Too Many Titles

July 2, 2007

Like many total nerds, I often feel that my wallet has become empty long before my appetite for games has been sated. Given the large number of games that sit unplayed, this is the dictionary definition of being really stupid. However a recent story by and a recent thread in the Penny Arcade forums got me to thinking about the industry that creates these games, games that so often are neglected not just by me, but by the gaming masses as a whole.

I personally try to avoid all forms of media that are created with profit as the main motivator. I want to encourage storytellers to have the freedom to tell stories, but I’m not one who likes to fill his hours with meaningless drivel just to be entertained and stimulated. I want my drivel to have meaning, thank you very much, and for someone to give a damn about it during the creative process.

Thus my hate for Spider-Man 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean 3. Notice how silly the sacks of cash were that followed those films. Obviously I am out on a limb here, waving a flag of opinion over a sea of disregard.

But in gaming the problem seems worse, probably because the market is so small. It’s just big enough to encourage attempted cash ins, but not large enough to create an ample supply of idiots to supplement the dollars spent in a more discerning way. So, instead of being pushed to the margins – you know, like those $5 direct to DVD movies at Wal-Mart, these lousy, lousy games share shelf space and mindspace with the AAA titles. Retailers don’t give a damn, they just fill the shelves and pray.

This makes our hobby look stupid. Really stupid.

But even worse, this creates casualties like Beyond Good and Evil, or Psychonauts. Games that were superbly crafted yet somehow got relegated to the discount bin within a week of release due to an inability to achieve critical mass in pre-release press.

While we are short on stupid game players, the confusion over game quality has created a large demographic of ignorant consumers who will absolutely not take any chances with their purchases. With something like Psychonauts, the artistic style was so unusual you wouldn’t know it was a great game unless you were immersed in the industry. So astute gamers got a deal, and the developers of Psychonauts got a pink slip.

Well, not really, as Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Productions is actually working on its next project, but still, the point still stands. And some people wonder why this medium isn’t growing as an art form.

There is no path that I can see to get us over this hump aside from waiting for the player base to grow in size. While gamers with brains are a small minority, the quantity of them still grows proportional to the size of the industry. It becomes a simple function of volume. Serious gamers knew Beyond Good and Evil was going to work because we knew Michel Ancel’s (Rayman series) track record, but nobody outside the core fandom would even recognize that name. His next game sold in huge numbers not because of its quality or his name, but because it was attached to a huge motion picture (King Kong).

I don’t offer solutions; my intent was simply to relate the problem, not attempt to fix it, as by its nature this column is preaching to the converted. Readership of a site like this is a self selected demographic that is already on the cutting edge of digital entertainment. But do we need to wait for MTV to do the totally obvious and realize that Guitar Hero is fun before we see people with the necessary resources begin pushing games to the mainstream?

The dominant forms of media consumption are still television and film, and the media conglomerates have almost hindered as much as helped interactive media to the extent they’ve been involved in it. Fox Interactive isn’t exactly known for its stellar titles, the parallels between Die Hard : Nakatomi Plaza, Live Free or Die Hard, and the abuse of dead horses being strong.

We live in an interesting age where computers are introducing a constant stream of new ways to interact with ourself and each other, and these ideas are being introduced in a world irrevocably changed by radio and television barely 100 years ago. As it stands, there really is no parallel then for the development of the games industry, and as the business of making and selling games continues to grow and evolve, the painful, sometimes depressing truth is that we can hold up no examples as illuminating in getting the storytelling style of interactive entertainment taken seriously.

[Edward J. Pollard is a web developer and freelance video game journalist from Southwestern Alberta, Canada. Some people think he posts funny and insightful things to his blog. We think you might be one of them.]