When we add technology to this mix, we get an additional layer: I'm sure there's some psychological interpretation one could derive from the near-simultaneous releases of Pixar's A Bug's Life and DreamWorks' Antz, but more apt was the simple fact that the 3-D technology driving animation at the time lent itself particularly well to the rigid bodies of insect characters.
Games, as they continue to evolve in terms of technology and audience, progress toward a threshold of societal relevance. We, too, pull from the leaf-mould, and looking back on landmark successes in the game industry invites inspection: In Fallout and Deus Ex: Invisible War, we see a recurring post-apocalyptic theme, and it is perhaps not coincidental that in a time of great political and ideological division, the current dominant videogame force is faction-based World of Warcraft. (I play Horde, favoring the peaceable but drastically misunderstood Tauren, and you can make of that what you will.)
Not all games hinge their success on overt or covert societal commentary, and I am certainly not accusing Blizzard of making political statements with bovine humanoids - but when these forces surge in our subconscious, they inevitably surface through our creativity. Even Katamari Damacy breathes an air of resonance: Would its gentle, carefree style have struck us so deeply had the world itself been less in a state of complex turmoil? Because escapism is such a large factor in interactive entertainment, games themselves have the potential to carry this subconscious resonance effect to an even greater degree. The things that we wish to escape into are driven by the currents of our subconscious minds.
Pieces of the Pie
Of course, there are other factors, so let's get back to the money. A blockbuster hit can't just be a tirade on the state of society - and in fact, one of the things that all of the blockbusters have in common is that their societal implications are not overt. They are stealthy, sneaking into our minds ninja-like and tapping a tuning fork on our thoughts.
But a game also has to be well-rendered. Deus Ex had plenty of companions in its genre, but none with such excellently honed gameplay and story. In order to climb into the ranks of the pantheon, a game can't rely on the emergent effect of societal resonance; first and foremost, it has to be well executed, and even after that it has to make it to its audience, which means it has to be well marketed. And these latter two effects are most commonly what game deliverers focus on, since they can more concretely be controlled.
However, even innovative technology isn't enough on its own. Innovative technology and innovative gameplay might not even be enough. Witness Graffiti Kingdom and its predecessor Magic Pengel: procedural animation and darn fine gameplay shipped in a product a full two years before Will Wright introduced Spore at the 2005 Game Developers Conference. But how many copies did they sell?
"Beyond Good and Evil was a brilliant game!" you might say. "Psychonauts was glorious! Isn't that enough?"
Unfortunately, it isn't. If a game doesn't reach commercial success, developers might be proud to have their names in the credits, but a credit isn't going to put their kids through school. And in terms of the actual games themselves, success in the marketplace is one of the only things that can ensure the survival of an IP or game franchise.
Dancing in the Rain
"Timing has a lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance."
- Internet Proverb, "Cowboy Logic"
Another interesting aspect to this phenomenon is its pragmatic acknowledgement through - of all things - piracy management. Spyro 3: Year of the Dragon provides the example that still lives in infamy.
Game piracy is a bigger issue than many gamers would like to admit. It's hard to get an accurate assessment of exactly what percentage of games are pirated when played, and there are differences in genre, but general consensus puts piracy rates at about 20-30 percent. This represents a large loss, and particularly for the sales-driven game industry, piracy can cripple a title. We could argue over the exact impact piracy has, since certainly the more a game is played the greater its popularity becomes, and this actually drives further sales, but for now, let's focus on the basics: Game developers are behooved to fight software piracy where they can.