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Monday, 28 November 2011

Are The Undead On Their Last Legs?

You have to laugh. You really do.

I have spent just over four years in a University environment now, and watched numerous pitches for different types of games from many, many people. The best ones, without fail, are the fresh-faced and enthusiastic new students; untainted by the often harsh realities of the games industry (heck, even of higher education) and of marketplace and customer requirements, they tend to arrive with some particularly innovative (if completely unfeasible) game ideas.

Of course, there are always one or two each year who inevitably pitch a game revolving around the idea of 'Zombie attack in (insert local landmark here)'. And, every year they inevitably get shot down for being so incredibly unoriginal. This isn't horrible or unfair - zombie games have generally been done to death, and any originality is going to be minimal at best; pitching a game like this is hardly the best way to get the true creative design juices flowing.

At least, that is how it has been in past years. This year however, I am very much looking forward to how these pitches are going to go. The inevitable zombie games will resurface once more I am sure - but this time, when they are pulled up on their highly derivative design, the students will be able to use a really quite unbreakable defence; Call of Duty did it. Red Dead Redemption did it. And they made money.

Yes, of course these games are massively successful on their own, and the zombie add-ons are only to extend the gameplay for the more dedicated players. Still, it is an interesting situation in which some of the world's most prolific developers are releasing games that only one or two years ago would have been deemed a poor use of one's imagination coming from a group of students. Oh how this industry turns on a sixpence.

Zombies on the Moon - if it was pitched by a student designer, they would be politely shown the door...
That is the lighter side of the 'Every Game Should Have A Zombie Mode!' fad that is sweeping the industry. However I would postulate another more probing question: if every game and its Dad has a Zombie mode, will players become densensitised to the zombie as the iconic horror entity that it actually is? Will hours of running and gunning the undead hordes make the threat of the zombie in its original survival horror home wane? Does it even matter? Maybe this is actually a very good thing for the industry. By flooding the marketplace now with a legion of undead games and game add-ons, will developers inadvertently bring about a time when consumers have had enough? 

Could what appears on the surface to be developers being highly unoriginal actually lead to them being forced to think up more original ideas? Will the undead eventually, and rather poetically, die?

Is the zombie simply too firmly ingrained in gaming to ever disappear? Or is there a critical mass, beyond which the undead become uninteresting? Comments below!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Meta-Warfare and Why The Industry Should Listen to Players

I can't really go through this week and ignore the myriad outbreaks of flaming, biased reviews and articles and general utterly ridiculous pandemonium that the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 has so delightfully imparted into our lives.

The tipping point for me at which I could not ignore the goings on any longer was this article in The Metro that attacks users of the aggregation website Metacritic for 'sabotaging' the score of the game, bringing the overall user score as low as 1.7/10 for the PC release. However, as far as a piece of journalism goes, the article doesn't even attempt to offer a balanced standpoint, throwing around some really quite obvious and predominantly childish assertions.

The Metacritic page for the PS3 version of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
Is this huge difference really entirely down to baseless 'fanboy' flaming?
Is this what our beloved industry has come down to?

Yes, there always have, and there always will be, 'fanboys' (and girls). The same goes for the ability of big publishers to encourage positive reviews of their games from different reviewers. It's corrupt, yes, but it will never stop.

If we just take a moment though and take out of consideration the most heavily biased opinions (those that are giving the game 0, 1 or 2 out of 10, and those giving it a perfect 10, or near perfect 9), what exactly are we left with? It is an overwhelming attitude of indifference, and this, I think is the most accurate response to both this game and its direct opposition, Battlefield 3.

The article in The Metro, and other similar sources can bleat all they want about 'biased' users giving the game unfair scores based on nothing in particular; the truth is, that almost all of the reviews giving the game less than 5/10 (and even many of those giving the game favourable scores) highlight one key, obvious issue with the game. It is just the same game with some slightly different maps. Moreover, it is a technological showcase of the Frostbite 2 engine (EDIT: IW Engine - I am clearly so indifferent towards both Call of Duty and Battlefield that I get their engines mixed up) and its technological prowess more than it is a brand new game. For some players this isn't a problem; many gamers genuinely do want more of the same, there's nothing wrong with that. What has irked those players though is being charged an insane premium (up to £50, an almost unheard of retail price nowadays) for the privilege.

This article in The Guardian offers an interesting point for consideration that I was actually considering writing about myself - that of the critical criteria we use to place value on a game. Should we (as reviewers, researchers and players) place more value on innovation and invention than we currently do? After all, when we consider the level of technological progress we are currently at, it seems rather frivolous placing the same value on 'good graphics' as on 'compelling narrative' or 'innovative game systems'. It is I think something that urgently needs to be discussed. As is often said of many things - looks aren't everything.

I think that Activision ought to take this backlash of negative review scores as a warning. Consumers - players - are not stupid. They recognise when they are being stripped of the contents of their wallets and purses for no noticeable return. They recognise protocols such as Elite for what they are - ways of extracting more money from already faithful fans. Surely this is not the way to reward fans; surely creating genuinely new and innovative products for them is the way to do that?

Whether Activision does heed the warning or not remains to be seen - I don't hold out much hope but I may be proven wrong. This franchise-heavy, innovation-averse stage of the industry is not sustainable indefinitely. Something has to give, and I think this reaction is the first sign of cracks appearing...

All comments welcomed - what is your take on this situation? Please - no fanboys ;)