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Critical Hit

Dale Weir's picture

It has occurred to the staff at GameCritics.com that it is not enough to develop new ways for analyzing videogames within the context of a review. Rather, it is equally important to talk about farther-reaching issues concerning videogames in other forums, especially in a time when they are still largely perceived as children's toys and scapegoated for many of society's ills. If videogames are to evolve and be recognized as a culture and art form, it is important that we be able to talk about how videogames interact within the structure of society at large. This editorial column is devoted to going beyond the current tunnel vision that exists and discussing videogames in a variety of wider contexts.


Do Consumers Really Want Original Game Content?

I was perusing Tokyopia.com a while back and came across two interesting articles. For those of you that don't know what Tokyopia.com is, it is a web site that focuses on the Japanese side of the games industry. It was founded by, among others, John Ricciardi

Critical Hit - Do Consumers Really Want Original Game Content? - Rez (PS2) (top), The Mark Of Kri (PS2) (bottom)
Rez (PS2) (top), The Mark Of Kri (PS2) (bottom)
(of Electronic Gaming Monthly fame) and Andrew Vestal (founder of the now defunct Gaming Intelligence Agency). The two articles that caught my eye were "What's Wrong with the Japanese Games Industry: The Programmer's View" and "What's Wrong with the Japanese Games Industry: The Artist's View." As their titles imply, the articles focused on how the Japanese industry that bore the videogame renaissance of the mid 1980s, could be so stagnated creatively today.

At first I wasn't particularly convinced as far as the validity of the authors' arguments were concerned—especially when one of the writers took a shot at EAD (Nintendo) and hailed Halo and Grand Theft Auto III as shining examples of where the videogame industry needs to be heading.

It was only a few hours after reading these articles that I was over at Chi's place and saw Rez (Sega's PlayStation 2 shooter and one of the games mentioned in the articles) in action for the first time. After some discussion about the game, we recalled some of the problems that United Game Artists (the development teams at Sega responsible for Rez) had in getting Rez made and marketed. After giving it some thought, I can't help but think the writers of the Tokyopia articles had a valid point, although I believe the blame may have been misplaced. For one thing, the stagnation is not an affliction affecting only the Japanese market because it can certainly be seen here in the United States and over in Europe. And secondly, it is not solely a problem of developers lacking the means or resolve to create new content or breaking out of today's gaming conventions.

Critical Hit - Do Consumers Really Want Original Game Content? - Cubivore (GCN) (left), Custom Robo (GCN) (right)
Cubivore (GCN) (left), Custom Robo (GCN) (right)

You don't have to look very hard to see that game developers (Japanese, American or European) can indeed make original games. Nintendo's Animal Crossing, Pikmin, Cubivore, Custom Robo, and Doshin The Giant; Sony's ICO and The Mark Of Kri, Sega's Rez and Activision's Way Of The Samurai are just a few such examples that have been released in the last few years. They were and are heralded as creatively unique oases in a sea of conformity. Who can forget the stir that Sega caused years back when it revealed four groundbreaking titles games for its ailing Dreamcast console: Seaman, Space Channel 5, Jet Grind Radio and Samba De Amigo? These titles were inimitable, stylish and practically imbued with the creative souls of their creators; they had many in the press

Critical Hit - Do Consumers Really Want Original Game Content? -  Animal Crossing (GCN) (top), ICO (PS2) (bottom)
Animal Crossing (GCN) (top), ICO (PS2) (bottom)
and the game community heralding them as evidence of what was possible when the reigns were taken off developers. Unfortunately, we all know the ultimate fate of the Dreamcast, but that hardly put an end to the stream of unique releases from those developers.

Today we look forward to Nintendo's Giftpia and Capcom's Killer 7 and Viewtiful Joe, Agetec's RPG Maker 2, Magic Pengel: The Quest For Color and Llamasoft Games' Unity—not to mention the suite of titles that come with Sony's quirky Eye Toy peripheral. If I had more time, I'm sure I could name many more current and future releases that similarly escape classification and turn normal gaming conventions on their ear. However, if history is any indicator I am quite certain that with the rare exceptions, these games would receive an abundance of critical acclaim only to be virtually ignored by the general gaming public.

Is it a matter of simply not knowing that these games existed? Perhaps. I remember that soon after ICO's release a few game sites proclaimed it one of "the best games you are not playing"—yet neglected to mention that could have been because they spent the previous twelve months hyping Final Fantasy X, Grand Theft Auto III and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty. Still, blaming the press doesn't get us anywhere because though not on the level we would like, these titles do get decent coverage.

Critical Hit - Do Consumers Really Want Original Game Content? -  Space Channel 5 (DC) (top), Jet Set Radio (Xbox) (bottom)
Space Channel 5 (DC) (top)
Jet Set Future (Xbox) (bottom)
Some point to the publishers' marketing departments which of course brings us back to Rez. United Game Artists found it a trial to get the game "okayed" by its publisher (Sega) largely because Sega didn't know what to make of it. It was such an unusual release that its marketing department, unsure how to sell it, put up its own roadblocks to the development. Silly, needless things—for this particular game—like a background story and plot progression were thrown in just so Sega would have something to put on the game box and instruction manual. And though the facts seem to vary depending on the source, Rez did indeed receive a good deal of marketing and support from Sega and was released into the public.

United Game Artists' answer to the cries of gamers looking for those new and original games was largely met with ambivalence by those very same gamers. Rez simply disappeared at retail—literally—due to lack of demand. Sega became the scapegoat with the argument being that it had ceased supporting the game prematurely. The financial viability of these games is slim to begin with and, if memory serves, with the exception of Animal Crossing, Pikmin and possibly Jet Set Radio none of the titles mentioned in this article managed to sell over 100,000 copies. Why is Sega, or any publisher for that matter, obligated to support a game or games that no one is interested in?

And how do you criticize the industry when it produces these games yet consumers repeatedly flock to the likes of Square's, Konami's and Capcom's sequels and rehashes? Over this past year we've seen some the industry's more derivative releases like Final Fantasy X, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Resident Evil and Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell dominate the sales charts—some for months on end. Of course, gamers complain while buying these regurgitated releases in droves, but the point is that they still buy them.

Critical Hit - Do Consumers Really Want Original Game Content? - Samba De Amigo (DC) (left), Giftpia (GCN) (right)
Samba De Amigo (DC) (left), Giftpia (GCN) (right)

The sad truth of the matter is that gamers simply do not want original content, but say they do. Or maybe those complaining are just a terribly small, but loud minority consisting of hardcore gamers and journalists—the type of individuals that play games for hours every day and would naturally be quicker to tire of whatever they were playing and be vocal in their displeasure. Because even if they aren't the greatest of games, if we are to believe that the gaming public is tired of all of the rehashes and ports flooding the market, then it would run out and snap up the unique titles in a heartbeat. Word of mouth alone would get around and be reflected in boosted sales numbers for these games. We wouldn't have gems like ICO selling a mere 70,000 copies and Rez selling even far fewer copies than that.

Critical Hit - Do Consumers Really Want Original Game Content? -  Viewtiful Joe (GCN) (top), Magic Pengel: The Quest For Color (PS2) (bottom)
Viewtiful Joe (GCN) (top)
Magic Pengel: The Quest For Color (PS2) (bottom)

This year's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) 2003 came and went with all the usual glitz and fanfare. Each year seems to have a theme and this year's theme was "Sequels, Sequels and More Sequels." Final Fantasy X-2, Final Fantasy XI, Gran Turismo 4, Star Fox 2, Grand Theft Auto 4, Half-Life 2, Doom III, SOCOM 2, Onimusha 3 and Star Wars: Rogue Squadron III—Rebel Strike were just some of the games that gave a palpable sense of déjà vu to all in attendance. Publishers have long since taken notice that little is selling but the tried and true game franchises and game genres and it appears that for the foreseeable future they won't be veering from that policy.

Naturally, the familiar chorus has started lamenting the death of creativity and warning that a reversal of this trend is needed lest we run the risk of an industry collapse. Some of these voices began during E3 2003 over the lack of new, groundbreaking content or genre-busting titles. I could point out that there are still such games on the horizon—some are listed at the beginning of this article—and although they may be harder to find, they are still there for anyone who really wants them. But the reality probably is that there really isn't an uproar—few gamers and consumers are actually upset. It could be that there are consumers who are perfectly happy with games as they are and record-breaking sales of this latest round of sequels and rehashes will prove this.

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