The Video Game Circle Game: What's Old Must Be New Again
Video game developers have to be alchemists to a degree -- transforming something tired and worn into glittering gold. The trick is to find the right balance between the familiar and the fresh. Games have to be about something deeper than an eternal war against Nazis or alien invaders. They have to resonate with the player's core needs -- not only for thrilling entertainment, but also for something that touches the soul.
The video game industry has been suffering one of its most notable slumps in recent years. Sales in February were down compared with the same period a year ago, according to data from the NPD Group.
March's numbers have yet to be released, but they will likely reflect some improvement, as a handful of high-profile titles have arrived. These potential blockbusters don't seem all that different -- at least on the surface -- but they could offer enough of a twist to get gamers interested. Among them are a reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise and the latest title in the BioShock series, BioShock Infinite.
What makes these two games special is that although they both are in essence action-focused, they don't put characters on the front lines battling Nazis or aliens -- the two longstanding go-to villains in the genre.
When the villain isn't literally a Nazi, it is typically some other enemy combatant or soldier. This isn't to say that those approaches have been entirely unsuccessful. Game publishers Activision and Electronic Arts have raked in not-so-small fortunes on the success of the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises respectively.
Microsoft also scored big with its alien-battling Halo 4 last fall. Yet game sales in general have been sluggish.
"There can be console fatigue, cycle fatigue, genre fatigue, or just that some core gamers are already focused on the next-gen consoles," said P.J. McNealy, consultant with Digital World Research.
It could also be that even the most popular franchises can only offer so much over and over.
"Games that are too 'samey' are a big part of the problem," said Billy Pidgeon, independent video game analyst.
Introducing a new franchise and a new style of game isn't typically the answer either.
"This might sound like a simple formula, but it is difficult to execute," Pidgeon told TechNewsWorld.
"Many developers with successful franchises struggle to provide their games' fan bases with game play that is familiar enough to remain true to the franchise while still providing sufficiently divergent experiences," he explained.
"A hit game's fans typically want the next version of the game to be similar but different -- and developers often deliver a game that is too similar or too different," Pidgeon added. "It's very difficult to balance these contradictory design directions."
Different but the Same
In other words, gamers typically want something that is familiar, to a large degree similar to what they've played -- but they want it to be fresh and original with new twists. On the surface, those would seem to be mutually exclusive desires, but in the world of video game magic, anything is possible.
"It is more of a desire of a portion of the core game audience to have more convergence, more player choice, more narrative, where the story isn't about the game telling you what you do, but rather giving you a chance to make more decisions," said video game industry consultant N'Gai Croal of Hit Detection.
"Those games that have been successful have the common DNA that [the story] is really about what you ... are crafting. The game [lets you] do that in unique ways."
It can be formulaic to an extent, but ultimately it involves satisfying sometimes-contradictory desires, and that is likely why there have been more failures in the video game industry than successes.
"There are a couple elements that go together to make a good game. To be unique is as desirable as it is with a movie or record," said Lewis Ward, IDC's research manager for gaming.
"The style and skin is one element of it. The substance is the other part. The uniqueness is valued, but it is largely about being distinctive without being unapproachable," he told TechNewsWorld. "It is finding the right balance of pushing the boundary but having people understand the references to another game. A game without this structure becomes too hard to define."
Creating New Worlds
At the recent Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, EA announced that Battlefield 4 would arrive this fall for the next-generation consoles from Sony and Microsoft, as well as for the PC. There is no denying that fans of the series will likely return to the virtual front lines again.
Yet it is again worth noting that titles such as Dishonored and BioShock Infinite, set in fantasy/steampunk worlds, or Far Cry 3 and Tomb Raider, with their tropical island backdrops, are being met not only with fan adulation, but also very favorable reviews. They provide gamers with the right combination of familiar and different.
A parallel can be drawn with the TV series Lost and Gilligan's Island, which perhaps set the bar for stories taking place in such environments. While BioShock Infinite has a central theme of race, its structure is reminiscent of a little PBS series called Downton Abbey. It may be mere coincidence, or it may be that creators of these games understand that players want something more than soldiers in camouflage and battle armor.
"There are going to be Downton Abbey fans who might see the connection with BioShock Infinite," said Paul Semel, editor at Electronic Gaming Monthly, "but no one will be drawn to it for that reason. ... This game is drawing more on Jules Verne and H.G. Wells."
Men in Black Instead of Olive Drab
The fact is, games draw their inspiration from many sources, including historic events, movies, TV shows -- and other games.
"Triple A games have drawn on a relative narrow set of cultural aspirations," Croal told TechNewsWorld. "We've seen the influence for years from Dungeons and Dragons, Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down and Aliens. We've seen that repeated over and over."
Game developers who happened to watch multiple seasons of Mad Men might not even have realized why they were putting in men in black suits in last year's XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
What many hit games have in common is their departure from reality as we typically experience it on the average day. That also could be a key to success.
"The difficulty of recreating the present that we see around us is that we see it in movies and on TV," said Croal. "With games, the further away from us that the setting is, [the more] it begins to have a consistent believability, because it isn't our reality."
As for where game development go next, said IDC's Ward, "Nazi aliens or alien zombies might be the spin that captures attention."