Wave Foam – “Questioning the Present, Shaping the Future”

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As you know, I don’t think video-games have been going through the best of times lately. The rise of production costs, coupled with the massification of casual gaming and the consequent entrenching of the hardcore base – which now seems to live on military action games almost exclusively – has led to a degradation of the creative influxes of the medium. Rarer and rarer are the days where I get to see a new game that is, let’s put it bluntly, an actual new game, and not some remake/sequel/rehash of a classic franchise. It isn’t all bad though, as retro and indie games have found a great new habitat in downloadable services, which still allows some hidden gem to rise up once in a while.

But I have been wondering what does the picture look like from the other side of the mirror. What do journalists, designers and producers think? Thankfully, it appears that Gamespot heard my cries of help, and decided to give me the answer, or at least part of it. They did a state of the art piece, by interviewing the top four American executives of the industry (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and EA), and their own editorial staff, by asking “what’s wrong”, “what’s right”, and “how is it going to look in five years time”. The answers are enlightening, though probably not because of their actual substance, but for the ways in which they end up mirroring why things have gotten as bad as they are. I won’t analyze every sentence of this feature, but I will comment on some of the more interesting statements.

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When it comes to the executive side, I was baffled by one answer to the “what is wrong with the industry” question, and it came from Microsoft’s own Phil Spencer (general manager of Microsoft Game Studios). He answers that what is wrong, is the absence of creativity in designing new games, with designers “following tried-and-true, existing formulas and not trying to challenge themselves with every release”. This is true, but coming from whom it does, it lacks any substantial value, as I don’t see Microsoft pushing the envelope as much as his statement would lead you believe. “Halo 3”, “Fable II” and “Gears of War” aren’t that different from “Halo 2”, “Fable” and “Kill Switch”… so while complaining on lack of creativity is all fine and dandy, it wouldn’t hurt if his actions could back up his words. In all honesty I think he just said what everybody has been saying ever since games are around, without even thinking about whether or not he was contributing to the trend he criticized. Or maybe he really thinks Microsoft’s games are innovative and groundbreaking, in which case, you can see how deluded and out of touch executives can be, when it comes to creativity in artistic mediums. Side note on executive’s equation of creativity: “creativity is proportional to sales figures”… or something along that note.

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In terms of “what is right”, and “what’s it going to look like” the greatest problem of the industry becomes fully apparent in all answers. In one way or the other, all the four head-honchos love the fact that the market has opened up to casual gaming. I can understand executives being all Colgate smile happy about making huge piles of money with small, low-budget, easy to produce games, that don’t have to be innovative or creative. But the sad fact is that the casual market has really low standards of quality, even when compared to the hard-core games market (which was pretty lousy as it was). The result is that this massive wave of childish game-like applications – the “Cooking Mama’s”, the “Brain Training’s”, the “Wii Sports” – are  becoming the de facto standard of the industry, as they generate higher revenues with smaller risks, and a lesser need for quality control.

Now, like any other gamer, I love the fact that games have finally become a mass market. It’s great that we have opened up such a closed medium to all sects of society and age groups, meaning that games no longer have to be a modern social stigma for those who play them. But this sudden opening has to be regarded as a challenge for creativity and improvement, and not as some quick way of making money. Because these games are presenting the medium to these new found audiences in its more infantile facet, instead of using this opening as a way to captivate new gamers into more complex, creative and challenging notions of what a video-game can be. And if that doesn’t happen in the near future, this ‘casual gaming’ trend can potentially set back the medium another decade or even more. Casual, mainstream and mass-market – that’s the future, I agree with the executives there, but it’s a future that needs to be shifted into the right direction, and without oversight of niche markets that may want a little more than just waggling controllers and interactive fitness programs.

[Continues on the next Wave Foam Article]

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  • Comments (7)
  1. Probably the biggest problem with that approach is to ask CEOs about quality. They usually have a practical, economic (and that is their job), while at the same time a “pat in the back” point of view, result of their PR past… From their perspective, a bigger market is always good, even if they demand for… lets say, lighter games. It is not a surprise that Dunaway (Nintendo’s executive) dodged the “what is wrong?” question. That is not exclusive to gaming industry either, I am sure if you ask Katzenberg (DreamWorks’ CEO), he will tell you Transformers 2 and Shrek 3 are great movies, with touching drama, breathtaking adventure and thrilling action… And they also made a lot of money…

    Maybe I am being nitpicking about this “videogames industry is not alone”, but I found it important to be fair about it. Games has a lot of potential to be art (as proven many times), but that doesn’t mean that every single one of them can/has to/shoudl be. Movies, music and books are not 100% art forms, so to expect videogames to be different is kind of unfair. Sure, there are more Maddens than Psychonauts, but there are also more Spidermans than Shawshank Redemptions, more Britney Spears clones than good singers and more Da Vinci Codes spinoffs than Les Miserables. We have every right to demand for more quality, but we can’t realisticaly expect videogames industry to be a lot different than other, older, more “mature” industries, nor we can expect them to be the owners of that magic than can be bottled…

    • ruicraveirinha
    • July 14th, 2009

    I agree with you. But despite what you say being true, one must realize that the artistry and quality of game endeavors is still a million miles away from that of other mediums. Yes, there are “more Spidermans than Shawshank Redemptions” in these other mediums, but you don’t have too look that closely, to understand that there is an enormous qualitative difference between the “Spidermans” and the “Maddens” and between the “Psychonauts” and the “Shawshank Redemptions”. The “Maddens” will always exist, and I’m okay with that. The problem lies in the quality of the “Maddens”, their proportion faced with artistic ventures, and the quality of the truly groundbreaking games. And in every one of this aspects, games are still really far behind. But, as always, I am hopeful it will change, as the same signs of infancy have been present in other means during their early ages.

    Cheers, Coyote!

  2. The worst day of cinema still beats the best day of gaming?

    • ruicraveirinha
    • July 15th, 2009

    I wouldn’t go that far 😉

  3. @Bruno: No…

    I still feel odd about the question: “When will the games industry going to get its Citizen Kane?”. It is an unfair question. When I menction Psychonauts/Madden or Spiderman/Shawshank Redemptions, I was comparing similar “art” works, on similar media, which with the same language and tools, they created different stuff, with different quality… different levels of artistry, if you preffer. Those are easy because I am comparing oranges with oranges…

    If you compare different media, you may get into a falacy. Which one is better/has more artistic value? Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Mozart’s 40th? Alighieri’s Inferno or Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra? Michelangelo’s Pieta or Dumas’ The Three Musketeers? I agree that videogames can express a lot more than what they do now (what a grim world it would be if we could honestly say “everything has being done”), and the quality/limited artistry is a sign of a very young medium; but we shouldn’t wait for our “Godfather”…

  4. It was just a venomous remark: I can’t believe you actually took it seriously…!

    And Coyote…

    – Mozart’s 40th
    – Alighueri’s Inferno
    – Michelangelo’s Pietá

    Seriously, now: anyone who asks what or where is the Citizen Kane of videogames is either very seriously stupid or he’s having a lot of fun at your expense.

    What is the Beethoven’s 9th of Cinema? Where’s the Sagrada Familia of Drama? And where, oh, where is the Crime and Punishment of Sculpture?

    But, you know, Art is just a fad – I totally believe that.

  5. “he really thinks Microsoft’s games are innovative and groundbreaking, in which case, you can see how deluded and out of touch executives can be”
    After working in sales with three differently companies, I can say confidently how TRUE this comment it. Being deluded, ignorant, and completely self-righteous isn’t a side-effect of being an executive- it’s necessary qualities for getting the job. In order to effectively sell a product at the corporate level, you have to make yourself believe that it’s the best stuff around, no questions asked.
    These people are career-liars, they’re in the industry of lying. There’s something fundamentally wrong with that, and “well, they’re a business” is not an acceptable excuse.

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