This Generation Will Never Be Finished, Even When It Is
(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
I have a bit of a problem with developers and publishers who suggest that everything we could do on current consoles have been done already. Recently, Crytek suggest that this generation had been pushed to its limits, and before that Yves Guillemot of Ubisoft suggested the industry had actually been punished by consoles with long lifespans, arguing that creativity has been stunted as a result of waiting for new systems. To me, these assertions are criminally ignorant of the full scope of creativity in this industry, suggesting that raw horsepower is the only way to innovative and bring new experiences to consumers. It’s an assertion that is, ironically, creatively bankrupt in and of itself — an attitude that stems from single-mindedness and an inability to find new ways around old obstacles.
To suggest that we’ve done everything that can be done on a 360 and PS3 ignores the amount of ways we can push new gameplay ideas, new narrative themes, and new … well … pretty much anything that doesn’t involve making the graphics prettier and the environments bigger. There are new things being done with old engines all the time. There are amazing experiences being crafted in Flash, let alone on an Xbox 360. Just look at fantastic games such as Lone Survivor — a title that looks like it could safely run on an original PlayStation, yet feels like a breath of fresh air to anybody that has been longing for a truly atmospheric, psychologically affecting horror game. If the only way forward, in your mind, is new technology that you can rely on to make your games bigger and bolder, then I can only believe that your “creativity” is superficial at best. If you can’t find ways to work with what you currently have, then how creative are you, exactly?
On the contrary, limitation and struggle is what breeds creativity. Some of the most limited, technology restricted games out there are the ones that have influenced and freshened up this industry. Just look at Minecraft. An ugly mess of blocks, so inelegant and visually brutish that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was developed before we’d invented fire. Yet it’s utterly unique, one of the most popular games ever made, and has given rise to a slew of petty pretenders. Or how about something as simple as Doodle Jump? A humble little mobile game, with hand-drawn visuals and the only input being a title mechanic to let this auto-jumping little creature hop from platform to platform. Simple, yet creative, and monetarily rewarded for being so. When a creator is forced to work with very little, or even chooses to work with very little, one has to think outside the box in order to craft a remarkable and memorable experience.
In stark contrast, having everything at your disposal, all the tools at the click of a button, gives birth to an environment where stagnation can breed unchecked. When you don’t have to try and impress us with your gameplay because you’ve got everything you need to make it look super pretty, then what impetus do you have to be inventive? Not much, and we can see the results. Just look at how this HD-dominated generation has panned out, with AAA shooters aping AAA shooters and getting progressively browner as they strive for “realism” and eschew innovation. And the more expensive games get, the more money publishers risk, and the more money publishers risk, the less willing they are to gamble on innovation and creative new ideas. As I wrote earlier in the week, corporations are scared of new ideas because they want to invest their millions into proven successes — no matter how fallacious that idea is. A new generation will mean more raw horsepower, which allows the big studios like Crytek to focus purely on graphics and technical details without focusing on unique narratives or undiscovered forms of interactivity. Meanwhile, smaller studios will struggle even more, as publishers sink even deeper reserves of cash into more technically demanding projects, and grow even more averse to risk.
There are certainly benefits to hardware advances, don’t get me wrong. A.I developments, physics improvements, and yes, even prettier graphics can have a tangible impact on our experiences. But think of the game industry as a field full of many rocks. Under each rock is an idea, an improvement, some step forward for the industry. Studios like Crytek rush for the biggest rocks in the field, turn them over, find new consoles, then sprint forward looking for the next massive rock. Meanwhile, there are a ton of smaller rocks all around them, and they’re being totally ignored. Each one has a valuable contribution, but if you’re steamrolling ahead, looking only to overturn the boulders while discounting the pebbles, you’re missing out on a ton of stuff.
If you need new technology to feel like you’re doing anything creative, the bottom line is that you’re not a creative developer. If you think you’re “done” with a system as soon as you’ve made the prettiest graphics you can on it, then you understand only a fraction of what makes a great game. If you can’t work with limitation, and want everything at your disposal without having to work for it, then your games will be likely be considered shallow, vapid, and nowhere near as interesting as a title that looks uglier and feels smaller. If you think a new generation will be a hotbed of creativity that will revitalize an industry full of studio closures and terrified publishers, then you haven’t been paying attention to the past five years of industry history.
This generation is coming to a close, but it’s not been pushed. In fact, looking at the mainstream big-budget games that came out, I’d say the industry barely moved a step forward from the last generation. Creativity in the big console arena has been at an all-time low. Things have gotten bigger, explosions look more beautiful, but how many times did the envelope really get pushed? How many games wowed us in new and exhilarating ways? Some did, certainly, but not the majority. Not many at all. Most of the five years have been spent treading water, repeating things from the last generation, or copying other games that got successful. There is so much more that could have been done, but won’t, because as soon as the visuals have been maxed out and the map’s gotten as big as it can get, AAA studios sit back with their hands behind their heads and feel like they don’t have to try anymore. It’s the game development equivalent of technically finishing a videogame, but only having a 25% completion rate because you skipped all the sidequests and secrets.
And THAT is why this generation will never be finished … even when it is.