Game Developers Aren’t Ambitious Anymore
There’s a trend in the gaming industry of late. Whenever a developer starts talking excitedly about this amazing new game they’re working on for the PS4 or Xbox One they talk about the possibilities that “next-gen” tech opens up for them and how much more they can innovate now.
Then they launch into a discussion about the geopolitical issues causing economic strife to the penguins of South Sudan… or something. I zone out a little at that point because it all sounds the same.
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“Look at our weather effects. So many polygons. Particle effects. We couldn’t do this with the old technology!”
We’ve heard it all before, guys. How about you throw a little ambition and real creativity into your games?
“But wait! We’ve got this exciting new open-world environment and…” Just. Stop.
That’s not to say that every new game for PS4 or Xbox One is generic or lacking innovation or progression over its previous gen contemporaries. InFamous: Second Son looks better than pretty much anything else out there on consoles, the same with Project Cars and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Wait a minute, those are all graphical points of praise. How intriguing. Name a next-gen game and chances are I can point out a trailer devoted to the game’s engine.
Now, making a game look incredible is no easy feat but from a creative standpoint, when it comes to brainstorming and concepting the game, the easiest thing to do is say “well, let’s make it pretty as all hell.” Especially when you’ve got shiny new consoles to play around with.
Yes, I’m being so narrow-minded I may as well be a dingy alley but this is my design. For all intents and purposes I’m cutting off the graphical leaps and bounds made with the new consoles to focus on something else and maintain that focus.
We’re here to talk about ambition. A person’s grasp is only limited by their reach.
Some developers won’t reach further than an arm’s length and what’s in arm’s length isn’t always worth grabbing. I could grab a calculator right now. It wouldn’t make a very good game mechanic though.
I’m not talking about the developers who are under the thumb of a restrictive publisher and are press-ganged into doing the same thing over and over again. My heart goes out to the likes of Criterion and Visceral who seem contracted to produce Need for Speed and Dead Space ad infinitum until the day EA goes under.
These studios do have creativity and talent. They certainly did when they made the games that earned them recognition and Visceral had the ambition to turn The Divine Comedy into a game. It may have been a God of War ripoff but it was perhaps the best one and it was bold doing what they did with the source material.
Instead I’m talking about the studios who are given the budget and the creative freedom to really get ambitious and try some new things.
I’m not advocating milking cows as a core game mechanic but get a little experimental.
Thief perhaps gets a little leeway since it can be found on the old consoles as well. However, Eidos Montreal didn’t seem to have many restrictions with this game. They were free to do as they please and what alludes to this is the fact that there is an engine called Shroud which is specifically for rendering cloth and handling the physics of cloth.
The game doesn’t look amazing nor is it even technically sound yet this engine exists and Eidos Montreal was allowed to bring it into existence.
Surely, if the studio was “ambitious” enough to create such an engine then they could have just maybe had at least one original idea. Perhaps then the game would not feel as drab and generic as the cheaper, weaker alternatives to prescription medication.
Dead Rising 3 certainly sacrificed visuals for gameplay and cramming as many zombies onto the screen at one as possible but it failed because it blew any new ideas it had within the first 10 minutes and from thereon it was a drawn out affair. There cannot be a three idea cap on developers when it comes to making a game. If you’re creative enough to think up things such as a Voltron-type robotic cat or chest-mounted unibeam as just some of the zany weapons you can create then there have to be more ideas floating around
Sometimes developers hold off on ideas and save them for sequels. Sometimes they’re told by their superiors to scrap ideas. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of not having the time to incorporate this idea into the game or it simply turns out to be unfeasible.
These are all valid considerations but sometimes developers just play it far too safe.
How are we going to innovate guys? Graphics! Open-world!
Just like everybody else. Making your game open-world is perhaps ambitious, it’s certainly no easy undertaking. However, it’s for nought unless you’re going to do something intriguing and meaningful with that world ala GTA V.
It’s less risky to push graphics than gameplay. Fan backlash plays no small part. Ninja Theory tried to craft their own version of Devil may Cry, perhaps they tried too hard but definitely not hard enough to warrant numerous death threats.
The order of “next-gen” seems to very much be playing it safe.
Microsoft has all the old faithful in Halo, Gears and Forza. Sony is even worse. Guerilla did nothing new with Killzone: Shadow Fall, Naughty Dog is doing another Uncharted when they really have no reason to go back to the franchise, Sucker Punch is arguably the worst of all. These studios have talent and the complete faith of their first-party parents. So why aren’t they making better use of it?
They’ve played it so safe that inFamous: Second Son plays exactly like its predecessor. Animations have even been recycled. It’s not only safe but lazy game design. the game looks phenomenal and there are some genuinely interesting powers. I just wish they had the initiative, the ambition, the balls to try something different.
Your gameplay doesn’t need to be exactly the way it was 3 years ago.
It’s a new generation, a fresh start, get experimental. InFamous is the only console exclusive PS4 owners have to look forward to for some time so it would sell well regardless. Sucker Punch had the freedom and security to be a little bolder.
I’m not just blowing hot air either. In a brief discussion with Azhar, the two of us came up with over a dozen improvements, changes that could’ve been made to shake up the infamous formula.
Here are a few, just as proof. Greater variation in what the powers did. One could be more defensive, the other more offensive etc. As a power sponge, maybe Delsin could choose whether to permanently rob someone of their powers or simply “borrow” their powers. Randomly generated events where you must choose what to do would be good too. Having a lethal or non-lethal way to approach each mission. Using smoke or neon powers to actually control surrounding smoke and neon for area effect attacks.
These were all thought up int he space of five minutes. I don’t even remember all the ideas we came up with but I’m sure that if you took a moment you’d easily come up with a few of your own. I’m no game developer but having played the game 1.5 times and having some insight into game development, they are all very much feasible.
That’s not to say the games I’ve made an example of are bad games. Well, Thief is trying really hard to be bad. I thoroughly enjoyed Second Son
Yes, there are restriction on many developers. Not all of them have the freedom of say Naughty Dog to go from Indiana Jones to zombie apocalypse in a heartbeat. However, Sony shows their core AAA developers some faith and it paid off with the Last of Us. The game pushed Naughty Dog further than they’d ever been and it is still winning them awards.
David Cage, God bless him and his emotional polygons, is an inconsistent figure but he can at least be respected for having some ambition and trying to do something different with his games.
I’ll always go back to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time trilogy has a perfect example of ambition and experimentation. If you ask a cross-section of people you’ll find that different people like different games in the trilogy best. Some will favour Sands of Time, others Warrior Within. The core of the series is strong in each game but The Two Thrones focused on platforming, Sands of Time more on narrative and overall balance, Warrior Within was a guitar-riff infused combat spectacle. each game tried different things, varied tones and each one worked but for different reasons.
This is a prime example of what ambition and not confining your series to a tiny box is capable of. When done right, of course.
You often hear about developers who are contracted to produce a certain franchise or don’t have the freedom nor the budget that a select few have. It is frustrating then to see that when some developers do actually get the time, money and free-reign to get experimental, let their reach exceed their grasp and dream a little bigger; all they do is plant their feet firmly on the ground and produce the same old shit.