Sequelitus

So I’m sure you’ve all heard the recent news of Activision and Vivendi merging. The long-term reprecussions of  this newly formed mega-publisher aren’t clear, but the news also revealed the existence of Guitar Hero 4 and Call Of Duty 5. Wait, what? Already? Yes. It’s sad, but these two series are just two new additions to a long list of  franchises that suffer from Sequelitus.    Sequelitus is the act of taking an extremely promising IP and then mercilessly crushing the life out of it, in a sense.  For instance, Sam Fischer was poised to take on Solid Snake as the Western answer to Metal Gear… a Metal Gear “killer” if you will. It was hailed for innovative gameplay, stunning graphics and so forth. It was hailed as one of the best games of the year and was a best-selling game. But then Ubisoft, one of the absolute worst perpetrators of Sequelitus, mishandled the franchise with yearly sequels.  The idea seemed excellent from a business standpoint; have two teams working on the same franchise, spacing it so that a new one is released every year. The resulting sequel “Pandora Tomorrow” was saved by the grace of its innovative multiplayer, which was an early Xbox Live hit. But in four years we had four Splinter cell games, and each subsequent game sold less than the previous installment by orders of magnitude. Meanwhile, Solid Snake only made a new appearance every few years, each one lovingly crafted with time and care by Kojima. Every new Metal Gear game is an event, preceeded by incredible amounts of hype, something Ubisoft has sadly robbed from poor Sam. Unfortunately they do this to most of their big franchises. The formula is this: release a stunning new game, then churn out yearly sequels based on that foundation rather than going back to the drawing board. Instead of being excited for Prince of Persia sequels, I grew sick of them.  Ghost Recon 2 hardly passed as an expansion pack, and Brothers In Arms suffered a similar fate.  And you better believe you’ll be seeing Assassin’s Creed 2 ads this time next year. In fact, it seems the only Ubisoft games that don’t get dilluted by frivolous sequels are their unsuccessful ones.     Call of Duty has been handled in a similar way. Activision has given the “odd number” games in the series to Infinity Ward wannabe Treyarch, which already has people joking “wake me up once Call of Duty 6 is announced.” The fact that Infinity Ward titled their in-house documents for Call of Duty 4 “Call of Duty 3” is pretty telling.      Guitar Hero is another story. The core gameplay was perfected in the original, and pretty much every worthwhile new feature was added in the sequel. Neversoft’s Guitar Hero III was essentially a new track list, and I imagine that’s all Guitar Hero IV will be. Really what they should be doing is  selling a “Guitar Hero Starter Pack” and just get rid of all the sequel nonsense. Sell the starter kit, then sell new tracklists as downloadable content or cheap retail discs. This way you would still make gobs of money and give users the freedom of choice.   Really what this comes down to is  that many mega publishers care very little about the consumer. All they see are dollar signs, and so they will keep doing this sort of thing until people stop buying it. What they don’t seem to realize is that this sort of behavior is what drives franchises into an early grave. Just because it works for sports games doesn’t mean it works for everything else, guys. What you need are quality products, and sizable gaps between them. Just think about it: new Star Wars and Spiderman Movies came out three years apart, and each one was a massive blockbuster. Wheras Pirates of the Carribean and The Matrix sequels floundered compared to their originals because they came out only a year apart, which not only hampered the quality but diminished excitement from the fans.   The reason series like Final Fantasy and Gran Turismo and Half Life are so revered is that they are given all the time they need to be a great, and the end product is usually a much better, much more memorable experience than it would have been otherwise.  Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for this sort of business model. It’s mainly restricted to third-party developers, since they see it as an easy counter to the growing cost of game development. The only major third party publisher that seems to be taking decent care of their IPs in this regard is CAPCOM, and that’s because its being judged by a very low standard.  Equally troubling, though, is the trend towards Multiplatform development, which will be the subject of my next post. Stay Tuned.Nate-B 

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What is it about points?

I’m a complete sucker for points, and I know I’m not the only one. Just look at MMO’s, all those games are is getting more points. More XP, more HP, more MP, more Strength Points, more DKP with their guild. Improve this stat, fill that green bar, feel that split-second satisfaction of leveling up then start all over again. But why are we such suckers? Why does incremental positive reinforcement hook us so easily?  It’s not like we really get anything out of it, imagine if we took all the time we ever spent getting XP and applied it to getting in shape, or learning piano, or whatever. Its because it gives us instant gratification, and then dangles the next goal in front of us like a carrot on a stick.  The worst part is that, these days, no genre is safe. My most recent addiction is Call of Duty 4 multiplayer. Wait, I get xp for shooting other players in the face? Sign me up. Now instead of lame MMO combat, I’m playing an excellent FPS and unlocking new guns, new abilities, and leveling up! I’m helpless against this sort of temptation. And that’s before you factor in leader boards. Leader boards are just another way of distributing points, and COD4 does it so well. There are separate leader boards for overall kill count, win/loss ratio, and several other categories. On top of that, you can organize the leaderboards based on your overall rank or just with your friends. This sort of thing should be illegal. Not only am I pining for that next level, I’m struggling to climb the leaderboards. God forbid I stop playing for a day and drop down the ladder. There is really no light at the end of the tunnel for me and this game. Plenty of other genres are being infected by this RPG plague, Madden’s career mode is more or less an RPG now. Virtua Fighter 5 has you earning cash (points) to buy (unlock) new content to customize your character with. You say you want some new abilities in God of War or Devil May Cry? I’m gonna need to see some points first. It’s everywhere. The “points” aren’t just taking over other genre’s, they are invading consoles themselves. Everyone’s heard of achievements on the 360, which you get for accomplishing defined tasks in every single game on the system. Achievements then give you gamerpoints, which increase your gamerscore, which then puts you higher on the leaderboard. There are people that actually buy games based solely on the fact that they have easy achievements. My wallet thanks me for not getting hooked on my Gamerscore. Sony is putting their spin on this sooner or later with “trophies.” Where does it end? Really, points are one of the core defining experiences of gameplay in general. The concept isn’t just limited to clearly defined “points,” either, if you think about it on a more abstract level. I’m sure most people have craved finding that next heart piece, or unlocking that next track, or getting a better star rating in guitar hero. All of these things are based around rewarding players for playing the game for extended periods of time, just like points. It’s a gimmick that works really well, because there is something inside most of us that loves feeling a sense of accomplishment for killing a goblin and seeing “+50 XP” pop up above its head, or whichever way the game decides to reward us for playing it.  I love points, don’t get me wrong, but I would love to see more games like Portal or Shadow of the Colossus that focus on doing one thing really well and making it an unforgettable experience, no points involved. You can fill up that XP bar all day but you sure as hell won’t be saying a month later “man there was this time when I had to kill two orcs instead of one, it was awesome!” Points will always have their place in video games. There is a simple, addictive quality to them that will never really get old. I like that the idea of points is expanding into other genres, which makes the entire experience seem fresh, even though I’m fundamentally doing the same thing in COD4 that I did in Final Fantasy VII ten years ago. I don’t want to see points go anywhere, and I want to see developers keep implementing the idea in creative ways, but the day I have to level up Mario to jump higher is the day I quit gaming. 

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Apologies.

For the few reading my blog, I wanted to apologize for the lack of posts over the past two weeks. On top of moving back home from school and finals, my house was hit by lighting which zapped my crappy satellite internet. It took our provider (Never ever go with Wild Blue if you have the choice) till today to get it fixed. Anyways, I’ll be back to regular updates now. Cheers.  

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What They Play

You know how we as gamers always say “parent’s should be held responsible for what their children play?”

I totally agree with that statement, but let’s be real for a second. Parents aren’t going to be as knowledgeable about games as we are, so we can’t expect them to understand games like we do.  That’s where John Davison comes in.

Davison recently resigned as the boss of the 1up network (my favorite and in my opinion the best gaming site around, more on that in later posts). No one knew what he was up to until today, when it was revealed that he had been helping to create a website called WhatTheyPlay.com

The aim is to be an agenda-free website to better inform parents on the content of games so they can make good decisions when buying presents for their children.  I think this site can only lead to good things, and in the mass media should shine a very favorable light on our industry for once.

I just wish I had thought of it first.

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The Nature Of Video Game Reviews

Right now, the gaming press websites that get the vast majority of traffic (IGN and Gamespot) have a horrible review structure in place that needs to change dramatically.

Both sites run huge reviews that usually span multiple pages. They advance through several categories such as graphics, sound design, and gameplay. They thoroughly evaluate every major aspect of the game and usually have a paragraph or two for closing comments. Gamespot puts the game’s score and a brief “pros and cons” at the top of each review. IGN ends every review with a point score for every single category, and then an overall score, which is not an average. If its not average, why the hell do you need to give every category a score in the first place?

Overall these reviews tend to be unnecessarily in depth. Most of them are bloated with overly lengthy evaluation and pointless nitpicks. If you get to the point in a review that you are saying things like “my only complaint with the graphics is that once or twice I noticed some tearing on level three” simply throw your review away because it is worthless and you have totally missed the point.

Whatever Roger Ebert may say, crafting gameplay is an art, and its time people started reviewing games as such. I’m sick of reviews that read like consumer reports. Focus on the experience of playing the game, the core of what makes it successful or not. Put the game in the context of other games the developer has made before, and other games like it. Touch on graphics and length or whatever if the game hinges on it. Thats it. Thats all you need. Not only would you get a much cleaner and clearer picture of whether the game is good or not, you wouldn’t need 4 pages to accomplish it.

Also get rid of the brief “pros and cons” crap. Having that sort of thing diminishes what the reviewer has to say, and panders to the sort of idiot that bases their purchases on those bullet points and wouldn’t think of dedicating 5 minutes of their life to actually reading something. Then again, they might be more willing to read  if the reviews weren’t so stupidly drawn out.

Video Games are products of professional creativity, no different than books, music, or movies, so let’s get our act together and start thinking about them like art before we start asking for our industry to be taken seriously by everyone else.

[Also, there are some people that are forward thinking about game criticism, and I’ll talk about them at length in a future post]

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