State of Game

Because I’m a cheap bastard and my work computer (HP HDX 18) has a defective video card, I have to resort to alternatives to get my video games fix. This means turning back the clock and going retro. One name – “Baba Yaga” – from my sister actually kicked off a recent craze: those old adventure games from Sierra – Kings Quest and Quest for Glory. I never finished Quest for Glory 4 as a kid, so playing through the whole thing for the first time was a lot of fun. It’s well written, full of hilarious characters and situations, with a brilliant mix of humor and dark Cthulu mythos imagery.

I was also pretty surprised at the gameplay packed into the thing. There were dialog and symbolic puzzles, “go-fetch” quests, exploration of a beautifully designed world, multiple paths of advancement (magic user, warrior, thief), even a Street Fighter-ish battle system. These are all features that modern games tout as innovative, yet here they were in a genre blending game from the early 90s – still very playable (via Dosbox and Abandonia) 17 years later.

It made me think about the state of video games. Where they’ve come from and where they’re going. What’s really advanced? What’s stagnated?

Sure, there are amazing visuals. But better graphics and higher production values (writing, sound, art, plotting) are not the core of video games. The core is how the player interacts with the game world, the “tropes” that are used as basis of gameplay. Platform jumping, Role-Playing, first person shooting, driving, solving puzzles, and fighting are the standards – and many games combine one or more “modes”.

The golden age of truly new types of gameplay was 1995-2005 when 3D fully took over all the genres and we saw the perfection of the 3D platformer (Mario 64), the rise of internet multiplayer FPS (Halo, Counterstrike, etc) sandbox-city blockbusters (GTA III) MMOs (Everquest, WoW), even the instant gratification of browser games (Flash). The last five years we’ve only refined and barely evolved.

Wii was an interesting development. It led the way to interacting with the game world through “analog” control systems. So you control the avatar / car / whatever through fluid movements in real-space instead of tapping binary buttons or joysticks. This carries over to iPhone / iPad games that use the internal gyroscope for steering, etc.

Film went through its own golden age of innovation in the early 20th – from the silent Charlie Chaplin films all the way to masterpieces like Citizen Kane, Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. Of course, technology was never divorced from the medium – the biggest films still come packaged with the latest cutting-edge technology (think Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron). But there’s an entire world of film that has nothing to do with technology. That’s the kind of thing we need in video games.

The independent era of film in the 60s and 70s would never have been possible without the big studios of the 40s and 50s that developed the technology and “tropes” of the medium, and built up the level of talent. Right now we’re in that big studio system, with EA and Activision the equivalent of Paramount and MGM.

Some of the Bad Trends:

-Expensive multimedia set-pieces (cut scenes, on-a-rail gameplay). This happens when you spend millions on impressive animations and graphics and you want to show it off to the player and not let them miss it, so you limit the range of motion and camera angles. Gameplay is reduced to tapping a few buttons in sequence in order to watch the “interactive” cut scene. (God of War is especially guilty). This leads to games that are spectacle, but with short gameplay times and little replayabity.

-The monetization of extras – having to buy extras characters / costumes / levels / feats / etc with real money. Instead of letting the player advance fully in the game world through the progression of their own skill, they have to increasingly chip in more real-world cash to get the full package. It’s one thing to buy add-on packs, another to pay for individual pieces of armor.

See: If Super Mario Bros was made today

What’s next for video games? Things I’d like to see:

-Procedurally generated 3D worlds for FPS and adventure games. Hell, even RPGs, just need to avoid the miles-of-nothing feel that plagued Oblivion.

-An Open-source MMO where avatars can be moved between public and private realms (with a strong gameplay rather than social basis (Second Life is out)).

-Control and power schemes in a fighting / action game that are purely based on physics, rather than pre-set and pre-rendered animations. That way you could get judo-like moves where you use the opponent’s momentum against himself, etc. Super Smash Brothers does this kind of thing to a degree.

-Adoption of HTML5 as a gaming platform for 3D browser based games. A strong community / toolset for building games/applications in the technology. Hell, Adobe, Microsoft, Google and Apple should build and sell those tools. The technology is coming together.

-A mod community for console games – free downloadable levels and/or total conversions for console games. Use the apple App model for quality control. I know XBox Live does this to a degree but I feel that most game’s DLC is very limited and overpriced.

-The rise of truly independent game developers that distribute on the web (and through Xbox live) using low cost / open source tools and data sets (3D models, textures, engines). Just as the big studios gave way to independent film in the 60s and 70s I’d love to see the same thing happen with video games in the next decade.

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