Serotonin: When a game tries to be something it isn’t

August 3, 2013

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I can picture it now. A couple of young game industry upstarts have finally paid their dues, and are now at the helm of making a brand new game. It’s going to be released on all the systems. They’re talking to each other excitedly about what kind of game they want to make. Ideas are thrown around, gameplay elements are discussed and details are hammered out. They rehearse their pitch; they’re prepared for the studio heads.

Reality sinks in, and it’s not nearly as fun. The young developer’s faces shrink with each passing moment. No, you can’t introduce this wildly revolutionary idea. No, that’s not going to work for us. No, we’re not going to take that risk and no, you’re not going to disagree with us because we’re the money and you’re not.

We like this market segment, so we want you to include lots of blood and gore. The game has to have multiplayer. Your ideas might be good, but how are we going to market that? Where does it fit into our product catalog? We’re looking at these games and they sold really well, so we’ll need you to include a female character who looks like this and a male character wearing something similar to this.

From a business standpoint, this kind of talk makes a lot of sense. Now, more than ever, games are extremely expensive to create. Most games take hundreds or thousands of people working long hours to create. Much like the movie industry, the risk is high, and a failure to sell might mean a lot of people losing their jobs, stock drops and potential company bankruptcy. The scary thing is that these unfortunate results may still occur, even if your game sells millions of copies. In what reality is that fair?

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It’s not. It’s not fair that people lose their jobs, it’s not fair that critically-acclaimed games and movies fail commercially, and it’s not fair that successful projects aren’t immune to the results of failure anyway.

Therefore, it’s not a surprise to see some games include content that has no business being there. Absolutely none. It’s as if the code was invaded by a previous game, or it was put in there by a completely different group of people (which happens). You shake your head. Despite the financial ramifications, it’s hard to defend decisions that lead to games including something that they shouldn’t have. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Be yourself.

One of my all time favorite personalities on the planet is a man called Paul Heyman. He was the creative mind behind the now-defunct Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) in the 1990s. I could listen to him talk about wallpaper and be intrigued. He has the speaking ability, passion and rage to make you instantly interested. One of his mantras when running ECW was to hide performers’ weaknesses and highlight their strengths. ECW didn’t have the budget that WWF had. It didn’t have the special effects crew to do a ton of video highlight packages, pyrotechnics  and other lavish production set pieces. So it didn’t! Heyman knew that if it did, it would look horrible. Hide your weaknesses. Don’t even acknowledge them. Highlight your strengths. ECW had smaller performers, but they could wrestle at a very fast pace. Their fans were bloodthirsty, so they gave them a ton of violence. Barbed wire, flaming tables and skull-crushing chair shots were commonplace, whereas family-friendly storylines and bigger-than-life personalities weren’t.

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I can think of more than a few instances in games when I knew something didn’t belong. I’m thinking it was a choice based on market research, instead of a decision to enhance the player’s experience. These mechanics aren’t necessarily terrible, but they contrast greatly with the rest of the game.

I’m just now getting a chance to play through Alan Wake. Developer Remedy dubs it a “psychological action-thriller,” and it’s hard to argue that label. Alan and his wife come to Bright Falls, a town in the Pacific Northwest, to give Alan a break from their busy city life and to help him get over his writer’s block. The environmental details are fantastic; if you’ve visited or lived in the area, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The rocks look right. The trees look right. The water is appropriately transparent, and the logging roads and hiking trails are accurate too. Even the signs have an authentic look about them.

Most of the game is played during the dark, in the woods; these sequences are genuinely creepy at times. It’s not a “horror” game, but it will certainly make your skin crawl a few times. You’ll be relieved when you reach a lighted area, away from the foggy, dark wilderness filled with murderous ghosts. Controls are clunky, but not overwhelmingly so. I’m reminded of Remedy’s earlier Max Payne games when it comes to controls and dedication to atmosphere.

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The presentation makes the game feel like a TV series, and it’s a great design. Instead of levels, you get episodes. At the beginning of new episodes, we get “last time on Alan Wake,” which is a nice touch. The game even pokes fun at itself (and The Twilight Zone) by showing the player a TV series called Night Springs, an obvious homage.

Sure, the writing isn’t great and the characters are a bit over-the-top, but that’s fine too. The majority of gameplay is spent in Alan’s head during nightmares anyway, so elements of the supernatural are a welcomed addition. My only complaint with Alan Wake? The cutscenes.

You see, the character models stand there with their mouths half-open, with dead eyes and unrealistic facial features. It’s creepy, and it’s not going for creepy. It’s a shame, because the rest of the game is two-parts hokey, one-part fun. At least it tried to do something cool and creative, and that’s something to be admired. But I can’t ignore the fact that every cutscene makes me cringe. The in-game models look fine; why not use those? I would’ve been less disturbed and much more content to continue the story.

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Another prime example of a game trying to be something it’s not is Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The 2011 action-RPG was the Deus Ex game many fans had been waiting for: a cool cyberpunk world, abilities to upgrade, computers to hack and the ability to customize your playing experience based on how you wish to approach the game. Want to be an elite, stealthy hacker? Done. Want to run and gun, shooting everything in sight? You can do that too. It comes down to which “augmentations” you invest your points in, gained by leveling up or purchasing Praxis Kits in various clinics. It fits in well with the game’s theme of eugenics, augmentations, racism, classism, security, freedom and privacy.

But then the boss fights come along. I’ve heard that the original plan wasn’t to have boss fights, but Eidos Montreal received pressure to put them in because, well, games have boss fights. People want boss fights, don’t they? We better put them in the game. Thanks, suits.

They don’t fit at all. It’s a stark contrast to the core theme of choosing how you want to play the game. You’re put in a one-on-one fight against some very tough foes, and you can’t hack your way around them or sneak by them. This removes the choice of flexibility in combat, and it leads to a lot of frustration in an otherwise-stellar game. How am I supposed to beat a guy who looks like a living tank when my guy’s specialty is reading emails quickly?

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Was it necessary for Metroid Prime 2 to have multiplayer? Don’t get me started on SimCity‘s online features. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea for games to branch out and try new ideas. Some of the best games I’ve played have taken enormous risks, and tried something totally fresh. But there’s a difference between a conscious decision to introduce a new story, gameplay element, visual trick or combat system to force us to think differently and something that was obviously shoehorned late in the development cycle.

It’s easy for me to say this, though. The only thing hovering over my shoulder is my fan, and I don’t have any financial responsibility towards it. The process of creating anything unique and interesting is difficult enough, and I can only imagine the pressure and compromises developers have to make so their game can see the light of day.

{ 8 comments }

Lucas White August 3, 2013 at 3:35 pm

You had me at Paul Heyman

Henry Skey August 11, 2013 at 6:57 pm

EXTREEEEME SNACKBAR WRRRRRRRRRIIIIITING!!!!

Lucas White August 14, 2013 at 8:31 am

Now I’m imagining BRRRRROCK LESNAR bursting from a game case and forcing some nerd to play tacked-on multiplayer

Jeff DeSolla August 4, 2013 at 6:43 am

So many games add multiplayer for the sake of adding it, and companies like EA are notorious for forcing the issue.

But speaking about your analogy with the ECW, it makes a lot of sense. Publishers should diversify their game catalogue as a whole to meet demographics, instead of trying to hit them all with each game. Each game should play up it’s strengths – the publisher should have other teams building games to serve other audiences.

This is of course, a choice between quality over quantity. You can make a huge game with a great single player aspect and good multiplayer – to appeal to more people – if you are willing to devote time and resources into essentially building two games. Halo: Combat Evolved did this, but it had a huge investment by Microsoft to achieve what it did. And sometimes, you hit the game development lottery, and create your own group of fans such as GoldenEye 64 did, back before anyone did multiplayer shooters on consoles.

It is of course, part of the job to balance investor or publisher demands with what your team wants to create. When one of the Kickstarter games failed a while back – people were angry, but it was a good lesson for crowdfunders. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out. As the financial backer, you are taking on the financial risk and becoming the publisher. Sometimes there are reasons that publishers demand a certain level of control over the development process.

Amy Blahren August 7, 2013 at 4:20 am

Well thought through article. This is so true, and happens all the time. Great ideas get trainwrecked by the business development people. IMHO the worst way this happens is when they dumb down games that are spectacular but hard, in order to make them ‘more marketable’. Take Supreme Commander. Awesome game, but ‘too complex’. Supreme Commander 2: Garbage. In a way, it’s kind of depressing. However crowdfunding does present a light at the end of the big studio creativity/innovation killing tunnel. Bravo to people like Uber Games who have the cahones to work on Planetary Annihilation. Should be an interesting new generation of gaming ahead of us.

Henry Skey August 11, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Hopefully the industry has room for both. It’s tough to see a beloved franchised get dumbed down. SimCity comes to mind…:(

Cidsa August 23, 2013 at 12:26 am

This definitely makes a lot of sense. There are often aspects of games that feel forced in or focus-group tested to all hell and it totally sucks. Games at least haven’t fallen as far as Hollywood; at least there are still people out there doing stuff /without/ focus groups, endless market research and do it despite the risks.

On Alan Wake: the cutscenes just felt like what they did in Max Payne. They were definitely weird but they didn’t feel like they were forced in to me.. but maybe I’m just inclined to defend it because I LOVED that game though.

It’s interesting you brought up the boss fights in Deus Ex 3 because another game did the EXACT SAME THING at around the same time (slightly earlier). That game was Alpha Protocol; a pretty janky game but still pretty darn fun.. and it forced you into closed off rooms with utterly ridiculous bosses in the same way. I can’t recall if this happened in Deus Ex, but in AP if you were going pure stealth the boss fights were incredibly difficult and painful.

I’m feeling like game developers really need to step away from the non-stop graphics wars and the million dollar AAA titles before everyone gets bored and the industry crashes again. I can’t be the only life-long gamer who’s just not that enthralled by that many new games anymore.. but maybe it’s just me *shrug*

Henry Skey August 24, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Thanks for your comments Cidsa! I might have been a bit too harsh on Alan Wake, I really enjoyed the rest of the game. I like how they went all out making it was crazy, over the top and ridiculous but also trying really hard to get Alan to be a realistic character and show how he’d react to these insane things happening to him. I just wish they’d kept the in-game models for the cutscenes, they just really had a jarring effect on me. Since I live in the Pacific Northwest, I was blown away by how good the environments looked. Absolutely gorgeous.