It's a paradox but it's the only way to sum up this year's autumn/winter games releases. This coming season is the annual marketing and money-making jamboree of the games industry. It's when the Christmas must-have editions – the greatest games of 2012 – hit the shelves at 40 or 50 bucks a pop. It's the time of the year that makes a multi-billion-pound industry worth all those billions. So why am I bored?
Well, for a start, let's look at what's on offer: another Fifa game (Fifa 13 to be precise), another World Of Warcraft, Resident Evil 6 (it's getting like Police Academy), Assassin's Creed 3 (although with other spin-offs in the franchise, it's more like Assassin's Creed 5), Halo 4 and Call Of Duty: Black Ops II. Now, unless you don't know one end of D-pad from the other, you'll have played at least one of these games. And I know you'll have loved at least one of them. Me? I'm an Assassin's Creed and Halo fella. I do love them, and I will be buying the latest instalments of the franchises. But – and this is a massive but – I am also bored with loving only these games. I want other games, new games, different games to love. The creative logjam in gaming is killing me.
Thus, my opening paradox. The artform of gaming is at a strange juncture. In a way, it's similar to the stalled mainstream cinema of today: just take a look at all those repetitive superhero movies getting one boring retread after another. But then, at least today in cinema, there is a vibrant indie and underground scene. What's really wrong with games is a sort of Saturday-morning-cinema syndrome: they replicate the kind of entertainment my mum used to love back in the 1940s and 1950s when she was a kid: the umpteenth series of Flash Gordon or the Lone Ranger, a reductive formula of cliffhanger followed by shoot-out followed by muted love interest followed by chase sequence followed by comic interlude followed by cliffhanger. The studios understood that keeping it short, simple and samey made the money roll in – and the big beasts of modern gaming have learned that lesson at their predecessor's knee.
Here's why we're in this place: Paul Sams, the chief operating officer of Blizzard, the design team behind World Of Warcraft, says that when they created WoW they "bet the company". Making games is expensive – remember that £40-plus you'll fork out in the next few weeks – and companies want a guaranteed return. You don't kill the golden goose, and because the market is so highly priced, punters want a guaranteed bang for their buck. It's a sure-fire path to creative oblivion. But WoW has nearly 10 million players. Why would Blizzard decide to abandon the franchise and do something else?
In New York, David Riley, a director at market research NPD Group, is clear about what creates this locked-in syndrome in the games industry. "Even though they say they [have] plenty of creative juices flowing, [they] still can't act on them," he says. "There are limitations and rules you need to abide by." Translate as: the big corporate designers think "screw the art, it's all about the money".
So where are our independent games producers? There's plenty of games out there coming from small producers but, believe me, they're terrible, so bad a baby would get bored with them. The big dollars – and by extension the big games – are under control of the big geeks. Game design is still something of a priesthood: if you don't know the Code – how to programme and build engines – you can't make the game. It's not like movies, writing, painting or even music, where anyone can pick up a camera, pen, paintbrush or guitar and, after a bit of practice, give the art-form a whirl. If you haven't gone to Geek School, you ain't got a shout. So we have a small cliquey technocratic industry in thrall to the high returns they've seen from a handful of games. Everyone wants to be Steven Spielberg. No-one wants to be Michael Haneke or Shane Meadows.
Alex Seropian, a maths graduate from Chicago University and the man behind Bungie Software Products, the company which created the Halo, Marathon and Myth games, says of design that "everything you do is all to produce a tool to make a game". Now, would a director say everything is about the lens, the quality of the film-stock? Of course, those things matter, but I can't think of one director who'd say the technicalities are more important than the story.
Seropian's idea of artistic expansion in games seems a little stunted too.
"Experiencing the unexpected is something that's really important," he says. "When someone starts playing a game, they have a set of expectations. If you can, give them an experience that supersedes those expectations. They think 'this is an action game', and then they find the jeep and see that they can drive too."
A jeep? Is that the course of game development? Next time round I get to drive a jeep? How about making me experience real fear? How about making a game about falling in love?
The chances look slim. Games for mobiles and social networks such as Facebook are the latest big thing in gaming, claiming about one-third of the market. It's all that the major companies, as well as the tiny producers and start-ups, can think about. But apps to milk your pocket and waste your time will take games as an art form precisely nowhere.
My advice: if game companies aren't willing to hire auteurs as grand designers – which they aren't – would someone please create a functioning form of virtual reality so I can make my own games?
Alternatively, just buy the latest instalment of Assassin's Creed, Halo and Resident Evil and enjoy them not for what they could be, but for what they are: harmless fun like the old one-reelers my mum watched back before the 1960s got swinging.
THE BIG RELEASES:
Master Chief is back for his fourth instalment to defend humanity and all goodies in the universe from those cosmic Nazis the Covenant, and that random tide of horror that is the Flood. This time around the grizzled old space fighter is – so say designers – going on a "hero's quest". There will be loss, they tell us. Oh dear: I heard this kind of spin for the misbegotten curtain-closer Mass Effect 3 – as did everyone else who kicked in their plasma screen as the final awful cut scene rolled in that once great sci-fi franchise. Don't give us a "personal journey" if you do it half-baked. Anyway, at least we'll have cracking pitched battles against Banshee fighters and get to dump sticky bombs on those annoying dwarfy Grunt fellas.
Assassin's Creed 3
If I had been born in a time of champions, I would have been another Altair or Ezio, happily knifing my way through Crusader Jerusalem, Renaissance Rome and Byzantine Constantinople. This time round I am Connor Kenway – uhm ... that doesn't sound very exotic or glamorous – and I'll be battling Templar evil in Colonial America. I'm a little perturbed by trailers, though, which show the main character stealthing his way around the colonies attacking British redcoats while clad in a 12th-century assassins robe. Couldn't he have worn a Nantucket jerkin, just to fit in? Like a real assassin would? And please – let's have less of the stupid modern Desmond scenes this time round.
It's football, and it looks nice. There are goals and commentary which sounds just as boring as the commentary that makes me switch off the TV every time football comes on the telly. I hate football, so my gaming judgement is always clouded on this franchise. On the plus side, a game of FIFA doesn't comprise 90 minutes of pointless running around for the sake of one or two goals – if you have opposable thumbs and mammal-level hand-eye co-ordination, you can usually pile in 10 goals in a quick 15-minute game. Me, I'd rather die a slow painful death at the hands of Donkey Kong. At least FIFA always comes without real-life racism, and not one of the pixellated players is an under-educated, over-paid Neanderthal.
Resident Evil 6
Who doesn't love a zombie? In fact, who doesn't love smashing a zombie's head right in with a shovel or blowing its diseased brains all over a brick wall? The grandaddy of all games franchises returns for yet another spin round Racoon City. We've had an unbelievable 23 instalments so far since 1996, and let's not forget the five movies (which have kept Milla Jovovich in silky undies for a decade), the novels and the merchandising. Sadly, for me Res Evil got tired long ago – but like a loser in love, nostalgia will drag me back for one last whirl, one last bloody frenzy of fear and dismemberment, one last beautiful rampage with a shotgun and hypodermic.
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