Costs are out of Control
For thirty years, the games industry has sold itself on one thing - power. More power than the rival company. Better graphics than the other guy. Sega does what Nintendo doesn't, and so on. So much so that, even in the face of unquestionable proof that the average consumer doesn't really care which machine is the more powerful - the Wii, DS, PS2, PS1 and Game Boy all had more powerful rivals on the market but came out on top, and in spectacular fashion to boot - we still keep turning up the dials on power.
When machines are sold on power, certain standards are expected. That means budgets in the tens of millions - but it also means the ability to shake up the gameplay goes downwards, not upward. Money that big means that you can't afford to take chances - a cowardly but sometimes sensible way of thinking that is known in acceptable circles as risk aversion. Risk aversion means playing to what's safe. Like a kid in high school, you want to stand out from the crowd, but only that tiny bit within the acceptable standing-out limits. With millions on the line, it's hard to take a chance on a new and unproven gameplay idea. Better to rehash something tried and tested and leave it to the marketing team to sort out.
The funny thing is that, like the world economy in early 2008, everybody knows that the current system is unsustainable and destined for failure, and yet we can't seem to put the brakes on ourselves. We can only hope that the upcoming motion controller battle allows us a little time to get our breath, and bank balances, back.
But while original ideas do exist amongst the lower rank-and-file developers, good luck getting anyone with money to sign off on them because of...
Amongst the collective upper management of the industry, there's a disturbing amount of groupthink for a medium that theoretically has so few boundaries. Think of the amount of guitar games and FPSs out there right now; cast your mind back to the PS1 era, when games that played like Tomb Raider were everywhere, or to the 16-bit era when you were nothing without a 2D scrolling furry mascot to call your own.
But while wholescale rip-offs do occur, the amount of sameness that plagues the games industry is not a result of outright copying - rather, it's a more insidious process whereby one example becomes law. Only games that look like they will sell will be commissioned; only games that are similar to what's already out look like they will sell; therefore only games that look like what's already out there will ever get made.
Until somewhere along the line somebody uncharacteristically takes a risk and releases, say, Guitar Hero. Then five years later you have guitar games taking up a third of floor space in any given Gamestop. Had you told a meeting of industry figures in 2004 if, three years later, plastic guitars would be the hottest thing in gaming you'd have laughed out of the boardroom, because everybody knows peripherals don't sell. Until they do. It's a vicious circle that sucks creativity in like a black hole, from which there is no escape.
But why doesn't the games industry work the way we want it to? More than anything, it's because we have false expectations of ourselves. Just as the people like my movie buff friend are not the ones who decide the success or failure of the latest Hollywood blockbuster - that job goes to the great unwashed who have never so much as heard of a Key Grip - we are nowhere near as important as we think we are in deciding the fate of the industry.
For all our talk about games like Beyond Good and Evil and Zack and Wiki and MadWorld, for all our self-flattering follies like Internet petitions and community sites, the fate of the games industry does not rest with us. That's why there will be no Shenmue 3 (I dearly hope to be proven wrong someday though), no Dreamcast 2; it is why Treyarch will still make every other Call of Duty game and Activision will still pump out Guitar Heroes, why Wii Fit Plus will be one of the biggest selling games this year and the DS will continue to outsell any variation of the PSP that exists; and it's why Nintendo is, in all likelihood, not working on that photo-realistic voice-acted Zelda. The games industry doesn't work for us anymore - unless, that is, you own stock. In which case, ignore these plebs and please step right this way...
Christian Ward works for a major publisher, and wishes people in the games industry had job titles like Key Grip.