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Crushing The Negative Trends in Video Games

G4Staff
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Posted April 13, 2012 - By G4 Staff


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  • Videos
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  • Cheats and Walkthroughs

  • Videos
    (13)
  • Screenshots
  • Cheats and Walkthroughs



Like any other entertainment industry, our hobby of choice has been plagued with some nasty trends lately. Chalk it up to growing pains, lack of diversity, or just plain bad decision-making, we can all trace a few crappy lines through the industry.

But this is no bloated rant or screed about how everything would be fixed if everyone would just go indie, man. We’ve got solutions – or at least, the beginnings of solutions – to each and every negative. Think of this as an exercise in creative problem solving.

It’s in our best interest to propose solutions. After all, we want to play awesome games – and killing lame trends helps us all in the long run.

Minecraft Sales Pass 1 Million Mark

The costs are out of control!

The problem: development costs are spiraling wildly out of control, causing studio closures, price hikes, and a variety of sub-problems, such as a lack of diversity in game content. AAA publishers are getting more and more conservative about the games they’ll greenlight – only “sure bets” will get funded, while lots of deserving IP and ideas get left in the cold.

On a related note, those costs get passed down to consumers, and we’re now seeing game content that “should” be included in a purchase carrying hefty DLC fees.

The solution: Run a tight ship, get creative, and embrace digital distribution.

AAA publishers don’t need to be the “gatekeepers” of gaming anymore, as the thriving indie community can tell you. One only needs to take a look at Steam and the mobile market to get a sense of what is possible when the barriers to entry are lowered.

Some games deserve the AAA attention and money, but that shouldn’t mean breaking the bank to get pretty graphics. Sound business practices, like making use of playtesting (not market testing but actual, iterative design) early in the process, incentivizing talent to stick with your company, and a dedication to good planning would go a long way in keeping costs down in the long run.

There’s always, of course, the idea of getting creative with business models. Mojang’s incredible success with MineCraft has allowed them to build a thriving business on their own unique model, where games are released in “alpha” and early adopters basically fund the completion on the projects.

Double Fine Productions has proven the wisdom in seeking new ground twice now – first by successfully transitioning from a AAA studio to a professional studio that deals in smaller downloadable games (essentially, releasing smaller games in shorter spans of time), then with their recent Kickstarter success.

None of this means that these precise models will work for every studio or publisher – but they are proof positive that playing smart – and playing to your company’s specific strengths – pays off.

Another possible solution comes in the form of digital distribution. Most of the experts agree that the industry will go all-digital someday, it’s just a question of when. Cutting all of the overhead required to produce physical media carves out a nice chunk of budget for studios to use.

Antichamber

Everything looks the same!

The problem: the market is overrun with me-too clones that thrive on ultra-violence and the color brown. On the other side of the fence, the “indie” scene is inundated with puzzle-platformers and fun but shallow physics-based cartoons with no real grounding.

The solution: Look a little deeper.

It’s always hard to show non-gamers our hobby – even the most “thoughtful” mainstream games can be pretty violent and dark (prime examples: BioShock and FallOut 3). However, it’s easy to overlook the sheer breadth of diversity in our industry – there’s so much out there that doesn’t fit into either the “mainstream” or the most visible echelons of the “indie scene”.

Take a game like Alexander Bruce’s fascinating Antichamber – a game the plays directly on expectations and always delivers something different. Or the work of Zach Cage, who started out with experimental work like the infamous Lose/Lose – a game that played a bit like Space Invaders, but deleted a file on the player’s computer every time he/she shot down an alien. He’s now making games like BitPilot and Halcyon, titles that bring his experimental design sensibilities with more accessible gameplay.

You needn’t look only to experimental (or semi-experimental) work to find folks doing interesting new things with games. Developers like Anna Anthropy are doing provocative things with tiny budgets and interesting ideas that you won’t see in a game about bald space marines. Her latest, Dysphoria is a personal story told in a game format, and another recent title, Realistic Female First Person Shooter is a satire based off of a sexist commenter’s forum post.

You can even stay pretty close to the mainstream and see plenty of exciting games that stray far from the “me too” attitudes on both ends of the budget spectrum: take the recent Journey, or the upcoming Quantum Conundrum and The Witness for prime examples.

Finally, much of the problem, such as it is, in the AAA space is due to the budgetary issues of problem #1 – big games cost big money, and they need to sell tons of units just to break even, let alone make a profit – meaning that they need to sell to lowest common denominator audiences. Easing the issues with cash could allow for more risk-taking and thematic diversity at this level as well.

'BioShock 2' First Impressions

Take your pick: Jesus or Hitler?

The problem: games that employ “morality systems” are often incredibly weak, offering only binary “good” or “evil” paths, with almost zero ambiguity.

The solution: Plot moral choices on different axes, such as the good of the many vs. the rights of the few, and/or offer choices that are plausibly complex (i.e. there are no easy answers).

Daniel Floyd gets it right in his excellent “Extra Credits” video on games and moral choice. Offering players only a “good” or “evil” decision is not only unrealistic and often ham-handed – it’s also boring.

He posits that plotting moral choices across axes is the best way to go about delivering meaningful, interesting choices for players, without having to produce reams of extra content (another – more expensive - way of dealing with multiple paths). Decisions that award points across axes – his basic example being the rights of the few vs. the good of the many – could make for genuinely interesting (read: difficult) choices in gameplay.

For example, imagine if BioShock’s big decision process was not “harvest” or “save” a little sister. Instead, you had a choice between saving the little sister, or harvesting her and thus directly gaining the ability to save a group of NPC’s trapped in a rapidly depressurizing ship. The choice then becomes important – pitting her right to live against the group’s survival – and it’s no longer a nigh-comical binary.

Another way to achieve this effect is in making choices relevant in some way to real-life dilemmas (while still keeping them consistent within the game’s fiction). Recalling plausible, harrowing moments of moral decision-making will serve to make those choices feel “real” to the player. The real world – and much of the best fiction - is filled with stories that have no clear-cut answers. That’s what makes them so interesting – and indeed, valuable – to ponder.

Danielle Riendeau is a freelance writer, digital media professor, and nonprofit web ninja from Boston.

Crushing The Negative Trends in Video Games
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