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The dangerous myth of “real” games

Call of Duty Zombies for the iPhone“It’s an exciting time to be making games,” says Steve Ellis, formerly of Free Radical, now head of new startup studio Crash Lab with Martin Wakeley and former Rare man Lee Musgrave. “It’s great to have thrown off the shackles of traditional console development and to be able to enjoy the creative freedom of working on titles without exhaustive development cycles.”

He’s right. It is an exciting time to be making games. The barriers to publishing haven’t been this low since the 1980s heyday of home computers and mail order cassettes, and the sheer power and variety of hardware platforms means there’s a format for every idea. Good times.

Not, apparently, if you’re a hardcore gamer.

“Wasted talent.”

“come on guys, you’re legends! You can do better than IOS stuff…”

“I really hope this trend of talented developers forming studios to pump out iOS titles is bucked soon.”

That’s just a sample of the comments posted under this news on Eurogamer, and it reflects an unfortunate snobbery that is endemic among the people who claim to be most dedicated to gaming. To this vocal so-called hardcore minority, “game” means a console and a joypad. Maybe a keyboard and mouse, depending on their vintage.

Facebook? iOS? Not real game platforms. Not real games. All those developers eagerly ditching the grind and crunch of AAA console development for the wild west of these new, emergent platforms? Fools at best, traitors at worst. The prospect that great designers plus innovative new technology could equal exciting new game experiences is not allowed to enter into it.

It’s depressing and disheartening to see an industry so divorced from its most dedicated audience.

Is this a monster of the industry’s own creation? In part, I think some of the blame has to fall on the way gamers have been cajoled and coddled over the last fifteen years or so. Ever since the PlayStation broke through into the mainstream with its CD-powered 3D worlds, cinematic production values and increasing obsession with “mature” content, the variety of games has declined in parallel to the rise in console power and market dominance.

The evidence is right there in the slew of iOS games that bend themselves into ridiculous shapes in order to replicate the joypad experience on a touchscreen, hammering square pegs into round holes as if their livelihood depended on it. Why? Because it’s familiar. It’s expected. It’s what games are. If there are no buttons or sticks, we’ll just make pretend ones. What a sad response.

Maybe it’s because I’m an old fart who got misty-eyed at Google’s tribute to the ZX Spectrum earlier this week, but I don’t remember this sort of hair-splitting animosity over what constituted a “real game” in the past. There were simply games. Big games, small games, epic games, silly games – but they could all be played, and were all accepted or not according to their merits.

Perhaps for a generation that has grown up expecting escalating levels of visual flair, with no budget market to speak of, the idea of what games can be has become too narrow. So while developers see the challenge and freedom of the App Store as a chance to break out of the corporate cycle and finally do something with those ideas that have been buzzing around in their heads for years, with no outlet, a certain portion of gamers sees only a mockery of a hobby they believe belongs to them.

It doesn’t, and it never did. Digital distribution, social networking and the rapid ascent of mobile gaming can only be a good thing, in the long term. It forces developers to think of new paradigms for player engagement, new control schemes, new game structures that no longer have to be crammed into the sectors on a disc in a box. For some, change will always be scary, and they’ll stand by the sidelines and grumble as the world moves on without them.

For others, like the gents at Crash Lab and the dozens of other new studios being founded by experienced veterans and hungry newcomers alike, change is a chance to experiment, doodle and try things out. Some will be crap, others will be amazing. Mistakes will be made, but at least they’ll be new mistakes, and we’ll learn new things from correcting them.

And all of them, every last one, will be a real game.

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