The blurb for this column asserts that I write on “the major issues, events and trends that ultimately decide what games end up on your shelf.”
Now, I wrote this cringe-inducing self-promotion myself, but it’s clearly in need of a rewrite, because I have no idea what decides which games end up getting on shelves, nor does anyone else. The world of the approval process is entirely without reason or logic and so mystifying that it leaves us with a Tony Hawk’s sequel every bloody year yet here we are a decade later with only one Jet Force Gemini game.
I’ve been watching a number of demos and games being played around the office recently: Darksiders, Bayonetta, God of War 3, Dante’s Inferno. Or did I only see one of them being played four days in a row? Unless I was concentrating, how would I even be able tell?
Meanwhile, a title made for less than half the budget of any of those titles has sold over 10 million units since its release in early November. This is a game whose predecessor on the DS sold over 20 million units in the last three years. And yet I can’t see a single rival trying to muscle in on its territory.
The game, of course, is New Super Mario Bros. Wii. There were more than a few laughs when Nintendo declared last year that over a single platform, New Super Mario Bros Wii would outsell Modern Warfare 2, but that’s exactly what seems to have happened. If Wii hardware sales continue at even a brisk pace, I can see Mario overtaking MW2′s total numbers easily within a year or two.
(To fend off the inevitable – yes, I know Darksiders wants to be more like Zelda, and that Bayonetta is the work of the man who effectively created the genre in the first place, giving a shade more dignity than, say, Dante’s Inferno – but this is about the publishers making the publishing decisions.)
Here is the situation – even with the knowledge that each edition of God of War has sold not much more than the same 3 million-unit mark, we have three different publishers competing not only within the same genre, but within the same three-month release window. And yet the only conceivable rival I can think of to emerge for Mario on the 2D plane in the last five years is LittleBigPlanet.
The reasoning for this is simple – everybody knows 2D is dead. Yes, there really are people who will look at you with a straight face and tell you that, even when the premier 2D series has sold 30 million copies over the last four years.
Ah, but Nintendo are different, people will tell you. Well, I suppose if you mean they know how to market and sell games without having to bankrupt themselves, then yes, I guess you’re right.
Publishers (and more than a few developers, I might add) have convinced themselves that it’s impossible to compete with Mario anymore, and so there is just no point in trying. Some, like Microsoft with Rare’s most recent Banjo-Kazooie title, have gone out of their way to make sure they’re not in competition with him (with resulting poor sales that suggest a standard platformer was by far the safer bet).
The reason for this is that the games industry is infected with a nasty case of groupthink. It’s this groupthink that lead to an over-surplus of platformers back in the Mario and Sonic days and a starvation of them today, a litany of awful third-person shooter-exploration games that rode on the back of Tomb Raider and to the brown ‘n’ burly FPSs of the current generation.
It’s this same wisdom that still sees games sold for a month before being consigned to the bargain bins (when NSMB DS sold consistently at the same price for years), the same wisdom that says you have to announce a title 18 months before release and then never shut up about it (NSMBW was announced just under 6 months before it was on store shelves).
The world of games publishing is a small and inbred one, with the same people floating back and forth between the same companies. While this enables a very rapid spread of good ideas, it also enables the kind of “conventional wisdom” groupthink which sometimes appears totally alienated from the actual market.
For example, until quite recently the perceived wisdom was that the only time to launch your AAA title was in the run-up to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not until some games started to slip into the late Winter/early Spring window, and actually shift units, did publishers develop the radical thinking that has led to a vast amount of AAA titles being released between now and March. The correct lesson to learn would have been that high-quality, well-marketed games sell units any time you care to launch them.
To be fair, gaming is far from the only industry afflicted with this curse. In 1997, after Batman and Robin, the last movie in the world you could get greenlit was a superhero flick. Just as any publisher in the world would have laughed you out of their office if you proposed bringing Konami’s then-in-development Guitar Freaks to the West with a better set-list.
Just over a decade later, the superhero movie and game music genres are so overburdened they are bubbles waiting to burst once again. Rinse and repeat.
It’s this cycle of binge and purge that leads to us rebooting things like Medal of Honor, the 3D Prince of Persia, and other series barely old enough to shave. Because there’s nothing more risk-free, more safe, than an idea that has already worked, just “re-imagined” (and yes, thanks Hollywood, I really needed a reboot of Spiderman. When’s the Avatar reboot happening?)
Sadly, I see no easy way out of this. For one thing, most developers themselves are so used to certain sets of game mechanics that many of them are unable to see anything beyond it (an excellent analysis, and the reason developers are like tortured kittens can be found in this fascinating article). This is one reason that the JRPG, for example, is stuck in its current rut.
What makes it worse for gaming is that modern, mainstream gaming is not only an abstract form, but also one that is by necessity a team enterprise – one that needs very large teams. Even if one person has an amazing, radical new idea, trying to communicate that to others can be a nightmare. You must learn to speak a universal language, one that leads every explanation to become “well, this part should be a little like Gears but with [insert gimmick here]” just to make yourself understood.
Unlike the literary publishing world where an enterprising genius can still force the gates open or Hollywood where the right script can open doors, gaming is still quite a closed system and one that is very difficult to take risks on – assuming you think that making a game like 10 others games out there is not risky, of course.
This, I think, more than blatant cynical plagiarism, is what leads to games like Darksiders, a title that practically has “Like Zelda, but with a little God of War” as a bullet point on the back of the box. On the basis of the demo, however, Dante’s Inferno has no such excuse and while I’ll give the retail version its fair shake, it will have to do well to convince me it is anything but the worst kind of focus-group-based publishing which in the past has called for atrocities like copy-and-pasting the Crusades for Ancient Greece, a big red cross thing for a big red tattoo thing, and tits for, erm, tits.
Of course, even if you have manage to overcome your own constraints to create your brilliant game concept, and somehow are lucky enough to have a brilliant team of talented individuals behind you that understand and love that concept, you still have to pry those millions from a publisher’s wallet.
And they’ll probably want to know how you can make it more like God of War, but with even more tits.
Christian Ward works for a major publisher. He wants his Jet Force Gemini sequel, dammit.