This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Nintendo Entertainment System. In 1985, the legendary gaming console was released, irrevocably altering the gaming landscape with such iconic franchises as Super Mario Brothers. Over the last twenty years, a lot has changed. Gaming has gone from being a toy industry to a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry that, more often than not, markets to adults over children. Over the next fifteen years, gaming must continue to evolve. Game developers, publishers and media alike must strive to ensure that we continue to innovate and bring imagination to life.
In recent years, development budgets have increased, freezing out hobbyists, and the new age of corporate gaming has emerged. This was never more apparent than at E3 2005, where big gaming companies erected quasi-corporate mini-cities, teeming with projection screens and publicists, and had the audacity to call them booths. The neon-green themed Microsoft booth had overhead traffic and felt more like a mall than a temporary trade show structure. While the fine folks at EA treated media, fans and developers to the image of various sports stars spouting company slogans on a three-hundred-and-sixty degree screen. Atari even chose to erect a full-on "exclusive" club/lounge that could rival the best nightspots in my hometown. Gaming has never been more lucrative and corporate. These days, games do not enter production unless guaranteed to sell hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of units. How do you know if a game will be that successful? One way is to look at history. This kind of logic has led to a slew of sequels, movie tie-ins and remakes. Admittedly, many of them were fun, but where does this leave those of us who seek something new?
Too often, game companies begin production with a blanket statement such as "we wish to create a third-person action adventure game set in a sci-fi world." Immediately, they have pigeonholed themselves. More companies and individuals need to step back, forget genres altogether and consider only who they wish to entertain and how to do it. Namco's Katamari Damacy did just that. A description on IGN.com begins with "Ever wonder what it would be like to roll around and collect everything you touched in one massive heap?" Of course not! But in Katamari Damacy, that's what you'll find. Players roll a ball that expands as it collects anything it rolls over. You roll through diversely sized environments, starting out with a Katamari the size of a dustball in what appears to be a child's bedroom. Eventually the ball grows into a giant nearly the size of the big city in which you're gathering "stuff." In multiplayer mode, you can even frantically race to pick up junk while bashing into your opponents in an attempt to steal their girth. "Whimsical," "Silly" and "Bizarre" are words that I would use to describe this game. Most importantly, even though it is completely and totally ridiculous, it remains fun, challenging, competitive and highly original. What more can you ask for from a game?
At their root, games are about escapism. As settings have become more and more clichéd, developers need to remember this basic premise: Gamers want to experience things that they cannot in real life. Whether this experience is a crime spree in Grand Theft Auto or the role of NFL player, coach and GM in Madden 2005, these popular games cater to that desire. All too often, developers forget this basic need or, nearly as fatal, allow players to escape to worlds they have explored many times over.
At E3 2005, I found myself under-whelmed. Several games touted refinements to various genres, but almost none left me with a burning desire to play them any time soon. There was an exception and from an unlikely source. I was looking forward to my viewing of Jaws Unleashed about as much as doing my taxes. Hooray, another movie-based game! Guilty of not doing my homework, I knew nothing about the game and cynically assumed I would be hunting a shark through a series of movie tied-in missions. How wrong I was! The game took a step back and, despite the unoriginal license, came up with a rather original approach. In Jaws Unleashed, players control Jaws himself and take up the task of wreaking havoc on fish, wildlife, and unfortunate boaters. Eventually, another anxious gamer had to kick me off the machine, though not before I had eaten everything in the level. Jaws reinvigorated me and instilled hope for the future. It would have been easy to make a simple third-person action-adventure title, but they chose instead to take a step back, go outside the box and create something fun.