Saturday, August 06, 2005

The Illusion of Degradation

The Ol' Blind Spot

First, I'd like to thank for the link (Are games getting worse?) which sparked the following vitriol.

Second, I'd like to mention that, to a lot of people, the past always seems to look better. There is a saying in the Marine Corps, "The best unit in the Corps is the one you just left." Which means that the more miserable you are in the present, the more you have a tendency to whitewash the misery in the past, until you sit around wondering how the present got so shitty.

The most glaring prejudice in Matt Sakey's article is this line here, referring to the masterpieces of yesteryear:

"They didn't have super-accelerated graphics or realistic physics, so they had to be fun instead."

The equation in that sentence is: Graphics or physics = not fun. That's a pretty big conceit.

I'd like to point out that, the way I remember it, Wing Commander had fucking spectacular graphics. Wing Commander II, which I felt was the better game, added in some of the best rotoscoped animation and digital voice ever seen at that point in time. X-Com did amazing things with light and shadow and its isometric pseudo-3d was a visual treat. The alien animations still creep me out (especially the Chryssalids).

Quake came out in 1996, and I remember grabbing that initial demo level and just fiddling with the console until I discovered, "What's this? Gravity?" Don't try to tell me that physics can't add to a game environment.

We're evaluating from the wrong direction. Doom doesn't have great graphics; But when it first came out, the graphics were mindblowing. Utterly stupendous. Nothing like them had been seen before.

And if anybody tries to argue that there's a conceivable difference between Doom and Doom 3 gameplay, then I would very much like to know where that gulf exists. I remember Doom so fondly because it was groundbreaking in several ways, graphics being the top of the list (along with lighting, enemy design, sound design, the novelty of plowing through baddies with a chainsaw). I didn't find Doom 3 as revolutionary because, well, by now that game type is familiar. Can anybody see how that point of view has nothing to do with the games and everything to do with me?

Should every single videogame strive to do something absolutely original and revolutionary? Do we demand this kind of novelty from any other type of media? I've talked about novelty before.

And Mr. Sakey does mention that we tend to gussy up our memories and that might account for some of the "games were so much better in 19XX" mentality. But he quickly returns to his original point that, still, games today are getting worse.

Has he ever seen the dregs that infest the ROM Pit?

Does he remember when Full-Motion Video was going to be simply amazing and usher in a new golden age to free us from those shitty 1990 games?

The other thing at work with selective recall is that "cream rises to the top." We remember the games that awed us, that had an impact, that had us pulling all-nighters (thank you, Dragon Warrior IV), and we tend to forget (if only we can) nausea-inducers like Sewer Shark.


Mr. Sakey seems to place the blame on large studios. Large studios are evil. Large studios do not have real game designers calling the shots, they have instead horned demons that are trying to force substandard games upon the public for their own twisted amusements. Okay, he doesn't say that. But he does effectively damn the major publishers as if they simply didn't hire game designers, at all, anymore.

I admit that many things are done on the bottom line. But isn't it kind of naive to assume that this is some kind of new development in the gaming industry?

For every hardworking blood-sweat-and-tears indie game made twenty years ago, there was some half-assed corporate-team-produced claptrap following it into stores. And then there was some cheapass, bug-ridden indie game following that into stores. Followed by an outstanding studio-produced gem. And so on.

Are we supposed to assume that a "real game designer" wouldn't sully him/herself with such concerns as intended audience, budgetary concerns, marketing or *gasp* the opinions of the people working alongside him/her?

Does anybody remember that Nolan Bushnell sold off his failing but arguably progressive, creative company for a fat paycheck? How about suffering for the craft there? And didn't Atari make some pretty kickass games after that (circa 1978)?

And what kinds of idiot designers are working for these fatcat corporate pigs?

Well, is Mr. Sakey trying to say that, oh, CliffyB thinks "gamers should sit down and shut up and play what's given them"? From what I've read on his blog, I can't say the same gaming elements excite both CliffyB and myself, but that's okay. He seems to be designing a game which he would genuinely enjoy. Hardly a cavalier attitude.

What about Peter Molyneux? Just another robot in the trash-factory of big development studios. Why must he insist that gamers play with their monkeys?

Chris Taylor? That bastard started his own studio, where I'm certain he immediately stopped making games that he considered interesting and started trying to put out cross-marketed rubbish.

Yeah, Gabe Newell purposefully delayed Half-Life 2, pissing off countless gamers and wasting tons of publisher money, not so he could ensure that the game was worthy of being released and matched the creative vision, but so that . . . what?

Admittedly, I am naming top designers who enjoy leeway in making their games. I'm sure some companies do marginalize their designers in order to adhere to certain funding-based bottom lines. But if all you're looking at is that corporate logo, then maybe you're missing the person behind the game. And maybe it's easier to blame greed and the hype machine when you're faced with a lackluster game instead of admit that, hey, this designer made a bad game.

Designers can make bad games. They can make mistakes. They can, despite their best intention, release something that isn't satisfactory to many people. Fable, for example.

And I know that crappy movie tie-ins are released all the time (which is definitely not a videogame phenomenon). And there are committee-produced games based upon market research and prejudices about gamers' wants - but even that doesn't ensure a bad game.

Must we assume that games-with-a-budget are somehow "less pure" than games-made-with-nothing-but-love?

Yeah, yeah, music sounds better on vinyl.

And bands are so much better before they have money.


"Studio games have become the equivalent of dormitory cafeteria fare: safe, dubiously nutritious and ultimately bland."

So which games are good, just so we know and don't waste our time playing hours of a game, seemingly enjoying ourselves only to find out that we've been taken in by some lackluster studio game.

We've Created a Monster

The missing element in Mr. Sakey's essay is the gamers. Where do they factor in?

Someone is buying these games. Someone is supporting these horrible studios.

I know I am. I bought GTA. I bought Madden.

I've bought a lot of games in my lifetime. Some were good, some were bad, a few were great.

How many bought Halo 2?

How many gamers consistently buy violence-filled titles? My hand is raised. How many enjoy them? My hand is raised.

The studios can't force people to buy anything. If you're tired of certain types of games, try to get other people to stop buying them and demand the types of games you want to play.

If you like indie games, support them. Send them money. Do what you can.

Just remember that the current game development model has two parts: Developers and Consumers.

We, as consumers, are just as much to blame for our current title choices. And, yes, I would like to see some more variety. And, yes, I will complain about stale, cliched designs - and not buy that game - and then look around for something more interesting.

My, How You've Changed

Something I've noticed about my own gaming habits is that certain gameplay elements I once found addictive I now find . . . annoying.

An example: RPGs that require you to move your characters around just leveling them up in order to meet future challenges. When I was younger, I had no problem walking the same four little squares in Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior, waiting for the random battle, over and over and over again until that area stopped giving enough XP to level.

Then I moved on and did the same exact thing where the enemies were slightly stronger. Until that area became unfavorable.

Rinse and repeat.

Now, though, the idea of doing that in a game repels me. I don't have the time or inclination.

But I certainly don't blame the games for that.

Exploit My Creativity, Please

I dread admitting this, but I measure success in my creative endeavors by this standard:

1. Do I enjoy what I'm making?
2. Do others enjoy what I'm making?
3. Is there any way to get paid to do this?

Completely shocking. Believe me, if there were a way to convince people to pay to read this antagonistic, contrarian blog, you'd . . . well, you'd probably be reading something else. Hence the lack of a cover charge.

There's a reason BB King smiles while he's playing the blues. And, no, it's not because someone's squeezing his lemon.

Simply Madden-ing!

I know, I'm supposed to lament the fact that every year sees a new Madden game, but I don't. I just don't fucking care. I know many, many people who find each year's iteration just as compelling and out&out fun as last year's. I don't care for the game because my fingers are too dull to pull off the intricacy of the plays. Again, my problem.

Madden works. It's a proven line. But has anyone thought that it isn't just a marketing decision that sees a new Madden for each turn of the calendar, but that maybe, just maybe, there are earnest game designers who see serious flaws in past implementations and . . . that they feel there is just as much value in refining gameplay as inventing it?


Alien Hominid, Mr. Sakey? Alien Hominid? That's an example of a forward-thinking independent? There was nothing at all, repeat, nothing at all groundbreaking in the gameplay.

The strength of the game was in the character design and the graphics. Yes, graphics, though some would attempt to sidestep such an admission by using the word "artwork". And if you've played Contra at any point in your life you've pretty much tasted what Alien Hominid has to offer. It was a decent game that was such a success story because a publisher thought it was a decent game and deserved the money to help the developers turn it into a brand. And those developers certainly don't seem to have a problem with riding the marketing machine.

Regulators . . . Mount Up

I did download Mount & Blade.

"It's what games used to be like before they became predictable and unexciting, lost in a creative doldrums that's gone on since 1999."

No, it's not. It's an impressive, sparse game with some really great ideas and mechanics. Yes, Morrowind could definitely take some pointers from this game's melee system, but if I had my wish I'd take Mount & Blade's combat and merge it into Morrowind, because I found that world to be more compelling.

A good melee system does not make a great game. If you can't stop playing it, then, for you, it's probably a great game. I enjoyed myself a bit, but couldn't see a 20-hour session of it. Yes, the horses are amazing and would be in any game, but the rest of the elements just never clicked.

To be fair, the game isn't finished. But for me there seems to be a prejudice toward independent games because people want to equate their sympathy toward the technical difficulties of pulling off a videogame with what makes a game good. Or maybe that game just scratched your itch for a particular kind of gameplay.

It's easy to become attached to a misshapen, lopsided mug that was handmade by your own child and spurn that sleek, stainless steel coffee thermos from Starbucks as "soulless."

I'd drink from either.

Final Thoughts

I think I could support a statement such as: Super-accelerated graphics or realistic physics don't automatically make a game enjoyable. To me, that actually sounds reasonable. There's no reason to dismiss a game out of hand just because it's prettier than last year's model.

I enjoy gaming today just as much as ten years ago. I find that the ratio of crap-to-goodness-to-greatness has remained about the same, though we're seeing more of each type because of the expanding market.

Our own gaming preferences inform our view of videogaming as a whole.

If you're a hardcore traditional wargamer, then you probably lament the paucity of new wargames. A tragedy? For you. Proof that the whole freaking system is out of order? Hardly.

Are games devolving? I don't think so.

But I do think they could stand to evolve some new forms.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article. I'm a Musicologist who works on Popular Music, and I hear the same sorts of dismissive, elitist arguments made there. "Really popular music is all crap. All the people who buy it are dupes of the system and have no taste...except me...I buy non-commercial special music." I try to get people to realized that unpopular and fringe doesn't always mean better. I also try to get them to realize that all music they are buying is matter how "indie" it is being marketed as.

Capt_Poco said...

Nicely written. Most people who write about this stuff are either wordy or bombastic. Thanks for writing what most reasonable people believe about this subject.