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“The Holy Trinity of Modern Shooters” or “Do AAA Developers Care About Critical Success or Commercial Success?”

January 4, 2012 1 comment

The Holy Trinity of Modern Shooters

I haven’t played a shooter in nearly two months. I finished Modern Warfare 3 the day it came out, not because it was oh-so-good (it wasn’t), but because there was a story that has been in the making since 2007, and I wanted to see it to whatever (largely bitter) end. I also played Battlefield 3, which was shockingly similar in premise, up to and including playable Russian operatives, but moderately more enjoyable and equally unlikely. Gears of War 3 is sitting somewhere around my Xbox, ready to be played, but I think at this stage, I am just tired of shooters.

It seems to be that shooters these days rely primarily on the three factors:

An on-rails experience: Everything these days seems to center around playing the role of the developer’s puppet, a well-trained mouse making it’s way down an elaborate maze while an invisible hand guides it and ridiculously over-the-top set-pieces fuel it.

Over the top action sequences: You can survive bullets to the face, you can outrun a nuclear explosion, you can survive at least three separate helicopter crashes, you can jump from the tallest buildings without breaking bones. And while we are at it, why is it that 90% of the time, the chopper that was supposed to rescue you, crashes right before, during, or immediatly after the rescue attempt?

Shock value: This is perhaps the most critical of these elements. Every major shooter suffers from the need to create the biggest shock value, a controversial scene that will create airwaves, and fuel the next the right-wing anti-video-game-pundits tirade of why video games lead to artificial insemination or explosive diarrhea while simultaneously burning holes through our social and moral fabric.

Do AAA Developers Care About Critical Success or Commercial Success?

At this stage, I am just tired of the endless clones that result from the unholy amalgamation of the afore-mentioned three factors. Oddly enough, the best games of 2011, Portal 2, Bastion, Skyrim, did not need to resort to these elements in order to be critically successful. So perhaps all these developers care about at this stage is commercial success. Critical success and audience satisfaction be damned.

I am not trying to say that this is the only motivation. I am sure as a labor of love, most developers feel they are creating something of value that will be remembered for some time to come. The latest trailer for Rainbow Six: Patriots is a stark reminder of this. There is a scene where a civilian is instructed by a terrorist cell to go to Times Square to detonate the vest or his wife will be killed. Team Rainbow intercepts this man, realizes there is no time to diffuse the bomb, makes the split/second decision to chose the life of one over the lives of many, and throws him off of a bridge with seconds to spare. The bomb detonates before the poor bastard hits the water.

The developer jargon accompanying the trailer says the game will confront the player with similar tough choices, which begs the question: do they understand what ‘choice’ means? Choice implies that I have two or more ways of resolving a situation, and each of these paths has it’s own set of advantages and disadvantages. If one choice ends in one man dying, and the other includes him and everyone around you (including you) dying, is it really a choice? My point is that the entire thing is created for pure shock value, and the illusion of choice is stapled to it to give it illusion of meaning.

An article I read recently by a gentleman called David Burroughs on Sabotage Times called into question the need for such shock value, how it has diminishing returns and how it ultimately doesn’t add anything of value.

Is it right to expect the player to abstain from ‘murdering’ the ‘people’ in the airport when the only means of communication awarded the player is engage with the game and shoot, or do nothing?

Can something as intentionally controversial as ‘No Russian’ carry any real weight when the entire narrative is experienced down the barrel of a gun?

This is a very subtle but significant point. The whole point of the No Russian mission was to paint a picture of the atrocities of war, and how it would affect us if the horrors visited upon people in warzones were inflicted upon the ‘civilized’ world in a single act of mindless madness. But how can something like that carry any weight when the narrative involves you committing the atrocity. The whole point of identifying with the victims is to be able to paint on a face for the antagonist, but when you are the perpetrator yourself (or at the very least a silent observer) how do you create the impact? Ostensibly, the whole idea then, is to create controversy, an act filled with such a horrendous premise that developers know it will attract the ire of critics almost universally. And perhaps they welcome it. For no publicity is bad publicity, right? Except this strategy has exponentially diminishing returns.

Ever wonder why a small child getting blown up, while on vacation in Europe, in Modern Warfare 3 didn’t create nearly as much hype?

“PC Action Games on the Decline” or “PC RPG Games on the Rise”

June 9, 2010 Leave a comment

I have been a PC gamer for as long as I can remember. Actually that is a lie, because prior to getting my Commodore 64 (you’re still in my thoughts baby, *sniff*), I was developing carpal tunnel using the Atari Joystick. But beyond those days, I have always been, and I suspect always will be, a PC gamer. Sure I play games on the the Xbox, and very infrequently on the PlayStation as well, but for me, the PC will always be the ultimate gaming machine.

More recently I have been pained to see a few disturbing trends in the gaming industry. The first of these trends is the rise of PC game piracy across the world. Cevat Yerli, CEO of Crytek, in an interview to IGN in 2008, claimed that for every copy of a PC game sold, 15-20 were pirated. A recent report from the Entertainment Software Association said that over 9.78 million games were successfully downloaded illegally during the month of December 2009 alone (and I am willing to bet that a large chunk of this was pirated copies of Modern Warfare 2). This trend has led to a decline in interest from developers who cannot justify the development costs against poor sales since most of the product is going to get pirated around the world anyway.

The second trend, that of controversial DRM, is a symptom of the first, and has resulted in a fairly strong (and mostly justified) backlash from the gamer community. That in turn, will have the inevitable side-effect of further alienating developers from making PC Games, comments from Blizzard’s Frank Pearce notwithstanding. Another trend is the inexplicable need to delay the PC version of games that were simultaneously developed for all platforms. The console versions, Xbox 360 being especially guilty of this trend, seems to be given preference, with the PC counterpart getting released a few days to several weeks later.

This decline in developers’ interest to invest in PC games would have an inevitable effect in the number of titles produced each year, or at least that is what I believe. And while my theory holds true in some genres (action games for instance), it is completely invalidated by the rise of RPG gaming on PC rigs. Kotaku, saddling up for the rabid excitement that will inevitably surround the around-the-corner E3 event, has released two lists of games that they think will take the cake in two categories: Action and RPG.

The first list, titled E3 2010 Preview: These Are the Big Action Games, We Think, can be found here. The contents of this list can be summarized in numbers, by platform, as follows:

  • DS (I)
  • PC (IIII)
  • PS3 (IIII.IIII.IIII.I)
  • Wii (IIII)
  • PSP (II)
  • Xbox 360 (IIII.IIII.III)
  • XBLA (I)
  • PSN (I)

It should be immediatly apparent that PC games seem to be the neglected bastard child of this batch, with the Xbox 360 and PS3 seeing nearly three times the number of action games as the PC. Perhaps some of this interest in console action games can be attributed to the blockbuster success of titles like Modern Warfare 2, sales of which broke records for the console version, and were dismal at best for the PC version.

The second list, titled E3 2010 Preview: These Are the Big RPGs, We Think, can be found here. The contents of this list can be summarized in numbers by platform as follows:

  • DS (III)
  • PC (IIII.IIII.I)
  • PS3 (IIII.IIII)
  • Wii (I)
  • Xbox 360 (IIII.IIII)
  • PSP (II)

The pattern clearly falls apart here. The personal computer sees an unprecedented amount of upcoming RPG titles, many of which it shares in development with its console counterparts, but all in all, it is clearly in the lead (although admittedly by a tiny margin). This identifies one very important trend in the video gaming industry as it relates to the PC: RPGs are on the rise and will continue to dominate PC development in the next few years to come.

I for one, cant wait.