About three years ago, I went to a talk by thatgamecompany’s Jenova Chen about his approach to games development. At the time he was talking specifically about the game Flower, released in 2009.
It was a fascinating talk and chimed with a lot of the ideas I had also been having about the subject matter of games, such as; why are the concerns of games and their central characters so very similar and inevitably, therefore, so limited?
Bringing an awareness of other industries and the diversity of the markets they cater for shines a light on quite how limited in scope and range of emotions computer games tend to encompass.
So, why are the settings and scenarios in games so very similar? For example, why do most big, triple-A games involve large weaponry, large men/women/robots and a rather gritty post-apocalyptic setting?
I am obviously exaggerating somewhat, but still, if we leave mobile development to one side for a moment, there is a definite overtone of gritty realism melded with over-the-top weaponry.
IN THE BEGINNING
It strikes me that returning to the very beginning of computer games may shed some light on some of the reasons for this.
As most of us involved in development know, whilst narratives may be the icing on the cake, like hard silvery balls that capture the imagination of the player, it is in fact the game mechanic that underpins whether the game will work as a fun gaming experience or not.
Many game designs start with the designer or publishers saying: ‘so, this is going to be a first-person shooter’, or ‘this title will be a side-scrolling puzzle game’.
Whilst being useful in helping everyone concerned understand what type of game they are making, it is also a rather reductive approach, limiting the possibilities. It is also highly unlikely to produce something genuinely new.
The reasons are clear; if a genre is successful, there is a known audience for that type of game and – with budgets becoming increasingly Hollywood-sized – that is a comfort in an unpredictable world.
Maybe this is the reason many people still do not want to engage with games. Again, the mobile market is different. Mobile titles are sitting in a genuinely innovative and interesting space at the moment.
They are taking chances in terms of style: you would struggle to describe a typical mobile game as the form is currently so varied.
A CRITICAL CONCERN
So, where does this leave the chance for innovative content, styles and even new, unforeseen genres within the traditional games arena?
We have had a deluge of new devices, both for new consoles and more established ones. From add-ons for the Wii to the AR experience of Kinect, many released to seriously damning criticism: see reviews for Steel Batallion on Kinect for further information.
Whilst we now have a huge range of games that exploit the obvious aspects of the iteration, such as sword fighting, dancing and mech steering, we haven’t seen any truly innovative releases that use these devices within a totally new gaming context.
The truth is that innovation is not easy. Inventing new genres and interactions as well as delivering a guaranteed return is doubly hard. It means that the larger publishers and hardware developers need to be investing in completely different types of games.
But the risk isn’t necessarily as great as they would have you believe. The audience for games has plenty of room to grow.
I know many people who never have – and maybe never will – play console games, because they really don’t see that they offer them anything.
THE SPICE OF LIFE
To return to my initial point. Film, art, poetry, music; all deliver different experiences for a wide range of users, or people as I call them.
It is an expensive undertaking, but the rewards are great. There will be failures but there will also be very rewarding successes.
So why do two of our main console manufacturers still develop games for a core audience of fourteen-to-thirty-five-year-old men?
A forty year old man recently confessed to me that he never played console games – he generally played games designed for his 12-year-old niece on his mobile. He couldn’t see himself in camos, and loves beauty salons.
So, in a world that accommodates Boyzone alongside Bowie, Placido Domingo and Blondie, there must be room for more difference in games.
Let’s allow players to wander. What would happen if there were no pick-ups, hit points or even enemies? Jenova Chen’s Journey is a fine example of this.
I am not saying that we throw the baby out with the bath water. But who knows what could be lurking in the bubbles? If Méliès had never dreamed of the moon we may never have had sci-fi. That would be dreadful.