Uphill, Both Ways

Uphill, Both Ways
Videogames: A Modern Folly

Ryan Lambie | 27 Apr 2010 12:29
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The problem, of course, is one of scale. Where the average videogame in 1982 had a production team that could fit in a tool shed, you'd struggle to squeeze the number of people involved in creating a 2010 mainstream game in an aircraft hangar. God of War III, for example, had a vast team of programmers, designers, artists and QA testers, with at least 18 staff members dedicated to marketing alone. It's therefore unsurprising that, as costs have soared, videogames have become more about adaptation and refinement than innovation. It's safer to offer up a more gorgeous iteration of a past game than try something new. And what's the point in taking creative risks when gems as beautifully made and critically acclaimed as Okami or Scribblenauts are regularly overlooked by consumers in favor of another shooter or EA sports game?

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Like the builders of 18th century follies, such as Walpole's Strawberry Hill, modern studios are capable of creating works of undeniable beauty. If today's games are like ornate Gothic towers, full of arabesques and exquisite detail, then by comparison the games of the 80s were mere mud huts. But as pioneering games such as Elite, Lords of Midnight and Ant Attack have faded from memory, only whispered about in the gloom of British pubs by geeks of a certain age, the games industry appears to be moving inexorably in the decadent direction of Hollywood, with its huge budgets and expensive premieres.

The funny joysticks, bad graphics and arcane storage systems of the 80s may be long gone, but in the intervening years something else has also been mislaid as well. Innovation, perhaps, but also a unique sense of eccentricity, too. It's unlikely we'll see games like Hover Bovver anymore, where you trimmed the grass using your neighbour's stolen lawnmower, or Terrormolinos, where play switched between various members of a working class family on holiday in Spain. At no other time could you play an adventure game like How to be a Complete Bastard, where your objective was to drunkenly wreak havoc at a yuppie soirée.

Except perhaps in the modern indie games scene, for it's here we still see evidence of the pioneering spirit that pervaded the medium in the 80s. Freed from the constraints of investors and publishers, and hastened by the advent of digital distribution, this fresh wave of bedroom coders and tiny studios has the freedom to invent. It's no coincidence that games like Braid and World of Goo, which stood among the best games of 2008, were the products of one or two guys with ingenuity and a hunger for recognition.

As mainstream developers, the aristocratic folly builders of modern gaming, attempt to outdo one another with ever more ingenious demonstrations of technical prowess, it's the independent studios and lone programmers, fashioning their little huts from mud, who are pushing at genre boundaries and striving to innovate. Mainstream developers may punctuate the industry's skyline with their expensive, grandiose follies, but it's the bedroom coders, working away on their brilliant mud huts, who provide the new games which will truly stand the test of time.

Ryan Lambie hails from the soggy recesses of England. His blog can be found at www.ryanlambie.co.uk.

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