small… […]

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